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.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Brain Dead Decision

5/5/2014—Having worked very hard to justify a form of legislative prayer in a law review article—Toward a Meaning-Full Establishment Clause Neutrality, 87 Chi-Kent L. Rev. 725 (2012)—I really resent the brain dead decision written by Justice Kennedy in the Town of Greece case today, upholding legislative prayer. Specifically, the majority opinion upheld legislative prayer on grounds of history. We have always had it.

But this is no argument at all. We had school segregation as long as we had Equal Protection, yet overturned the practice. We always punished flag desecration until it was held unconstitutional. And so forth. It is no argument that a practice has always existed. The point is how a long standing practice helps us understand the meaning of the constitutional provision at issue.

We can be sure that history is not really decisive. The real point is that something about legislative prayer makes it not unconstitutional. When the majority can explain what that is, we will all understand the Establishment Clause. Unlike today.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The End of the American Experiment

5/3/2014—I'm writing a book about the effect of nihilism on American law. But people do not really understand what nihilism is and how deadly its effects can be.

So, here is an example. In an article about former Vice-President Dick Cheney—Cheney, "The More Ruthless the Better"—Mark Danner writes about an exchange from the film, The World According to Dick Cheney, directed by R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton: "Asked about waterboarding by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, [Cheney's] retort is... quick and brutal:

'Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your, your honor, or are you going to do your job, do what’s required first and foremost your responsibility to safeguard the United States of America and the lives of its citizens. Now given a choice between doing what we did or backing off and saying, “We know you know their next attack against the United States but we’re not gonna force you to tell us what it is because it might create a bad image for us.” That’s not a close call for me.'"

Now, the point of this for nihilism is the sneer at honor. You can hear Cheney's incredulity by his repeating the word "your"—as if it is incomprehensible that anyone could care about something like honor when lives are at stake.

This is nihilism. Not, of course, that one might sacrifice even honor to save lives—that might be a tragic necessity. But this quote is not about a tragedy. For Cheney, honor is not something worth worrying about. And that is exactly what Nietzsche meant by the death of God. Nietzsche was referring to the death of a world in which things like truth, goodness and beauty really matter. Nietzsche knew that they don't matter anymore.

Nor is this just Cheney's view. It is neither his psychology nor his ideology that leads to this result, though they are relevant. To see that this is not just Cheney, remember the response by the political left to John Yoo's arguments, and the film Zero Dark Thirty's suggestion, that torture works because it led to information that enabled the United States to locate Osama Bin Laden. The left was greatly embarrassed by this claim and went to great lengths to try to show that torture does not work.

But that effort was to concede Cheney's point that you torture if it works. The left is just as disdainful of honor as is the right—or, at least, just as certain that honor does not really matter.

Now contrast both these positions with the endorsers of the Declaration of Independence. Here is its final paragraph:

"We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levey war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

For these men, honor was as significant, maybe more, than fortune and life. And need I remind you that fortune and life were at that moment very much at risk. Yet honor is the last word. And even if some of them were scoundrels in fact, as I have heard, they still knew what was important.

We—you and I—are no longer their equals. Partly we are to blame. But partly, it is the time—the time of nihilism.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Fight Over the Personhood of Animals.

4/29/2014—If you want to see law at least a little as it used to be, look no further than Steven M. Wise, whose litigation on behalf of the legal rights of certain animals was featured in the New York Times on Sunday. (Story here)

What makes the story particularly significant jurisprudentially is that Wise is using not the Constitution, but the common law method of writs and incremental steps to recognize these legal rights. And it seems that the foundation of these steps is “evolving public morality” based on new scientific learning about the mental life and capacities of at least some animals.

What is not clear to me is the basis of this movement. Wise’s intellectual hero seems to be Oliver Wendell Holmes and his realist jurisprudence. Wise criticizes teleology because it led to a human dominated universe, as opposed to the utilitarian traditions of the ancient world. (There is much to Wise’s thinking I have to learn about).

On the other hand, Wise criticizes legal positivism, which he describes as the idea that rights come from the State. Universal human rights are grounded in the way human beings are—they are in that sense derived not created.

I guess my question is whether moral evolution is getting somewhere. Some Darwinian theorists deny that evolution can properly be thought of as having a goal or hierarchy. Not everything moves toward greater consciousness. It depends on the needs of an environmental niche.

But moral evolution does sound like it has a direction, a telos. Recognizing the legal rights of animals would then be a part of the kind of teleological thinking Wise criticizes. We are getting closer to the good.

Or, does Wise believe we should recognize the legal rights of animals only to be logically consistent? Humans have rights and some animals are like humans. Therefore some animals deserve rights.

Wise seems impatient with such musings. He argues that human rights are recognized only on the ground that the “why” of such rights is not raised. But if that is the case, then the alternative to legal positivism by the State is just a different form of legal positivism by the rest of us. Rights are just a posit. If that is the case, can they really last?

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Progressive/Religious Alliance

4/25/2014—Back on April 9, 2014, the Post-Gazette carried a story about Reverend Jack O’Malley receiving the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Citizen of the Year Award. The award “cited his half-century of activism on behalf of unions and laborers”.

Here are some of the highlights of the story. “His work has ranged from hosting California farm workers, who were seeking nationwide support for better working conditions in the 1960s and 1970s, to efforts over the decades on behalf of steel and other blue-collar workers. More recently, Father O'Malley was arrested for trespassing in February along with other clergy in a protest outside UPMC offices, calling for better pay and conditions for the health care giant's workers.

Father O'Malley's aim is ‘to put the gospel into action,’ he said. ‘People are working two jobs without health benefits, and they can't even see their children" because they often get home after the children have gone to bed.’”

O’Malley is a Catholic Priest here on the Northside. Undoubtedly he opposes abortion and gay marriage. But he clearly wants to talk about and put his efforts into matters of social and economic justice. For that matter, Pope Francis wants to talk about and emphasize matters of social and economic justice. The Catholic Church is ready to be an ally on behalf of the bottom 20%, or even the bottom 99%.

Secularists have got to stop throwing away the opportunity for collaborative work out of an anti-religion bias. The AFL-CIO has done so.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cowardice and Hypocrisy at Brandeis

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ross Douthat's Magical Thinking

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

To the Editor:

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

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

Friday, April 11, 2014

More Secular Yearning for God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Death of a Grandmother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Now Get Rid of the $2600 Limit

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nihilism at the Heart of Secularism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Death

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

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

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

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

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

Much more on this topic in days to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The New Cosmos Series Plays Out the Old Culture Wars

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 14, 2014

How Much Damage Has Nihilism Done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Re-Post of Gay Marriage op-ed

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

Pa. gay marriage with an exemption

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

By Bruce Ledewitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Hypocrisy of Senator Toomey, the Cowardice of Senator Casey

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ross Douthat’s Surrender Column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Attack on Douglas Laycock

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How Does the Secular World Do without God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Norm Free Space/a Mathematical Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Not Joining a Union/Not Marrying

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

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

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

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

Liberals hate the result while conservatives are delighted.

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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