Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Joyous Easter to All Christians—and Go See Particle Physics

4/20/2014—Of course if he is risen, it is a joyous day for all humanity, whether we know it or not. Sometime this week, I’ll return to Bishop Spong on the resurrection.

But back to Particle Fever, the documentary telling the story of the discovery—verification—of the Higgs Boson, which is the particle that explains "why some fundamental particles have mass when the symmetries controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and why the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force." (I don’t actually know what that means). The story is told from the perspectives of several of the physicists involved—what is at stake, what it means to know and discover, how their lives have been affected by this 20-year wait. It is compelling story telling apart from the science.

Two insights for nonscientists. First, several time the theme of science and art is invoked, and by several physicists. Yes, the search is to know, but it is also a search for beauty.

This kind of realm is often unknown among hard-edged anti-religion atheists. These men and women are not merely empiricists. They are well aware of an invisible world. They regard the mathematical structure of reality as a kind of miracle. And they have their own kind of faith.

Secularism risks descending into its own kind of know-nothingness in which it rejects in principle much of what makes a human life worth living.

Second, while the cancellation of the American collider project in 1993 did not harm humanity’s search for truth—although it slowed it down—it can serve as a symbol for the breakdown of America’s public life. As I remember, that cancellation was a part of the anti-Clinton movement in the Republican Party, aided and abetted by anti-technology leftists. But that may not be entirely true, as I now look at some of the material from the time. It may just be that America is tired, and was tired then. The irony is that, given the constant state of war we have been in since 2001, the collider would have been chicken feed. The money was not spent elsewhere, on science or anything else. The cancellation may have marginally contributed to the Clinton budget surplus, but it accomplished nothing else.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cowardice and Hypocrisy at Brandeis

4/17/2014—I have been reading Abby Schachter’s column in the Jewish Chronicle detailing the story behind Brandeis’ decision to rescind the invitation to Hirsi Ali to speak that the 2014 graduation ceremony on the ground of hate speech. An unsigned statement by Brandeis contained the following: “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” What statements? The Jewish Chronicle set forth the kind of statement that Brandeis is condemning—“I left the world of faith, of genital mutilation and forced marriage for the world of reason and emancipation.” Well, that statement perfectly describes what actually happened to her under the sway of Islam. How can speaking the truth be considered any form of hate speech? Obviously, Brandeis just does not have the stomach for free speech. This is the censorship of Salman Rushdie over again.

That said, I am no admirer of Hirsi Ali. She denigrates all religion, including, but not only, Islam. In my view she is genuinely intolerant. But, while that might have been grounds for not inviting her, it was pressure from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, not principle, that disinvited her.

It is also true that the episode is being used by critics of Islam (and Iran) when they themselves have tried to silence University speakers critical of Israel. Schachter is a good example of this double speak. If Hirsi had said, as she no doubt believes, that Judaism is almost as bad as Islam and the world should not tolerate a religious state like Israel, I doubt the demands of free speech would have been felt so keenly.

But, that does not matter. The critics are not the ones who caved in to censorship and pressure. That was Brandeis. And it is a great shame and a greater danger.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ross Douthat's Magical Thinking

4/14/2014--I tried to get the New York Times to publish the following letter to the editor, without success.

To the Editor:

In his column on healthcare debate last Sunday ("Health Care Without End"), Ross Douthat appeared to suggest that one driver of healthcare debate is the growing desire to postpone death. Douthat appeared to mean a kind of unnatural postponement of death because his point related to growing consumption of healthcare resources--a kind of life at all costs approach, even when there is no reasonable chance of cure. Then Douthat linked this greater investment in post-poning death to growing secularization in the culture. If I am not mistaken, the indirect suggestion was that religious believers, because they have an expectation of an afterlife, or some kind of meaningful resolution to life, can approach death in a calmer, more relaxed way than can we secularists, who, because we have nothing to hope for, must cling to life at all costs, thus screwing up healthcare policy. I wish Douthat were right about this. That would mean that religion is still healthy in this country. Unfortunately, in my experience, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no believers in cancer wards. Most people deny the inevitable and their earstwhile religion has nothing to do with it.

Bruce Ledewitz
***************************************************
I have seen a lot of this recently. Persons who claim to be religious believers, regular churchgoers and pillars of the believing community, face death without any obvious religious commitment. I am not suggesting that the only possible religious response to death is that we will all meet again in heaven. It would be just as much a religious response to hold that life is good and the universe is well-ordered and that my demise is part of that good plan. What I don't expect to see is the very clinging to life at all costs that Douthat presumably had in mind. That attitude, increasingly common, is rather juvenile. The philosopher Martin Heidegger once described a similar attitude as an unwillingness to get off the stage.

Friday, April 11, 2014

More Secular Yearning for God

4/11/2014—This past Sunday Barbara Ehrenreich published a column in the New York Times entitled A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment. (You can read it here)

When she was 17, Ehrenreich had a mystical experience of seeing the world suddenly flame into life. As an atheist—she has described herself as a fourth-generation atheist—Ehrenreich suppressed this memory. She thought it might be evidence of a mental breakdown.

Eventually, she says, it was her scientific training that nudged her to consider the possibility that this kind of mystical experience, which the literature tells us is very common in human history, might be evidence of some kind of actual encounter, as religious believers have always insisted.

But contact with what? Here Ehrenreich refers to quantum mechanics and “the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they are only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter.” Maybe we are not alone in the universe. There may be other forms of consciousness, “which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us in our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with the kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.”

Ehrenreich wants to be very clear that this is not anything supernatural and that there is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones.

Now, other than reassuring herself and her friends that she is not becoming religious, what can such a reservation mean? What in the world does Ehrenreich imagine that religious believers, especially including mystics, have meant all along if not beings ordinarily invisible to us or that the universe itself is alive?

Let me put it this way. Ehrenreich is betrayed by the term supernatural. Why don’t we posit that there is no such thing as anything supernatural. Everything that is mysterious and everything that is beyond our explanation and everything that is beyond our language is nevertheless natural, including the Big Bang, including time and including God. Maybe when we use the word God, we mean in part that the universe itself is alive and capable of bursting into something that looks like flame.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Death of a Grandmother

4/6/20140—A friend of mine died this week. Far too young. She will be missed by her husband of many years and by friends and family—and by my children.

She will be missed most of all by her grandson, a 4-year-old boy. He has no conception of death. Yesterday, he was wondering, wherever Grammy went, why she did not take her glasses.

I have heard a number of people wondering how to talk to him about death. This is not a religious family, which makes things harder but more honest. So there is nothing about heaven and that sort of thing. But it is so brutal to say simply that she is gone.

Nor is it really true. Grammy is not gone, any more than my mother and father are gone. In some ways, I feel closer to my mother and father since their deaths. Their presence now is more comforting to me than when they were alive.

We have an symbol, strangely appealing, for this experience. It is supernatural, to be sure, and so not strictly accurate, whatever that might mean. But it does capture something, something real and true.

So, if I had a chance to talk to this grandson—and I probably will not, since I am not that close to him—I think I would say the following. Grammy is now an angel, looking out for you. Now, you can talk to her anytime at all. And if you listen very quietly, you will hear her voice. Forever.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Now Get Rid of the $2600 Limit

4/3/2014—News came yesterday of the decision of the Supreme Court to overturn aggregate limits on campaign contributions. The typical responses were that conservatives hailed the change and liberals bemoaned the effect of money on politics.

These overall limits on money contributed to federal candidates in a 2-year cycle do not affect the $2600 limit to an individual candidate in one election cycle. So, it would already have been complicated to actually reach the aggregate limit and few people did so.

What is missed in the reaction is that we already have unlimited spending on campaigns. That spending comes from independent groups, usually super PAC’s, that are free to raise money and spend it as long as they do not coordinate their spending with any candidate’s campaign.

Thus, we now have the worst of all worlds—-unlimited, irresponsible and invisible spending by rich people infecting our politics, creating obligations that candidates understand and that the voters do not understand.

The simple answer is counterintuitive—-get rid of the $2600 limit, which now actually only affects regular people. In one act, independent spending would begin to ebb. The voters would see which candidates received money from people whose politics they do not like. If independent spending went on, voters could ask why a candidate could not control his or her own supporters. Politics would become transparent, which is even more important than controlling how much money is spent.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nihilism at the Heart of Secularism

3/28/2014—In order to understand law, or art or architecture or science, or any of our highest values, you have to come to terms with Nietzsche. According to a perceptive review article by Tamsin Shaw in the October 24, 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books, entitled “Nietzsche, ‘the lightning fire, ’” Nietzsche found that all of Western culture, all that had made him feel that life is meaningful, was a series of tricks. And he identifies some of these tricks, which he finds apparent in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, that produce in the viewer a feeling of an uncanny and elevated state, despite their underlying hollowness. So, for example, a sense of profundity, of emotional depth, is often created by mixing apparently contrary emotional states.

Shaw is reviewing the book, The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought, by Krzysztof Michalski. I am not relying on the rest of the review or on that book. For Shaw, there is a great deal more to Nietzsche than this.

What I wish to show here is how this one fragmentary insight of Nietzsche has infected all of American thought, actually all of Western thought. I find the direct heir of Nietzsche and the trick in episode 3 of the series, Cosmos.

At the beginning of episode 3, Neil deGrasse Tyson asserts that before the rise of science, humans associated the arrival of comets with momentous events, usually bad ones. The comet, in other words, was a sign from some god. As Tyson puts it, “They took it personally. Can we blame them?”

As you can see from the word blame, Tyson feels that ancient humans were mistaken in all this. He calls it a phenomenon of “false pattern recognition.” And there is a reason for this mistake. Tyson says of humans, “We hunger for significance. For signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we are all too eager to deceive ourselves and others. To discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich.”

Now, I doubt that Tyson would have the fortitude to consistently apply this insight, at least in public. If the last sentence had read, “to discern a sacred image in the cry of a child,” Tyson would probably have a moment’s pause in his breezy nihilism. If I asked Tyson whether Martin Luther King’s statement that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice, is also an instance of false pattern recognition, he would hesitate. And if I pointed out that this error means that nothing humans do, including the achievements of science, has any meaning whatsoever, and then asked him why he is bothering with the series, Cosmos, he would have no answer.

But the main point here is that the line from Shaw’s trick to Tyson’s false pattern recognition is a direct one. All of our sense of the meaningfulness of existence can be seen as a result of error.

This is the current direction of our secular civilization. And we cannot cure it, lament it or deal with it, until we first admit it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What’s Going to Happen in the Hobby Lobby Case?

3/25/2014—I don’t look at Supreme Court cases the way others do. Decisions have nothing whatever to do with precedent. Arguments and briefs follow the law and then the Justices change the law. That is not a criticism. It may be what the Supreme Court is for.

In Hobby Lobby, a for-profit, closely held business is trying to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to avoid the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. I am sure Hobby Lobby will win.

I say this for the simplest of reasons. First, the Justices already have said that corporations are like people. That is easy to hold in this case because the owners are so closely identified with their businesses. Hobby Lobby is not a publically owned shareholder company.

Second, RFRA is a remedial law. That kind of law is usually read broadly. The legislature is trying to relieve religious people of a burden. Any error should be made on the side of the claimant. In theory, RFRA is just a statute that can be amended if Congress decides that the relief went too far.

As to the catastrophe that might ensue if for profit businesses get to claim religious exemptions and the burden this may put on employees, I can see Justice Scalia writing the following: “In Employment Division v. Smith, this Court warned that to provide general religious exemption for neutral, generally applicable laws would threaten ‘chaos.’ In passing RFRA, Congress rejected the Court’s view. It is not now the Court’s role to restrict the result Congress sought to accomplish in the name of that same fear of chaos.”

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Death

3/22/2014—Two friends of ours are dying. One of them is staying at home, having spent a day and a half in hospice. The other is looking for hospice in a nursing type facility. One is around 58, while the other is over 80. One is religious and the other really is not.

Death is the great frontier for secularism. I have never heard the well-known atheist writers, like Dawkins, address it.

For the believer, there are two aspects of comfort with regard to death. In one view, the believer dies but goes to heaven largely to exist in a form similar to this life—he’ll be playing golf. I find this sort of thing really silly. Even Jesus made fun of it when the Pharisees asked who the wife would be the husband of, if she married brothers, who then died. (This was a normal procedure to keep land within the tribe.)

The other view is that of the hymn, rest to the good and faithful servant after a life well lived. In this view, we know nothing about the other side of life and it does not matter. Serving our intended purpose is all we need to worry about.

Now, this view might be available to the non-religiously affiliated as well. It would require a sense of purpose in existence, which organized atheism has tended to scorn.

Much more on this topic in days to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The New Cosmos Series Plays Out the Old Culture Wars

3/16/2014—Tonight is the second episode of the new Cosmos series. I loved the old series, by Carl Sagan, because of its simplicity and sense of adventure. The new series is pompous and overblown—-like movies, the special effects are so prevalent, they are not special. I learned a few things—-like about rogue planets—-but the sense of light fun along with serious engagement was missing.

Nothing illustrated the grim agenda of the series better than the emphasis on the treatment by the Catholic Church of Giordano Bruno. This story was the longest single segment in the first episode. Bruno was tried for heresy and was burned at the stake in 1600.

While the story is completely true, what exactly was it doing in the series? Although Bruno engaged in cosmological speculations—-he proposed that the sun was just another star, for example—-my understanding (from Wikipedia, but I have heard this before) is “that Bruno's ideas about the universe played a small role in his trial.” That is easy to believe since Bruno denied the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary and the doctrine of Transubstantiation—all matters that might get you burned at the stake in 1600 quite apart from any beliefs about the sun.

Presenting the evil looking Cardinals suppressing free thought in Bruno’s case is not about the history of science. It is a reflexive anti-religion theme that plays a role in current attitudes about religious institutions and teaches little if anything about scientific speculation. There is no question that the Catholic Church did suppress some scientific thought—-see Galileo—-but it is also the case that a number of the early scientists were themselves clerics—-see Copernicus—-or pious believers—-see Newton. It is also true that the scientific endeavor that we know today arose only in Christendom and may actually owe something to Christianity—-the belief that the Creator is benign and orderly and that the Creation may teach something about God’s nature—-the new learning was originally understood as a branch of “natural theology” after all.

Tonight's episode apparently treats of evolutionary theory. I am prepared for more anti-religious propaganda. We shall see.

Friday, March 14, 2014

How Much Damage Has Nihilism Done?

3/14/2014—I have been writing and thinking about nihilism for a few years now. I have a visceral reaction to statements about “the West,” or about how human rights or science are artificial constructions of some societies, and so forth. I even hate it when gay marriage is talked about in terms of tolerance for a lifestyle of equal dignity. No, it is a matter of justice for gay people. Their love is not a choice but a right. (Yes, I know—-this from a man who just wrote in favor of a religious exemption that allows discrimination against that right. Well, politics is compromise).

I long for the real. Not certainty in the sense of unassailable argument—-an argument that, as Hilary Putnam once said, would convince Hitler that he was a bad man—-but the faith that our commitments at least tend toward right and wrong. Science does this, even though paradigms shift, as Kuhn pointed out. The new paradigm is better able to explain the data, or it is more appealing on some other ground that we hope is truer to reality. No scientist talks today about the superiority of one race over another. That is not just political correctness, which of course it is in part and good for that, but because the whole concept of one race in competition with another race turned out to be nonsense within a human species in which everyone could mate with everyone else.

But maybe the habits of mind I don’t like are exaggerations on my part and are not that widespread or are not that harmful. I have to consider that possibility.

So, it is strangely thrilling to see an example of the harm of nihilism. Here is Zadie Smith, the novelist, in the most recent NY Review of Books, explaining in an imaginary future conversation with her granddaughter about why humans were so slow to do anything about global warming:

“So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes—and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.” Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.

So, now our job is to reconnect to the real, not reconstruct some new scaffolding. People are trying to do that. There were two advertisements along these lines in the very same issue of the NYRB. In the arts, John Dadosky has written The Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty, based on the thinking of the theologian Bernard Lonergan. In science, most recently, Mark Johnson has written about the scientific basis of morality in cognitive science in Morality for Humans. Green shoots as they say on the eve of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Re-Post of Gay Marriage op-ed

3/11/2014--Here is the text of my op-ed, "Gay Marriage With an Exemption," which appeared yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pa. gay marriage with an exemption

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014, 1:08 AM

By Bruce Ledewitz

It is difficult to propose a religious exemption for gay-marriage legislation in Pennsylvania in the shadow of Arizona's proposed law, which seemed to allow businesses to refuse services to gay couples. Fortunately, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, which was not limited to weddings and did not legalize gay marriage. It simply introduced in the market the potential for the kind of general discrimination against gay couples that the Catholic Church has consistently opposed. The law might even have allowed businesses to fire, or refuse to hire, gay employees - or, indeed, members of other faiths.

But I hope that the Arizona experience has not tainted the concept of a religious exemption in exchange for a gay-marriage bill. I propose that Pennsylvania practice mutual compassion and strive for common ground by including a broad religious exemption, including businesses, within a law legalizing gay marriage, while limiting the exemption to services at the wedding ceremony itself. This would be democratic horse-trading in the best tradition, in which both sides give up something in order to get something more important in return.

By this proposal, supporters of gay marriage would win. Right now, there is little support in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to legalize gay marriage. Nor is there any indication that the state courts will do so. People talk about the prospects for gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court, but I am confident that Justice Anthony Kennedy will not vote to strike down state gay-marriage bans, and there is no majority on the court to do that without him. On the other hand, a proposed broad religious exemption in a gay-marriage bill would radically change the politics of the issue in Pennsylvania.

Supporters of religious liberty would also win under this proposal. One day, gay marriage will be the law in Pennsylvania. A recent survey found 57 percent of Pennsylvanians already support gay marriage, while support among the young was overwhelming. And business interests will eventually insist on legalization as they lose employees to gay-marriage states like New York and New Jersey. If supporters of religious liberty wait until there is majority support for gay marriage in the legislature to press for a religious exemption, they will get little. The U.S. Supreme Court has already held that religious exemptions are not usually required by the Constitution.

If we act now by legalizing gay marriage with a strong religious exemption, Pennsylvania can play an important role in bringing our divided nation together. Yes, there will be the odd caterer who does not want to serve at a gay wedding. But this reluctance will fade over time. And, anyway, who wants a resistant service provider at a wedding?

And, yes, there will then be gay marriage. But opponents should recognize that this is a coming reality and make the best of it. We don't have to agree on everything in order to live together in mutual respect.

I worry that today's struggle over religious exemptions, whether in gay-marriage legislation or in the Affordable Care Act, will obscure the beneficial role that conscience has played in American history, both for religious believers and for nonbelievers. Conscientious objection to the Vietnam War protected not just believers, but also those unaffiliated with a religion. And I hope we can all agree that vegans in prisons should not be forced to eat meat, whatever their religion.

It would be a sad irony if the long-delayed acceptance of justice for gay couples were the occasion of an invasion of conscience for religious believers. It would be far better to recognize the legitimate needs of all. We can do this by legalizing gay marriage and legislating an exemption for religious conscience at the same time. But this opportunity will not last long. Pennsylvania's General Assembly must act now.

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/20140310_Pa__gay_marriage_with_an_exemption.html#TiM4U0p7fOptEDH7.99

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Hypocrisy of Senator Toomey, the Cowardice of Senator Casey

3/9/2014—On Wednesday, the US Senate voted 54-47 to reject Debo Adegbile as head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The ostensible reason was Adegbile's representation of convicted killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This is how Senator Toomey put it in an email he sent to me and many other Pennsylvania citizens: "As head of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Debo Adegbile helped fan racial tensions by joining the offensive public crusade to lionize Mumia Abu-Jamal, the unrepentant killer of Philadelphia police officer Danny Faulkner."

As I tried to write to Toomey in response—his system for response does not work—all criminal defendants are entitled to representation, not just repentant ones. And, basically, Adegbile's representation was vindicated by the result in the case. The death penalty was overturned in the courts. The one playing the race card here is Toomey.

Conservatives like Toomey like to claim they follow the framers of the Constitution and history generally. But, Toomey must have been absent when his class in school was taught about the representation by John Adams in 1770 of British soldiers accused of killing American protestors. At the end of his life, Adams was said to have called this unpopular representation his finest moment.

But at least Toomey is willing to acknowledge his actions. I heard nothing from Senator Casey about his vote against Adegbile. John Micek in the Partiot-News speculated that Casey may have been under pressure from the Philadelphia Police Union. But whether this is so or not,
Casey's vote was a disservice to his constituents and his political party. I doubt the vote was cast on the merits.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ross Douthat’s Surrender Column

3/4/2014—Ross Douthat wrote a column Sunday in the New York Times ("The Terms of Our Surrender") ostensibly throwing in the towel on religious exemption for gay marriage in light of the Arizona experience. But the column was mean spirited, which Douthat usually is not, and it was not accurate in its description of the situation, which again is not like Douthat.

For example, Douthat says that gay marriage is coming because of the Supreme Court. But, as he knows, the real change has been a political avalanche. Yesterday, the Quinnipiac poll reported that Pennsylvanians support gay marrigage by 57% to 37%--and we have Republicans dominating all three branches of State government.

Douthat’s real concern is what happens to a religious culture that still clings to the heterosexual/religious/Christian view of marriage and sex. Douthat’s hopes it will be live and let live, but he no longer expects that. Now he thinks that traditional institutions, like Catholic adoption agencies, will be treated like racists were earlier.

But here is his key observation about a law like the proposed Arizona religious exemption: “such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.”

But, if you are wise, you don’t negotiate surrender when you have nothing left to offer. Then, why exactly, should the other side give you anything? You negotiate when you still can resist.

Not one traditional voice that I know of have offered to support gay marriage in return for a religious exemption when it counted. Not one. Douthat could do that now. In Pennsylvania, for example, there is no strong support for gay marriage among two Republican majority chambers. So, this is the time to negotiate. If cultural conservatives wait until gay marriage has majority support, why should they expect terms?

Douthat wants a situation in which supporters of religious exemptions hold out until they lose on gay marriage and then demand a religious exemption. The flaw in Arizona was not that the bill granted a religious exemption, but that it did not legalize gay marriage. I assure the reader that no one would have objected to that fair deal.

I am calling for just that deal in Pennsylvania on Monday in the Philadelphia Enquirer. If Douthat wants negotiation, let’s go.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Attack on Douglas Laycock

3/1/2014—I was sad to see the vicious attacks on Doug Laycock, Law Professor at Virginia and leader of a group of law professors that have been trying to get religious exemptions in gay marriage legislation out of sympathy for both gay marriage and religious liberty. The attacks, which taint Doug as anti-gay rights arose out of a letter he wrote to Governor Brewer of Arizona, which others also signed (I did not), that pointed out that the proposed Arizona law would not have immunized discrimination against gay people but would have given religious believers a potential defense in private anti-discrimination lawsuits. A judge would have to determine whether the exemption defense would be successful.

Doug was arguing that, ironically, a religious exemption in a gay marriage bill, which have not been controversial, automatically allows discrimination while the RFRA type amendment in Arizona would likely have rejected most religious exemption claims.

Even though I disagree in part with the analysis that the Arizona law was not that bad, the point in the letter that the religious defense would not automatically win, was correct. And the suggestions on the web that Doug and some other signers are not really pro-gay marriage is absolutely wrong with regard to people who have been signing the pro-gay marriage letters.

The reason I strongly opposed the Arizona bill was the same reason I now have qualms about generalized religious exemptions—-this not your father’s RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. I believe the Supreme Court is going to uphold religious exemption claims under RFRA. The Court signaled this by ruling in favor of the religious claimants in Gonzales v O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal in 2006, holding that the government had failed to justify its ban on a sacramental tea containing a Schedule I substance. This case was litigated under RFRA and this claim succeeded, whereas prior to Unemployment Division v Smith (1990), it likely would have failed. I predict a majority on the Supreme Court will say, look, we warned you that heightened scrutiny for religious exemption claims would lead to anarchy. Now you’ll see were right.

But just because I disagreed with the legal analysis in the letter is no reason to mischaracterize both the argument and motivation of honorable persons.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How Does the Secular World Do without God?

2/25/2014—Here is a quote from Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Department of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, from a February 21, 2014 address in London:

“A world without God, without absolute moral values rooted in divine revelation, the revocable he turns into the realm of the rule of slavery and lawlessness.”

The question is, is there anything the secular world can appeal to in order to ground acivilization? I have before me an article from the New York Times, also on February 21, 2014, about several Alcoholics Anonymous chapters that do without the usual religion of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. For example, instead of reciting the Lord’s P rayer at the end of the session, these chapters say together, live and let live.

I have nothing against live and let live. But Alcoholics Anonymous is not even an example of live and let live. It is, instead, an example of care about how others live. It is a place of intent solidarity. It is even a place of judging how others live. It is clearly better to live without alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous is not an organization that is neutral or relative.

This comes back to the question of how to live in a world without God? Maybe that is the wrong way to think about the issue. Let us say that I do not believe something like a God conceptualized as the Bible does can exist. Do I necessarily than reject absolute moral values rooted in divine revelation? You might say I necessarily reject divine revelation, but that might only mean that absolute values unfold without regard to my opinion or without regard to the actions of humans. It may be, in Hegelian fashion, that absolute truth comes to know itself. Or, in Heideggerian fashion that being discloses itself. In any event, divine revelation need not imply a person-like supernatural being.

So, maybe Alfeyev is right but maybe secular civilization has a response.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Norm Free Space/a Mathematical Universe

2/20/2014— Kierkegaard referred to the story of the binding of Isaac in the Bible as the teleological suspension of the ethical. By this, Kierkegaard was pointing to the terrible command of God to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

The story of the binding of Isaac always presents a dilemma for the ethical religious believer. Although the story turns out “happily,” that is not much comfort in terms of what the religious believer should do when confronted with a command of God that conflicts with accepted ethical principles.

In reading about the grace of God in Karl Barth’s theology today, my friend and colleague suggested that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is a suspension of the ethical in what one might call the opposite direction. That is, through Jesus Christ all humanity is saved even though we are all sinners and do not “deserve” to be saved.

The suspension of the ethical seems a meek term for a command to kill one’s son or a grace that includes the undeserving. A better term might be a “norm free space.” In dealing with the acts of God in relationship with human beings, one is dealing with a norm free space.

This concept of a norm free space is consistent with a number of parables in the gospel, for example that of the prodigal son, in which the undeserving receive more than they should. A norm free space also describes how Jesus deals with the law in a very loose and easy way, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. It also describes Jesus' command to judge not.

All this is well and good as a matter of Christian theology, but is reality really this way? There is a structured, but norm free, realm—-mathematics. Mathematics has been suggested as the underlying structure of the universe. That is why mathematical equation sometimes predict nature’s actual behavior.

Mathematics has been known as a way to look into the mind of God. In terms of the norm free space, mathematics may be a way to look into the heart of God as well.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Not Joining a Union/Not Marrying

2/16/2014—In July, 2013, researchers reported that the US marriage rate had continued its long-term slide. Among all American women over 15, 47% were married, down from a high of 65% in 1950. Part of this change is women waiting longer to marry and part from a decline in remarriage among women who are divorced.

But, of course, the main reason is just that people no longer feel the need to marry. "Marriage is no longer compulsory," study researcher Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR) at Bowling Green State University, said in a statement. "It's just one of an array of options. Increasingly, many couples choose to cohabit and still others prefer to remain single." [This is from the website, livescience].

Conservatives hate this trend while liberals by and large don’t care.

I am reminded on this trend because of the news that workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga rejected joining the United Auto Workers union 712 to 626. A majority vote among the 1500 workers was needed.

Liberals hate the result while conservatives are delighted.

Why did the UAW lose when the company itself appeared to want the union to win in order to set up worker councils? The union claimed that the result was caused by interference by Republican government officials. A story in the Wall Street Journal quoted workers saying that unionization would divide the plant’s cohesion and that politically conservative workers did not want to join a liberal organization like the UAW.

But I believe that deeper anti-union feelings are at least part of the story. And those deeper feelings, versus the strong union movement in other developed countries, like Germany, have to do with the same individualism that affects marriage. America is a nation of individuals who make our own way. We do not merge our separate identities into a larger whole. We do not practice solidarity.

This is the ethos of capitalism. And the ethos of individual choice. But it is also the ethos of not marrying, not joining a union and not joining a church. All of these rates are related and they are all going down. I am inclined to say to America, to all of us, good luck with that.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

2/11/2014—Mark Movsesian, professor of law at St. John’s University, has a good column on the Center for Law and Religion Forum. Mark is critiquing last week’s report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the response of the Vatican to the pedophilia crisis in the Church. The critique centers around calls by the Committee for the Vatican to change its position on abortion, contraception and gay rights in order better to protect children. These matters have no obvious connection whatever to the treaty language—the Convention on the Rights of the Child—nor to the specific wrongdoing of pedophile priests.

I think Mark is right that this aspect of the report amounted to an attack on the Roman Catholic religion by an aggressively secular human rights group.

But I am more interested in another aspect of the report—the criticism of the Vatican for its handling of the pedophilia itself: “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

Now, as far as I know, no one is claiming that sexual abuse of children is going on today, except in some isolated act by a criminal priest, much as it might go on in isolated cases in many other institutions—Penn State for example. No one seems to be claiming that today the Church is just moving priests suspected of abuse around to other posts.

The criticisms seem to center around three issues: the failure of the Vatican to take responsibility for the prior actions of priests worldwide, the failure to turn all suspected priests over to authorities for prosecution and the failure of the Church to open up its records.

What seems to me to be at issue here is legal responsibility, which could include financial responsibility and a kind of jurisdictional disagreement. I believe the Vatican rejects direct responsibility so it cannot be sued civilly by victims. Maybe sad, but just the sort of thing large institutions worry about.

As for transparency, the Church maintains a kind of jurisdictional apartness and always has. The Church is reluctant to set a precedent in which government authorities, rather than the Church, will decide who should be prosecuted. Unless this stance is leading to protection of current child abuse, this is a separation that Americans should welcome. Americans have always looked to strong civil society as a necessary foundation for a free society. A certain amount of separation of church and state is to be welcomed as part of that foundation.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Death of Meaning

2/9/2014—I’ve been thinking of titling a new book “Secular Law, the Death of Meaning and the Christian Story.” The book will chronicle my unyielding commitment to secular law, along with my growing concern with the foundations of secular civilization. I call that concern the death of meaning. The title also points to my romance with Christianity as propounded by Karl Barth, despite my resistance to, or reinterpretation of, core Christian motifs, such as incarnation and resurrection.

I have found little resonance among nonreligious young people—I just mean younger than 60, which is of course not necessarily young at all—to my fear of the death of meaning. They are busy living, thank you very much, and do not need God to find meaning in life or to be good people.

I know that is the case at the moment. But the reason for that seems to me to be that religion, and specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition of monotheism, form the framework of American life. Will that still be true a century from now? Will that still be true given the remorseless attacks on religious frameworks?

The issue is a kind of materialist naturalism. Ironically in the name of science that distrusts the senses, nonreligious thinkers insist that what we can sense is all there is in reality. This viewpoint not only removes a God who does tricks with the laws of nature, a conclusion that I also endorse, it also rules out at the start anything like meaning. The universe must be an accident and our lives a meaningless blip because there is no norm or telos or end or goal that the universe is striving for. We still have a feeling that self-conscious life has a significance that mere physical existence does not, but we no longer have an ontology in which that judgment is coherent.

Here are two recent examples of what I mean. In a recent issue of the magazine Mental Floss, the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist director of the Hayden Planetarium, explains why he is creating a new Cosmos series, after the one by Carl Sagan. He says of the new series, “Its real contribution is that it shows how and why science matters.” (page 46).

Do you think Carl Sagan would have thought that way? Sagan wanted people to see how beautiful the universe is, how worthy of awe. Tyson probably feels the same way, but the culture is no longer capable of such a reaction. Tyson is fighting against the death of meaning. It used to be obvious that learning the truth of reality inherently matters.

Someone who feels the death of meaning, though his frame is quite different from mine, is Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book, “The Lost Language of Plants.” (2002). The book was recommended to me and I have not read much of it yet. But here is how Buhner introduces his understanding of how lost we have become from viewing the universe as a thing without consciousness: “And in the stillness I …saw the wound laid down within all of us. The damage to our interior world from the belief that we somehow crash-landed or inexplicably emerged on a ball of rock hurtling around the sun, the only intelligent inhabitants of Earth. The wound that comes from believing we are alone amid dead uncaring nature. And then I took breath and began to share stories of a time when the world was young, when everyone knew that plants were intelligent and could speak to human beings.” (page 22).

The Christian story by the way is like that too. It is a story of reality alive and in relationship with us. Buhner would not use terms like God and religion. His is an Earth-based spirituality. That may seem like a big difference to others, but not to me. Anyway, the death of meaning is Buhner’s wound. The naturalist account is Buhner's "inexplicably emerged."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Religion is a Lie

2/6/2014—Shockingly, this statement is not authored by a Chris Hitchens or any of the other New Atheists. This statement was made, on many occasions in fact, either expressly or by implication, by Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century. In the Teaching Company’s series, Skeptics and Believers, Grinnell College Professor Tyler Roberts says that Barth is as great a skeptic of religion as any of the masters of suspicion: Nietzsche, Freud or Marx.

But what could such skepticism mean for Barth, who was so earnest in his belief in God? For Barth, religion is the effort by human beings to grasp the divine. But humans lack all capacity for interaction with the divine. God is utterly beyond human beings. So, any statement humans utter about God in their religions is really a statement about themselves, as Feuerbach knew.

Does that mean that the Christian story is false? No, of course not. But neither the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, nor the act of God in any other historical act in any other culture, is anything human beings have done. God alone reconciles with godless humans and their godless religions.

Well, then, what is the difference? Don’t our religious teachings then turn out to be true after all? For Barth, the answer is no. What humans learn from God’s revelation is that God is true and we humans live in a lie. We lie to ourselves about ourselves and everything else. In seeking autonomy from God, we end up with the most bitter enslavement to outside powers and our own whims.

Barth is often misunderstood, even by his translators. At one point in the Church Dogmatics, Barth is translated as saying, there is no secular realm in which Christ is absent or which is free from his control. But upon reading the German, it was clear that Barth never wrote of Christ’s “control.” Barth wrote instead of Christ’s disposition—even in secular life, we have the example of Jesus before us. For Barth, God is never God over humanity, but God with humanity.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The California Drought

2/2/2014—News today that the California State Water Project will stop any allotment of water to the 25 million people and 1 million acres of farmland that it usually serves. The drought California is experiencing was called in the New York Times today, the worst in 500 years. Authorities were quick to note that this does not mean Californians will go thirsty. It means that local water must be found to make up the difference at a time that many parts of the State are experiencing drought—though some parts are not.

California has been experiencing below normal rain for three years. And a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor for today shows that most of America west of the Mississippi river is experiencing abnormally dry weather as well. This is also the new normal. A story on NPR this week reported that though Las Vegas has cut water consumption by 1/3 in the past 5 years, authorities there are warning of new cuts to come.

There are policy alternatives to help deal with these dry conditions. Water in Las Vegas, for example, is still among the cheapest in the United States. Rising water prices will husband this resource more intelligently.

But, in the end, if the conditions we see today are not drought, but the beginning of a new climate in the western United States, the beginning of expanding desertification, then there is no combination of policies that will cope with the new reality. If that is the case, then too many people live in the west and too much food is grown there to be sustained.

Obviously, I believe that these new conditions are part of a long range drying caused by climate warming—-whatever temporary conditions are also contributing right now. But, aside from causation, the drought in the west shows how absurd economic thinking is that suggests we can adapt to global warming. People will adapt, of course, but the pain and dislocation will be enormous. Ask the people in the west today whether they would be willing to spend some money on sustainable energy sources if it meant the end of the drought? They sure would. Prevention was always cheaper and better than coping with disaster.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

God and Truth

1/29/2014—Today I began to read a section concerning Karl Barth’s understanding of truth. For Barth, the person who knows God can never be satisfied with anything less than the full truth. Nothing can be left out or suppressed. Because God is the truth.

This means that the Christian is in principle very different from the understanding of the religious believer that secularists often describe. The Christian recoils from any restriction on human understanding. God made the human mind free. No discoveries of science can threaten God’s reality. That is not because of some conception of separate realms for religion and science. It is because God is creator of all. The Christian, even more than the secularist, proclaims enlightenment to be the proper end and goal of humanity.

But the Christian is dedicated to the truth, not to relative truths in which each person has his or her own. That latter conception ultimately denies truth altogether and it is ironic that this is where the Enlightenment has led this culture.

The Christian dedication to truth, moreover, cannot lead to coercion or tyranny. God did not force faith, so the Christian obviously may not do so.

It’s frustrating to read Barth. One wants to ask, what happened to Christianity?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

How the Christian Story Works

1/26/2014—I apologize to my readers for becoming fixated on Christianity, but that can happen when you read Karl Barth. When I say that Christianity works, I mean that believers have access to good and true aspects of reality that nonbelievers have to work to gain any understanding of.

Here is an example. In a recent edition of the New York Review of Books—-that source again—-Wyatt Mason reviews Tenth of December by George Saunders. This longish short story, which is the name of the collection, concerns a mortally ill man who plans to commit suicide rather than go through any more pain and humiliation. Eventually he finds himself rescued by others, though he will successfully die, and comes to appreciate the life he has in a new way:

***************
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this!… It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was—
The woman reached down, touched his scar.
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn’t do that out there, did you?
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever.
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through.
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
But Eber will not live, neither happily ever et cetera, nor much longer. So he wonders:
If some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it?… Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld.
Withhold.
***************
That last mistake is his brain misfiring due to disease and the suicide.

Christianity teaches exactly this—that we can love ourselves even in our weakness and humiliation and thus allow others to help us without the false pride that robs us of the possibility of human solidarity. But this noble perspective is a result of understanding that God himself was willing to undergo weakness and humiliation for us. God loves us as we are. We don’t have to pretend to be more than we are.

This liberating perspective is about the best thing I know. Secularists like me are filled with all kinds of false pride—that we follow reason, that we lack prejudice etc. You just cannot build a community out of such lies. We are lying to ourselves about ourselves. And the result is that we would rather commit suicide than expose ourselves as we truly are.

The question is, is it possible to acknowledge that the Christian perspective is better and truer and to learn from it? Once the story is learned, can it be practiced without its premise? Or, without its premise quite as Christianity understands it? Jesus was willing to die on the cross for us. That much seems historically true. Is that enough?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Is Evil Real?

1/21/2014—Walter Kaiser has reviewed Twelfth Night at the Belasco Theatre in the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books. Twelfth Night is alternating with Richard III. I was privileged to see Richard III there a few weeks ago. Kaiser calls Mark Rylance “one of the greatest Olivias of all time.” I am sorry to have missed that. But, for me, Rylance’s performance as the evil Richard was much more important.

Rylance plays Richard III for laughs. He shows just how funny Richard’s very real evil is. The production is not at all light hearted about the evil itself—-not ironic in any way. It is Richard himself whose grasping, unlimited ambition causes the audience many real laughs.

This interpretation works so well that it seems the only way to understand the play. And that raises a metaphysical question—-is evil funny inherently? Of course evil is not funny to its victims at the time. But is there inevitably something funny about it?

This question can be restated—-how real is evil? In the Christian view of reality, evil has already been defeated ultimately. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ show and guarantee this. Thus, for all the pain it can cause, evil is fighting a losing fight. Already a spent buffoon so to speak. That is Richard in this production. No one imagines for a moment that Richard can represent any kind of future.

Now, what about our secular view of evil? If the universe has no ultimate structure—-no purpose, or goal or hierarchy—-if it is just one thing after another, an endless series of contingent accidents, why should evil carry any less weight than good? On this view, evil is plenty real. Is this true? Shakespeare, for one, may not have agreed.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Barth, the Jews and the Crucifixion

1/17/2014—The theologian Karl Barth is rightly regarded as a hero by many Jews. It was Barth who stood by the Jews in Germany and opposed any accommodation to Hitler by the churches of Germany. Barth was the first Christian theologian to oppose the old supersessionism, by which the Old Testament covenant of God with Israel was seen as replaced by a new covenant in Jesus Christ. No, said Barth, the covenant with Jesus the Jew is the same covenant. The relationship of God with the Jewish people has not been displaced.

The heroism of Barth in these insistencies, proclaimed at the literal risk of his life in the 1930’s, is authentic. But I wonder if Jews really understand the implications of Barth’s thought. In my continuing study of Barth, I have now gotten to the material concerning these matters.

Yes, the New Testament is a Jewish book, but part of its theme is the rejection of Jesus by non-Christian Israel, which is the majority of the Jewish people. That rejection is a continuation of the Old Testament, which, as the prophets noted, was a history of Israel’s rejection—aside from a saving remnant—of the covenant with God. The rejection of Jesus culminates in the cruxifixion of Jesus by the Jews (with plenty of help from Rome).

You see, in Barth’s understanding, human beings are always rejecting God. Israel’s rejection of Jesus opened the way for the covenant to be extended in a definitive way to all of humanity, which it had been the charge of Israel to do all along, but which Israel has refused to do theretofore.

Barth, who is a friend to the Jews, can and does say things that most Jewish people would not want to hear. He remains a hero but his is a message hard to listen to.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The God Belief of Martin Gardner

1/12/2014—Teller—odd name, no?—wrote a review last week in the New York Times of Martin Gardner’s autobiography, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. The autobiography is a bit strange, since the book is new, yet Gardner died in 2010 at the age of 95. Yet, it is quite evidently all him.

Gardner was best known, I guess, for his monthly column, Mathematical Games, which ran in Scientific American for 25 years. He was a pro-science skeptic, but was a warm human being, alive to all of life’s joys. Very unlike skeptics of today.

Teller writes that the final part of the book “may make science buffs uneasy” because Gardner counted himself a believer in God, though he admitted that “‘atheists have all the best arguments. There are no proofs of God or of an afterlife. Indeed, all experience suggests that there is no God.’”

One wonders, then in what this faith consisted, since Gardner does not seem to be reenacting an unshakeable childhood faith, like so many of us—-myself included sometimes. Teller recounts the following story, which I guess must be from the book: “Carl Sagan once asked Gardner if he believed in God simply because it made him happier. Gardner said yes. ‘My faith rests entirely on desire. However, the happiness it brings is not like the momentary glow that follows a second martini. It’s a lasting escape from the despair that follows a stabbing realization that you and everyone else are soon to vanish utterly from the universe.’”

Here, the old Jew in me is puzzled. Abraham was not given this kind of reassurance and yet he was satisfied that the Jewish people—-his descendants—-would become a blessing to all people. Abraham was not in despair over his end and the finitude of human life. But it is not enough for Gardner that humanity itself is not soon to disappear from the universe. So I don’t understand Gardner's despair.

But I also don’t understand Gardner's reassurance. Karl Barth has told us that God does not require the renunciation of any human faculty. Science, in other words, cannot conflict with faith. Usually, the conflicts are only apparent. The forces behind evolution, for example, are not evident and do not exclude some kind of teleology that inheres in matter. The claim that evolution disproves belief in God is not itself a scientific claim.

But neuroscience does show that whatever it is that makes me, me, has to do with my physical brain. There is no Bruce Ledewitz without it—-no human spirit without matter. Once I die, that physical brain dies with me. Therefore, so it seems, I as I cannot go on. Given that, even if I believe in God, I cannot believe in the kind of continuity that is reassuring to Gardner without holding that there is some reality in which science just doesn’t count. Why would I find that reassuring? Looking at things that way seems to make science a kind of joke and God a kind of prankster.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Conservative Hypocrisy on Free Speech

1/10/2014—I was embarrassed by the suspension of Phil Robertson by A&E over his public comments that homosexuality is a sin. You might as well say that all religious traditionalists are outside the pale. The Bible implies in several places that homosexuality is wrong. That view is mistaken and the verses can be interpreted differently, but religious believers are sort of stuck with the text. So, I thought the suspension was overly sensitive.

It was not, however, a matter of free speech per se. The Constitution binds government, not a private entity like A&E. But as a fan of free expression, I still did not like this censorship.

Meanwhile, my conservative friends had a field day over the censorship of the left. And so did the media in general.

So, why not much mention of the more grievous example of censorship that has occurred with regard to Dick Metcalf, former columnist of Guns & Ammo Magazine, who was fired after writing a column supporting compromise over gun control? Unlike Phil Robertson, who was reinstated, there is zero tolerance on the right even for questioning the ethos of free guns for all.

Of course this episode is also not a matter of free speech per se. Guns & Ammo, like A&E, is a private entity. But it is disheartening all the same. How is discussion of issues to go forward in an environment like this?

And that is the real point. It’s fun to point out the hypocrisy of one’s political opponents. But the real problem is the desire to limit expression to what one already agrees with. That is the habit we all have to break.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Error of Theism and Atheism is the Same and Must be Overcome Together

1/7/2014—I am studying Eberhard Busch's book, The Great Passion, which introduces the theology of Karl Barth. I have paraphrased in the title of this blog entry a line from that book.

In Barth’s view, both theism and atheism mistake the nature of God. For what Barth calls theists, who are monotheists who share this erroneous view of God, and for self-proclaimed atheists, God is an absolute being who lives in and for himself, independent of humans. Theists believe such a being exists and atheists deny that such a being exists.

Barth agrees with the atheists that such a being does not exist, but in Barth’s case, because this is not the nature of God. God is for and with humans. The image of God is Jesus Christ. The image of God separately existing somewhere apart from us is false, as far as Christianity is concerned.

The theist and atheist both project this false view of God out of pride because both would like to be this kind of being. Both identify with this kind of God. The theist identifies with this kind of God in the theist’s religious life. But it is really just a projection, as Feuerbach wrote, of himself. The atheist denies the separate God exists but would affirm that this is an ideal existence and wants to be himself absolute and independent.

For Barth, this is a second and related mistake. For just as God is for us and with us and not an absolute being existing alone, so man is not a being absolute and alone. Man’s authentic way to be is relational, as this is God’s way to be. Reality is relational. Nothing exists apart.

The error that Barth sees is perfectly stated in Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” This is a projection of a human being alone and independent. There is not even this kind of thinking. I am always thinking of another. But what a difference if the formulation had been, I think of you and therefore I am.

It is typical of Barth to see the believer and the nonbeliever in the same boat. This is the kind of thinking we must learn to help overcome our divisions.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Restoring the Lost Constitution

1/5/2013—Greetings from the Annual Convention of the American Association of Law Schools. In the next few days, I will have a blog entry concerning the contraception mandate RFRA litigation program at the Law and Religion Section. For now I will just note that you would not know that the RFRA litigation is regarded as an illegitimate partisan attack on policy by a large number of Americans and if RFRA really means what the program suggested, government in America is essentially at an end.

Here I want to honor a presentation made by Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett. Randy was a large part of the intellectual firepower behind the Commerce challenge to the Affordable Care Act that succeeded before the US Supreme Court. He was part of a panel addressing the general question whether the Constitution has succeeded in achieving the goals of its Preamble.

This question led to a rorschach test like response. The question became one of loyalty to the Constitution itself. Sanford Levinson presented one contemporary liberal response—the Constitution is illegitimate because largely undemocratic and this lack of democratic rule prevents the people from legitimately ruling due to minority gridlock in Washington.

Randy presented a classically liberal response—hence conservative in our current terms. Majoritarian rule is not the proper norm by which to judge the Constitution because a large part of the purpose of the Constitution is to restrain majorities. By this measure, the Constitution has done a fairly good job until recently. This argument is made in his book, Restoring the Lost Constitution.

Randy returned specifically to the Declaration of Independence to characterize the legitimate purpose of government—that is, the justification of the use of coercive power against unconsenting adults. Government is instituted to achieve the inherent right to individual self-government—the original pursuit of happiness. Government achieves its proper purpose by maximizing individual freedom, though it must do so by restraining illegitimate uses of power by foreign enemies and would-be distorters of the economic market.

There are two important assumptions in Randy's view. First, rights are real. This is an ontology that is no longer self-evident in the framers' sense. Second, the use of private property is presumed to be legitimate. But in an interconnected world in which driving my car melts the icecaps and thereby raises the sea level and steals land from coastal dwellers, this assumption is no longer unproblematic either. Basically, the private power of capitalism is not a political issue for Randy.

The great thing about Randy's presentation is that he is grateful for the Constitution while most legal academics are not. CS Lewis used to say that it was unbecoming for Christian clerics to maintain their posts when they could no longer endorse the basic tenets of Christianity. I had something of the same feeling listening to Randy. If we teaches of the Constitution cannot fundamentally affirm the constitutional project, why are we teaching the Constitution?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year From the Train

1/2/2014—On the Amtrak route, the Pennsylvanian, on the way to New York City and the AALS Annual Convention from Pittsburgh. The train is now going around the famous horseshoe curve that was built to allow train travel across the Allegheny Mountain summit in Pennsylvania. The curve was built by hand and allows trains to go up and down at a 1-2% grade rather than the unsustainable 5% that previously prevented direct train access between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The horseshoe curve helped to inaugurate the golden age of train travel.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Moral Universe

12/30/2013—Today, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, columnist David Brooks noted essays from 2013 that won Sidney Awards. One of these was a mini-debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier about the role of science in modern thought.

Here is what Brooks wrote about Pinker’s presentation: "Pinker argues that science has demonstrated that 'the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures — their theories of the origins of life, humans and societies — are factually mistaken.'

Instead, science has given us a different value system: 'The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces.'

Pinker is making a number of assumptions that seem unwarranted, such as science exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe. What “fact” would show such a thing?

Here is an example of science suggesting a universe full of purpose, or what could be considered purpose. I referred in my Church, State book to evidence that babies have a kind of moral life. Apparently, more evidence of this is now available, in a new book by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, entitled Just Babies: the origin of good and evil. Bloom argues that the evidence shows that babies very early and across cultures prefer nice puppets and people. In one experiment, 1-year olds punished a puppet who refused to share. Infants as young as three months old prefered looking at helpers rather than hinderers.

Maybe proof of innate morality is too strong a word to use. But results like this are very far from Pinker’s purposeless universe. Instead, this is a reality that selects for the good.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Future of the Secular Outlook

12/25/2013—For Christmas, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a remarkably apt op-ed, which appeared in the NY Times on Sunday, and today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In Ideas from a Manger, Douthat imagines the manger scene as a complete worldview. The manger encapsulates both the vertical relationship of God and man and the horizontal sense that the transcendent could be represented in the lowly manger and baby. This latter sense was revolutionary in world history and represents the key Christian message—Christ emptied himself and became a servant: kenosis.

This sense of the meaning of the manger is widespread today but actually encompasses three distinct modes of understanding. In the biblical world picture, the story is still of God revealing himself in these particular people at one particular time.

In contrast, in the spiritual world picture, the divine is manifest everywhere, at least potentially, as symbolized in the manger story.

But in the secular world picture, the vertical dimension is lost and only the horizontal message of human solidarity remains.

Then Douthat goes on to make a startling point—though all three world pictures have their problems, the secular "suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture." Douthat means here that the cosmology of material accident does not mesh with the strong secular commitment to human rights and equality.

I am most interested in Douthat's possible future. He predicts a change of some kind in the secular view—it will be replaced by "something new." He leaves out the something I envision—a new sense of materially based teleology. Even matter yearns for the good.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Donald Rumsfeld and the Banality of Evil

12/21/2013—Happy Winter solstice.

Back in August, I posted a blog about the new Hannah Arendt movie. I was considering in the blog the meaning of Arendt's phrase, the banality of evil, as applied to Adolph Eichmann.

Meanwhile, Mark Lilla has written in the New York Review of Books about the Arendt movie and about the possible meanings of Arendt's phrase "banality of evil." Lilla suggests that if Arendt had known about the committed nature of Eichmann's anti-Semitism, she might have hesitated to use the phrase in regard to him.

But I have a new candidate for the banality of evil: Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is the subject of a new movie by Errol Morris and has his own memoirs and is also the subject of the book by Bradley Graham. All of these things are brought together very well in a review by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books.

Rumsfeld comes across as a peculiar kind of fatalist. For example, in the movie, Morris confronts Rumsfeld with an authoritative report that establishes Rumsfeld's partial responsibility for the abusive behavior in questioning at Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld concedes the point. But he says nothing more about it. Morris then asks, "Are you saying stuff just happens?" Rumsfeld's response is telling: "well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that hadn't been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn't occur."

So, nothing is anybody's fault. Things happen. Morris then asks the natural follow up question: "wouldn't it have been better not to go there at all?" And here again Rumsfeld responds with fatalism: "Well, I guess time will tell."

Danner claims that this is reminiscent of Nixon's passive statement, "mistakes were made." But truly Rumsfeld is far less willing to acknowledge responsibility then was Nixon. Nixon at least used the word, mistakes. A real person, whoever that might be, makes a mistake and we might find out who that was. But, if things just happen, there is no one to identify with what happened

This odd fatalism is quite different from the reaction of the Administration right after 9/11. A little fatalism might have been helpful at that point. Maybe Rumsfeld could've said then, well you know, things happen, bad things, when you're running an empire. Instead of fatalissm, we heard the language of absolute evil. That language went too far in the opposite direction. There was no sense of America's participation in a world that could seem so unjust to so many people.

At every point, Rumsfeld is silent about his own policies. At every point he professes surprise at what was done in his name. At every point he seems to have been the last to know what was going on. Even if all this was feigned, it gave an excellent imitation of what Arendt thought she heard from Adolf Eichmann.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Self Actualization Is Sin

12/15/2013—I was introduced to a fragment of Christian theology, based I believe on the thought of Eberhard Jungel, that was surprising. According to this thought, the drive for self-actualization, which we hear in the language of striving for excellence, is itself sin because it leads to the nothingness of the relationless life. Instead, God comes to us in the interruption of all of our plans for our lives. God comes to us in the person of the other as the one we did not expect and do not wish to hear about and now must serve.

What was strange about this is that we all teach our children something quite different. My children were certainly taught to seek excellence, in sports for example. We all think it is good that we have plans and hopes and dreams for ourselves. All this, says Jungel, is self absorption and lead us away from life. Life is interruption.

This way of thinking has obvious implications for marriage and family life. Marriage can be thought of as a way of fulfilling one's own needs. Or, marriage can be thought of as service to the needs of one's beloved.

Children are the ultimate interruption. Their interruption, of course, turns out to be the call of real-life over against our delusions.

Jungel's thought illustrates how Christianity is the best antidote for excessive capitalism. Capitalism worships excellence and self-actualization. Capitalism wants us to ignore the needs of the unexpected and unwelcome other. Christianity stands against this. It might be asked, what else in the world stands against this?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

President Obama in the Sweet Spot

12/8/2013—After months and weeks considering whether the Obama administration was a failed presidency, it is a real pleasure to consider the Obama administration today. In one area after another, the President looks pretty good.

Obviously, with the gradual fixing of the Obamacare rollout, people are now considering, as Paul Krugman kept saying they would, just what healthcare reform will mean to them. The point has always been that now, the first time, poor people and people with pre-existing medical conditions will be able to get health insurance. This is a great thing and it is the most progressive thing to help people who need help that this country has done in a long time. Those of us who thought President Obama was right to concentrate on healthcare even when the economy was collapsing can now take some satisfaction. And President Obama deserves a great deal of credit.

But there is more. The economic reports on Friday suggest an economy finally, finally getting on track. Here, there is some luck involved. Maybe the combination forced on the nation by divided government proved to be a good thing. Maybe the forced cuts and declining deficit have been good for the economy. Here, maybe Paul Krugman was wrong. I don't know and I'm not sure anyone knows. And it has taken far too long. And there is still too much unemployment. Nevertheless, in looking around the world, the American economy is looking pretty good.

Then there is inequality. President Obama is addressing the need to raise the minimum wage, the next best and most important thing that can be done to help poor people and to reduce inequality in incomes. Perhaps this will not happen soon, but it will happen. And it is something that the entire Democratic Party can eagerly support.

In foreign and military affairs, President Obama has wound down two wars. And, again partly through luck, President Obama has not begun any wars. Given recent American history, this is an accomplishment. And you can be sure it would not have been true with a Republican president or perhaps even with a different Democrat.

The agreement with Iran is positively historic. The criticism of this interim agreement is incomprehensible apart from an atavistic desire for war. Again here, President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for standing up to the pro-Israel lobby. Ironically, this agreement will prove to benefit Israel more than any other country.

As for Palestinian Israeli negotiations, I suppose they will go nowhere as they never have gone anywhere. Again, however, the perceived shift in United States policy away from Israel and Saudi Arabia, which columnists in the Jewish press have written about, may persuade Israel that its time is running out. President Obama and his political coalition are less dependent on traditional Jewish sources then have been previous Democrats. The groups that are coming to power in America, including Hispanics and a newly assertive African-American vote, are not as pro-Israel as was the prior political constellation. So, it may be in the future that Israel will not be able to assume unconditional American support. This does not mean that America will cease to be pro-Israel but it might mean a new definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. In any event, there may be more pressure on Israel to make a deal today than before. Certainly President Obama has done nothing here to lessen the chances for peace.

Finally, in this short list, there is the relationship between America and China. In the long run, this is the most important foreign policy issue in the world. Here, the Obama administration has done nothing wrong. We have stood by Japan without alienating China. In a time of limited resources for America, this may be the best we can do. The longer the relationship between America and China remains peaceful, the more likely it is that the relationship will become permanently peaceful. In terms of world history, there is no inevitability of military competition between a land power in Asia and an ocean power in North America. The Obama administration has rightly insisted on freedom of the air in its most recent confrontation with China. But it would be foolish to go to war over uninhabited rocks to which China has as good a claim as does Japan. Again here, America seems to be in good hands with President Obama.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

God Again, Or, Am I an Atheist?

12/4/2013—The law professor world is buzzing over the Hobby Lobby cases and the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—RFRA. These conversations have an odd quality. Everybody is a kibitzer. Everybody is talking about prior cases. As if that matters at all to the Supreme Court. (Cases never have mattered to the Justices).

I’ll give you my prediction. Every RFRA claim will win. Even for-profit corporations. The reason for this is that the conservative Justices warned against broad religious exemption rights in Smith. Congress did not listen. So, the statute will be interpreted broadly, as the broad protection it was intended to be. (This is not really true, since the statute was to restore a right that was actually pretty feeble). I can hear a majority on the Supreme Court saying, since this is a statute, Congress can amend or repeal it if we are wrong in our interpretation. Justice Scalia will love the carnage that will result from not listening to his warning.

And it will be carnage for a time. All sorts of weird religious claims for exemption will come forward, further convincing the non-religious that religion is the enemy. Repealing RFRA will become a new cultural flash-point.

In the midst of all this, I have been seriously challenged once again over my self-identification as an atheist. I don’t like the term, any more than did John Dewey, but I have accepted it. Karl Barth has said a number of things that intrigue me, however, and make me hesitate over my non-belief.

For one thing, Barth says that God does not require the slightest surrender of reason and knowledge. He says that theology is an equal science that will not be pushed around by the human sciences, but what they have genuinely found, they have found and that cannot be disputed in the name of a preconception of God.

Second, we humans really don’t know anything about God. All our talk, which is the Christian’s obligation, is still just stammering. So, if I find Jesus to be unique but I don’t understand what it means to say he is God, Barth would say he has the same problem (on a higher level, let’s say).

Third, there is a connection between God and being as understood by Heidegger. And I don’t have a problem with being as real and effective.

Finally, there is creativity. According to Barth, one mark of God is the realized possibility not present within human reality. If materialism were the whole story—a flat stodgy materialism—nothing new could ever happen. But new possibilities emerge all the time. This is so both in nature and in history. Jesus himself and his movement are one such new possibility. So is the connectivity of the Internet. So is the big bang. So is life. So materialism is not the whole story.

I left Judaism because for me it was no longer the truth. This had to do with a lot of things, including a certain understanding of God that seems to me an idol. A nationalist idol at that. That decision still seems right. But as for God, maybe that last word has not yet been spoken.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Theology of the Disappearance of Thanksgiving

11/28/2013—The disappearance of Thanksgiving is sad, but hardly surprising. For years, Christmas music on the radio crept up earlier and earlier, so as to eclipse Thanksgiving. For years, stores have put up Christmas decorations earlier and earlier, so as to crowd out any reference to Thanksgiving. For years, Black Friday sales have edged closer to midnight and even began in the late evening of Thanksgiving.

This year, the invasion of Thanksgiving has become quite obvious. Large retailers are now open all day for special sales. There is no sense that the day of Thanksgiving should be set aside for family gathering or that the employees of retail establishments might want the day off.

This is not surprising because this the way that capitalism works. There is no money to be made, after all, from Thanksgiving. So Thanksgiving had to give way to the shopping orgy of Christmas.

This blog entry is not another criticism of capitalism. Instead, the question I would like to raise is, where is the voice of the church? After all, when there are commercials threats to Christian holidays, there are Christian voices to object. The religious right has been strangely silent about this latest affront to Thanksgiving even though the forces are the same that marginalized Easter and commercialized Christmas.

I believe the failure of the church to criticize this latest form of capitalist invasion of family life has to do with the fact that Thanksgiving is not specifically a Christian holiday. That is an unfortunate shortsightedness. I notice in other areas as well that, increasingly, religious believers treat themselves as an interest group. God is not the representative of an interest group. Christian voices should be raised to object when one of the few noncommercial celebrations of American life is downsized.

As to what could be done, solutions are by no means not obvious. We just are prey for capitalism. But, at the very least, government could require doubletime pay for nonunionized workers on Thanksgiving. That at least would be a start.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

God is not a Supernatural Thing

11/20/2013—Believe it or not, the title above is a quote from The Church Dogmatics, by Karl Barth. The quote was read to me, but I will at some point retrieve the citation.

When a statement like that is made by a liberal theologian, I react with some scorn. From a source like that, this statement would amount to a rejection of all miracles and all mystery in the Bible.

But Barth is considered neo-Orthodox. He certainly is a critic of certain aspects of liberal theology and he did not reject miracles.

So, what could this statement mean? For one thing, Barth was convinced that the easy atheism of his day and ours did not know God and so could not possibly reject Him. Second, Barth was clear that God does not exist like some kind of being. How God is, is not at all easy to say. All statements about God are inadequate. Third, and most important, Barth asserts that we meet God in the world, not in some supernatural status. Specifically, now, we meet God in Jesus Christ. Jesus is not some supernatural thing. So, neither is God.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Mythical Elements of the Bible

11/16/2013—When I say I don’t believe in God, what do I think I mean? Well, I guess I mean that science gives the ground rules for what is possible. And science tells us that there can be no intentionality without matter at its base. That is the story of the human brain, after all. So, there could not be a God of the sort the Bible indicates—who is spirit and has plans and intentions for humans and all creation.

But it has been pointed out to me that I am identifying the mythic elements of the Bible with the Bible story. That is, the writers of the Old Testament may have had in mind of being, a supreme being, who is all-powerful and who acts in the world. But this is not always the case in the Bible.

In the New Testament, this kind of God is mostly absent. Now, it is true, that in the New Testament there is something like an afterlife and of course resurrection, which might be held to raise the same kind of problem. But resurrection was a strange and mysterious concept even to the writers of the New Testament.

Anyway, what if we could imagine an entirely different kind of starting point. The universe was created. The Big Bang tells us that. And that is what the Bible asserts. Similarly, there is intelligibility in the universe. That is why mathematics can sometimes predict what later experiments will actually show about the way the universe works. That is what was meant when it was said that mathematics shows the mind of God. How there can be such intelligibility remains a total mystery. But the Bible says that the universe is intelligible because it was created by an intelligence. We have no evidence to the contrary.

When asked for his name in Exodus, God answers to Moses with a mysterious formula involving the word is. This is sometimes translated as I am what I am but that is just an approximation. It has been suggested to me, and was claimed by Karl Barth at least at one point, that God is isness itself. A formula like that sounds very much like Heidegger’s being.

I guess the point of this is that the statement, I don’t believe in God, is probably a great deal more complicated than I have heretofore thought. And indeed the idea that the Bible can be easily dismissed may be an example of dismissing a shell and not sampling what is inside it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Friday, November 8, 2013

Legislative Prayer

11/8/2013— Reading about the oral arguments in the legislative prayer case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, I am reminded of my lecture last Tuesday on Heidegger's essay entitled, The word of Nietzsche: The Death of God.

Heidegger wrote this essay, which was based on a 1949 lecture, to put the death of God in a larger context. According to Heidegger, Nietzsche was announcing not just the death of a God who could influence the world and who therefore would have to be taken seriously before human beings could act to master the world, but was announcing the death of the suprasensory world itself: the death of the traditional values of truth, beauty and the good. All of these had been understood as restraints on what human beings could do in the world. Now, instead, humans are dominated by the will to power and understand themselves and everything else as objects to be used according to a revalued sense of value.

We see the validation of Nietzsche's insights, as interpreted through Heidegger, in many areas, including the decline of church attendance and the growth of secularism in America. But, far more faithful to Nietzsche is the unrestrained industrialism that is willing to risk changing the climate of earth. There we see will to power.

How does all this relate to legislative prayer? For some people, it is undoubtedly the case that what they want is an endorsement by the government of Christianity. And it is also true that some people look to prayer before legislative sessions as a way of reminding people about the existence of God. These motives are of course unconstitutional even if the Supreme Court has sometimes hesitated to say so.

But, according to Nietzsche, the invocation of God is more than just a reminder of Christian truth. It is also always a reaction against the triumph of the will to power. It is always also an invocation of the reality of the good, the true and the beautiful. It is always also a reminder that there are in fact limits on what human beings can do in the world without disastrous results. We should all of us, including nonbelievers, be very happy for such reminders.

From this point of view, the controversy over legislative prayer is really a misunderstanding of the nature of religion and of ontology. Yes, of course, a city council should not simply endorse Christianity indirectly through legislative prayers. What that city council should do is open up the category of prayer to its genuinely appropriate breadth. Prayer is about human arrogance. And all invocations of objective truth to which human beings are subject should be welcome as a reminder of appropriate human limit.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ronald Dworkin's Confusion

11/3/2013—On one level, Ronald Dworkin could be accused of taking his ideas from me. He supports religious expression in politics, as I did in 2007 in American Religious Democracy. He writes about religious atheists in terms that could easily be mistaken for Hallowed Secularism. And he argues that the core of religion is a commitment to objective values, as I urged in Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism in 2011. So, in a sense, I agree with much that Dworkin writes.

But, in all of his work and especially in his posthumously published last work, Religion without God, Dworkin showed that he had no consistent view of all this. The best example of this is that he argues in his book for objective values, but also takes Hume's position that an ought cannot be derived from an is.

These two positions simply do not fit together. This is why Hume was not himself a moral realist, like Dworkin. For, if you take the position that the statement, the universe is sublime, states a kind of fact, as real as stones or pain, as Dworkin puts it, then you have dissolved the distinction between values and facts. To put it most clearly, if the statement, it is morally right to support the poor and not allow them to starve, is objectively true, or at least potentially objectively true, then it follows that I should support the poor and not allow them to starve.

Hume could argue that the existence of God does not mean that one must obey or worship God because he denied that the statement one ought to obey or worship God could be objectively true.

Thus, it follows that a statement at the intersection of religion and science, such as the universe is not a collection of accidental forces and objects, is for Dworkin objectively true. But this clearly means, contrary to what he argues in his book, that there is no great dividing line between science and religion. And at one point Dworkin even admits that both science and religion are based on faith.

The reason for all these confusions is a simple one. Dworkin was in large part always a political and legal opportunist. He took his positions, whether pro-choice or in favor of the separation of church and state, first and figured out justifications later. This could lead to confusion and awkward arguments. In order to justify pre-existing commitments on the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, Dworkin had to argue as he did.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hypocrisy over Turkey

10/31/2013--There was a story in the Post-Gazette on Sunday, October 27, 2013, about the 90th anniversary celebration of the founding of the modern state of Turkey. There was a great deal of trepidation toward the end of the story about the trend toward Islamification by the religious party currently in power there.

This issue has come up before and it is relevant to the consideration of the situation in Egypt as well. There are committed Muslims who are willing to give democracy a chance. But, naturally, when they do achieve power, they seek to enact their favored policies into law. In the case of Islamic parties, those favored policies include things like reduction or elimination of sales of alcohol.

It is hard to understand why liberals in America feel free to criticize such governments or even call for their overthrow. After all is not the Democratic route precisely what we all hope Islam will take? It would be understandable if these governments were being criticized for denying rights to women or for canceling elections. Then they would no longer be democratically legitimate governments. But, at least in the case of Turkey, that is not really true. The government has not been welcoming to street protests, but it has not clamped down on free speech. Nor our future elections in any danger.

There is a constitutional right to religious liberty and to be free of religion. But there is no fundamental human right to drink liquor. If the government in Turkey bans alcohol, it may be many things, but it is not antidemocratic.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

In God We Trust in the Public Schools



10/26/2013—Bobby Kerlik wrote a story in the Tribune Review last Thursday about the effort by Representative Rick Saccone to pass a Pennsylvania statute requiring school districts to post the national motto, In God We Trust, in every public school.

The constitutional issue is probably a close one, as are all constitutional issues concerning religion in the public square, because of the close division in the United States Supreme Court. The national motto is obviously not unconstitutional in many contexts but may be unconstitutional in public schools.

The article illustrates the bizarre and dishonest quality of debate over these issues. Because of the current state of establishment clause jurisprudence, Saccone is forced to claim, dishonestly, that religion has nothing to do with it, as Kerlik quoted him. It’s about history.

But, of course, an ordinary person quoted in the story, Elizabeth Forward, supported the idea because it would remind people to put our trust in God. And this, probably unconstitutional, motive is undoubtedly in Saccone’s mind as well. Today’s jurisprudence encourages public officials to lie in this way.

This sort of public bad faith is one of the reasons for my proposal in the book, Church, State, And the Crisis in American Secularism. I propose there that God language, like that in the national motto, be reinterpreted along the lines of higher law. Thus, In God We Trust, becomes, in addition to its sectarian meaning, an encouragement to trust in reality. Understood in this way, its presence in public schools would be unremarkable.