Tag: Religion

Morning Smoke

March 16, 2010 | By | 6 Replies More
Morning Smoke

Several weeks ago I was getting my son, Ben, up in the morning to go to school. Ben is 8 and in the third grade. I walked into Ben’s room as he slept and announced that; “Here’s everything you need this morning” (to get up and dressed for school).

A sleepy little boy voice said: “Did you bring me a drink?” The voice quickly continued: “How about world peace, Daddy did you bring me World Peace?”

“Uh, no,” I said.

“Then you DIDN”T bring me everything I need, did you?” said Ben. “Daddy, you need to be more precise in your language.”

Truer words were never spoken out of the mouth of babes. After I had finished giving my schmarty-pants son some noogies, hugs and kisses and getting some of my own, I replied. “How many times has daddy said that to you, Ben?”

“At least a Hundred Million Times!” said Ben. “But, now I GOT YOU!” Ben gloated. “HAH!”

I left Ben to finish his dressing and went downstairs and found my daughter Bella (short for Isabella) watching TV. Bella is 11 and fascinated by whodunits, often getting the culprit before I do. Bella was watching a DVR’d episode of “Bones” which features a beautiful brilliant woman forensic anthropologist, a hunky FBI agent and a bevy of interesting other characters who solve murders using human remains as clues. They all work at something called the Jefferson Institute.

“Daddy, why does “Bones” give the FBI guy trouble for believing in God?” said Bella.

[more . . . ]

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Talking about God is no longer religious

March 11, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
Talking about God is no longer religious

In the case of Newdow v. Rio Linda, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that talking about “God” is not religious talk. The case was brought on behalf of an atheist public school student who was required to recite the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the phrase “under God.”

The Majority Opinion holds that the phrase “under God” in the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance is not a personal affirmation of the speaker’s belief in God. Further, the Majority plays a shell game, pretending that is is required to analyze the entire Pledge (which it finds to be primarily patriotic) rather than having the courage to look at the offending phrase “under God,” which was added by Congress in 1954, during America’s McCarthyite period. Here’s the Majority’s shell game in action (from p. 3877):

We hold that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism and that the context of the Pledge—its wording as a whole, the preamble to the statute, and this nation’s history—demonstrate that it is a predominantly patriotic exercise. For these reasons, the phrase “one Nation under God” does not turn this patriotic exercise into a religious activity.

I will emphasize points raised by the Dissent because the Dissent is coherent and honest, in contrast with the disingenuous Majority opinion. The Dissent begins at page 3930 with an elaborate table of contents. Don’t trust me on any of these points: read the opinion for yourself and you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating in the least.

What are the facts of the case? I’ll refer to the case description given by Judge Reinhardt’s Dissent (from page 3976):

When the five-year-old Roe child arrived for her first day of kindergarten, her teacher, a state employee, asked the young students to stand, to place their hands on their hearts, and to pledge their allegiance to “one nation, under God.” Neither young Roe nor her mother, however, believe in God. Thus, having already learned that she should not tell a lie, young Roe simply stood silently, as her classmates recited in unison the version of the Pledge that requires its proponents to express their belief in God. Everyday thereafter, the children filed into school, and each morning they recited an oath of allegiance to “one nation, under God” — an oath that undeniably “requires affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind” to which young Roe does not subscribe: a belief that God exists and is watching over our nation. Cf. W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 633 (1943). For eight months, the five-year-old Roe faced, every morning, the daily “dilemma of participating” in the amended Pledge, with all that implies about her religious beliefs, or of being cast as a protester for her silent refusal. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 593 (1992). On some days she quietly endured the gaze of her teacher and her classmates as she refused to say the Pledge, standing in silence as the classroom’s lone dissenter; on others she walked out of the room and stood in the hallway by herself, physically removed from the religious “adherents” — the “favored members of the [classroom] community,” Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 310 (2000), who were able to swear their fealty to the United States without simultaneously espousing a state-sponsored belief in God that was antithetical to their personal religious views. In April, 2005, Jan Roe filed this lawsuit on behalf of herself and her child. Her claim is straightforward: The Constitution of the United States, a nation founded by exiles who crossed an ocean in search of freedom from state-imposed religious beliefs, prohibits the purposefully designed, teacherled, state-sponsored daily indoctrination of her child with a religious belief that both she and her daughter reject.

The Majority Opinion also blunders by incorrectly stating that “under God” is not a religious phrase because it was not allegedly not inserted in the Pledge for religious reasons. The Majority Opinion makes the laughable claim that the phrase “under God” is simply “a reference to the historical and political underpinnings of our nation,” and that its purpose is to remind us that our government is a “limited government.”

The Dissent responded to this point at page 3931:

Were this a case to be decided on the basis of the law or the Constitution, the outcome would be clear. Under no sound legal analysis adhering to binding Supreme Court precedent could this court uphold state-directed, teacher-led, daily recitation of the “under God” version of the Pledge of Allegiance by children in public schools. It is not the recitation of the Pledge as it long endured that is at issue here, but its recitation with the congressionally added two words, “under God” — words added in 1954 for the specific religious purpose, among others, of indoctrinating public schoolchildren with a religious belief. The recitations of the amended version as conducted by the Rio Linda Union and other school districts fail all three of the Court’s Establishment Clause tests.

Was the phrase “under God” added to the Pledge in 1954 for religious reasons? There is no doubt about this. The idea to insert “under God” began in the pews of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church—The Dissent provides loads of citations and details (see, for example, p. 3944). How did the phrase “under God” get into the Pledge? Congress inserted it in 1954. On page 3957 of the opinion, the Dissent presents the all-telling details. The Dissent explains starting at page 4008:

Not only was the message underlying the new Pledge clear — “true” Americans believe in God and non-believers are decisively un-American — but so too was its intended audience: America’s schoolchildren.

The legislators who set out to insert the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance were fully aware that in 1954 the original Pledge was a commonplace scholastic ritual. Indeed, a primary rationale for inserting the explicitly religious language into the Pledge of Allegiance, as opposed to into some other national symbol or verse, was that the Pledge was an ideal vehicle for the indoctrination of the country’s youth. The amendment’s chief proponents in Congress were not at all bashful about their intentions. Speaking from the well of the Senate, Senator Wiley endorsed the bill by saying, “What better training for our youngsters could there be than to have them, each time they pledge allegiance to Old Glory, reassert their belief, like that of their fathers and their fathers before them, in the all-present, all-knowing, all-seeing, allpowerful Creator.” Id. at 5915 (emphases added). Senator Ferguson, who authored the Senate bill, agreed that “we should remind the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the other young people of America, who take [the] pledge of allegiance to the flag more often than do adults, that it is not only a pledge of words but also of belief.” Id. at 6348 (emphasis added). In the House, Congressman Rabaut, the original author of the first bill to amend the Pledge, declared that “from their earliest childhood our children must know the real meaning of America,” a country whose “way of life . . . sees man as a sentient being created by God and seeking to know His will.” Id. at 1700 (emphases added). His colleague, Congressman Angell, argued that “the schoolchildren of America” should understand that the Pledge of Allegiance “pledge[s] our allegiance and faith in the Almighty God.”

In conclusion:

An examination of that text and the plain meaning of its words clearly reveals the explicitly religious purpose motivating the amendment to the Pledge. The words “under God” are undeniably religious, and the addition to the Pledge of Allegiance of words with so plain a religious meaning cannot be said, simply because it might assist the majority in obtaining its objective, to be for a purpose that is predominantly secular. The words certainly were not inserted for the purpose of “reinforc[ing] the idea that our nation is founded upon the concept of a limited government.” As I have stated earlier in this dissent and as I reiterate here, the suggestion by the majority that the purpose of inserting the phrase “under God” into the Pledge was to remind us that we have a “limited government” finds no support in the record and is wholly without merit.

And why is it that the Majority Opinion is pretending that this case is about the effect of the entire Pledge rather than the two-word phrase that is clearly at issue? To avoid the obvious. Here’s what would have followed from honest and competent jurisprudence (again, this is from the Dissent):

[The earlier U.S. Supreme Court case of Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1984)] explicitly requires us to compare the original statute to the amended form and to examine what the amendment has added. Where the addition is religious, the addition must be invalidated. Here, Wallace unquestionably requires us to strike down as unconstitutional the state-directed, teacher-led daily recitation of the “under God” language in the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools. Omitting the two words added by the 1954 amendment and returning to the recitation of the secular version of the Pledge that was used in public schools for decades prior to the adoption of the amendment would cure the violation of the Establishment Clause at issue here.

Newdow v. Rio Linda would seem to suggest two things to those who take the logic of the Majority Opinion seriously. First of all, stare decisis is the sacred foundation of our entire legal system–except when it is not (for instance, when the Newdow Court intentionally skates around the Wallace decision), and that the principle of stare decisis can be cavalierly switched on and off by an appellate judge. Second, it’s time to revoke the tax-exempt status of all churches that talk about “God” because such talk is no longer religious.

The bottom line, though, is that Newdow is simply the latest in a long line of dishonest Pledge of Allegiance decisions. For example, see this earlier post on the federal district court case of Freedom from Religion Foundation v. The Hanover School District, where the Court claimed that making the children recite the Pledge each day is for the purpose of “teaching them history.”

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Why is non-belief flourishing?

February 21, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Why is non-belief flourishing?

A recent Pew study shows that non-belief is growing among Americans. Freelance researcher Gregory S. Paul has proposed a mechanism for this growth of non-belief. For instance, in 2009, he published on this topic in Evolutionary Psychology. More recently, in the February, 2010 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers), Paul gives a succinct summary of this proposed mechanism to explain declining popularity of religion in prosperous countries:

In modern nations, non-religion and the acceptance of evolution become popular when the middle-class majority feels sufficiently secure and safe, thanks to low income inequality, universal health care, job and retirement security, and lower rates of legal crime; this has occurred to greater and lesser degrees in most first-world countries, from Japan to Scandinavia. Religion thrives when the majority seek the aid and protection of supernatural powers because they are impoverished, is in third- and second-world countries or, in the case of the United States (the most religious and creationist first-world country), because a majority of Americans fear losing their middle-class status as a result of limited government support, high levels of social pathology, and intense economic come petition and income disparity. Prosperous modernity is proving to be the nemesis of religion.

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New Pew Study shows declining religious membership among younger Americans

February 18, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
New Pew Study shows declining religious membership among younger Americans

Pew has just released a new study showing that young Americans are less religiously active than their elders:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith.

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The one who’s name must not be mentioned.

February 7, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More
The one who’s name must not be mentioned.

No, I’m not referring to Voldemort of the Harry Potter movies. I’m referring to Sarah Palin, who I’ve resisted mentioning, because she has been serving as the perfect freak show for our conflict-obsessed media, which uses her freakness simply to sell faux “news.” Or maybe not. Depending on who you listen to, she might actually be the future face of the Republican Party, despite the fact that she has never uttered an idea useful for solving a real-world political problem. Or maybe, as Andrew Sullivan writes, she is not a political phenomenon at all, but a religious leader. If you doubt Sullivan’s claim, check Palin’s recent quote, which Sullivan quotes at length in this post from The Daily Dish.

Sullivan’s characterization of Palin doesn’t surprise me, though; I’ve come to see most religions as special cases of politics. Both are elaborate systems that use vague and largely unsubstantiated fables and threats to enable small elite groups to coordinate and control much larger groups of people, for better and worse.

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What’s wrong with ME, God??

January 27, 2010 | By | 16 Replies More
What’s wrong with ME, God??

Why doesn’t God like me?

I have an acquaintance who has been enlightening me recently about manifestations of the supernatural, both good and bad. He has told me frightening stories of people using occult practices to summon dark spirits and actually touch them.

More often I hear believers talk of their personal experiences with dreams, visions and the clear responses they get from God that cement in their mind His existence. These are not imagination, they assert. These are real events. Palpable things.

So, what’s wrong with me?? I have been alive for almost 50 years and never ever, not even once, had any experience that was so unexplainable that I felt it HAD to come from another realm.

“But you have to seek God out before you will find Him,” the believers will say.

I have been very open to belief at times in my life. I was raised Catholic, left the church in my teens, returned to the church in my 20s, ready, open for and desiring a spiritual journey…and felt nothing. I’ve had hard times, lost loved ones to disease, been divorced and lost all my money, been alone, nearly became addicted to painkillers for a time and contemplated suicide on one occasion.

Nothing. No signs from God.

There were times when I really needed help and would have welcomed a vision or two, but not one experience did I have during all that time that I would consider other-worldly. I just said to myself “enough of this”, and eventually moved on.

My agnosticism comes from my practical experience. I’ve lived this long and been through what I’ve been through and have never experienced a manifestation of any kind. Do you blame me for not believing?? Why should I believe in something that gives me no sign of its existence? If there is a God, why is he holding back?

So, what’s wrong with me, God? Didn’t I deserve a vision or two along the way? Wasn’t I good enough for a manifestation that I could see and touch? They say that faith is knowing in the absence of proof. You gave proof to these other believers. Why not me?

Is there anyone listening?

Seems not.

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New Center to explore the role of religion in politics at Washington University

January 5, 2010 | By | Reply More
New Center to explore the role of religion in politics at Washington University

Wonderful news from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The Danforth Foundation has made a huge financial contribution to create a specialized Center on Religion & Politics. Former U.S. Senator John Danforth was instrumental in making this possible. The following is from the Center’s press release, which was issued last month:

$30 million endowment gift from Danforth Foundation funds creation of center

Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2009 — Washington University in St. Louis is establishing a scholarly and educational center that will focus on the role of religion in politics in the United States, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

“The establishment of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics reflects the legacy of Jack Danforth and his belief in the importance of a civil discourse that treats differences with respect,” Wrighton said in making the announcement Dec. 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“The center will serve as an ideologically neutral place that will foster rigorous, unbiased scholarship and encourage conversations between diverse and even conflicting points of view,” Wrighton said.

“Knowing that religious values and beliefs can either encourage or undermine civility, the center and its educational programs and scholarly research can provide a bridge between religious and political communities and will inform new kinds of academic explorations focusing on the relationships between the two. We think that’s a worthy goal.”

The creation of the center, which includes the recruitment of five new faculty members with endowed professorships, is being made possible by a $30 million endowment gift from the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation. It is believed to be the largest gift of its kind made to a university to fund such an academic center.

The center opens January 2010 and will convene public conferences and lectures to address local, state and national issues related to religion and politics and also will offer an educational program in religion and politics, including an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in religion and public life.

The new faculty appointments will be in the area of American religion and politics and will complement the work of scholars already on the Washington University faculty in the departments of history, anthropology, literatures and religious studies. The new faculty members will hold joint appointments between the new center and existing academic departments.

The center will attract visiting scholars to St. Louis and create opportunities for interaction with Washington University faculty, students and members of the St. Louis community. It also plans to publish and disseminate proceedings of conferences and results of studies by faculty, visiting scholars and students of the center.

“Historically, the responsibility for this kind of dialogue has most often been left to universities with religious connections,” said Danforth. “But great non-sectarian institutions like Washington University combine rigorous academic standards with traditions of civil conversation, and that’s why this is the perfect place for such a center. Few issues are more critical to the well being of a democracy than how religious beliefs — or the denial of such beliefs — co-exist with civic virtue and of how the ‘truths’ of the one are made compatible with the toleration and good will required by the other.”

The Columbia Missourian (based in Columbia, Missouri), provides additional context:

John Danforth, 73, of St. Louis, has often been at odds with others in the GOP because of his concerns about the influence of the Christian right. In newspaper columns, speeches and in a book, he has argued that Christian conservatives have focused on divisive issues that polarize Americans.

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said the center in St. Louis will reflect Danforth’s belief “in civil discourse that treats differences with respect.”

“The center will serve as an ideologically neutral place that will foster rigorous, unbiased scholarship and encourage conversations between diverse and even conflicting points of view,” Wrighton said.

This is a wonderful development. Washington University is a first-rate center of scholarship, and there might not be a more important topic in these times. Here is yet more information on the new Center, from Washington University’s website.

I very much like the motto for the Center: “Common ground for civil dialogue.”

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FOX News’ Brit Hume to Tiger Woods: Become a Christian

January 3, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
FOX News’ Brit Hume to Tiger Woods: Become a Christian

Brit Hume, managing editor at FOX news suggested on the air that Tiger Woods should become a Christian, indicating that Christianity is superior to the Buddhism practiced by Woods.

Sure enough, but when famous Christians like these get involved in well-publicized scandals, perhaps they ought to become Buddhists.

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The roots of morality: It’s time to look far beyond religion.

December 6, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More
The roots of morality: It’s time to look far beyond religion.

Many articles purporting to examine morality bore me. They tend to be laundry lists of personal preferences–the writer’s catalog of things that personally annoy and delight him or her–completely un-anchored by the scientific method or, for that matter, by any sort of disciplined thinking. Such articles have been around for a long time. Many of them were written prior to 1785, when Immanuel Kant wrote his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, where he urged that we get serious about morality’s underpinnings. Though Kant’s categorical imperative leaves much to be desired as a full description of phenomenon of morality, it should be noted that Kant did not have access to the modern findings of cognitive science.

At edge.com, Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard Professor of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Biological Anthropology, has published an article entitled “It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality.” Hauser’s article, based on many of his prior writings, is a rigorous, insightful and succinct account of the roots of human morality.

Hauser starts his article with an attack on the commonly heard claim that religion is a major source of our moral insights. There is not a drop of evidence suggesting this, as should be obvious. After all, morally deficient believers and morally enlightened nonbelievers are ubiquitous (and vice versa). Hauser does acknowledge that religions do endow their members with a sense of meaning and community. His sharp attack, however, is on the narrow claim that religions provide “the only– or perhaps even the ultimate– source of moral reasoning.” This raises an obvious question: If our sense of morality is not based on religion, on what is it based?

Hauser argues thatscience has demonstrated that each of us is endowed with a gift from nature: “a biological code for living a moral life.” Our biologically endowed “cold calculus” takes the form of rules such as these: Actions are seen as worse than omissions; and forcing someone to do something for the greater good is worse if you make a person worse off in the process. Hauser describes this set of rules as a “moral grammar . . . and impartial, rational and unemotional capacity . . . an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden.”

This impartial grammar has been revealed through experiments in which people were presented with unfamiliar moral dilemmas (he avoided such well-worn topics as abortion and euthanasia). For instance, is it permissible for a hospital to involuntarily take various internal organs from a healthy person walking by the hospital in order to save the lives of five patients needing transplants? When these sorts of dilemmas are presented to people of wildly divergent cultural backgrounds, the surprising finding is that their particular backgrounds are virtually irrelevant to determining how they will resolve such dilemmas.

The work of Frans de Waal dovetails nicely with Hauser’s writings. In particular, De Waal has argued that humans have evolved to be predominantly groupish and peace-loving beings who are well-tuned to look out for each other. Therefore, the question arises: what has gone wrong where we see moral atrocities? Hauser’s answer is that these atrocities arise due to culturally constructed emotions that fuel “in-group favoritism, outgroup hatred and ultimately dehumanization.” Essentially, we become just like psychopaths with regard to those we perceive to be in out-groups. Psychopaths are generally this way toward all others–they know the “rules” but they don’t care. The rest of us are psychopaths toward every who we characterize to be our outgroup. We see these people in outgroups as “disposable.” We allow children overseas to die, even when we have the money to prevent these deaths, and even when we would not allow the child of a sibling or a neighbor’s child (who we perceive to be in our ingroup) to suffer.

Here lies the answer to understanding the dangers of nurture, of education and partiality. When we fuel in-group biases by elevating and praising members of the group, we often unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, denigrate the “other” by feeding the most nefarious of all emotions, the dragon of disgust. We label “the other” (the members of the outgroup) with a description that makes them as subhuman even an adamant, often parasitic and file, and thus disgusting. When disgust is recruited, those in the ingroup have only one way out: purge the other.

Hauser’s work also dovetails well with the research of Jonathan Haidt, who has argued that disgust is one of the five pillars of morality. Haidt considers in-group/outgroup tension to be another one of those five pillars of morality (a separate pillar), whereas Hauser appears to be consolidating these two factors (people in outgroups disgust us). This consolidation seems to be the case, at least on an intuitive and anecdotal basis. Xenophobia and disgust do seem to go hand in hand. Mistreatment of members of outgroups not only allowed, but sometimes encouraged by those who preach universal love. Consider, for instance, the way that the members of many religions characterize gays–they are usually relegated to the outgroup. Hauser’s argument also comports with the basic findings of those who have studied human reactions to ingroups and outgroups.

If left unexamined and unchecked, our evolved system of simplistically categorizing people into ingroups and outgroups leads to moral catastrophe. This simplistic and intuitive system evolved while we lived in small groups of highly familiar people (many of them family members), and during times when there were no formal laws that coordinated large numbers of widely diverse individuals.

According to Hauser, this genesis of the problem also presents a potential solution. Although all animals have evolved the capacity to distinguish between members of the in group and out groups, these features are not calibrated in the genome. They are “abstract and content free,” much as our biologically endowed rules of moral grammar. We learn how to define our ingroup (and consequently, outgroups). Even seemingly compelling distinctions among humans, such as “racial” differences can be diminished or even eliminated by spending time with different-seeming others.

Moral education requires introducing all children, early in life, to a wide varieties of religions, political systems, languages, social organizations and races. Research shows that those who dated or married people of other “races” don’t so readily characterize those of other “races” to their outgroup. Exposure to diversity is perhaps our best option for reducing, if not eradicating, strong outgroup biases.

Hauser urges that we take our intuitive moral intuitions to task. We need to consciously push ourselves beyond our local family and community and train ourselves to “listen to the universal voice of [our] species.” We need to become “champions of plurality.”

At bottom, we need to recognize that diversity is not simply a buzzword. It is a critical part of the moral curriculum. We need to make ourselves spend time with different others, so that we are more likely to see one race, not many. We need to learn to see only fellow humans, rather than “our people” versus sub humans. Only when we have trained ourselves this way can our universal instinct toward empathy and our biologically endowed abstract moral grammar work together t pragmatically resolve differences peacefully. This would be a much better alternative to cracking heads and going to war based upon our ancient impulses toward unexamined, unenlightened and unjustified disgust.

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