Friday, October 31, 2014

Pennsylvania Doings

10/31/2014—I try to keep my writings on secularism and religion separate from my purely state law activities. But this week, with the resignation of Justice Seamus McCaffery from the State Supreme Court, those activities have overwhelmed my time. I will try to get back to Hallowed Secularism this weekend. Meanwhile happy Halloween, one religious holiday secularists really enjoy. And one small communal ritual left in America. Those wanting to know about Pennsylvania's problems can find my op-ed here.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

In Our Dark Time

10/25/2014--On Friday, October 10, 2014, the New York Times reported that Republican Party strategists had hit upon an overall theme for the fall Congressional elections: that theme would be, All is Dismal. The newspaper story reported that “Darkness is enveloping American politics.” Threats are everywhere—the Ebola virus, Muslim militants, porous borders, an incompetent Secret Service—and the government is unable to protect us.

As a strategy for winning elections, this Republican Party approach might be effective. After all, a Democratic President is in charge. But such a theme cannot be easily cabined to just one election. The article also points out that “A sense that the country is dangerously off track is an increasingly popular topic of conversation in conservative media.” And, I would add, not just in conservative media. But if that is the case, an election is a laughable response to such a momentous happening and the Republican Party is obviously an accomplice in what is wrong. As Robert Gibbs, a former spokesperson for President Obama puts it in the article, “‘It will be interesting to see…if they can convince people that they aren’t part of that dysfunction.’”

Undoubtedly, the Republicans are pointing to a current national mood. But I would put all this differently. Things are falling apart. That is where we should start.

Two more stories: The Republicans, assuming they will win the off-year elections by controlling both Houses of Congress, gave out details on some policies they will adopt. There was nothing much there. So, aside from the fact that President Obama will veto serious changes anyway, the Republicans have nothing to propose. (And what would the Democrats propose—higher taxes on the rich? More spending on roads?)

Then, of course, there is the school shooting in Washington state. A legal gun, so background checks would not have stopped this one. (But they might stop the next one).

Why do these things happen? I can tell you simply. If you believe in a senseless world, senseless things will tend to happen. This will be true both because worse things will happen and because the things that do happen will not make sense.

If you live in a world without hope, then when bad things happen, you will be paralyzed.

Does this sound like I'm saying, so go back to church? But lots of people go to church now.

We have to ask the question seriously: what is reality all about? And if the answer really is, it is all a big accident and has no meaning and humanity is alone and must make its own meaning, then we will just have to live with all this. If it's the truth, it's the truth.

But, if it is not necessarily the truth, if somehow reality has a direction, then we have to hold on to that and stop calling it irrational.

Just because religion is over-literal in its depictions of God and spirits, doesn't mean it is all wrong.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Panic Over Ebola

10/22/2014—For awhile, there seemed to be a growing panic in America about Ebola, which now seems to be subsiding. On Monday, David Brooks wrote a column about it in the New York Times, speculating about what contributed to the out-of-proportion response. Brooks pointed to social isolation—Americans mostly don’t interact with people unlike themselves—which leads to isolation from elites and decision-makers. (This suggests that poorer, less educated people are the ones who panic, which is probably not true). Then there is anti-globalization. And instant news. And a culture that denies death, rather than dealing with it.

The one thing he did not mention is the decline of religion. I don’t mean people going to church or not. I mean the absence of a vibrant narrative of fulfilled life. I’m sure people panic at death even if they genuinely expect to go to heaven, so I don’t mean that. This leads to the absence of national self-confidence. This is the kind of confidence that goes with a national sense of the place of the nation in a larger scheme of things. (This would not have to be a traditional religious narrative, but in America it has been that in the past)

To me, the darkness of this time has to do with the death of meaning. This is the sense that there is no reliable core of things—of the good and the true and the beautiful—that is meaningful inherently and apart from people. There is a reason this is dismissively referred to as the god’s eye view. We don’t have it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Can Materialism Be True?

10/18/2014—We are used to asking this question about God and religion, for a variety of reasons. But we never ask it about the only alternative we know to some form of teleology—materialism. I am not speaking of the spiritualized forms of materialism that are open to religion but insist always on a physical link underlying all human experience. That kind of spiritualism is manifest in Robert John Russell, the physicist/theologian, who writes of science as a “constraint” on theology. No, I mean the hard kind of materialism that considers all form of spiritual life as a kind of unintended spillover from physical reality. This is the sort of account that a Steven Weinberg gives. Can that account of materialism be true?

Thomas Nagel has been casting doubt on the thoroughness of a purely physical account of reality, but I also don’t mean here a technical question about whether materialism works. Instead, I mean, can it be true when it is bad for us?

The hard material account goes like this—no one knows why the Big Bang happened. But it did. It was a kind of inevitable accident. Same thing for all that happened next. Life was also a kind of inevitable accident with all those amino acids lying around. Everything after that was random selection and the process went up and down and many species changed not at all or became extinct. Life almost ended at several points on Earth and presumably did so end in countless other planets—maybe including Mars. Human life could end here any time, from an asteroid or Ebola or wars spurred by climate change. Eventually it will, when the sun explodes or later when the universe speeds so far apart that everything freezes.

There is no significance to any of this in this account. Humans happened to happen.

Now this account is wildly different from the sense that each of us has about our own lives. We live in a drama in which we star and which is enormously significant. And we feel that way about humanity itself and its self-consciousness. This form of life is nature’s highest achievement. Even materialists feel that way—they believe that it is important that humans understand the truth of our situation, even though by their own account, it is not important at all what humans believe because truth has no significance.

The material account is bad for humans because it undermines the meaning that all humans seek. Why would evolution produce a being able to learn the material truth of things, but unable to live with the knowledge produced? If materialism is true, we are maladapted for it.

Meaning seeking is also a product of evolution, but has no value now. It only gets in the way, according to materialism. Was meaning seeking ever adaptive?

I’m inclined to believe that the truth of things cannot be bad for us to know. If it is bad for us, as materialism is, then perhaps it is not true.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Great News from the Church

10/15/2014—The news from the synod convening in Rome is very good. I read in media reports that the Catholic Church will emphasize the good that same sex relationships and heterosexual cohabitation can bring to human beings. The emphasis will not be on these sins in particular in matters of eligibility for the sacraments. This could also bring divorced persons back within the Church.

Theologically, this always made sense. If we are all enemies of God, as Karl Barth tells us, why would these particular sins disqualify sinners from the sacrament, seemingly above all others? It was always to be suspected that the pressures on this area came from outside the Gospel.

For those of us working diligently to bring the secular world into contact with the Gospel—as if that work depends on one’s own efforts—this movement, however mildly it plays out in the near future, does more than grant a measure of relief to lonely human beings who seek the comfort of Christ. It also sets out a welcome mat to those suspicious of the Gospel. It says, the Gospel does not lead to denial of your human condition.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why Judaism is Dying

10/12/2014—On Friday night I spoke to a youngish couple—early thirties. They are vaguely Jewish. She had been in synagogue sporadically in recent years, but had not had a Bat Mitzvah. He had not been in synagogue in years but had had a Bar Mitzvah. They both considered themselves Jewish if anything.

They were in a reform synagogue for the Kol Nidre ceremony that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. She found some elements of the service quite beautiful. Nothing seemed to have moved him aesthetically.

They both knew perfectly well from childhood what the service was about—forgiveness of sin. She spoke of the spiritual discipline of the holiday, with its fast. She did not feel the need to seek forgiveness—the concept was foreign. I’m not sure about him, but certainly he said nothing about it. I did not press. Maybe I will next time.

What they really remembered, negatively, was the sermon. He quoted parts of it almost word for word. The Jewish people must now become a warrior people and all Jews must support Israel. He remembered the feeling in the synagogue of support for these words. Those words, with their almost total disregard for the yearnings of the Palestinian people, angered him. He almost stood up and left in the middle of the sermon.

I’m not suggesting here that Judaism is dying because of the issue of Israel. Not at all. That will change, eventually. Peace can come, after all.

No, the reality is deeper than that. These two people have hopes and fears like everyone else. This service, the most important one of the year, did not touch those hopes and fears. The service did not connect with them existentially: how we live, how we die, what our lives are about, what we can hope for… .

This entry is not blaming anybody. The service could presumably engage them if enough work were done to translate its meanings to where they are. They are young but they have heard of death. They are young, but they have wondered what life is about. But this would require a great deal from both sides and no one is working to bridge this gap.

Whatever is happening here is large and goes beyond the talents and character of individuals. But if this couple—-and I-—are cut off from Judaism, then where will we turn ponder the meaning of life? Where will we turn to keep ourselves morally upright? Where will we turn for a sense of wonder and possibility? After all, there is no hallowed secularism—-yet. Where would that come from?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The War Over Islam

10/9/2014—Nicholas Kristof put in his two cents today in the New York Times concerning the Bill Maher show on HBO, which I haven’t seen, in which Maher and Sam Harris denounced Islam as dangerous and violent—but untouchable by politically correct liberals—while Ben Affleck called their comments racist. Kristof says he sided with Affleck and reminded his readers of the diversity of Islam. The fanatics are Muslim, but so are their “decent, peaceful” opponents.

I have written repeatedly on this blog that the current round of wars in the Islamic world today is reminiscent of the Wars of Religion in Europe in the 16th and 17th century that ended in 1648, with public exhaustion with Christianity leading to rapid secularization. I have predicted the same likely pattern in the Islamic world, eventually.

I did not know until now that the great Protestant theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, who died just over a month ago, located the secularization of modern European society at precisely this point for precisely this reason. I read this in a short book by him, now apparently out of print, Christianity in a Secularized World (1988).

You could say all the same things about Christianity in 1648 that Kristof says today about Islam—that the religion was not violent but that violent men used religion to gain power and feed their ideological and psychological needs. It was true then about Christianity, which also had its long history of relative tolerance and social unity, just as Islam has had.

Pannenberg’s point is that when religion becomes a threat to social peace, people will turn against it out of pressing need, will cut religion’s ties to the political world where it does its damage, and will relegate it to the world of private life. Whatever its merits, Islam is now a threat to social peace and Muslims are likely to come to the same conclusion about religion that Christians in Europe did.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Day after Yom Kippur

10/5/2014—Yesterday was Yom Kippur. I keenly feel the absence of a day like that on my now secular calendar. Yom Kippur reminds us of just how far we fall from perfection – – and just how unacceptable that is.

In secularism, one day is like another and there is nothing particularly dramatic about anything. Secularism lacks any great narrative. When you grow up in Judaism, you hear how Abraham was called by God out of the land of his fathers to go to a land he did not know. In Christianity, you hear how God sent his only son so that human beings could be saved.

These are great themes, whatever you think of their supernatural aspects. A great deal is at stake. In secularism, in contrast, nothing is really at stake.

As for sin, the secularist thinks that he or she is okay. But are not okay. We lie, we cheat, we disappoint. We don’t appreciate and love those around us. We don’t sacrifice even our minor interests for the needs of others. And we certainly do not meet the world in sacrificial love, as Jesus taught and lived.

I really do not know how one can live a life of depth in secularism. I hear all the time that a person does not need to believe in God to be good. It might be more accurate to say that human beings are not good, whether they believe in God or not.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Democracy or Secularism

10/3/2014—In the context of political events in the Arab world, it seems that Americans prefer secularism to democracy. These countries are largely pious and their population may prefer to be governed within a framework of religious law. Americans on the right oppose this, because they are suspicious of Islam, even though they want more religious influence in American public life. Americans on the left oppose this because they don’t like religion, even if religion is the choice of the people.

You saw this in the ambiguous American response to the military coup in Egypt. Usually the US would vigorously oppose the deposition of a democratically elected government. While we did not support the army in Egypt, we did not signal strong opposition either.

Of course democratically elected governments can become tyrannical. But, again, Americans are beginning to see imposition of Islamic forms of life as tyrannical per se. Such forms of life may be destructive or violent—such as cutting off hands for theft—but they are not undemocratic if that is what the majority wants and there are continuing free elections to change policies.

Robert Worth is a good example of American opposition to democracy when practiced by religious parties. He writes in the New York Review of Books about Arab Despotism. One example he uses is Tunisia, where an Islamic Party—the Renaissance Party—is practicing normal politics, but has not renounced its desire for an Islamic State with democratic practices. Worth is critical of this stance.

But why? The Koch brothers are dedicated to bring about right-wing change through politics. Why not religious believers?

Worth also writes that “At some point, the principle of popular sovereignty is bound to collide with the belief in divine guidance.” This is either false—Abraham Lincoln believed in both—or true of everyone in the sense that we all believe in right and wrong and that a majority might choose an evil that would have to be opposed even by force. Germany did.

The question is always whether the religious group is really committed to democracy. Protestants for a long time suspected that Catholics were not committed to democracy. But that suspicion has now receded. The same could one day be true of Islamic Parties.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Most Pressing Issue of Our Time: The Relationship between Science and Religion

9/28/2014—David Barash threw down the gauntlet today in the Sunday New York Times. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. He was writing today about "The Talk." Barash uses this term to describe a lecture he gives now to students about the relationship between science and religion.

There is a sense in which this relationship is the key to understanding our time. All of my doubts about religion stem from the unbelievability of any reality outside the norms of the laws that science describes. I do not mean the existence of God exactly. For who knows what God is? And even Barash admits that the existence of God is not something science can tell us anything about.

No, I mean something like the resurrection of Jesus. Most miracles do not matter that much, but this one does. Something extraordinary obviously happened after Jesus's death. His followers, pious Jews, were associating with Gentiles and eating nonkosher food just 20 years after his death. That simply cannot be explained.

But, on the other hand, the body does not reanimate. I do not know how else to put it.

A lot of work has been done at this intersection. Ian Barbour spent a lifetime describing the possible relationships between science and religion. And, as Barash begins his column, Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion as compatible, "nonoverlapping magisteria". Or NOMA for short.

So, here is what Barash tells his students. First, God could exist and could use evolution to serve his purposes. However, the magisteria are not nonoverlapping. [I should add here that in terms of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, the notion that there exists a realm in which God is irrelevant is ridiculous. So, obviously, it is not possible for biblical religion to have nothing to say about the nature the universe. That would not be biblical religion. So the two realms never could be separate]

From Barash's point of view, science has demolished "two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and Omni benevolent God." One demolition is that evolution can get to the complexity of life without a supernatural creator. Evolution can accomplish all the complexity we see within entirely natural boundaries. [This is certainly true, but it still does not mean that the process is "undirected". Barash is simply assuming a lack of telos in reality. How does he know the process is undirected?]

The second demolition is that human beings are not distinct. They are, we are, "perfectly good animals, natural as can be an indistinguishable from the rest of the living world…." [What kind of religion required otherwise? Anyway, is it not suggestive of telos that we evolved? Why exactly does the universe need our sense of right and wrong and of beauty and of order and of kindness and of non-interested love?]

But the key problem that Barash wants to point to his suffering. All of reality suffers. Evolutionary theory is filled with violence and parasites. Why did a good God work this way? The more we see, the more convinced we must be "that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator." [This one is certainly profound, but I do not think that science today has added anything to it. People have been aware since we were aware that we were eating meat that we kill to live and so does nature.]

Anyway, Barash's main point is that all of this is religion's problem, not his. The Talk makes it clear that science is solid and religion has the problem. [More to come]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to Pray

9/27/2014—We are in the midst of the Jewish Days of Awe. The question arises at this time, how does one pray? And, in particular, how does a hallowed secularist pray?

In the meditation entitled Contributions to Philosophy, which Martin Heidegger composed around 1934-35, but did not publish until years later, there is language that straddles the usual boundaries of philosophy and poetry and perhaps theology.

In the section we are reading now, Heidegger is describing preparation for a new beginning for humanity away from the technologized and aggressive present. He writes that only in the “great stillness” does the “lordship of the ultimate god open beings and configure[] them.”

“Therefore, the great stillness must first come over the world… . This stillness arises only out of silence. And this bringing into silence arises only out of restraint.”

There is more and I will return to it. But here certainly Heidegger is teaching us how to approach the holy. The scene in Jerusalem when Yom Kippur begins in Kol Nidre is like this—I am told there is silence as the worshippers dressed in white walk toward the synagogues.

So, here at least is a beginning for how to pray. And it is also an antidote to the everyday business in which we are generally enmeshed.

When and where and how do secularists do this? How do secularists find the approach to prayer?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What President Obama Should Have Said

9/24/2014—It is obvious that President Obama’s heart is not in these attacks against ISIS, whether in Iraq or Syria. He did not want to get involved, but was forced to do something by panicky political leaders in the United States. The truth is that ISIS is not a threat against the US or our vital interests. Mostly, ISIS is killing fellow Muslims and non-Muslim citizens in the area.

Obama should have said that the proper model for what is happening now in the Middle East is the Wars of Religion in Europe from roughly 1524-1648. When those wars of Catholics and Protestants ended, Europe was exhausted and specifically tired of religion.

ISIS has moved Islam to the stage of internal homicidal campaign. Muslim leaders are waking up to the danger—not the military danger of ISIS, but the danger that ISIS might alienate the world, including the Islamic world, from Islam.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Think

9/18/2014--It may seem surprising, and even strange, but the philosopher Martin Heidegger meditates a great deal on the question, what is thinking? Heidegger even has a very well-known work entitled, in the German, Was heisst denken?

I have recently been studying the book that is generally regarded as Heidegger's second masterpiece, after Being andTime, Contributions to Philosophy. In that work, Heidegger approaches thinking as having to proceed from out of what he calls the "grounding disposition" (grundstimmung) of an age.

Heidegger does not mean that the thinker thinks away from the grounding disposition, but rather that the grounding disposition is the starting point for thinking.

A grounding disposition is not a personal feeling. It is a mood but there is nothing personal or subjective about it. Or, I guess I should say that it is personal in the sense that each one of us encounters it, but it is objective in the sense that we encounter it and cannot change it.

Undoubtedly, Heidegger would dismiss what I would describe as the grounding disposition of this time as merely a worldview. But is it not possible that whereas the genuine thinker, like Heidegger, can intuit and interpret the grounding disposition, the rest of us hacks can still intuit and interpret something of the same disposition.

When I look around at what people write and think today, they seem to me oblivious to the kind of questions that Heidegger believes must be addressed first, or maybe must be addressed continuously. These are questions like, what time is it? and where are we now?

Heidegger even suggests at one point that I know of that the grounding disposition of the time may be how we encounter the language of God for us—that is, what God is saying now.

Well, what is the grounding disposition of our time? It seems to be one of foreboding. It seems to be one of anxiety and hopelessness and restlessness. It seems to be a proper time to ask, who are we really?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Chasing Moderates in Syria

9/14/2014—How is President Obama like Holden McNeil in the 1997 movie, Chasing Amy? Well let me ask the question the way Banky Edwards asks it in the movie: Who is going to win the Civil War in Syria? The current government of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, some just as bad radical group or the militarily effective, political relevant Syrian moderates? Answer: one of the first three, because the fourth is a figment of your imagination.

Why is America doing anything in Syria? Why not just help the Iraq government chase ISIS back to Syria? Actually, that is probably President Obama’s preference. But Washington is panicked.

I heard a Republican Senator on NPR I think was Marco Rubio, after President Obama’s talk to the nation last week. He was reasonable and civil and constructive. ISIS brings out the best in our politicians perhaps because it reminds them that the other Party is not the enemy.

But the Senator said one thing I disagreed with. If only the President had armed the moderates two years ago, or last year, he complained. But if we had, experience suggests that all those arms would now be in the hands of ISIS.

Just to be clear. America doesn’t have an option in the Syrian Civil War. ISIS, at least in Syria, is not a threat to America or any American interest. There are a lot of bad people in the world who do terrible things, including killing Americans. It’s not a good idea to form your foreign policy around going after them.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

National Motto Fails in Allegheny County

9/11/2014—Today is the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001. I remember thinking at the time that the attacks would not change things that much. But in fact they have in two ways at least. First, we are still living with the fallout from the invasions that followed, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Second, the American people are still going through a kind of anti-religion reaction—remember, the New Atheists emphasized religious wars as well as anti-scientific religious thought. Isis greatly reinforces this tendency.

On the fallout front, President Obama gave a talk to the nation I could not bear to watch. I still cannot figure out why Isis is our problem. The group is not attacking America itself or even American installations and institutions. Iraq has plenty of military resources to defend itself—the issue is political. Sunnis have to feel they have a future there. We can’t intervene in Syria because we don’t want anybody there to win the civil war (anyone who has a remote chance to do so).

On the anti-religion front, Allegheny County Council this week voted down a proposal to post the national motto, In God We Trust, in the courthouse. The typical themes emerged. Take a look at Aaron Auperlee’s story in the Tribune Review. The liberal rabbi says religion is best kept private in our culture—but certainly it was not so in the Torah. And anyway, liberal Jews are always trotting out Jewish teachings on social welfare issues. The Catholic Bishop says God brings people together. But these kinds of votes just emphasize our differences, however they go. The President of the Islamic Center says no one should be offended—if they don’t believe, they don’t believe. The Buddhist says we are inner. The Hindu says God can be a dog—(and I am all for In Dog We Trust).

The story mentions the 20% of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion, but not that many of them say they believe in God.

My question in the story is, what is the point of such a posting? Is it political—God as a wedge issue? Usually. Is it cultural—to keep God in the game? But it doesn’t.

I’m waiting to hear my answer—to remind us that nihilism is not the only possibility. We believe that existence has meaning. God is much more than religion.

Of course, that would fall on deaf ears today. But words can also be events.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Religion in Magic in the Moonlight

9/6/2014--Along with Sam Harris rediscovering transcendence, there is now Woody Allen, famously atheistic, rediscovering magic in Magic in the Moonlight. In the movie, a skeptic confronts a psychic, whom he is convinced is faking contact with the spiritual world, but cannot discover any deception. The discovery that there might be more to this world than grim materialism, that there might be a point or telos to existence, fills him with joy. But, in the end, she was a fake after all. But then in the twist, he realizes he is in love with her. And that love fills him with the same hopeless joy.

So, from this movie, what insight? Well, very much like Sam Harris, Allen is telling us that there are experiences of transcendence in life. But the grim materialist knows this already. Even the skeptic in Magic already knew that music was sublime. But that experience did not help him. Why not?

Same problem as for Harris. Harris needs to reclaim transcendence from religion. Why? So that no one believes the rest of the religious story because of these experiences. For Allen, love must be separated from God in the same way. The skeptic finds himself praying to God and the nature of that prayer is so alienating that God cannot exist and the psychic must be a fake.

But this is a non-problem. It is the constant issue of bad religion. Harris is reclaiming transcendence from a God who is a being doing tricks with the natural world. Allen is reclaiming magic from the very same God. The skeptic cannot ask God to save his aunt. Well, that makes sense. That would be the same God who caused the accident in the first place.

The question is, what does transcendence or magic mean? For Harris, these experiences are like drugs or exercise. Or meditation, which he also removes from its religious origins. But all of this realm is part of a spiritual practice that is supposed to, or if you prefer can, give humans insight into the meaning of life. Into the meaning of reality.

Here it is in a nutshell. Certain ways of life are better than others. Not just better in some opinion, but objectively better. Those ways of life that empty us of ego and turn us toward nature and other humans in an open and loving way are better. This will in fact lead us to a way of life fairly characterized as religious. It just might not be part of any of the existing religions.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Was Hallowed Secularism Just Ahead of Its Time?

9/1/2014—Five years ago, the book Hallowed Secularism was published. As part of the roll out in 2009, I set up a panel at the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh on the subject of a "New Progressive Vision of Church and State."

The panel did not go all that well. Dr.Denise Cooper–Clark characterized my position in a blog entry on August 20, 2009, as "supernatural atheism." And she wrote that that would not work. Most of the audience probably would have agreed with her.

It was an honest disagreement. But I am wondering now how Dr. Cooper-Clarke feels about the upcoming book, Waking Up, by Sam Harris, the noted new atheist. You see, CC's discomfort with my position had to do with the notion that people encounter a "mysterious otherness" both personally and historically and that these experiences are valuable, indeed crucial, to creating a life and a civilization. CC characterizes a story from my book as "a woman who had a freak spiritual experience." CC writes of this idea, "Yes, the human brain can go haywire and stimulate the temporal lobe to give an awe–inspiring feeling of oneness. How can this teach you how to live? How is it objective?"

But now it is Sam Harris who, in his new book, points to experiences of the feeling of transcendence in a very positive light. According to a pre-review by Frank Bruni in yesterday's New York Times, this book is "so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans were willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that make sense to them, in organized religion." Bruni writes that the subtitle of Harris's book "can be read as a summons to them: 'A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.'"

So, what does all this mean? I think it means that our categories are about to be expanded. Harris believes that it is prejudiced and willful to call experiences like this religious and to give them dogmatic content. Maybe he is right about that. I remember an Indian thinker that I quoted in Hallowed Secularism saying that transcendent experiences are characterized by reference to the traditions in which we have grown up. But these interpretations are not therefore false. They are a vocabulary. Or, to put it another way, if I experience transcendence as forgiveness of sin, Harris may just have to accept that my experience actually was forgiveness of sin.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Constitutional Passivity

8/28/2014—Marbury v. Madison (1803) is celebrated as the case that established judicial review in the United States. Actually, there had been instances of judicial review before. I believe there is a plaque in New Bern, N.C. celebrating the first instance of judicial review on the continent, during the colonial period.

Marbury is also celebrated for its cleverness. The Supreme Court was weak in a political sense at this time—-the 1802 term was cancelled by statute. If the Justices had ordered Jefferson’s Administration to do anything, they would probably have been ignored. So, the assertion of judicial review was passive—-the Justices held that a statute granting the Court jurisdiction over the case was unconstitutional because the Court could not have that jurisdiction under the Constitution. (The statute need not have been read to grant jurisdiction in the first place). It was impossible for Jefferson to get at this assertion of authority.

Something similar may be happening with regard to immigration policy. When Congress is functioning and not paralyzed by partisanship and ideology, as it is now, Presidential power is restricted by positive legislation. Even without legislation, Presidential actions can be challenged in court, as in the steel seizure in the 1950’s.

But if President Obama announces that he will not deport some class of people, he will be acting passively. It will not be possible to directly confront such an action. To register disapproval of Presidential policy making, Congress can only begin impeachment proceedings.

This is clever Presidential maneuvering, but dangerous, for two reasons. First, it ups the ante by encouraging impeachment, which used to be rare, very rare. Second, partisans of Obama, of which I consider myself to be one, should be warning him that Presidential policy making really is unconstitutional. Just because unconstitutional passivity cannot be challenged, does not make it right.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

How to Teach Constitutional Law Now

8/23/2014—On Monday, August 25, 2014, I begin to teach federal constitutional law again. I have been wondering how to do that. In the last 2 years, I began my con law class with an apocryphal story told about Benjamin Franklin. As Franklin was leaving the constitutional convention, a woman asked him, "Mr, Franklin, what manner of government do we have?" "A Republic, Madame," answered Franklin, "if you can keep it."

This story naturally led to treating constitutional law as the way Americans have tried to keep the Republic. Thus, I put on the blackboard before every class, the phrase, "the Tao of keeping the Republic."

But who can believe that the Republic is being kept, today? Is it not obvious that the Republic today is broken, perhaps irretrievably broken?
,
Different citizens will tell the story of the brokenness of the Republic in different ways, reflecting our ideological differences. The way I see it, the evidence of our brokenness is that in a dangerous world, we Americans simply hate each other. This would come as a surprise, I think, to the framers of the Constitution. Yes, they feared faction. But we are today faction run amok and have been for awhile. You can see it in the fact that, in 1993, not one single Republican voted for President Clinton's first budget. And certainly there are many Republicans would do anything rather than cooperate with President Obama. And I think that Democratic Party partisanship is almost as bad, it just does not have as dramatic a focus.

But others would tell the story differently. For example, Randy Barnett, the great conservative thinker, would say that the system the framers created is not broken at all. It is functioning as designed. As I think Randy would tell the story, the Democratic Party is a threat to the natural rights the Constitution was created to protect. And the resulting paralysis of government is exactly what the framers would have wanted, in such condition.

Where I think Randy makes his mistake, is that the Constitution was the second form of government of the Republic. The Articles of Confederation were jettisoned because the central government proved too weak to protect the country and to promote prosperity. Political paralysis was not their goal and it was not their expectation.

Conservatives who agree with me that the Republic is broken would say that President Obama is acting like a king and that the federal government has become all-powerful. This is why the Republic is broken.

In the view of liberals, the Republican Party, which has political power only because of political gerrymandering that the United States Supreme Court should've prevented, is simply obstructionist and then gains politically from claiming that government cannot act. We are left at the mercy of corporate power and wealth and the result is stagnating wages, a declining standard of living for the middle class and growing inequality.

The job of the students is clear enough. Fix the Republic and if that proves impossible, design a new one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Unrest in Ferguson, Missouri

8/19/2014 – – A friend of mine was talking the other day about the dueling narratives around the events in Ferguson, Missouri. There have been a wide variety of explanations and stories about what happened in the tragic death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. They were the strange reports about the victim being a suspect in a robbery. But then it appeared the arresting officers did not know that. There have even been competing autopsies of Michael Brown's body – – a really macabre development.

What cannot be denied is this: shootings, even unjust shootings, even racially provocative shootings, occur in America, unfortunately, from time to time. But they usually do not lead to weeks of rioting. The heart of the matter was stated by David Lieb, a writer for Associated Press, as follows: "in Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, many residents say they have long been harassed and intimidated by the police department…."

Building ties with the community is a long-term effort. An effort that has apparently been neglected in Ferguson. Whatever the facts turn out to be with regard to the death of Michael Brown, no one can deny a real failure of police community relation building.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Why Religion Is Better

8/17/2014 – – In the August 14, 2014 issue of the New York review of Books, there are two contrasting essays, one right after the other. The first, by Dan Chiasson, is about America’s new poet laureate, Charles Wright.

Here is how Chiasson describes “Wright’s body of work” – – it “conducts a longitudinal study of the moods as they shift and change in time. And yet, to carry out such a project obligates a poet to passivity, to routine, even to monotony.…”

As Chiasson puts it,“ This leaves a huge surplus of mind left over for memory.…” Here is Wright on his college days:

All I remember is four years of
Pabst’ Blue Ribbon Beer,
A novel or two, and the myth of
Dylan Thomas – –
American lay by, the academic
Chapel and parking lot.
Oh yes, and my laundry number,
597.

What does it say about me that
what I recall best
Is a laundry number – –
that only
reality endures?

(With apologies to Wright--the format on the page does not allow me to replicate his design of the poem.)

There is something magnificent, but sad, about Charles Wright. Is this really all there is, a complete innerness? I suppose that is all there can be when there is no story of the universe as a whole.

Contrast this with Pico Iyer’s review of Richard Rodriguez’s new book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. Rodriguez is a gay Catholic, 70 years old, alert to the pain and suffering all around him. Iyer says that Rodriguez brings disparate worlds together. Rodriguez brings us to the world while Wright removes us utterly from it.

And yet, Iyer speaks of Rodriguez’s “Catholic remove from the world….” Rodriguez aims “to keep the reader questioning everything, most especially are two simple ideas about America and identity.”

You see Rodriguez’s greatness when he writes about Christopher Hitchens. He does not attack Hitchens. “Instead he recollects a brief meeting with the late polemicist in an elevator, and recalls Hitchens grandstanding attacks on Mother Theresa.” Rodriguez had earlier noted the dark night of the soul that Mother Theresa reported late in life that she felt during most of her time in India – – abandoned by God.

Rodriguez asks, according to Iyer, “are such public triumph ultimately more useful than a nun‘s inner failures….” “In the end, Rodriguez seems to favor the deeply flawed women of faith over the champion debater if only because of one central distinction: the readiness to spend her days in ‘terrible darkness,’ abandoned by her God, yet continuing along her path, determined to question that which she cherishes most.”

Do you see, in Rodriguez, the man trained in Catholicism, who questions everything, the greatness of the religious tradition? The questions of the religious tradition are just better than the questions that a Charles Wright can ask.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How Would God Work?

8/13/2014—If you don’t believe in a being who does tricks with nature—as I do not (really cannot)—then what could God be like? My secularism was, after all, always to be hallowed. How is something hallowed given our current limited view of reality as stuff?

Maybe the nature of God is not a good question. Maybe the question to be asked is, how would God work without the anthropomorphism?

The phrase “God works in history” is intelligible as saying something about history, about its ultimate tendency. This would be the moral arc of the universe that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of.

But what about my personal life? How could God work in my life in a way that would touch me if there is no being who acts like a human being acts?

Maybe a kind of answer emerges in the essay by Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books (August 14, 2014 issue). Simic is a poet. He came to America after WWII. He is today quite well known.

Simic is not a religious practitioner. He writes this—“Even a nonbeliever like me feels, now and then, the presence of something outside of language and suspects that this brief experience of transcendence and encounter with being and nothingness is what defines him.”

But there is more. The feeling above is inchoate. There is something more to reality than what we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. But Simic also writes of a feeling of directedness. When Simic reads the poetry of Milosz (and others), he writes, “I knew immediately that I was being shown how to write about my own encounter with history… .” “Being shown?” Why did he not write that he realized that this was how to write about history. Because he had a sense that his future was not just in his own hands.

Fate is the way nonreligiouspractitioners sometimes express this feeling of being directed. And Simic uses that image too. He writes that someone like himself, who was so impacted by the bloody history of Europe, “has no choice but to face the moral obligations fate has assigned to him… .”

Would the word God change any of this in any way? If this is not religion, what is it? And how could a human being live without a sense of his own life like this?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Foolish Way to Support Israel

8/10/2014—In the last issue of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle, one of the columnists wrote about the end of J-Street, the Jewish organization that promotes a two state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. I don’t remember the name of the columnist, but the same ideas have been circulating generally. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law Professor who strongly supports Israel has been proclaiming J-Street dead because of the fighting in Gaza.

The basic claim is this—there is no longer a place for moderate two-sided views. You are either for Israel or against it. J-Street would not join rallies pledging support for Israel. Yet neither would it condemn Israel. So, its supporters on the left have abandoned J-Street to join the boycott movement.

It is hard to believe that smart people could be so foolish. If they are right that there is no longer a place for moderate support for Israel along with a commitment to justice for the Palestinian people—and they may be right about that—what do they imagine will be the consequence? Support for Israel is already waning among young Americans. If these leaders insist on a “for or against” stance, increasingly the outcome will be against. Maybe not immediately. But soon.

The news from Gaza actually seems good today. The truce is extended. Israeli talk of going back into Gaza seems to be a negotiating tactic. Some end to the blockade, perhaps under international inspection, seems inevitable. Maybe peace has a small chance.

People like Dershowitz seem to forget that peace is Israel’s only hope. Up until now, the US has assured Israel that it could not be completely isolated internationally. But that may not be true forever.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Really Good News in Gaza

8/6/2014—The 3-day truce in Gaza sounds much more promising than the media is treating it. Below the surface, good things are happening. Remember, Egypt could make peace only after some military success against Israel. Well, Hamas has had some success. The set up, with a Palestinian unity government negotiating with Israel, is about what Tom Friedman called for a few days ago in the New York Times as the beginning of a potentially new era.

On the other side, the futility of Israel’s position is now clear. Netanyahu is being criticized by the Israeli right for not being tough enough. That is rich. There is no future in constant war against Gaza.

And the Obama Administration is vindicated. The blockade is on the table just as Secretary Kerry said. And by criticizing Israel, the Israelis could see how isolated they are. Congress cannot make President Obama veto UN actions against Israel. And Obama is the only President we have for the next 2 years.

So, maybe, just maybe, peace breaks out. Or begins to. And we get to see what it means to have had a real realist in the White House. Perhaps we have underestimated Obama.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Christianity and the State

8/2/2014—Micah Schwartzman, in a law review article entitled, “What if Religion is Not Special?” contrasts the views people have of religion for purposes of the Establishment Clause with their views of religion for purposes of the Free Exercise Clause. One position that Schwartzman points out as inconsistent is that of “Inclusive Accommodation.” This position holds that religion is an adequate ground for government action—-hence religion is not special in legislating—-but that religion should be granted constitutional protections from generally applicable laws (as in the Hobby Lobby case, but on constitutional, rather than statutory grounds). Hence religion is special for purposes of constitutional exemptions.

I ran into a similar kind of inconsistency in criticism I received over my attack on the Hobby Lobby Fourth of July newspaper ad that touted America as a Christian nation. I pointed out that the religious exemption granted to Hobby Lobby was a statutory exemption granted by a nation of diverse beliefs. I was accused of suggesting that religious liberty derives from the State.

This criticism evinces a Christian hostility to the State that derives from a view of a fallen world in which the State represents the secular realm cut off from God, while the Church represents the proto Kingdom of redemption. On this view, the religious liberty of Hobby Lobby is prior to anything the State does.

But the same critic who regards the State as fallen then turns around in the context of legislative prayer or Ten Commandment displays or even government generated crèches at Christmas time and wants the same fallen government to endorse religion or even endorse Christianity. In a sense, government power in these contexts is to be used to grant or maintain a kind of cultural centrality to Christianity. In these contexts, the State is not the fallen alien, but the bulwark of Christendom.

A related inconsistency can be seen on the anti-religion side, whatever name one wants to give it. Typically, such persons claim to want government to be neutral with regard to religion, but endorse policies that are anything but neutral. Granted, forcing Christians employers to grant birth control coverage they regard as a violation of their religious beliefs is not aimed at religion per se, and thus may be considered formally neutral, but its effect is harmful to religion. And the strong reaction against the Hobby Lobby decision suggests that some people on the anti-religion side are not at all concerned that Christians might be forced to violate their religious beliefs. And, remember, the decision assumed that no employees would actually lose any benefits. I doubt that the Christians affected see such policies as neutral.

It is probably best to consider religion as a valuable moral resource to society, one that society cannot well do without and one that should be protected, at least where that can be done without serious harm to others. And that is close to what the Supreme Court said and did in Hobby Lobby. But that does not mean that religions ought to be able to mobilize the resources of the State to uniquely further their position. Schwartzman calls my position here "exclusive accommodation" and he says it has problems of its own.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Best Written Sports Illustrated Issue Ever

7/30/2014—One thing I have already learned from Sergei Bulgakov, the Russian Orthodox thinker of the early 20th Century, is that you should judge fundamental commitments not as isolated ideas, but as a way of life. That was how Bulgakov thought about his return to Orthodoxy from atheism—what kind of life was a life lived in Orthodoxy.

We must judge a way of life by what it ultimately offers to our lives. This was also the way that the thinker who influenced Bulgakov, and indeed many others in Russia, Vladimir Solovyev, thought about philosophy, according to Egbert Munzer, whose 1956 book, Soloviev: Prophet of Russian-Western Unity, contains this sentence: “Philosophy was to him a means to salvation, an idea which has become very alien to European thought.”

So, how about secularism in America? What kind of a way of life is it? We get a snapshot of one kind of secular life—the one lived in sports—through the July 21, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated, the one chronicling the return of LeBron James to the Cleveland basketball team.

This issue contains two views of the secular life. One is from a story about Roger Angell, who received the J.G. Spink Award from the Baseball Writers Association of America on July 26 at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In the story, Tom Verducci quotes a 1975 piece by Angell, Agincourt and After, on the question of caring about sports. Angell writes that it is obviously silly to care about a sports team, except “for the business of caring” itself. Really caring “is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.”

Now, I suppose an authentic religious life, the sort led by Bulgakov and Soloviev, would automatically contain a lot of caring. But secular life does not. Or at least not as much as religious living used to contain.

And this has consequences. We see this week a story making the rounds in the media that researchers believe they have discovered that a life of meaning is healthier than a life of drift—the sort of drift that comes from thinking that life is one big accident. Here is the story. And it does not even seem to matter what the purpose of life is, in terms of the health benefits.

The other snapshot of sports-oriented secular life is a series of shorter stories by various writers about their home teams. These stories include pictures of the writers’ own family life, their attempts to get their children to share their sports commitments. It is quite charming. It is a picture of committed fatherhood and family life—they are all men. Quite rare in its way outside a certain kind of church life.

And this idea that sports is today a substitute for organized religion for the fans is often lightly suggested in Sports Illustrated—with its customs, and memories, and ceremonies—and caring.

But, sports is not the Christ story. It is really not at all like religion. It will not teach us how to live.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Americans Are Israelis

7/28/2014—In a perceptive review in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland notes the reference by Ari Shavit in Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, to the fate of the Palestinian city of Lydda in 1948—the new Israeli army killed 300 civilians and forced all of Lydda's inhabitants to flee. Freedland puts the point bluntly—“[Shavit] implicitly accepts what anti-Zionists have long argued: that the eventual dispossession of Palestinians was logically entailed in the Zionist project from the outset… .”

Shavitt, however, cannot just condemn the massacre from a comfortable distance. He recognizes that the very fact of Israel’s existence was dependent upon this act, and acts like it or threatened acts like it—and he and his family benefit from the existence of Israel as a Jewish State and are unwilling to give it up.

Forget for a moment whether the premise is true, that such savagery was necessary—Martin Buber disagreed at the time, for example, and there was a bi-national-state Zionism. Freedland’s description reminded me of another country whose settlers uprooted and killed its inhabitants—the United States of America—and I am unwilling to give that country up. I am in the exact same position that Shavit is. The only reason that America does not face the continuing conflict that Israel does is that the settlers did a much, much more thorough job of reducing the original inhabitants of the land to dependency.

I don’t know of any policy consequences that flow from this insight—payments for broken and coerced treaties? I’m not giving my house back to anybody. And where would I go? Like today’s Israelis, I am here because of a crime I did not commit that I am unwilling to undo.

This context of moral ambiguity—not over the original act, but over what to do now—gives new power to the Christian concepts of the fall and original sin. I have thought about those doctrines in terms of human beings doing bad things only because something happened to us. That kind of idea does nothing for me.

But, what if a deeper, more troubling truth is shown in the fall—that we all live in morally fraught circumstances. There is literally nothing we can do that is morally clear. We find ourselves already both the victim and perpetrator of crimes both recent and ancient. And there is never a way out. That is our starting point. The question is, what follows from that kind of seeing?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Return of Teleology

7/26/2014—When I got to New York City on vacation last week, I ran into a shock—-an op-ed in the New York Times by George Johnson describing new thinking about the nature of reality (Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space). Simply put, it is now being considered by some really smart people that there might be more to what is real than simple materialism and empiricism allow. Two such approaches are teleology and mathematics.

In terms of teleology, Johnson cites in particular Thomas Nagel and Stuart Kauffman—persons readers of this blog are familiar with—and David Chalmers. The basic idea is that mind, consciousness, is built into the universe, either as goal or ingredient.

The other non-purely-physical approach is that of Max Tegmark, who suggests that mathematics itself provides a kind of blueprint for reality—an idea that I have seen in Hilary Putnam. Putnam wrote somewhere that we are justified in calling mathematics real by the success of natural science in using mathematics to explain and predict the world.

The reason this op-ed excited me is that once ideas get into the New York Times, those ideas must be penetrating the culture quite deeply. So, the scientific viewpoint—space/time/matter/energy—that Steven Smith rightly identified as the viewpoint of at least law’s elite, is now coming into question. And that view—that reality is blind forces—is the foundation of nihilism.

Maybe, we are moving to a new beginning.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Break Until Friday, 7/25.

The Problem With Capitalism

7/19/2014—I have been introduced to the influential Russian Orthodox thinker Sergii Bulgakov. His masterwork is Unfading Light and I also have a collection of his works, Towards a Russian Political Theology.

Russia’s current actions in Ukraine, which culminated in the shooting down of a civilian airplane yesterday, widely attributed to Russian armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, makes an acquaintance with Russian Orthodox thought increasingly relevant. Putin is reputedly a student of such thought. But Putin is not my particular interest.

The two themes that Bulgakov addresses (for me) are socialism and human salvation. Socialism remains in some sense the only real alternative to capitalism. It also remains the only mirror in which the harms of capitalism can be viewed. Americans have not been able to think about any alternatives to the current political/economic organization. This is a failure of social imagination—as Roberto Unger has emphasized.

For Bulgakov, socialism was a real possibility because he was a proponent of it before the Bolshevik revolution, a critic of it afterward and ultimately a thinker of it. The revolution of 1917 and the subsequent actions of the Soviet government demonstrated the evils of State collectivism. Bulgakov thought the problem was spiritual. Soulless socialism could never work. But soulless socialism is all the left can offer in the United States.

Think of it this way—if materialism is true and individualism is good, why not capitalism? It is best at both. Only if materialism and individualism are false, or at least only partial, is capitalism mistaken.

As for salvation, Russian Orthodoxy, Orthodox Christianity in general, did not shy away from the goal of divinizing humanity. A real change in the human was its goal. America has no such thought. And this lack of hope shows.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Good Letter on Discrimination

7/17/2014—A few days ago, 50 prominent law and religion experts sent a letter to President Obama urging him not to put expansive religious exemption language into an expected executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The letter compares discrimination in this context to Title VII accommodation cases. The letter discusses matters with which, frankly, I am not familiar. Fortunately, I am too small a fish to have been asked to sign.

So, I will be sending my own letter to President Obama, also urging him not to add expansive religious exemption language. But my reasons are simpler.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case contains a bizarre incentive. In that case, the government’s exemption was used against it to suggest that if a religious exemption could be offered in some contexts, there could be no reason not to offer it everywhere.

In other words, offering religious exemptions now is interpreted to lessen the government’s interest in banning discrimination, or whatever goal the government is pursuing. Until RFRA is clarified, no administrative exemptions can safely be offered, especially not in the area of discrimination.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What is the Theology Behind Religious Exemptions?

7/12/2014—What exactly is the theology behind religious exemptions? The answer seems clear enough when I am directed to do a forbidden act or forbidden to do a required act—for example, a Muslim woman forbidden to wear a head scarf. The answer seems equally plain when the evil involved is extremely serious, a grave matter, as the Catholics would say. So, even indirect aid to commit an abortion would be a very sensitive matter, as is the case in some of the contraceptives in Hobby Lobby type litigation.

The government is apparently not allowed to ask why exactly a religious practitioner objects to participating in certain actions, but the religious communities should be anxious to do so. And those of us who believe we have a stake in the openness of secular society to religious beliefs, should also be anxious to do so.

So, let's leave an employer paying for abortion and birth control out of it. The new issue is discrimination against gay people. Some religious groups are asking for a religious exemption from laws banning discrimination against gay people. This seems theologically indefensible to me.

To change the frame for a moment, why would a landlord not want to rent an apartment to a gay couple? Because the gay couple are committing a sin. But the landlord does not know this as a fact. It is not a sin for two people to live together.

Conversely, the landlord knows for a fact that in his own home, he lives a life of sin. Perhaps he uses artificial birth control or perhaps he commits adultery or perhaps he simply does not love his wife as he ought to.

How about the government contractor? No one is suggesting that clients may be discriminated against—no food for a gay couple from a food bank. So presumably this is a matter of hiring. But it is not a sin to employ a gay person. How could it be? You are hiring a sinner no matter who you hire. Even, especially, if you are a sole practitioner.

Christians are not to judge others in this way, as if others sin and not Christians. It is indeed the other way around. The sin of a Christian is far more serious because it involves the denial of truth the Christian knows. The nonChristian is ignorant of, and potentially open to, the truth.

I thought the ultimate question is always, how is conversion possible? It is obvious that Hobby Lobby has rendered conversion less likely. But, maybe I am mistaken about that. Maybe the Christian witness is under such attack today that conversion is no longer the issue. Maybe today the question is the demoralization of the body of Christ. So, maybe today oversensitivity is to be sought, so that the Church may be heartened. Is this the theological justification I have been missing?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Basic Orientation of Secular Society to Religious Exemptions

7/10/2014—On the heels of Hobby Lobby, there is now a controversy over discrimination against gay people. President Obama is considering an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and there has been proposed somewhere in Congress the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would do the same nationwide.

First question—are exemptions for religious people generally a good public policy? I believe the answer is yes, but that position is now being challenged in the legal academy.

Second—does business have anything to do with healthcare? We see increasingly that it does not. The practical problem pushing religious exemption issues is that businesses and even nonprofits have to endorse healthcare policies for its employees that are really none of an employer’s business. How many conservative religious groups are now willing to endorse single-payer healthcare as a way out of the religious exemption problem? (in the long run).

Third—is there any basis on which profit-making businesses should be allowed to discriminate in their work forces because of religious beliefs? I think it is clear that the answer is no and that almost all religious groups agree with that. People have a right to work.

Finally, should non-profits be able to discriminate in employment? Here I believe the answer is mixed. Maybe a religious organization needs to limit its membership to its own religious group in order to provide witness to why it is serving the public. But the discrimination has to be religious, not based on sexual orientation, gender, race etc. Most religious nonprofits do not feel that this is necessary, but some do.

There never has been a question about people receiving benefits, especially in contracts with the government. Here, no religious discrimination has ever been permitted.

These seem to me to be starting points for discussion. They don’t solve the immediate healthcare issue, but it would be worth finding out how much of the controversy is only about that. Once healthcare is separated from hiring and firing, maybe discussion can go forward.

There remains the tendentious but narrow issue of adoption. But here religious providers have to be pushed. Previously, some religious adoption agencies insisted on a couple being married before allowing an adoption. That excluded gay couples and straight couples. If an adoption agency has a contract with the government, that is the only criterion the agency should be permitted.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ross Douthat Calls Out Liberals

7/7/2014—It was very good that Ross Douthat reminded liberals in his New York Times op-ed on Sunday that the Hobby Lobby Corporation pays its workers $15/hour. Douthat’s point is both small and large. The small point is that the Green family really does live their Christian values in the company. They pay and treat their workers better than most companies, despite the company's enormous size ($3 billion in revenue). The Green family is not saving money in their quest for a religious exemption.

But the larger point is even more important. Where do liberals think the values of social justice come from if not, at least in part, from religion? Liberals not only should change their narrow-minded view of religion, they should be happy to do so, because religion is an important potential ally in so many areas.

And, anyway, what ever happened to pluralism, so vaunted by most liberals most of the time? It is troubling that the left is now insisting that businesses can only serve the bottom line when we used to call on corporations to do more—-and Hobby Lobby actually does more.

This is a lot to think about and well worth pondering. But it was ironic that the day before the Douthat op-ed appeared, Hobby Lobby placed its annual Fourth of July ad in the newspapers in which they advertise praising America as a Christian nation and touting In God We Trust. The Green family has no interest in pluralism. The Christian right does not dominate America anymore because they cannot, not because they don’t want to.

I guess Douthat would say, so what? Liberals should still appreciate the Green family and others like them for what they do.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Next Stop

7/4/2014—Happy Fourth of July.

The New York Times reports today that the Supreme Court, before its term ended, issued a temporary injunction allowing Wheaton College, a small Christian school, not to use the form that the Hobby Lobby case had suggested was an alternative from an employer providing contraceptive services for its employees. Under the government’s administrative religious exemption, the employer provides a form to the insurance company and the insurance company provides the coverage at no cost to the employer. The idea in Hobby Lobby was that the coverage was not that necessary since this alternative exists. The order suggests maybe it does not. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the order, joined by the other two women on the Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

This is an odd story since Justice Kennedy had specifically endorsed this compromise. But you cannot tell much from an order like this. (I haven’t looked at it yet anyway).

But in the larger picture, the effect is awful. The three women object. The men allow it. And look at the so-called discrimination—you have to send in a form? Not exactly being required to renounce God, is it?

This is a perfect example of what is wrong with RFRA. As a general, rights-based remedy, it encourages just this kind of oversensitivity by religious practitioners. I don’t mean that the religious claimants are insincere. I mean that they are overwrought. They are showing poor judgment.

What is the purpose of practicing religion, specifically the Christian religion? What did Christ tell his disciples to do? To convert the world. Is this action going to do that? Or will it do the opposite?

And the worst part of all this is the ultimate position of the religious claimants. They all agree that if the government just covers these services, they have no objection. So, they are not even fighting the evils of birth control and abortion. They are actually just playing at being Pontius Pilate.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Another Reason to Hate Religion

7/1/2014—The decision yesterday in the Hobby Lobby case, and the accompanying orders today affirming even broader religious exemptions for closely-held corporations that oppose all contraceptive coverage, were inevitable given the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That statute was passed in 1993 by an almost unanimous Congress to reverse the refusal of the Supreme Court to allow religious exemptions under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Although it is hard to believe now, that decision, Employment Division v. Smith in 1990, pitted the more conservative members of the Court—-Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion on behalf of Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices White, Stevens, O'Connor and Kennedy—-against the most liberal members of the Court—Justices Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun. At that time, rights for religious believers were still regarded by the left as a good thing. Only Justice Stevens would feel at home in today's anti-religious atmosphere.

My perspective on Hobby Lobby is not the same as that of most other people. The question for me is, what effect will the decision have on the rapidly increasing secularization of this society, especially among the young? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that the decision will contribute to that secularization. The proponents of the religious exemption have not convinced anyone except the Justices that granting these exemptions is fair and just. To many people, especially young people, especially women, the decision just seems like one more instance of bullying by wealthy men and powerful corporations.

First, does the exemption threaten to limit contraceptive services or are these services so cheap that most people pay for them themselves? Some are, many are not. Vasectomies, I read, were never covered by the Affordable Care Act in the first place.

Second, are there alternatives for employees whose employers are granted exemptions? Probably. Justice Kennedy, the fifth vote, seems to feel that the religious non-profit exemption could be applied to the for-profit corporations that are granted exemptions. If so, since that exemption was accomplished by executive action, no Congressional action would be needed to expand it. Under that exemption, the insurance carrier pays and even the self-insured are included. Yes, that exemption is under attack, but Justice Kennedy would be the fifth vote to uphold it.

Third, what about religious exemptions in the future? Despite the attempt to write a narrow decision, it is now open season for employers and individuals to object to government policies on religious grounds. The majority opinion suggests that Justice Alito believes that race discrimination and opposition to vaccinations would not be accommodated, but these are more like ad hoc hopes than legal holdings—just like Justice Alito's hope that publically held corporations will not raise religious claims. Why not? Chevron spent money on the past election cycle.

And as more employees are inconvenienced by wealthy interests, and as public health and policy are more and more threatened, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will become the target for repeal by a growing secular cohort that will eventually be a majority. In the meantime, anyone hoping the young will rediscover religion will be disappointed.

It could have been different. More on that later in the week.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Coming Revolution in Islam

6/25/2014—Readers of this blog will know of my contention that the current convulsions in the Arab world are similar to the Wars of Religion that beset Christian Europe from the Reformation until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Further, I believe the result will be similar—the weakening of religion and the growth of secularization.

Thomas Friedman has a piece in the New York Times today singing the same song as mine. The contrast is between ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that executes its prisoners and SISI, the President of Egypt. Friedman quotes Orit Perlov, from Tel Aviv University, to the effect that these are two sides of the same coin—“one elevates God as the arbiter of all political life and the other the national state.”

Both fail to deliver peace and prosperity and must be replaced, says Perlov, by a new generation that puts society in the center, that asks not how we can serve God or the State but how they can serve us. Friedman even uses the word I have used—that the Islamic and national models have to be “exhausted.”

Friedman says the only idea that works is “pluralism in politics, education and religion.”

OK. So the Muslims have to become more like us. They have to be relativists, democrats and capitalists. But, what makes Friedman think that our model works in the long run? Sure, it’s better than a civil war or a military dictatorship. But don’t be so certain that our model has the sustaining power to avoid those outcomes. The American people are descending into a mutual pointless hatred that is the fruit of “pluralism in politics, education and religion.” A society that believes nothing except that people disagree may not be sustainable.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

You Cannot Make Peace With These People

6/22/2014—Ever since the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers last week, I have been thinking about what this act means for the prospects for peace. On the immediate level, it makes peace impossible. Israelis overwhelmingly feel exactly what the title above says. In the longer run, it is one more hateful act by people motivated by religion that delegitimizes religion in the eyes of the world.

I hope for the safe return of the children and that may happen. But thinking of the brutality that takes place on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is important to remember how peace happens. In every conflict you can think of—Ireland is a good example—unthinkable crimes have been committed by both sides and both sides have responded by saying, “You cannot make peace with these people.”

But peace still comes, still can come. Maybe it just comes from exhaustion. Maybe, unfortunately, the brutality of both sides convinces both sides that peace is necessary, so that even vicious actions lead to better results. The point is, you make peace with enemies, not with friends.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Decline of Islam

6/18/2014—Karl Barth once said, I can only repeat myself. Of course, he had a deep reason for saying this—he was simply witnessing in different ways to the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as God for us. So, it was always this story—what other story could it be?

I am also going to repeat myself. If you search this site for the phrase Wars of Religion—the endless fighting primarily between Catholics and Protestants in Europe that occurred between the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648—you will find that since 2009, I have pointed out the similarity between that era of religiously motivated war and the current violence in Islam. The sectarian slaughter in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, makes that analogy quite clear.

But I have been utilizing that analogy for a different reason than just suggesting that there has been violence in Christianity also. Rather, I have been looking at the consequence of the Wars of Religion. That consequence is often told in American law—exhausted by the Wars of Religion, people decided on two responses that turned out to be related. First, the separation of church and state, which took different forms. Even in countries that maintained established churches formally, the rights of citizens and the business of government were no longer wrapped up with religion. Second, more generally, secularization. Essentially, after the Wars of Religion, people decided they could not trust Christianity. Christianity had proved to be a problem for humanity rather than a solution.

And so it will be with Islam. First, Muslims will decide that political life has to be separated from religion. Muslim countries will still be Muslim, but political life will be taken away from the clerics. Second, more Muslims, especially among the young, will question whether Islam could really be true, when its most committed followers are engaging in cold blooded murder.

How long does this take? Consider how Europe looked in 1648, compared to 2014. How long did the process of separation and secularization take? For Islam it will be much faster. I bet the trends will be evident by the end of this century.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The New Spirituality

6/13/2014—It is very worthwhile for my readers to take a look at a review of the new movie, The Fault in Our Stars, by Jodi Eichler-Levine, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. (review here). The title of the review refers to the "blockbuster spirituality" of the original novel by John Green. It is not that Professor EC (I hope she does not mind this contraction) is criticizing the movie compared to the book. Rather, she is praising the spirituality presented in the movie, but attributing it, properly, to the original book.

Professor EC notes that Green served as a hospital chaplain and had considered a career in Christian ministry. Of course the novel in the movie the question that Green has said he is interested in, which is why some people suffer and others do not.

Professor EC puts the matter very well when she writes that the success of the movie "is enmeshed with the sparklingly vast, multifaceted nature of contemporary religious life." The main character, Hazel, makes jokes about angels and harps. But her father responds more deeply:

"I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in parts because of the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it –or my observation of it – is temporary?"

Professor EC calls this quote a cosmology for our times: a passive yet hopeful plea to a vast, personified universe. And she also notes all those atheist who find beauty in God and the religious nones who still pray.

It is a great review. Professor EC has a lot to tell us. I expect to be returning to her thoughts.

Monday, June 9, 2014

“It matters what’s true.”

6/9/2014—We learn two things about meaning for Neil deGrasse Tyson in the last episode of the new Cosmos series. First, we learn that the breezy nihilism that I wrote about on this blog back on March 28 of this year from Episode 3--“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.”—does not entirely reflect his view of the universe. Last night, in asking why it is worth doing science—by implication even if there is no economic pay off—Tyson said, “Because it matters what’s true.”

Yes, it does. It matters. To paraphrase Tyson earlier, truth is of special meaning to the universe. And because truth matters, our efforts to discover truth are of special meaning to the universe. And because these efforts matter, we humans, and any other self-aware life that exists, are of special meaning to the universe. We very much need to wake up from the dream of nihilism.

We also learn why Tyson is so earnest in claiming that we are not special. He is copying Carl Sagan. Last night, in the last episode, Tyson reframed Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” monologue from the first Cosmos series. Tyson asked NASA to take one last picture of Earth as Voyager passed Neptune. Then, in the show, the viewer watches as Earth fades to the “pale blue dot.” When Sagan says humans are not special, he is hoping that human cruelty will be lessened. But he is mistaken. Humans kill each other because of their fear that they are nothing. Not because they believe they are special. Nietzsche very agreed with both Sagan and Tyson that we are not special.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Do You Have To Believe in God to Be Jewish?

6/5/2014— I had a talk with a friend of mine yesterday, who is a member of Temple B'nai Israel in White Oak, Pennsylvania. Five years ago, Danny Schiff, who had been a Rabbi there and had also been the community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning in Pittsburgh left those posts in order to move to Israel. My friend remembered that Schiff used to say that one did not have to believe in God in order to be Jewish. And my friend wanted to know what I thought about that.

I mention the fact that Schiff moved to Israel in order to situate the position that Judaism, or rather being a member of the Jewish people, is probably for Schiff more akin to an ethnic or civilizational identification than it is to anything like religious belief. In this way, Schiff's position is probably very close to that of Mordecai Kaplan, who inaugurated the phrase Jewish civilization.

Now, since I left Judaism precisely over matters of belief, I might be expected to disagree with this position, to insist that Judaism represents a series of beliefs to which one must ascribe. But, actually, I think there is a lot to be said for the identification position. Certainly, Judaism would have died out long ago if more people had been like me and less like Schiff.

Yet, if one accepts that Judaism passes by familial line, so that if a boy is circumcised and has a Jewish mother, he is Jewish, and similarly for a girl (without the circumcision), then the question must arise, what difference does being Jewish make? If we imagine a Judaism more or less uninfluenced by religious elements, then what one has is the population of a state. This is good definition for the state Israel, and in that sense the future of the Jewish people would be guaranteed, as is the future of the Polish people because of the state of Poland. But what does one then have? Judaism would survive in such a country because it would have the backing of a political entity. And the history of Judaism would be preserved for the same reason. But in the long run, would this situation guarantee anything valuable?

Zionists like to point out that the center of gravity for Judaism has dramatically shifted to Israel. This is absolutely so. All other Jewish communities, with maybe an exception for the US, are now appendages to Israel. And Jewish cultural expression is now almost solely Israeli. But, may I ask for one religious advance that has come with this situation? In fact, the opposite is the case. Now Israeli politicians, men and women without any deep religious commitments that I can see, purport to speak for the Jewish people. Increasingly, the religion is taken over by what is simply a nationalism. That may be the consequence of Judaism without God as its center—even the absent God as its center.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Privatization of Health Care

5/29/2014—My wife and I are on a family visit/vacation trip, including a wonderful wedding last week, so this blog has not been attended to. But it is impossible not to notice the continuing fighting going on in Pittsburgh between UPMC and Highmark. UPMC intends not to renew the agreement between the two healthcare systems, so that people with Highmark insurance will simply not have access to UPMC facilities.

The genesis of this fight is the decision of Highmark to partner with the Allegheny Health Network so as not to be subject to a hospital monopoly by UPMC when West Penn and Allegheny General Hospital were having financial trouble. UPMC now considers Highmark a hospital system rival and says it will not deal with it.

I suppose that this would all be understandable if these were two private businesses. But they are not. Not only is there a lot of public money involved, so that both businesses should be subject to public oversight, both are tax exempt non-profit entities. Neither one is supposed to be run with any profit motive at all and the Attorney General is supposed to be ensuring their compliance with the public good.

Some legislators are trying to pass legislation to force UPMC to deal with Highmark. But the legislature thus far has refused to act. Governor Corbett brokered a temporary deal but has not backed a permanent solution. There is a lot of loose talk about government not getting involved. But of course that is nonsense since these entities don't even pay taxes.

The relation of all this to hallowed secularism is this—the concept of the public interest is a part of all that religious talk that secularists say they don't like. This is an example of where naturalism/materialism actually leads--to self interest and nothing else. In the non-profit.charitable sector, we are talking about a role that churches used to fulfill. Churches bring their own problems—for example Catholic Charities does not want to place children with gay couples. But now we see the other side. The nonchurch nonprofits may just become money hungry businesses, like UPMC.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Governor's Move Pure Politics

5/23/2014—I am delighted that Pennsylvania is finally recognizing gay marriages through a decision by U.S.District Judge John Jones striking down Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage. I would have preferred that the legislature did it, however. This kind of judicial decision-making is not as healthy for democracy as is a democratic decision. On the other hand, why should gay couples have to wait for justice? The fault is with the legislature for failing to act.

That said, Governor's Corbett's decision not to appeal is pure politics and makes no sense legally. Corbett says that an appeal would certainly fail. Really? In what court? The issue of gay marriage will finally be decided not by a District Judge but by the Supreme Court. I count four votes there to uphold bans on gay marriage—Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito. They do not look to be changing their minds.

So Corbett's claim that an appeal would certainly fail amounts to saying that it is certain that Justice Kennedy will vote to strike down bans on same-sex marriage. That is possible of course. But it is not certain. Justice Kennedy was careful not to decide the same-sex issue in the Windsor case.

The fact that 14 judges in a row have ruled in favor of gay marriage shows that Kennedy may well vote to strike down such bans. But if he votes the other way, Corbett's refusal to appeal means that the decision striking down the Pennsylvania ban will remain the law, even though in hindsight erroneous.

If Corbett were interested in the welfare of the gay couples marrying in the interim, he could have appealed while not asking for a stay. All such marriages would then have remained valid even if the ban on gay marriage had ultimately been upheld.

I hate to see hypocrisy like this. Corbett is just trying to cool off the Democratic base as he fights for reelection. It would be one thing if he were convinced that the ban on gay marriage really is unconstitutional—like Attorney General Kane. But the Governor says he is not convinced. Well then, he should have stuck to his guns and appealed. Will the Republican legislature now begin impeachment hearings against the Governor? How is his decision not to appeal any more defensible than that of the Attorney General not to defend Pennsylvania's law?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The End of Democracy

5/17/2014—What did the German philosopher Martin Heidegger mean when he said that democracy might not be possible in a technological age? Here is the famous quote on democracy, from an interview in Der Spiegel, a German weekly newsmagazine, in 1966:

“[T]he last 30 years have made it clearer that the planet-wide movement of modern technicity is a power whose magnitude in determining [our] history can hardly be overestimated. For me today it is a decisive question as to how any political system -- and which one -- can be adapted to an epoch of technicity. I know of no answer to this question. I am not convinced that it is democracy.”

Can we see what Heidegger saw 48 years ago, especially since we are now in the habit of celebrating the role of social media in political movements? People are closely connected, beyond the power of dictatorial regimes to suppress them. We have many stories of twitter and facebook spreading information that helps bring down dictatorships. And we have nascents projects of technology and democracy, for example the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Maybe Heidegger was just dark and continental, in the way Americans sometimes think about philosophy--that it is abstract and irrelevant.

To see the technological threat to democracy, think about nature. Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, made the point that human civilization was rendering the non-human world non-natural. In a way, whether we acted for good or ill, whether humans intervened to destroy or save, the non-human world was no longer autonomous. It was no longer nature. The whole world had become a human construct. Global warming just confirms that not much happens on this planet that is not affected by human activity.

The political equivalent of the natural in the environment is the will of the people. The point of democracy—its founding myth—is that the will of the people be expressed in political activities such as elections.

But what if there is no such will? What if the outcome of elections, in all but the most extreme cases, can be determined not by overall shifts in social sentiment concerning important issues, but instead can be manipulated by techniques of voter turnout and political gerrymanders? The increasingly sophisticated use of data in politics, backed by large money on all sides, makes the simple notion of the will of the people seem quaint and irrelevant, just as there is really no longer any nature. This is the effect of technology on democracy.

This is not a partisan observation. Neither political Party cares one bit for the will of the people. In the 2012 election, the Republican use of the political gerrymander allowed that Party to control the House of Representatives against all expressions of national sentiment. In North Carolina, for example (Pennsylvania was similar), Sam Wang reported in the New York Times on February 2, 2013, “the two-party House vote was 51 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican, the average simulated delegation was seven Democrats and six Republicans. The actual outcome? Four Democrats, nine Republicans — a split that occurred in less than 1 percent of simulations. If districts were drawn fairly, this lopsided discrepancy would hardly ever occur.”

On the Democratic Party side, turnout has become the science. Democratic analysts understand the problem with non-Presidential year elections, such as the upcoming 2014 fall elections is that elderly white voters always vote, whereas “their” groups—the young, minorities, poorer people etc.—do not. They have recast the narrative of the 1994 “Contract With America” election from a negative popular referendum on President Clinton to an off-year election with a turnout of only 39% of eligible voters. In response, the Democratic Party is putting resources into the Bannock Street Project in which $60 million spent on getting out the vote in ten states might turn the tide in the Senate elections.

I am not criticizing anybody here. The point is that no election outcome is now natural, just like nature is no longer natural. In a technological age, we know too much to consider events as just happening. But if democracy is no longer simply the will of the people, if it is now the result of sophisticated techniques on both sides, backed by big money that makes that possible, what is democracy’s legitimacy? Why should anyone care what the result of an election is—beyond its direct effect in giving power to somebody? In a technological age, democracy is no longer ours. It is theirs. Like everything else. Heidegger may have known what he was talking about.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

When Science and Religion Mixed

5/14/2014—One thing the new Cosmos series has emphasized is the harm that religion has sometimes done to science. Indeed, my fellow atheists have praised the show just for this comfortable assurance.

So, imagine my surprise when, in the last episode, the Christian faith of Michael Faraday—one of the most influential scientists in history—was specifically mentioned as a source of comfort and humility.

Certainly that is true. One gets neither comfort nor humility from atheism. But this way of looking at religion neglects the aspect of religion as truth.

Watching Cosmos’ treatment of Faraday, the most significant aspect of his thought seems to have been his certainty that the phenomena of electricity, magnetism and light had to be linked. The theory of electromagnetism was born from that commitment.

As I watched, I wondered whether this certainty in the unity of reality was not a result of Faraday’s Christian faith. It is not surprising to read in Wikipedia that “[b]iographers have noted that ‘a strong sense of the unity of God and nature pervaded Faraday's life and work.’"

Modern atheism likes to pretend that it reflects reason and religion partakes of the irrational. Faraday is a reminder that science is possible only when the unity, order and intelligibility of reality are assumed. Science arose in the West out of the Christian conviction that in knowing the world, humanity comes to know the mind of God.

Forget whether such a thing as God exists. The unity, order and intelligibility of reality are part of what the word God reflects. That is part of the reason that the national motto, In God We Trust, is not a purely religious sentiment.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?

5/11/2014—The kidnapping of hundreds of school girls by the terror group Boko Haram raises two generally related questions that critics of Islam and religion, respectively, have been trying ask for years. First, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues, is this hatred of the education and rights of women actually representative of something deep within Islam—not, in other words, an aberration? Second, as Christopher Hitchens argued in his famous book, does religion indeed “poison everything?”

For a long time, in my own mind at least, I have answered these two questions in the negative by marshaling countervailing evidence on behalf of Islam in particular and religion in general. After all, the hookup culture of the West demeans women quite effectively and quite a number of women in America are killed by their partners. And religion is also responsible for much of the good things that happen in the world, despite the crimes committed in its name.

But I now think that questions like these are not actually meaningful. They assume that Islam and religion are somehow open to debate—as if they might disappear if these questions are answered in one way or another. That of course is a fantasy. No human culture has ever been without religion. And Islam is the religion of 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population. Islam is not going away either.

So, I no longer respond to questions like these. The point, instead, is to work for change—change within our own traditions—in my case, secularism, which has baggage of its own (including a willingness to use violence through Western governments). Drones undoubtedly kill more schoolgirls than Boko Haram ever will.

To be fair, Ali is approaching Islam in that spirit (whether she is still a Muslim I have no idea). She calls upon Muslims who contest violent and oppressive interpretations of Islam to be as active and forceful as are their opponents—to take back Islam, so to speak.

For religion in general I am willing to say this: people kill and oppress each other. They do so in the name of all sorts of things—land, money, ideology, their way of life and, yes, religion. I doubt that the name and content of our commitments cause this violence. The cause lies deeper than that.