Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 1

“Is Islam a true religion or a political ideology masquerading as a religion?” One of my blog’s “followers” in early 2017 posed this question in the comments section of my February 25 post, titled “So-called religious liberty bills.” My reader went on to note that Sharia Law renders Islam incompatible with the U. S. Constitution. He added that since reasonable conversation on the topic is offensive to Muslims, it would be deterred by political correctness.

In this blog I have written only four posts that deal specifically with Islam. However, most of my 170+ posts on morality, church-state relations, religion, humanism, and science apply to Islam as much as to Christianity. I have read the entire Quran, travelled in Islamic countries, and visited “my” local mosque. None of that experience and study qualifies me as an expert in Islam. But despite my opinions being less schooled than I’d like, I have a few to share that are germane to my reader’s point.

Let us, then, return to my reader’s question. As is often the case, the wording of a question produces some of its difficulty. In this instance, I must first address “true religion” and “masquerading” before dealing with the matter of ideology.

The word true, I assume, means a religion is either (a) objectively accurate in what it expresses or (b) apart from truth, is possessed of some social legitimacy, that is, it is generally considered to be, in fact, a religion and is owed whatever measure of respect  that entails. Objective truth has been demonstrated by neither Islam nor Christianity with anything approaching the rigor of scientific theory or scrupulous historical verification. Social legitimacy, on the other hand, is easily attained and normally means that some sufficient number of people believe the religion to be, if not true, at least worthy. Consequently, the adjective true means only that a given religion is accurate or valid in the judgment of the speaker rather than due to any utility intrinsic to the word itself.

The word “masquerading” I assume implies intent to mislead, implying here a political ideology dressed in religion’s clothing. Unfortunately, an ideology might be both religious and political. Finding elements of religion in a political ideology, just like finding elements of political ideology in religion is an easy search, indeed. Therefore, in itself it proves neither duplicity nor an unintended overlap. In other words, finding scraps of political ideology in either Islam or Christianity is not evidence for masquerading, just as is finding scraps of religious ideology in politics.

Early Christianity may have minimized mixing religion and politics (“render unto Caesar . . .”), but later centuries of Catholic domination were hardly examples of church-state separation. Royalty in much of Europe bowed to Rome. Even the 16th century insult to the Church by Martin Luther did not seek to separate religion from political ideology. In fact, I don’t know that political ideology was ever completely absent from either Catholicism or Protestantism. Indeed, while philosophers spread the Enlightenment, European settlers in America imposed harsh civic penalties for religious reasons.

The Enlightenment, despite its powerful effect in America and Europe did much to weaken, but never to break, religion’s influence over political matters. Liberalization—in the sense of freeing politics from religious control—did not come about as a voluntary relinquishment of church power. In other words, while to a lesser degree than in Muslim countries, Christianity sought not just to worship God, but to shape the state it relied on for protection.

Even today, Christianity—particularly in the United States and majority Catholic countries—is politically active in seeking special favors for religious organizations, religious practices, and religious values. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” for them is a one-way proposition: allow and protect my religion’s domination over other religions and non-religion, but don’t interfere with my religious autonomy. In today’s America, churches get tax breaks that are not given to non-religious nonprofits. Public schools face only spotty enforcement against their illegal proselytizing of children. Fundamentalist Christians are invited into those schools to distribute Bibles. Prayer and other elements of worship are made part of the school day. The courts are allowed to post on their walls religious messages reflecting majority opinion. There is no shortage of political issues for which Americans base their opinions on the religious positions of priests and ministers (e.g., birth control). In these and many other ways, the power and authenticity of the state is appropriated by majority religions to support their message and to make it appear that Christianity—in some cases a narrow band of Christianity—is, in effect, the national religion.

Still, when Islam is the majority religion, it is arguably worse, if by “worse” one means its suppression of competing philosophies, criminalization of blasphemy, and other instances of harsh control. Countries in which Muslims are in the majority experienced no Enlightenment movement comparable to that of Europe and North America. (One might make a similar case with respect to countries dominated by the Catholic Church.) The controlling political aspects of religion that were greatly reduced in much of the Christian world still exercise virtually unchallenged hegemonic power in Islamic countries.

The purpose of this post has been to consider the relationship of politics and religion relevant to an inquiry posed by one reader, to wit, whether Islam is “a political ideology masquerading as a religion” rather than “a true religion.” Having noted several points pertinent to addressing the question, I’ve chosen to deal with the issue in two parts, as is obvious from the title of this post.

In “Islam: religion or political ideology?—Part 2” I will add a few more considerations such as the risks of political freedom for those whose intent is to shut down religious freedom, the role of “political correctness,” the hazards of weakening the “wall of separation,” the choice to treat religious and political ideologies as different in the first place, Sharia Law and the Constitution, and other features of my questioner’s seemingly simple question, “Is Islam a true religion or a political ideology masquerading as a religion?”

 

Of more than 170 posts in this blog since early 2013, these are specifically relevant to Islam:Islamic terrorism or just terrorism?” Feb. 24, 2015; “Islam—(1),” June 28, 2016; “Islam—(2),” Sep. 14, 2016; “Islam—(3),” Oct. 7, 2016.

Birthday note: Today in 1743 (April 13), Thomas Jefferson was born. Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist association [sic] on January 1, 1802 was prompted by the Baptists’ fear of jeopardy to their religion by the new, powerful government. Jefferson expressed his position that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State [italics mine, JC].”

Posted in Church and state | 1 Comment

Science and religion in Louisiana

I’ve written more than a dozen posts in this blog on the clash between science and religion, as well as more than two dozen on Christians and Muslims using their beliefs to bully and control others. In the United States no field is more fraught with an entanglement of these two phenomena than public education. Exacerbating the matter is a combination of Americans’ abysmal understanding of science and fundamentalist Christians’ dogged defense of their literal interpretation of religious texts.

I collect examples of science ignorance on the part of political and religious leaders, some of which have been shared in this blog. I also collect instances of religious leaders’ misuse of government authority in order to impose rules of their faith on others; that is paired with an inclination of government officials to side with religion in general or with specific religions against citizens of other philosophical persuasions. The result is a governmental stamp of approval either given to or withheld from proponents’ positions on religious matters, a violation of our Founders’ wise caution against mingling of government and religion.

As to Christians’ relentless influence, often in violation of court decisions against whatever mix of religion (well, their religion) and politics they advocate, I’ve selected a single example out of hundreds to show here: Louisiana Senate Resolution 33, introduced just 15 days ago (March 20, 2018). This is a commendation to a former state senator, Bill Keith, for “his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in public schools.”

Keith sponsored Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act in 1981 while he served in the senate. In 1987 the law was found by the U. S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional (Edwards v. Aguillard). However, thirty-one years later it remains on the books, even while other obsolete laws have been removed. It is a dead letter serving only (I assume) to demonstrate that God, not the Supreme Court, is in charge in Louisiana. The chief sponsor of the Keith resolution is Democrat John Milkovich. Milkovich has complained that the effect of not requiring creationism in the schools is that, as he was quoted in a 2016 Associated Press story, it “creates a situation where only the secular review of creation is taught.”

Creationism is not a belief of all Christians, but of many or most fundamentalist Christians. Teaching creationism has been judicially recognized as teaching religion, not science. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that 97% of all scientists accept the theory of evolution by natural selection, quite enough to consider it to be the scientific consensus.

Louisiana politicians have not only refused to rescind the Balanced Treatment law, but have openly encouraged schools to follow it even though it is void. A Slate inquiry by Zack Kopplin (“The Bible v. the Constitution”) found that “Louisiana students are reading Genesis in science class . . .to learn the creation point of view.” Last month’s resolution makes it clear that, even with the former law declared unlawful, the senate takes whatever opportunity comes up to signal its attitude on “creation science.” Despite the inclusion of creationism in science instruction (!), creationism is not recognized by scientists as science. It would be informative to discover how much the shoe-horning of religion into a science curriculum degrades schools’ ability to teach science.

Here is Louisiana Senate Resolution No. 33. I’ve put some phrases in bold font to draw your attention, but otherwise what appears below is what the Louisiana Senate passed last month. (As an aside, you’ll see in the resolution that former Sen. Keith once reported that his son had been ridiculed by a teacher for his belief in God. I do not support ridiculing a minor as a way to teach what separates religion and science.)

SLS 18RS-745 ORIGINAL

2018 Regular Session

SENATE RESOLUTION NO. 33

BY SENATOR MILKOVICH

A RESOLUTION

To commend former Louisiana state Senator Bill Keith on his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in the public schools.

WHEREAS, Bill Keith served as a Louisiana state senator from 1980 until the expiration of his term in 1984, representing District Thirty-nine in Caddo Parish; and

WHEREAS, born in 1934 in Oklahoma, Bill Keith was a journalist who worked for the now defunct Shreveport Journal as an investigative reporter; and

WHEREAS, upon being elected to the Louisiana Senate as a resident of Mooringsport, Louisiana, in Caddo Parish, Bill Keith, a Democrat, was a particular proponent of a state law requiring balanced treatment in the instruction of creationism and evolution in public schools; and

WHEREAS, Mr. Keith received national attention for legislation he introduced which required equal emphasis in public school science instruction to creation science and to evolution; and

WHEREAS, Bill Keith recalled that his interest in the matter developed in 1978 when his then thirteen year old son came home from school to report that a teacher had ridiculed the teen’s belief in God as the creator of human life; and

WHEREAS, the bill passed both houses of the legislature, was signed by then Governor David Treen, and was entitled the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act;” and

WHEREAS, the act required that scientific evidence for creation-science, the view of abrupt appearance of organisms in the fossil records, whenever related material on evolution was presented in science class instruction; and

WHEREAS, Senator Keith’s legislation did not require or allow instruction in any religious doctrine; and

WHEREAS, Keith’s legislation was subsequently overruled by the United States Supreme Court in a 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard with the court holding that the law was specifically intended to advance a particular religious doctrine; and

WHEREAS, in 1983 Senator Keith was defeated for a second term for the District Thirty-nine seat by Democrat and owner of J. S. Williams Funeral Home and insurance companies, Gregory Tarver; and

WHEREAS, Mr. Keith left Louisiana shortly after his term ended and moved to east Texas where he published a weekly newspaper in Marshall, Texas, and he began his career as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, including his 2009 book “The Commissioner: A True Story of Deceit, Dishonor, and Death”, a study of Shreveport Public Safety Commissioner George W. D’Artois who held office in the city until his death in 1977.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Senate of the Legislature of Louisiana does hereby commend former Louisiana state Senator Bill Keith on his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in the public schools.

 

 

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The lethal cost of playing with guns

March has marched in like a lion. Our shameful president is busily destroying America’s institutions. House and Senate Republicans continue to negligently ride a tiger of their own making. The NRA owns our elections even more than Russia. America’s international reputation for leadership and stability is in the toilet. Without adults in charge, there’ll be faint-hearted fun for all, particularly with NRA generosity to politicians (reportedly $50 million to President Trump alone).

This post is about gun control and lack of it. I’ll avoid the appalling statistics that paint a picture of a country awash in guns; you’ve seen those statistics already. I’ll avoid, largely, the frequent paranoid assertions that freedom is to be measured by how many and how expansive one’s firearms are. But I will dwell on the assumption that, due to the Supreme Court’s most recent interpretation of the Second Amendment, virtually any gun control embodies a violation of Americans’ Constitutional gun rights.

It is no secret that Congress (as well as state legislatures, though I will ignore them here) is impotent in the face of America’s tolerance for gun death, relieved only sporadically with hand-wringing and the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.” To be so powerful in economics and military power, yet so incompetent in governance boggles the mind. Before moving on with my message, let me say I think there’s nothing per se wrong with guns, liking guns, or choosing guns as a hobby. Insisting there’s something evil about either guns or gun owners is unfair and often disrespectful. That said, let me start with comments on our misleading language about gun rights.

Candidate Roy Moore declared that Candidate Doug Jones (that’s now Senator Jones) couldn’t be “trusted to support Alabamians’ Second Amendment rights.” Mr. Trump says he is a bigger 2nd Amendment supporter than anyone in the universe. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action declares that it “preserves the right of all [to] possess and use firearms . . . as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.” Adding confusion, these and many such statements every day pretend those words actually mean something! You see, no one’s 2nd Amendment rights are being threatened. There is no more need to “support” the 2nd Amendment than any other provision of the Constitution. When you hear or use these words, you can be pretty sure a game is being played.

What, exactly, are 2nd Amendment rights anyway? Just this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Well, not just that. In 2008 the Supreme Court (in District of Columbia v. Heller) ruled that the provision applies to individuals (not just state militias as it might seem from the wording) and explained a bit more of its meaning. (We already knew it didn’t mean howitzers and surface-to-air missiles.) The Court’s interpretation clarified a bit which individuals, which rights, and which arms, thereby establishing a “floor” under individual’s rights to “keep and bear Arms.” It is permissible for laws to impose whatever gun restrictions state or federal lawmakers want, as long as these minimum rights are protected. As expressed in the decision, rights guaranteed are “not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

A flavor of those minimum rights can be seen in this language from Heller: “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s [United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174] holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those ‘in common use at the time’ finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”

Given wording like that, it would seem a stretch to claim the Constitutional floor for rights to bear arms would include today’s armory of automatic, large magazine weapons in the hands of youth, unbalanced persons, and felons in places like airports and schools, or any one of those elements taken alone. When people speak, then, of “being for,” “supporting,” or “fighting against the loss of” their 2nd Amendment rights, you can be sure they don’t really mean those words (for the 2nd Amendment rights are not under threat). The only meaning must be that they fear lawmakers might not grant them rights beyond those already guaranteed, that is, that they will not get what they want.

Insofar as the floor is set or implied by the Court’s decision, lawmakers would have authority to expand those rights to include guns for children, guns with awesome firepower, or guns in the hands of violent persons. But those would not be Constitutional rights and could be revoked at any time. More importantly, their not being Constitutional rights robs them of the gravity that otherwise imbues the argument of those wishing to expand gun rights. That is, the matter of whether persons may or may not own AK and AR weapons and whether they must pass background checks are not of the magnitude or seriousness of Constitutionality, but merely on a par with regular laws, high and mighty gun lobby protestations notwithstanding, unaffected by false claims of having anything to do with threatening Constitutional rights.

Unless there is a serious flaw in either my legal or common sense reasoning, there is no Constitutional right to have an AK47 or any other specific weapon. There is no Constitutional right to have oversize magazines. There is no Constitutional right to have access to guns in the absence of background checks. There is no Constitutional right to have access to guns by domestic abusers.

That being the case, the fact that about 70% of Americans are opposed to our current, legislatively determined (as opposed to Constitutionally mandated) gun access would seem to call for elected officials at state and federal levels to act decisively to curtail gun violence or be voted out of office. And their calculus in establishing that public policy would be a travesty of democracy if achieved by negotiation with the NRA.

Legislative action on this matter should be informed by actual data, the kind that scientific research is custom-made to produce. I don’t mean that science can tell us which guns people should have, but what the facts are about guns and different treatment of gun rights. For example, the accepted phrasing about the beneficial utility of “a good guy with a gun” is stated as if supported by legitimate data rather than being simply a clever slogan. Similarly, whether a community with widespread gun ownership is safer than one without guns is unknown. These are not easy questions to answer in the absence of replicated studies with scientific legitimacy, open as is all science to critique and replication. Uncannily, the Congress actually bans such studies by the CDC—and thereby the knowledge they could produce. Without such data, the extreme firearm availability implied by the gun lobby to be necessary for Constitutionality can only be said to make into a legislative right the ability of gun lovers to do something they love—not a bad thing in itself, but hardly justification for our national gun death rate.

The dishonorable subservience so many elected officials have to the gun lobby—much like our despicable partisan gerrymandering—is a repudiation of democracy, as I argued in my July 31, 2017 post, “Americans stand for democracy! Really?” Too bad the surviving students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are unable to contribute millions to subsidize elected officials’ campaign expenses. Too bad that although 70% of Americans think that solving America’s gun problem is worth doing, their representatives do not. Too bad the U.S. Senate and House are just too busy to pass effective gun legislation and make nice with the NRA at the same time.

The message we send to ourselves and to the rest of the world is that being an armed camp doesn’t bother us at all, even if it means continued school shootings and a rate of gun killings greater than in any other country in the world. Perhaps, as I suggested last month in “America has too few dead kids,” school shootings have not grown horrid enough or frequent enough to get our sustained attention. We just don’t have enough dead kids yet, evidently not enough for their lives to be worth more than gun lovers’ opportunity to play with their guns.

 

[DISCLAIMER: First, I am not a lawyer, much less a specialist in Constitutional law, therefore comments in this post are represented as thoughtful, but not authoritative. Second, I’ve fired weapons only during military service, and have owned only one gun in civilian life.]

COMMENTS: Due to impending travel, comments received after March 6 cannot be processed or posted earlier than March 22.

Posted in Morality, Politics | 2 Comments

America has too few dead kids

Our politicians make sycophantic speeches and announce that “something must be done,” but decide it must not be by them. Our Congress and the president are ostensibly waiting until the numbers get high enough, unconcerned that while scores are killed, millions live in fear. Guns don’t kill people, it is said, people kill people. So we blame the mental health issues of treatment—in itself important—that they cite, blithely overlooking that people with weapons kill considerably more than people without. As Montel Williams pointed out, we are more concerned about where kids go to the lavatory than whether they are in mortal danger.

We surrender to the reasoning that control of guns would not control all guns, and besides, even without guns we will not have eliminated the ability to intimidate and kill. That’s a true, but useless point. We might similarly contend that we should not have speed limits, since even with limits some drivers will endanger others with speed. The ways pro-gun forces can find to justify an armed America are legion.

The bloodbath does not go unnoticed, of course. A short-lived response always occurs, each looking like the last. We’ve become addicted to smarmy statements and calls for prayer as substitutes for productive action. We are satisfied with hand-wringing and “this is not the time for politics.” We accept the NRA’s clever claim about “good guys with guns.” Apparently, the problem is that we still don’t have enough good guys with guns. Must we station these good guys in every classroom, on every street corner, outside every church, synagogue, and mosque? Maybe the NRA and the politicians who accept its money are right; maybe to curtail the mayhem and the fear, we must further make America an armed camp.

Hiding behind the Second Amendment seems to satisfy us. There’s nothing that can be done, it is said, since the supreme law of the land guarantees the right to have firearms. The gun lobby and its political beneficiaries take that to mean almost any kind of firearm, even weapons of war, with fewer impediments to acquire than in getting a driver’s license. Politicians indebted to the NRA and the warlike among us quake at giving offence to the powerful guns-at-any-cost lobby, so much so that the mildest of possible solutions are politically blocked. Your senators, congresspersons, president and mine, stand idly by offering condolences instead of action. Thereby, we excuse that which is inexcusable, and thus ourselves become part of the problem.

Accountability has become one of our favorite words. Just uttering it looks responsible. But in politics, appearance is enough. I live in Georgia, so I hold Senators Purdue and Isakson responsible, along with Georgia’s Representatives. They are integrally part of the carnage. They bear responsibility for dead kids and faculty this week in Parkland. They didn’t need to pull a trigger, for they are comfortably insulated from the killing of which they are a part. NRA is more to be represented than grieving parents and dead or frightened children.

Am I being unfair? If my words constitute unfairness, then accountability means nothing. My possible unfairness to political leaders doesn’t come close to the unfairness of those empowered to act, but who do not. Their sentimental statements save not a single child from the weapons they are responsible for loosing upon the country. My representatives in Congress are not alone, of course. I starkly point them out and name names, for it is otherwise so easy for those who represent me—as for those who represent you—to distance themselves from the killing. I urge you shout out names, not to let yours off the hook, for they apparently believe that we just don’t have enough dead kids yet.

In their passive and unctuous way, our Congress and our president are killing our children.

Posted in Morality, Politics | 3 Comments

Legislators set to abuse religious freedom . . . again

State legislatures are busy again considering so-called “religious liberty” bills, and the year’s just begun. Over 160 bills have been filed by legislators around the country thus far. Seasoned observers, after years of watching politicians’ sausage-making, are not fooled by bills’ titles. In the case of religious liberty, it’s not that proponents really care about the important political doctrine of freedom of belief. Their interest is entitlement of Christians to have more rights than others. (In Islamic countries, that sentence works quite well by substituting one word.) Most Christian fundamentalists think little about the broad Enlightenment concept of freedom of religion, but a lot about claiming unrivaled statutory protection of their own.

Our Constitution was developed by leaders aware of widespread religious persecution and prosecution prevalent in the colonies. Curiously, schools still teach children that Puritans and Pilgrims came to America for the concept of religious freedom. They did not. They came for freedom of their own religions. Many Christians behave similarly today. Most, I think, don’t notice they’re doing so. Elected officials—by and large—rather than help them elevate their understanding of religious freedom, take the opportunity to capitalize politically on their misunderstanding.

Remember Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky, who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple despite the applicants’ legally guaranteed rights? She claimed her religious belief gave her the right to deny the rights of others. Neither she nor the religious leaders who flocked to her defense seemed to understand that while the personal Ms. Davis does have freedom of religion, the government official Ms. Davis does not. To applicants, Ms. Davis was the state of Kentucky. But that simple distinction was lost in the evangelical frenzy, demonstrated by, among many others, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal, and Senator Marco Rubio, who declared: “[this is the] criminalization of Christianity,” (Huckabee); “I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when a Christian in America could go to jail because they decided to live by the precepts of their faith,” (Rubio); and “[this constitutes] jailing Christians for their religious beliefs” (Jindal). These statements were either intentionally misleading or shockingly naïve.

How would these same Christians feel about a Muslim state employee who chooses not to serve a female citizen who exposes her hair? How about a Catholic public school teacher who extols the priesthood and transubstantiation to students? Or a school principal who prays publicly before football games according to his Hindu beliefs? How about a police department that displays Allahu Akbar decals on its squad cars just because the chief or a majority of officers are Muslim? These individuals in their personal lives can believe anything they wish; they can follow those beliefs. We are duty-bound to help protect their rights to do so. The state does not have the right of religious freedom; individuals do. A person representing the state (teacher, cop, clerk, judge) cannot be allowed to impose his or her beliefs in the conduct of state business lest the rights of others be impaired. Religious freedom for individuals requires that persons when representing the government conform to the Constitutional limits placed on government as if they are the government themselves.

I’ve addressed the matter of any individual thinking he or she has a right as a public employee to foist beliefs on others or to act as if the government has chosen one belief over another. This is not a rare event in America, but occurs in virtually every municipality, public school system, and other arena. Some of these issues are argued in my posts on this blog that I’ve noted below. With the foregoing thoughts in mind, however, let me shift my focus to the specific area of religious liberty that has so flooded legislatures’ agendas.

As an electorate, we’ve decided that certain behaviors in this “free country” are so unacceptable that they should be prohibited by law. Excluding black customers when operating a public business is not acceptable. Exposing minors to certain dangerous conditions is not acceptable. Cruelty to animals is not acceptable. Recently we’ve made excluding gay persons from services by public business is unacceptable. My point is this: Whether or not a specific one of us agrees with laws to enforce those specific behaviors, surely we agree laws should be applied without favor, equally on everyone. A law applies to persons who don’t like it as much as to persons who do.

Yet some Christian bakers refuse to serve gay customers wanting a wedding cake. (The Supreme Court is now engaged with such a case.) As already discussed, some public officials have chosen not to serve gays seeking a marriage license. There are more examples, but my point is that some Christians think that since they do not like the law, they should be excused from it. I understand that they’d not say it that way. They’d contend that it isn’t simply that they “don’t like” the law, but that their God doesn’t. Their God, of course, is not available to give testimony, so believers’ “sincere religious belief” about what their God wishes is frequently treated as enough.

There’s a problem, though, in that their belief is not the same as the equally conscientious belief of other Christians and non-Christians. Those who profess to speak for God disagree mightily among themselves. Is belief qua belief sufficient to establish an exception to public policy? Would the total of all “sincere beliefs” not potentially set aside much of public policy? In giving certain religious persons and proclivities more rights than either non-religious persons or differently religious persons, the civil government will not only have chosen among opposing religious views, but between a religion-based public morality and a secular one.

Christians are not being asked to surrender their beliefs, give up proselytizing, or stop worshipping in the way they choose. Those rights are firmly protected. They are being asked—no, make that required—to do something they don’t like in order to avoid stepping on rights we as a nation have decided that persons have. That they might call that an act of war on Christianity does not make it so. Are laws to be binding only when a person’s religious (oops; sincere religious) beliefs do not forbid it? Is the official message to be, “This what the law requires you to do unless you think you shouldn’t”? Have you ever considered all the civilizing efforts since the Enlightenment that would violate what one or another sincere religious belief forbids?

(Pardon my emphasis on that phrase. I’m not sure what sincere adds except a patina of solemnity and sagacity not granted other types of beliefs. Should hanging the modifier religious on an action or predisposition render it more sensible or less deserving of challenge? Ever heard of “sincere speed limit belief,” “sincere nutrition belief,” “sincere policing policy belief,” or even “freedom of sincere speech”? But I digress.)

Americans already have freedom of religion. Except for occasional fundamentalist Christians’ attempts to hamper Muslims’ (or others’) access to that freedom, it is a precious right valued by most Americans, including me. The present flurry of religious liberty bills makes a mockery of that freedom, for they propose to use religion to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, and others. In some instances, they aim to divert public money to religious schools. There are even bills that would allow public school officials to pressure students to pray and to listen to religious preaching. Political leaders, some authentic, some not, appease and pacify fundamentalist Christian groups with promises of immunity from public policy others have to observe.

It is easy to overlook the fact that freedom of religion or, more broadly, freedom of conscience is a critical aspect of a free and benevolent society. Specifically religious values aren’t the only important ones we hold dear; in fact, historically they’ve often lagged behind secular ones. So it is that judicious balancing of our disagreements need not and should not rank religious sincerity over secular, nor religious notions of humaneness over secular.

Liberty of conscience—incorporating religious liberty—is so precious and so easily sacrificed that citizens and governments owe it vigilant protection. That obligation includes not damaging liberty with religious liberty laws.

 

 

Of more than 167 previous posts in this blog, “John Just Thinking,” these are particularly relevant to religious liberty: “Being civil about gay marriage,” June 30, 2013; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” Apr. 16, 2014; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016; “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017; “Religion and gays as ‘the Others,’” May 9, 2017.

 

 

Posted in Church and state, Liberty | 2 Comments

Aiding and abetting injury to America

Donald Trump’s presidency (the Jerry Springer Show comes to mind) stumbles on with the outspoken or at least tacit support of almost all his party. But stumbling doesn’t mean getting nothing done. On the contrary, Trump is getting a lot done. He has degraded our already appalling political discourse to even lower levels. He has replaced any semblance of commitment to truthfulness with daily lies. He has advertised contempt for and attacked Constitutional institutions. He has infected national politics and degraded the presidency with his paranoia. He has normalized a despotic inclination toward dictatorship. He has roused a cult of personality to replace informed policy debate. He has supplanted judicious deliberation with shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness.

How can newscasters still refer with a straight face to this unfit person as the “leader” of the United States, much less the free world?

(It’s been suggested of late that Trump’s behavior is due to advancing dementia. That’s possible, but makes little difference. Knowing whether Trump is unwell or evil neither increases nor decreases our responsibility to protect the institutions and fortunes of this country from further damage.)

How bad must the situation be before his party—the only resource capable of saving America from Trump’s madness—re-reads the oath of office all senators and representatives take? His party continues to treat the Trump debacle as a partisan matter, one in which Republicans fight with Democrats, like fire fighters arguing about their retirement programs while a building burns in front of them. Partisan advantage (including their re-elections) has been of more concern to them than America’s decaying global leadership and our domestic surrender to the sleaziest and most fact-free traits among us.

What are we to think of the president’s cabinet and White House staff groveling, each in turn, in nauseating obeisance to their king? Their jobs depend on salving Trump’s fragile façade of strength. Perhaps, as it has been said, they fear for the country that jumping this ailing ship would lead to Trump’s appointing even weaker, more ethically pliable servants. Whatever the reason, the White House has sunk to new lows. It appears more energy is spent there repairing the various internal rifts than supporting an atmosphere for careful consideration of policy.

But whatever the excuse for the toadying of that group, the behavior of senators and representatives is another matter. They do not work for the president, though Trump seems to think they do. Even they cower before the authoritarian man-child, though surely they all recognize his ineptness, unfitness, and superficiality. Members of Trump’s party not only accept his incompetence, but offer him their own version of sycophancy with terms like his “elegant” leading of the 2017 tax bill (Speaker Ryan) and “one of the best [presidents]” (Sen. Hatch).

But elected members of Senate and House, must be re-elected to keep their jobs. Whether leadership is really expected depends on the electorate. Perhaps statesmen and stateswomen are too rare a commodity to expect when a great proportion of citizens falls for the hollow messages politicians are skilled at contriving.

If coal miners really believe coal jobs are coming back; if a lifelong blowhard inspires confidence to “drain the swamp;” if a leader is trustworthy who self-contradicts at a dizzying rate; if a candidate is adamant in hiding his personal finances; if we entrust momentous policy choices to a candidate who deals only in ego-related transactions; if Americans are deluded by a supposed leader’s claims of “mental stability and . . . genius;” if voters see no problem that a president’s source of intelligence comes as much from Sean Hannity as the CIA; if voters think there is anything remotely equivalent between the shortcomings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton . . . we can have little confidence in saving the great American experiment that our Founders left us.

Donald John Trump is not the primary problem in this threat to America and to the world. We are.

 

 

Previous posts particularly relevant to Donald Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017. “Our republic . . . if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Merry Christmas!

Yes, I—an enthusiastic and secular humanist atheist—often wish someone a Merry Christmas, and I respond happily to others when they use the term. I react the same way to Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, and other expressions of seasonal benevolence. Choosing to see the cheer and warmth in terms based on beliefs I don’t share in no way masks doubt about my irreligious core. I’ve not a shred of faith that there’s a god, life after death, religious miracles, salvation, or heaven-defined sin.

What I have faith in—besides reason—is that human beings experience a better, more satisfying life if we treat each other with openness, compassion, and joy. Just being nice goes a long way, farther than some religions do. And one doesn’t need fairy tales, made-up stories of angels, and sex-free procreation to wish pleasure, merriment, and enjoyment for all. Such supportive humanism is not only worthy of our attention year-round, but needs no creator-in-the-sky to command or even validate it.

Jesus is not the “reason for the season” as demonstrated by Christians’ time in commercial, feasting, and merrymaking activities on and around Christmas. Of Americans who celebrate Christmas (according to a PEW Research study) only about half treat it as a religious holiday. And lest we forget, not everyone is Christian to begin with. Americans are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Bha’i, Hindu, atheist, and more, as well as persons who claim Christianity but seldom darken the church door. The actual reason for the season, as jested by Dan Barker (co-president of American Atheists, Inc.), the actual reason for the season is earth’s axial tilt.

At any rate, even Christians don’t do much on Christmas that is specifically Christian. It was a borrowed (or stolen) holiday to begin with, appropriated from pagans who saw something noteworthy in geo-solar phenomena. Besides, pretty well everybody knows the ostensible Jesus of Nazareth was not born near December 25 despite our stories for children. Perhaps we continue with such delightful myths in adulthood because they grab our attention, slow us down momentarily from busy lives, and spread a bit of conviviality. That’s not all bad.

So why would a self-respecting atheist like me not be offended when the Christmas greeting is used by others? First, I just don’t get offended that easily anyway. Second, it’s difficult to avoid language that arises from philosophies neither you nor I adhere to. Third, I have an investment in using language a listener can understand. Every week I speak of Thursday with no need to proclaim each time that atheism dismisses Thor quite as quickly as Jehovah. These left-over terms are in the English language, and like you, I have more meaningful battles to fight.

One of those battles is relevant to the topic of this post. As much as I like Christmas trees, enjoy the December holidays, and welcome the charitable spirit of Yuletide, I abhor all observance of and support for religion by government. I am adamant that the government and all its representatives—like school teachers, police, and elected officials—diligently refrain from commenting on or supporting any religion or lack of it, whether about its dogma, its symbols, its celebrations, its theocratic complexities, or its holy books. (In large part, they do not refrain now.) However, as persons apart from their government employment, they have Constitutionally protected rights of belief and expression just as you and I. As public servants, they do not, for in those roles they are representatives of the state. (For further reasoning about these matters, I encourage you to take a look at previous posts found under the categories of Church & State and Politics on the right side of this screen, particular the posts listed below.)

My reaction to religious expressions, then, runs hot and cold. I am unyieldingly intolerant of government engagement in religion, but light-hearted and indulgent with respect to individuals’ words of kindness, even if cloaked in a religious expression.

So whatever season you acknowledge, celebrate, or just endure, I wish you a Merry Christmas or whatever greeting best fits your intentions for warmth, happiness, joy, and goodwill.

 

Previous posts particularly relevant to this post: “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” October 8, 2014; “Our national day of prayer,” May 1, 2014; “Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit,” July 19, 2013; “Theocracy’s poster boy, Alabama’s Roy Moore,” December 7, 2017; “God-given rights,” December 9, 2013; “God-given rights—2,” December 9, 2016; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” April 16, 2014; “Atheists in public office,” November 25, 2013.

Posted in This blog, this blogger | 6 Comments