Sunday, July 3, 2011

Atheist, Not Amoralist

The Los Angeles Times --December 20, 2009

I discovered that I had tucked this article away for a future blog entry. The article reports that Cecil Bothwell became a city councilman in North Carolina. Because he is an atheist, conservative groups describe him as "satan's helper", and a"radical extremist" who is "bashing religion". In fact, none of these apply. He simply does not believe in God.

An individual named H. K. Edgerton and individual known for wearing a confederate army uniform weaving a confederate flag and other actions would most would regard as unusual, except down South, has threatened to sue to prevent an Bothwell from serving. He states that he has a problem with a atheist serving in public office, which is banned by the North Carolina constitution. Since six other states also have provisions outlawing atheists in public office the matter is one of concern throughout the nation. Of course, the constitution forbids there being a religious test for holding office. Those who advocate States' rights might very well claim that this is a matter to be settled out of Federal Court. But since this is a matter of fundamental rights, the constitutional issue is one which should be decided at the Federal level.

What most interests me about this affair is the fact that atheists are considered to be one of the worst possible groups to which one may be a member in the United States. Numerous polls in recent years have indicated that an atheist is regarded as unacceptable as a candidate for public office by a majority of Americans. This is regardless of the persons positions, moral character, or other attributes. Simply because the individual is an atheist a large number of Americans would refuse to vote for him.

Of course, there are always groups with whom we have problems as a people. I certainly would understand, indeed would agree, that a neo Nazi is automatically disqualified as a reasonable candidate for any public office. However, that is due to the inherent racism and violence in the neo nazi movement. Atheists, on the other hand, are not inherently violent, racist, or immoral in any way. Many make the rather odd assumption that only those who believe in God can possibly have any morals. They assume that this is so because God is the single and sole source of all morality. But this cannot be true. If morality is moral only because God says so, then if God changes his mind, morality immediately changes.

This would mean that if tomorrow got decided that cannibalism was worth a try, it would immediately become moral and just to eat other! If God decided that Saint Augustine was correct and that sex was inherently evil, indeed, that the sex act itself is the disease vector through which original scene is passed from generation to generation, and that sex should be forbidden, then even married couples would be unable to be considered moral if they consummated their marriage.

Morality, therefore, must come from some other source than God. Surely, if God were to suddenly declare that rape and mass murder were good, we would not then begin to perform these acts. One of the reasons we so justly condemn cults is that the cult leader often performs brutal and cruel sexual acts upon its members, claiming that God has told him that this is the correct thing to do. The cult members may be deceived, but the rest of us see that these acts are immoral and just plain wrong. Of course, we do not assume that the cult leader is actually receiving these instructions from God. Instead we assume that He is either lying or is mentally ill. But even if god were to make such declarations, I am confident that the majority of us would not begin engaging in what we currently regard as depraved and reprehensible behavior.

God, too, must behave in a moral manner. One of the ways we differentiate Satan from God is in their conduct and the demands they make upon us. Another time I will discuss the issue of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and of Jephtha's sacrifice of his daughter. For now I simply wish to note that while the God of the old testament is an angry and a jealous god, He is, nevertheless, a just God.

It certainly cannot be denied that very religious people sometimes commit very horrible acts. It is not commonly acknowledged that Hitler was a very religious man. It is true he was not a churchgoing man, but it is very clear that he believed that he was doing God's work in cleansing the world of what he regarded as the Jewish infection. On the other hand, there are historical cases of atheists taking moral positions and even of suffering harm for doing so.

I believe that the fear of atheists grows out not simply of ignorance, but of an even deeper fear on the part of the religious that the atheist might just be right. In other words, I believe that the religious who fear the nonreligious have a very weak faith. If your faith a strong, there is no way an atheist can threaten it. If your faith is weak, than the mere fact that someone else expresses doubts becomes a very serious threat.

Consider the demands of the Religious Right for a return to prayer in public schools. They suggest that this is the only way to keep children and our nation moral. Which suggests that as parents they have no faith in their own ability to influence their own children. One of the reasons Christianity took root in the Roman world was because of the obvious faith which strengthened questions facing martyrdom. Those early Christians had no doubt that their faith was stronger than the Roman Empire. Today's American Christians of the Religious Right and have a different view. It is clear that they feel that without the government teaching their religion to their children for them, their faith will fade and die. One of the saddest things about this situation is how little faith the Religious Right has in the power of God.
3-25-11 The cherry blossom festival

In the face of the terrible tragedy in Japan I understand that a number of traditional ceremonies have been canceled. It is ironic that the cherry festival will be proceeding in Washington, DC. The cherry blossom in Japan has long been seen as symbolizing the brief beauty of life. Cherry blossom trees in Washington that donated to our country by Japan in 1912. At that time our two nations regard each other with respect and friendship. When World War II began there were calls to destroy the cherry trees as a symbolic gesture of the enmity to ground between us. Thankfully, this was not done. And so today, the trees are a symbol not only of the briefness of life, but if the ability of two nations to come back together in friendship even after a terrible war.

As this nation celebrates the cherry blossom festival in our capital we will surely remember the suffering of Japan and the courage of her people.

I wrote the above on the date indicated. In the time that has passed since then, so much has changed. the whole world is questioning nuclear power and the Japanese people are wondering if their dedication to harmony has been abused by a government which failed to regulate the nuclear industry and protect its citizens. An article by Stephen Bezruchka makes the point that, “The most important of all Japanese social values is "wa," or harmony...” But at what price? The Japanese people must decide. In any event, my thoughts, prayers and support remain with them.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Old writing, never posted

The L.a. Times--February 27, 2011

An article in today’s edition refers to the dreams of Islamic North Africa creating to a new golden age. It is surprising how few Americans realize that there was a time when the best place to live within the Islamic world. Here you found the best medicine, the finest doctors, the world's premier universities, and the most tolerant society on the planet. It isn't that life was wonderful compared to today's society enjoyed by those of us in the West. But compared to the alternatives available in the world that time, the Islamic world, especially the Arabic world, was a far superior place to live.

Naturally, this fact is well known throughout the Islamic world today. Much of the hatred of the West which expresses itself in terrorism rose out of a belief that this golden age was stolen away by Western imperialism. Certainly it is true that imperialism stripped away much dignity and insulted the honor of the region, but this would hardly have been possible during the golden age. At that time, Europe was in the throes of the dark ages. It was only possible for the west to exploit the Islamic world after that world degenerated scientifically, militarily, and socially.

It seems unlikely that anyone alive when Europe was so weak and the Arabs so strong could possibly have predicted this astonishing reversal of fortune. Europe was what had been, the ruin of the richness and vigor of the Roman Empire. All across North Africa science was flourishing. Education was respected and strongly supported by society. It is natural to ask, "what went wrong?"

If you're interested in a detailed answer I suggest the book entitled, What Went Wrong? By Bernard Lewis. The answers are complex, but the pattern is rather clear. Like China, a great civilization turned inward. An inherent sense of superiority led to a contempt for the ideas found and the rest of the world. Any civilization which forgets that it had to earn its place in the world finds itself believing that its superiority is a natural law, a given, an unalterable fact of reality.

This mistaken conviction leads the deluded society into a state of rigidity. Since we are the best and must be the best there is nothing to be gained by paying attention to the rest of the world. Once a society comes to believe this it ceases to make progress, more importantly, it fails to respect the progress being made by others. Crystallized by its own sense of the inevitability of supremacy, the society ceases to move and advance. However far the rest of the world is behind this society, it now begins to catch up and in time surpasses those who were once in the lead.

It was religious extremism more than anything else, although arrogance cannot be ignored as a contributing factor, which turned the Islamic world to fundamentalism and to a sense of entitlement. Being the favorite of God, there was no need to earn a place at the head of progress. Surely this spot would just be granted.

Contrast this situation with what is currently happening in China. After decades of brutal communist repression, China is once again opening up to the rest of the world. Of course, the last time this happened, China was forced to interact with the world which they had rejected. The situation under Mao was not analogous to either of the cases I've already described above. While it's true that China under his rule was behind a "bamboo curtain", it is also true that he sought to modernize the country. His intentions were focused on science and industry rather than cultural matters, but he did much to make China into a modern nation. When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control there was speculation around the world as to what would happen to the incredibly wealthy area. With communist ideology lead them to kill the goose that laid the golden egg? If the communists did not ban free enterprise in this area how would they reconcile that action with the collectivist beliefs which they used to justify their domination of the nation?

What happened was quite astonishing. Wealth and financial success simply could not be ignored. China needed the money and the energy of Hong Kong. The golden eggs were too valuable. Unsurprisingly, once this admission was made by the communist party, free enterprise began creeping in and spreading throughout the entire nation. Today we see a China which is undoubtedly more free that has ever been in all its history. Which is not to say that China is a free country, but by comparison to the past it is an age, at least, of hope.

So great that the changes been that the Chinese government is now strongly advocating the teachings of Confucius. Of all the counterrevolutionary ideas despised under Mao Tse Tung, the most pernicious, the most dangerous, were those of the Sage. Yet today, without any outward sign of shame, the Communist Party is doing its best to convince its citizens that the old philosopher had it right after all. It seems impossible to believe, at least for someone like me who grew up with an awareness of such extremes as the Cultural Revolution, but the government of China is now trying to pacify and please its citizens rather than simply force them into submission. I've seen much change in this world. Some of it was predictable, much of it was not. But of all the changes that occurred, the continuing democratization of the world was a change for which I fervently hoped and which I believe will continue for the foreseeable future.

There are dangers inherent in democratization, of course. After all, in a democracy the bad guy may win the election. But I believe that the world is much safer than it was and will continue to become even more so as democracy spreads. I believe the last of the great wars is over. There is simply too much to lose and so little to gain when one applies mass violence to national problems. Look at Germany and Japan today. One could argue that they have created an economic empire which reaches around the globe. Had Tojo and Hitler built their nations economically rather than militarily, that might have attained the same end without the deaths of so many millions. I hope that China has learned this lesson.

Why evolution matters

In his book, The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan expressed his concern that America was facing a resurgence of superstition which he feared would become a flood that would wash away all we have gained through centuries of scientific progress. Today, it has become, for many on the right, an acid test for Republican candidates to declare that they do not believe in evolution. In and of itself, this seems to be simply a religious opinion. If accepted at this level, the question should no more be asked of a candidate than should the question, "Do you believe in the virginity of Mary?"

However, there is a far more serious implication. The issue is not a religious one - it is scientific. What one believes in his private religious world is not important as a test of acceptability, or even eligibility for the presidency. It is only when one's religious beliefs interfere with the effective functioning of the office of the presidency that they become a valid, and indeed, essential test. Sagan's fears are well founded, not only in the intellectual and philosophical realm, but in historical realities.

The Islamic world was for centuries the highest level of civilization to be found on the planet. It was cosmopolitan, tolerant, and highly advanced in every way. Even the inhabitants of Christendom, who so hated the Muslim religion, envied their material accomplishments. Then something changed. The Islamic world began to fall further and further behind the Christian world. The civilized and cultured became the crude and barbaric and vice versa. To this day millions in the Islamic world are convinced that this is a direct result of the Crusades and a continuing western plot to destroy them and their culture.

In his book, What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis explores the actual causes of this radical change. These causes are, of course, very complex. Nonetheless, one thing remains very clear. It was not external forces which destroyed the Islamic world. The culture, the civilization, the advancements so carefully built were destroyed by internal forces. Furthermore, the destruction was not intentional. On the contrary, the forces of destruction believed they were the forces of preservation. In the name of preserving and even advancing Islamic culture, they took actions which inevitably destroyed it.

Essentially what occurred was that the world of Islam, seeing itself so clearly superior to Europe, concluded that the outside world had nothing to offer it. They forgot that much of their culture was based on the flowering of Greece and the knowledge that those Greeks passed down. They also forgot that upon this Grecian foundation, they themselves had built a beautiful architecture of civilization by keeping open minds, by testing and exploring the world around them, and by looking to the future for inspiration.

What defeated them was not the failed Crusades. It was their own decision, made for a very complex reasons, to turn away from the outside world, from the future, and from science. Believing that they and they alone had true knowledge led them to turn inward, to the past, and to fundamentalist Islam. Once they had made this about face, they did indeed move back to the past. But the past was not the golden age of fundamentalist promise, it was instead the bog of ignorance, superstition, and self destruction. This is not to say that the West did not contribute to this decline, but the Europeans simply took advantage of what the Islamic world was already doing to itself.

As the Islamic world sank into decline, the West entered the Enlightenment. As Islam threw way Greek philosophy and objective science, the West discovered them. What had made the Islamic world great would now do the same for the Europeans.

It has been reported that there is a medical university in Egypt which teaches its students of the human body has more bones that it actually does. Why would skilled physicians teach such a thing? The answer is very simple. The Koran says that it is so, and therefore it must be so. Mere facts cannot compete with the sacred scripture. At the time of Islamic greatness, European theologians are reported to have been arguing about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. The story says that a foolish young student suggested to his masters that he should simply go out and count the number of teeth in the mouths of the horses that the professors had ridden to the meeting. According to the story, he was severely reprimanded. Obviously merely counting the teeth could not get as accurate answer as debating the meaning of texts both Biblical and Greek. This of course, is an attitude rooted deeply in one element of Grecian philosophy, that of Plato. After all, Plato said " If we are to discuss the cosmos, we must not look at the stars." (quoted from memory)

When the West accepted this attitude, it was the West which was barbaric and backward. When Islam decided to adopt it, they began their decline. When the West turned away from this concept and began to seek objective truth, they began their rise. The relationship is not coincidental. It is fundamental.

Consider the Chinese empire. Decades before Columbus, Zheng He made magnificent exploratory voyages. At this time the Chinese empire was also great, advanced, and civilized. But it was soon to begin a precipitous decline. Deciding to turn inward, his fellow Chinese destroyed the records of the great explorer. After all, what could the outside world possibly offer to the already perfect civilization of the Middle Kingdom? To this day some Chinese still blame Western plots and other outside forces for this decline. What actually happened was that China believed that they and they alone had true knowledge… well, no need to repeat it all. Suffice to say they turned inward, rejected other cultures' knowledge, and decided that their philosophy and religion were truer than true and more factual than fact.

Both these great cultures, the Islamic and the Chinese, declined because they turned away from reality. They decided that reality was in fact an option. Furthermore, it was an option that they could do without. They decided the truth was to be based not on objective, testable, and falsifiable experimentation but on scriptures and beliefs. The results were predictable and entirely self inflicted.

This is why asking a candidate, 'Do you believe in evolution?' Is not, in fact, a religious question. It is another way of asking a far different question, "Do you believe in science?" Or to put this in an historical perspective, it is a way of asking," Do you intend to permit America to continue to be civilized and advanced, or do you wish us to begin a decline into barbarism?"

People may believe, in private, whatever they wish to believe. I do not approve of religious tests to qualify for public office. There are sets of beliefs, however, which so deeply impact the ability to make rational decisions that one must take them into consideration when choosing for whom to vote. To elect a president of the United States who does not believe that science is trustworthy, that facts are facts, and is convinced that reality is optional is to begin the decline of American civilization.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Graduation, the start of your adult life. Many would identify that as occurring at college graduation, but I disagree. While being at college for most students is a time when others are still paying the bills, it remains a time when you are suddenly and fully responsible for your own actions. This posting constitutes a speech, I suppose. When I think of commencement addresses, I think of bombast and stuffy declarations larded with lots and lots of advice. This is traditional, but I think it is misguided.

You and your fellow grads have shown a level of commitment and determination which is all too often lacking in American education these days. Drop out rates are far too high to be regarded as a minor problem; but this is not true for you. You have made it and you have made it with high grades and a very active schedule of activities. Bravo, bravo, bravisimo!

The only bit of advice I have to give you today is: Keep up the good work. You have shown the depth and strength of your character. Just stay on course. End of advice.

Right now is a time for celebration. I want you and all grads to have a purely joyful graduation. This is the moment in your life which will always the great watershed between childhood and adulthood, between dependency and independence. Whatever else happens, this is your moment like no other. The only event that equals this event is becoming a parent--and it not only equals this, it far surpasses it.

For you Josh, and for you Nora, -- know that I am here for you. I repeat what I have said before. A man may say to a colleague or guest, “Mi casa es su casa.” My house is your house. He may say to dear friend, “Mi casa es tu casa.” My house is thy house. But I say to you, “Mi hogar es tu hogar.” My home is thy home.

To put it another way, Robert Frost’s the Death of the Hired Man declares, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Not as warm a statement, since it implies more obligation than desire, but nevertheless also accurate. Should you fail to continue along the course you have followed to date, should you hit a reef or become stranded on a sand bar, even if you have done wrong and the disaster is your own fault, yet I will love you. And even then, Mi hogar is tu hogar. This is not to say that I would approve of bad decisions on your part, but it does affirm that my love is not conditional. Bad behavior, bad choices, bad mistakes are not to be tolerated and must be changed; but you will always be welcome in my home.

There is no more to say, but as I am fond of doing, I will again quote from King James: "Rejoice and be glad" Psalm 118:24.

Love, Papa: aka, Pops

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thanks to a rather severe bout with my chronic bronchitis [plus complicating factors], I've been down and out for about a month. I wanted to react to the death of Bin laden more promptly, but at least I can work on it now. There was an interesting set of reactions to this man’s death. Many Americans were joyful, others felt that the joy was misplaced. This latter group was relieved that the mass murder was dead, but felt that joy at anyone's death was unbecoming and potentially dangerous in that it might provoke a response of counter vengeance in the Middle East.

As it happens, the people of the Middle East seem to have understood that joy at the death of a sworn and deadly enemy is quite different from joy at the deaths of thousands of innocent people in an act of terrorism. The other point that critics of the American public response made was more telling. Many of us still refer to America as a Christian nation. This creates the doubt that such rejoicing was an appropriately Christian response. The point is well taken, but distant from the realities of human nature. Yes, as Christians everyone should regard life as sacred and anyone's death as regrettable, even if it is necessary. But how realistic is it to expect people to always be thoughtful and philosophic about events which profoundly affect their lives?

Much of the joy was simply the release of the terror deliberately generated by this man. He set out to make people afraid, and he succeeded. Naturally, when the fear was destroyed, people were ecstatic. Consider the novel, Watership Down. Hazel and his band of refugees are faced with the threat of immanent death. Suddenly, the threat vanishes. They are joyful and ebullient. I wish I could quote the passage, but I can't find my copy. This accounts for most of the public expressions of celebration regarding Bin Laden's death. This is not the only motivation, of course, but it is a major contributor and is entirely understandable. We are merely people, not angels.

I, too took great delight in the man's destruction. He was a symbol of the evil of terrorism, a mass killer, a very bad example of humanity. I felt some guilt about it, but decided not to be too hard on myself or anyone else in regard to this issue. We may strive to be perfect, but it is foolish to ask us to attain such heights with regularity.

I do not suggest that we all attempt to adopt a Jain's or Llama's devotion to life. When I find a fly in the house, I try to shoo it outside. If I can't, I get the fly swatter. I may be the only person known to my family and friends who actually apologizes to the fly for killing it and asks God to forgive the act [yes, I actually do this, every time] but I don't hesitate to kill the creature. It has invaded my space and carries disease and I will not allow it harm my family, period. This applies to ants and etc. I am not being a hypocrite, I believe the act is a necessary evil, like some wars.

So I can sincerely say that I regret the necessity of killing bin Laden, but I would not have hesitated to have ordered it done if I were in a position to have done so. I also admit that I took my share of delight in the fact that this monster was finally punished for his actions. I even have been know to refer to him, since his burial at sea as Osama Bin Fishfood. Sorry, I won't say I am proud of that, but, after all, I am merely human too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Three months since I've posted. Well, at least I'm at it now. Yesterday I was surprised by Chris Matthews on Hardball expressing two points: First, that the UN Resolution on Libya added a phrase allowing all necessary actions to protect civilians and Second, that he was surprised that Hillary Clinton and President Obama were so far off message compared to each other. He asked his guests if this indicated stress and disagreement over policy in the White House.

My responses: when I heard the UN resolution announced I knew exactly what it meant. It was a cart blanche. Attack whatever of Kadafi’s forces you want, just claim it was in defense of civilians. Without this excuse, Kadafi could still survive. With it, Kadafi is suddenly looking a lot like Hitler when he moved into his Berlin bunker.

As for trouble in the White House...please, we’re dealing with the Clinton's and Obama. The Clinton’s were the most effective political team in recent history, until they met the Senator from Illinois. Every word, probably every gesture made by Hillary and Obama have been carefully choreographed, and the choreographer is Barack Hussein Obama.

Love it or hate it, politics in this nations is, in many ways, deeply akin to a musical spectacular, live on stage.

As I write this, the news is announcing that the French have made the first attacks in Libya, and they hit “military vehicles”, not aircraft. The operation is apparently commanded by the French, not Americans. The first time in history, I believe, since WW II that Americans have taken orders from a non American commander. Like the day when Churchill was forced to ask for American help to save his nation, this is the passing of an era. Churchill was forced to oversee the collapse of the British Empire and Obama is forced to acknowledge that American power is limited. Many believe that the US will fade into a minor power, as did Britain. I disagree. This is an adjustment we won't like, but it is a healthy one. It is time to share the burden and to accept that we will remain the world’s leader, but will cease to be the world’s unquestioned boss.

This is true economically as well. Many fear China as a military and economic threat. I don’t see it. There will be rough times and serious crises, but in the next 30 to 50 years, China will become our best friend and most important trading partner. The talking heads have declared themselves amazed that China has defied conventional wisdom in becoming a centrally controlled, dictatorial capitalistic economy. Supposedly impossible, but they declare it a success. Well, it is impossible. China is changing and she is changing fast. More and more freedom, more and more efforts on the part of the government to placate its people instead of crushing them. China is following the exact course suggested when Hong King was allowed to remain largely free of communist dogmatic control. She is painfully and slowly turning into a democracy. Oddly, China is following the course I believed would be the fate of the Soviet Union, a slow and inevitable transformation into a free state.

I was wrong about the Russians, but the Chinese are showing that at least my concept was sound. I just applied it to the wrong country!