Countering the atheist who believes that human free will and a divine being cannot exist in the same intellectual universe

When I was young, I was an atheist, in that I didn’t believe in anything at all.  As I’ve grown older, however, I find that I cannot sustain a belief in nothing.  Interestingly, my belief that there is some intelligent or design force out there that is infinitely greater than we are marches hand-in-hand with my belief in evolution and the Big Bang theory.  I don’t doubt the verity of those two theories.  I do believe, however, that they do not end the discussion of our and the Earth’s origins.  Instead, they just begin it.

Hubble image of a dying star in the Eskimo Nebula

The real sticking point for me is the Big Bang.  Perhaps it’s because I have a simple mind, but I cannot believe that everything came from nothing.  My understanding of the world tells me that there must have been something before the Big Bang.  When I say this to people who are committed to science in lieu of (instead of in addition to) religion, they tell me that “There was probably another universe that collapsed and then, when it compressed itself completely into impossible density, it exploded in the Big Bang.”

Okay.  Fine.  I’ll buy that collapsed universe, unsustainable density, big explosion theory you’re selling.  But tell me this:  where did the prior universe come from?  It seems to me that we can play this “universe to Big Bang to universe to Big Bang” game forever, but that playing the game still doesn’t answer the question about where it all began.

For me, the “where it all began” leads to a something that must be infinitely greater and bigger than all the universes put together, or a single universe that keeps collapsing and being reborn.  And of course, once you start answering the origin question by positing “an intelligent being,” suddenly you’re a theist.  And once you’re a theist you automatically start trying to define for yourself your vision of this divine being.

I certainly don’t believe that there is a divine being who monitors our every move and controls our destiny right down to the last blink and handshake.  Indeed, I’ve never even been able to believe in the anthropogenic God whom Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel or whom William Blake imagined:

Face of God Sistine Chapel

William Blake's Creator

Nor have I been able to believe in the invisible God whose voice spoke to Abraham, Moses, and others in the Bible:

Moses and the burning bush

What do I believe then?  Well, I don’t actually envision a God.  Instead, I see his/its/her acts.  They are creative acts:  the universe, the template (although not the final plan) for all life, and the breath or divine spark that animates us and makes us greater than the water and chemicals that can be distilled from our bodies.

William Blake's soul hovering over body

I am absolutely certain that each of us is truly greater than the sum of his (or her) chemical parts.  I knew this when my Dad died and his essence vanished, leaving only his body behind.  I couldn’t then and can’t now accept that the intangibles that made up Daddy vanished into nothingness.  To the extent that they were intangible — his wit, his intelligence, his charm, his temper — I felt then, and believe now, that they morphed into a different type of “intangibleness” (for want of a better word).  Things don’t vanish.  They decay or change.  The body decays; the spirit changes.

My Divinity, to the extent I assign attributes to this Divinity, is the clockmaker so many thinkers envisioned during the Enlightenment.  My Divinity got things started, inserted free will (including the freedom to engage in good acts or bad) and then stepped away.  Maybe we are an experiment, or a play thing, or an art work, or part of a much greater purpose that we are incapable of seeing or understanding.  Our inability to comprehend the purpose behind our existence doesn’t negate that purpose.  And to the extent that I am vaguely able to glimpse something greater than myself, I have elevated myself above the cow in the field or even my sweet dog sleeping comfortably on her bed as I type.  These animals exist, but I, imbued with that Divine spark, think.

As is so often the case with my long ruminations, I’m leading up to a take-down of a rather primitive atheist article I found in the New York Times.  The writer, Susan Jacoby, dismisses a God that micromanages life on earth and, even worse, a God that allows evil.  From that dismissal, Jacoby automatically assumes that only the opposite can be true — namely, that there is no God.

This line of thought, which is too simplistic even to be a proper syllogism, is silly.  As I’ve stated above, it is perfectly possible to believe that we exist for a reason — and that good and evil are an integral part of that existence — and, further, to believe that a Being greater than ourselves started our existence.

Jacoby next contends that her limited, binary view, provides comfort to the bereaved.  You see, in the face of evil, any evil, Believers can only conclude that God has abandoned or punished them, both of which are deeply depressing thoughts.  However, if one shakes off the shackles of faith, one can just believe that Bad Things Happen — although why random evil is supposed to be comforting, I don’t really understand.  Here’s Jacoby’s ultimate point, in her own words:

It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.

The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.

[snip]

Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.

We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.

As I understand it, Jacoby’s thesis is, essentially, that atheists must band together to deny God and then to go on to the streets to fight crime.  I can just see their superhero now:

Atheist crime fighter

I applaud anyone who wants to make the world a better place, no matter what motivates them.  I do, however, reserve greater applause for those who do so through conservative principles such as individual responsibility, the free market, and traditional morality, since I think they’ll be more effective in achieving their goals.  I also fear those navel-gazers who, abandoning traditional religious principles, start thinking that the world would be a better place if we got rid of Jews or Blacks or Asians or anyone interfering with the navel-gazer’s world view.

What I don’t applaud is someone whose thinking is so blinkered that she cannot envision the possibility that a Divine Creator, in addition to giving us life (or at least getting the ball rolling on life), also endowed us with free will. I’ll admit that free will doesn’t automatically mean there is a God.  Contrary to Jacoby’s limited worldview, though, free will’s existence doesn’t automatically negate a divine being’s existence.

I guess my bottom line is that I’m always suspicious when people engage in this type of simplistic binary thinking. My feeling is that, if they’re that crude and unsophisticated about big issues, it’s very likely that their thinking about the smaller ones that affect our daily lives will be equally limited and defective.

The difference between intrinsic evil and basic values

Democrats are attacking Paul Ryan for being a bad Catholic, because he believes individuals, not the government, are responsible for caring for the needy in our society.  He’s never indicated that he wants to destroy the current overblown, bankrupt safety net we have now, but Ryan makes it plain that he believes all people are better served through greater wealth, rather than bigger government.

In a post about the decline of Catholic Democrats, Stephen White beautifully distinguishes between those things that are intrinsic evils, so that all citizens must fight against a government doing them, and those things that reflect values, and that are up for debate when it comes to the roles that individuals and governments must take:

In Catholic teaching there are some things that are always wrong — intrinsic evils, we call them — things that no amount of moral gymnastics or creative casuistry can justify. High among such evils is the intentional taking of an innocent human life — including human life in the womb. All Catholics are expected to work to make the civil law reflect, as fully as possible, what the Church teaches with absolutely clarity: Abortion can never be justified.

Many, many other issues require prudent judgment: Medicare growth rates, marginal tax rates, defined-benefit versus defined-contribution entitlements, even the decision whether or not to go to war. These matters have moral implications, but getting the right answer means using one’s best judgment to discern the best response amid complex circumstances. There is no moral principle that tells you categorically what the interest rate should be on a federal student loan or even whether the government should offer student loans. Reasonable people can and do disagree on such things, and in good conscience, too.

The above is not difficult to understand — unless, of course, you don’t want to understand it.

Does charity begin in the home or in the State House?

With Paul Ryan shooting across the political sky with a blazing light, the Left is getting worried.  The latest attack is to trot out Catholics who claim that, because Paul Ryan objects to wealth redistribution, he’s anti-Catholic.  After all, say these Catho-Lefto pundits, what could be more generous than allowing the government to use its overwhelming police power to rob from the rich to give to the poor?  Not everyone is buying that, with some thoughtful people pointing out that, to the extent that charity is supposed to enrich the giver as much as the beneficiary, forcible redistribution fails completely at a moral level.

Incidentally, the fear that allowing the state to step in for charity dries up the individual conscience isn’t unfounded.  The numbers prove that fewer people practice personal altruism if the state does it for them.

The Episcopalian Church officially concedes that God makes mistakes

My (perhaps simplistic) sense of post-Pagan monotheism, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, is that God is all-powerful and all-knowing.  He is bigger than mere humans can comprehend and He works in ways too mysterious for human comprehension.  To the extent things are incomprehensible — whether evil, or deviations from the norm, or anything else that falls outside of perfect morality or physical perfection — those failures are either Satan’s work, man’s failings, or mysteries known only to God and beyond man’s limited understanding.

The Episcopalian Church, however, or at least a significant number of Church leaders, has added a new reason for deviations from the norm:  God screwed up.  Yup, it turns out God is fallible, which makes it a little unclear why we should bother believing in Him or following His laws.

On July 9, 2012, the Episcopalian Church officially banned discrimination against transsexuals.  I have no quarrel with that decision.  I believe in the marketplace of ideas when it comes to religion, as I do when it comes to almost anything else.  As long as your religion isn’t used to kill me, or doesn’t become a state institution dedicated to marginalizing, prosecuting, torturing, controlling, and/or killing disbelievers, “apostates,” converts, or those who have in some other way allegedly transgressed God’s rules as you understand them, I’m all good with the decisions a religious institution makes for its members.  If the congregants like the decision, they’ll stick with the institution and the institution might even add new members; if not, well, although God doesn’t have to compete in the marketplace of ideas, His institutions do and they may have to pay the price for doctrinal decisions that don’t work well in the religious marketplace.

So, as I said, if the Episcopalian Church wants to open its arms to transsexuals, that’s fine.  What makes the decision to do so funny is that, as one of those who opposed the proposal pointed out, those advancing this successful viewpoint about gender identity issues were explicitly arguing that God erred:

The Rev. Canon James Lewis, Deputy from South Carolina, said that while “gender identity and expression” may have meaning for the proposers, “to be honest I would be hard pressed to explain the boundary between identity and expression.”

“No explanation of these terms or a theological explanation has been offered,” he said, adding that the arguments put forward by supporters were incoherent and contradictory.  Canon Lewis said that the arguments put forward for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church was that as God had made them that way, and that God did not make mistakes, so the church should not exclude them.

However, the argument put forward by the supporters of the transgendered resolution said in effect that God had made a mistake when he made transgendered people, who by seeking surgery or other means to change their gender were correcting God’s error.

It seems to me that an official resolution that is predicated on God messing up sort of negates the whole God thing.  It’s one thing to revisit what He’s said and reinterpret it in different ways (making the Bible the religious equivalent of a Living Constitution), but doesn’t it take things to a whole new level to go out to ones congregants and say that God is as fallible as anybody else, and that it’s up to the Church to take proactive steps to shield individuals from the consequences of God’s errors?

You, my dear readers, are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about theological matters than I am.  Am I missing something here?  Misinterpreting?  Misunderstanding?  Letting my inclination to snark get ahead of my textual reading and fairness?  Please weigh in.

I’m with Dennis Prager on this one: the “God particle” does not negate the possibility that there is a God

A lot of people have been crowing that the “God particle” proves that there is no God, because it explains the “something from nothing” aspect of the Big Bang.  These people forget one thing:  Where did the so-called God particle originate?

Dennis Prager is more erudite than I am, so he makes a more sophisticated fallacy-spotting argument:

But scientific discovery and meaning are not necessarily related. As one of the leading physicists of our time, Steven Weinberg, has written, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

And pointlessness is the point. The discovery of the Higgs boson brings us no closer to understanding why there is a universe, not to mention whether life has meaning. In fact, no scientific discovery ever made will ever explain why there is existence. Nor will it render good and evil anything more than subjective opinion, or explain why human beings have consciousness or anything else that truly matters.

The only thing that can explain existence and answer these other questions is God or some other similar metaphysical belief. This angers those scientists and others who are emotionally as well as intellectually committed to atheism. But many honest atheists recognize that a godless world means a meaningless one, and they admit that science can explain only what, not why.

[snip]

Not only is science incapable of discovering why there is existence; scientists also confront the equally frustrating fact that the more they discover about the universe, the more they realize they do not know.

I continue to be agnostic on the subject of God:  Believers haven’t proven to me that God exists but the non-believers certainly haven’t proven to me that God doesn’t exist.  Moreover, the one argument that believers make, and that Prager reiterates here, is that a belief in God gives meaning to life.  That means that whether proven or unproven, God is a very important concept in elevating us above the cow that chews cud in the field or the ant that scurries back and forth.

President Obama’s church is the Chapel of (Progressive) Democracy

Best of the Web posts a 2004 interview with Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times in which Obama defines sin, not along traditional Christian or Muslim lines, but along self-referential lines:

Falsani: Do you believe in sin?

Obama: Yes.

Falsani: What is sin?

Obama: Being out of alignment with my values.

The President, when he made that statement about the measure of sin being his own values, might have had in the back of his head the unspoken qualifier that his values are “Christian.” I doubt it, though, because I have found the definitive doctrine of Obama’s faith. Joan Allen, in the 2000 movie The Contender, recites the doctrinal beliefs of what she calls a church based in “this very chapel of democracy.”  I think her church could be more accurately described as The Church of Progressive Political Belief, and it’s clear that President Obama is a devout member.

Here’s the video, followed by a transcript with my interlineations:

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentleman of the Committee.  Remarkably enough, it seems that I have some explaining to do.  So, let me be absolutely clear.

I stand for a woman’s right to choose.

[So does the President, and he stands for making everyone in America, including religious institutions and religious worshippers that are doctrinally opposed to that "right," pay for women's choices.]

I stand for the elimination of the death penalty.

[This has not been an issue for our president, although he does seem uncommonly fond of drones.]

I stand for a strong and growing armed forces because we must stamp out genocide on this planet, and I believe that that is a cause worth dying for.

[Here we have an early articulation of R2P -- responsibility to protect.  In the Progressive canon, our country is not worth fighting for and dying for.  Genocide -- provided that those on the receiving end of genocide are neither Christians nor Jews -- is the real reason a Progressive United States should have a military.  In this regard, it's ironic that president Obama not only presided over two wars, but started a third.]

I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home.  Period.

[Three words:  Fast and Furious.]

I stand for making the selling cigarettes to our youth a federal offense.

[Because, really, who needs education, the marketplace of ideas, and free will?]

I stand for term limits and campaign reform.

[Obama hasn't said much about term limits, but he's made it clear that his idea of campaign reform is to stifle corporate speech, despite the fact that corporations are aggregations of citizens and pay taxes; and that his personal contribution to campaign reform is to campaign more than all the other presidents since Nixon put together.]

And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of Church and State, and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did. It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism.

[The Founders could not have made it more clear that Freedom of Religion, which is contained in the First Amendment, protects religion from government, not vice versa.  The Amendment's language is unequivocal:  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." There's nothing in there mandating that no religious person can serve in Congress or have a say in America's government.]

Now, I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves [that would be the Republican sect of the church], that gave women the right to vote, that gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very Chapel of Democracy that we sit in together, and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart, my brain, and this church.  [And there you have it -- President Obama's creed writ large:  "I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes.  I need my heart, my brain, and this (Progressive) church.]

Molock rising

Long ago, in ancient Phoenicia, arose a religion reviled in Biblical as well as in Greek and Roman lore, that worshiped a deity most commonly known as Molock, Moloch or Moleck. To this deity, parents sacrificed their infant children by cremating them alive in the bronze hands of a bull-shaped statue of the deity (the golden calf all grown up?).

The religion generated revulsion among the Jews, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and other Mediterranean peoples of that ancient time. In Judaic and Biblical lore, Molock was associated with demonology and Satan’s reign. The Romans purportedly destroyed the last vestiges of this religion in the rubble of Carthage, destroying and scattering every structure down to the last brick, so that it could never ever spring back anew. However, this rationalization for infanticide, just published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, makes me wonder if  Molock isn’t stirring anew in the ebb-tide of the Judeo-Christian West.

http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/02/22/medethics-2011-100411.abstract

In my lifetime, I have been witness to the normalization of promiscuous sex, throw-away children, abortion, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, and now, the open rationalization of infanticide should parents change their mind about a living baby. This is the end game of secular humanism, where there is nothing more transcendent about human beings than simple utilitarian sacks of meat. It was observed by G.K. Chesterton that when cultures (or cults) begin to kill their weakest members, their old and their children, such cultures are in the final stage of collapse.

I came to my Christianity relatively late in life. My faith in my faith is absolute. The existence and/or nature of a force for evil in the world, however, has been a more difficult concept to grasp, as there are so many other ways to rationalize evil behavior – e.g., bad upbringing, mean parents, schoolyard bullying, chemical imbalances, mental illness, hubris, etc. Now, though, I am coming to the conclusion that evil is a palpably real force in the world. Either that, or a violently real, contagious, psychic virus!

Ann Coulter’s most recent book, “Demonic”, relates the proclivity of the secular Left (Democrats) for mob violence and bloodshed, tracing its bloody trail from the French Revolution through the Nazi and Communist abominations of the 20th Century, to the social-justice proclaiming Liberal/Left movements of today (oh, heck, let’s throw in the Marxist Jim Jones Cult for good measure). The violence that our society increasingly wreaks on our weakest members is all part of the same disease and I fear that it is going to get much, much worse.

For me, it’s simple: babies are for loving, not killing — I know, I know…others disagree! The publication of such an article under the guise of “medical ethics” tells me that something truly wicked this way comes. Today, the secular Left may feign indignation at the thought that their revolution will ultimately involve killing those that do not fit their Utopian ideals, but we can see how easily they are getting comfortable with the concept over time. It will be what it will be. I hope that I don’t live to see it. But, as the New Age of Molock establishes itself, I certainly will resist it to the end. I know that you will, too.

 

*** UPDATE

And, now, in support of the Secular Humanist view of human kind as utilitarian pieces of meat, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius shares her policy perspective that abortion and contraception means fewer babies, ergo fewer government expenditures. Human reproduction becomes a simple government-mandated budget line item.

http://cnsnews.com/news/article/sebelius-decrease-human-beings-will-cover-cost-contraception-mandate

One would have to be a total fool not to recognize that this is Government asserting its sovereignty over reproductive rights and life and death decisions.

 

 

The Obama administration engages in full-out war against pro-Life people *UPDATED*

As others have commented, the Catholic Church is making the loudest noises about the new Obama Care mandate regarding birth control, abortifacients, and sterilization, but the policy is really a strike against everyone who is pro-Life in America.  If you’re a pro-Life employer, you have to pay for your employees’ abortion pills.  If you’re a pro-Life health insurance company (or health insurance company employee) you must write policies that cover every woman’s birth control, sterilization, and abortifacients.  If you are a health insurance consumer (as we all must be in Obama’s America), you will pay for abortions.

Anybody with a pro-Life conscience, even if that person has arrived at that position without benefit of organized religion, is in the line of fire.

But if you’re thinking that Obama is hostile to religion, you’re right about that too.  Check out the first update to the Anchoress’ post about the health care mandate, and you’ll see that Obama is starting to put the squeeze on in other areas when it comes to people of faith.

I’m hoping that hubris is driving the administration’s unpopular decisions now, in an election year.  To date, though, the administration has shown itself to be sufficiently Machiavellian that I wonder if it knows something about the upcoming elections that the rest of us don’t know.

UPDATE:  Oh, and for the pointedly humorous take on Obama’s policy stand, I know you’ll enjoy this.  I’ve come to the conclusion that we live in a very peculiar world, one that sees me, a loosey-goosey theist (sort of), deeply offended by the federal executive’s full force attacks on religious freedom in America.

(And please sign the petition.)

I’ve got smart friends and they send me interesting things

It’s a family stuff day, so blogging has been light, and will continue to be so.  Fortunately, I’ve got friends who send me interesting things which I am so happy to pass on to you.  In no particular order:

Wolf Howling has written a fascinating, scholarly dissertation examining the adversarial history of faith and socialism, and the way that history quite logically to Obama’s current fight with religious organizations over funding for abortifacients, contraceptives, and sterilization.

Samuel Jackson and Barack Obama are two minds with but a single thought:  Make voting easy by examining your skin color and, if it’s dark, vote accordingly.  Samuel Jackson, in a profanity-laced interview, freely admits that he couldn’t have cared less about the type of governance Obama would bring to the White House.  The only thing that mattered was his color.  That’s just one person.  Our dear (black) leader — and, yes, his color is an important point in this post — has prepared an entire video imploring black people to vote for him because he’s black:x

As the friend who sent me this asked “I wonder what the backlash would be if Mitt Romney started a Mormons for Mitt campaign?”

Rhymes with Right suggests that the Catholic Church go medieval over ObamaCare [link fixed].  I think he’s right.  Citizens in America are free to make decisions that implicate their religion — and the religion is free to make decisions right back.  What cannot happen in America, however, is precisely what Obama is doing, which is to interject the state into the relationship between the religion and its followers.

Lastly, one of my oldest and dearest blog friends, Patrick O’Hannigan, looks at the Komen versus Planned Parenthood kerfuffle.  I say “legitimate,” because they are both private organizations, as opposed to a government organization versus a religion.  Within the context of the fight itself, of course, I think Planned Parenthood’s position and strategy are both entirely illegitimate and, as Patrick carefully explains, Komen, before it caved, was in the right.

Using the First Amendment to nullify God — Air Force edition

There are no more aggressive religious proselytizers than atheists.  They sell their religion with ferocity and would willingly burn at the stake anyone who stands in their way.

Last I looked, the First Amendment prevented the government from creating a religion from above or interfering with someone’s religion.  It didn’t nullify God.

Apparently someone forgot to explain those simple constitutional facts to the suits running the Air Force:

The patch logo was changed after a military atheist group, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, protested the reference to God on the patch. The patch has a saying on it in Latin, which is common for military patches, that tranlates [sic] to: “Doing God’s Work with Other People’s Money.”

The saying was then changed last month to say: “Doing Miracles with Other People’s Money.”

Fisking three dishonest Democrat senators on the subject of ObamaCare’s birth control mandate

The last two times I fisked, I was attacking solo acts.  This time, I get a triumvirate, as the three most liberal women in the United States Senate, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, and Jeanne Shaheen, have joined together to write an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, justifying ObamaCare’s intrusion into the realm of religion.  I cannot resist the fisk.

It was a historic victory for women’s health when the Obama administration changed the law to require private health plans to provide preventive services including breast exams, HIV screening and contraception for free. This new policy will help millions of women get the affordable care they need.

[This is simply ideology blah-blah.  Women get free stuff.  Men don't.  It hardly seems fair to me.]

Now, sadly, there is an aggressive and misleading campaign to deny this benefit to women. It is being waged in the name of religious liberty. But the real forces behind it are the same ones that sought to shut down the federal government last year over funding for women’s health care. They are the same forces that just tried to pressure the Susan G. Komen Foundation into cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings. Once again, they are trying to force their politics on women’s personal health-care decisions.

[The above is an impressively misleading paragraph, conflating core constitutional rights with marketplace pressures.  The ObamaCare fight is a war of religious liberty, insofar as the Obama administration, contrary to the limitation that the First Amendment imposes upon the federal government, is trying to force religious organizations to engage in practices that directly contradict core doctrinal matters.  The other fight arose from the fact that a privately funded charity wanted to stop providing money to an organization that (a) is being investigated for corruption; (b) receives massive amounts of federal dollars; (c) is one of the largest abortion providers in the country; and (d) does almost no "breast-cancer screenings" but, instead, simply refers women to other providers.  Having the facts kind of makes a mockery out the triumvirate's claim that those opposed to the ObamaCare mandate "are trying to force their politics on women's personal health-care decisions."]

We are very glad that the president has stood up to these forces while protecting religious freedom on all sides. His administration should be commended, not criticized.

[There's that new-speak again -- the president "protects" religious freedom by imposing doctrinal mandates on religious organizations.]

Contraception was included as a required preventive service on the recommendation of the independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine and other medical experts because it is essential to the health of women and families. Access to birth control is directly linked to declines in maternal and infant mortality, can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, and is linked to overall good health outcomes. Nationwide, 1.5 million women use contraceptives only as treatment for serious medical conditions. Most importantly, broadening access to birth control will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions, a goal we all should share.

[Been here, done that.  This is the big lie at the heart of the Obama administration's attack on traditional religious institutions.  These harpies constantly conflate the availability of birth control with funding for birth control.  They are not the same.  Women in America can get birth control.  The government can fund organizations -- indeed, it already does with the monies that go to Planned Parenthood -- that provide all these birth control options.  Forcing religious organizations to pay for birth control, sterilization and abortifacients, however, both exceeds the government's power and contravenes the limitations the Bill of Rights imposes on government.  This is not about whether women should have birth control; it's about with the government can force churches to pay for it.]

Proper family planning through birth control results in healthier mothers and children, which benefits all of us. It saves us money too: The National Business Group on Health—a nonprofit whose members are primarily Fortune 500 companies and large public-sector employers—estimated that it costs 15% to 17% more for employers to exclude birth-control coverage, both because other medical costs rise and because of lost productivity.

[See above.  Apples and oranges.  Even accepting as true every single statement in the above paragraph, that still doesn't give the administration the right or power to force churches to fund birth control, sterilization and abortifacients.]

Contraception is not a controversial issue for the vast majority of Americans. Some 99% of women in the U.S. who are or have been sexually active at some point in their lives have used birth control, including 98% of Catholic women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. A recent survey by Hart Research shows 71% of American voters, including 77% of Catholic women voters, supported this provision broadening access to birth control.

[Ditto.]

Consistent with other federal policies, churches and other groups dedicated to teaching religious doctrine are exempted from providing this coverage under a “conscience clause.” But the law does include institutions that have historic religious ties but also have a broader mission, such as hospitals and universities. That’s also consistent with federal policy—and with laws that already exist in many states.

[Boot strapping argument here.  The second sentence assumes that the law is allowed to include institutions that aren't dedicated solely to religious activity, and staffed solely by core religious employees, and then says that, because the law includes them, therefore the inclusion is consistent with federal policy.  And, as did Sebelius, these gals wrongly look to state law, as if the states' acts give the federal government powers denied it under the Constitution.]

Those now attacking the new health-coverage requirement claim it is an assault on religious liberty, but the opposite is true. Religious freedom means that Catholic women who want to follow their church’s doctrine can do so, avoiding the use of contraception in any form. But the millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.

[Nothing now prevents church employees from buying and using contraception.  They've been able to do so freely, in all 50 states, since the Griswold case in 1965.  What does exist now is a Big Rule saying that the government cannot force religious organizations to engage in acts that violate doctrine.  The First Amendment is explicit:  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."  Right now, there are no laws prohibiting Catholic women from doing whatever the heck they please regarding their health care and contraceptive choices.  The only difference now is that never before has the federal government had the temerity to make laws, rules, and regulations that directly implicate an establishment of religion, prohibiting it from freely exercising its faith.]

Catholic hospitals and charities are woven into the fabric of our broader society. They serve the public, receive government funds, and get special tax benefits. We have a long history of asking these institutions to play by the same rules as all our other public institutions.

[Rhetorical sleight of hand.  When it comes to playing by workplace rules, the previous rules didn't attack doctrine.  This here is a different type of rule.]

So let’s remember who this controversy is really about—the women of America. Already too many women struggle to pay for birth control. According to the Hart Research survey cited above, more than one-third of women have reported having difficulty affording birth control. It can cost $600 a year for prescription contraceptives. That’s a lot of money for a mother working as a medical technician in a Catholic hospital, or a teacher in a private religious school.

[And we're right back to the cost-shifting argument.  See my discussion, above.]

Improving access to birth control is good health policy and good economic policy. It will mean healthier women, healthier children and healthier families. It will save money for businesses and consumers. We should hold to the promise we made women and provide this access broadly. Our nation will be better for it.

[Ditto.]

I was going to wrap this up by saying I’ve seldom seen a more ignorant and dishonest piece of advocacy writing. I’ve decided, though, that it’s not ignorant. These gals know what they’re doing and what game they are playing. This is simply dishonest.  It is, however, a fine piece of writing coming from acolytes of the Constitutional law professor who now discovers, seemly for the first time in his intellectual life, that the Founders wisely wanted to limit a nascent dictator’s power:

[T]his week Barack Obama proved himself once again the perfect epigone of Woodrow Wilson—the first president to criticize the Constitution and the principles of the American Founding—with his remarks to NBC’s Matt Lauer that one reason he hasn’t succeeded in fulfilling his campaign promises to transform the world is that “it turns out our Founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes.”  It turns out?  He’s just discovering this now?  (Well, one thing that “turns out” is that the only constitutional law Obama actually taught at the University of Chicago was the equal protection clause.  Apparently he skipped over that whole “separation of powers” stuff.)

Both William Shirer and Hitler think the Obama administration is making a mistake with its attack on the Catholic Church

No, William Shirer and Hitler have not really addressed current political issues, because (of course) both are dead.  And no, I’m most certainly not comparing Obama or anyone in his administration to Hitler.  But yes, they both did in the past offer advice about direct government attacks on the Catholic Church, and Obama would be wise to heed that advice.

Now that it’s available in sleek Kindle form, so that I no longer have to lug around a 1,200 page book, I’m finally reading William Shirer’s masterful The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  As I just started reading it yesterday, I’ve only gotten as far as Hitler’s 1909-1913 sojourn in Vienna, the time during which he formulated his philosophies, both racial and political.  Vienna, the capital of a rapidly disintegrating polyglot nation that saw the Germanic minority holding political power over the Slavs, allowed Hitler to witness the rise and fall of several political movements, and to draw his own conclusions about what contributed to their success or failure.

Hitler was a man of unparalleled evil.  He was also an exceptionally astute observer of human nature and politics, who put his insights into the service of his evil agenda.  That the agenda was wrong does not mean that the insights lack validity.  One of the insights that Shirer points out would not have struck me so strongly had it not been for the events of the past week.  Georg Ritter von Schoenerer’s Pan-German Nationalist Party was one of the political movements that did not succeed during Hitler’s Vienna years, but that certainly gave him food for thought.  I’ll now cede the floor to quotations from Shirer and Hitler (at location 640 of 35703, emphasis mine):

The Pan-Germans at that time were engaged in a last-ditch struggle for German supremacy in the multinational empire.  And though Hitler thought that Schoenerer was a “profound thinker” and enthusiastically embraced his basic program of violent nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-socialism, union with Germany and opposition to the Hapsburgs and the Holy See, he quickly sized up the causes for the party’s failure:

This movement’s inadequate appreciation of the importance of the social problem cost it the truly militant mass of the people; its entry into Parliament took away its might impetus and burdened it with all the weaknesses peculiar to this institution; the struggle against the Catholic Church . . . robbed it of countless of the best elements that the nation can call its own.

Though Hitler was to forget it when he came to power in Germany, one of the lessons of his Vienna years which he stresses at great length in Mein Kampf is the futility of a political party’s trying to oppose the churches.  “Regardless of how much room for criticism there was in any religious denomination,” he says, in explaining why Schoenerer’s Los-vonRom (Away from Rome) movement was a tactical error, “a political party must never for a moment lose sight of the fact that in all previous historical experience a purely political party has never succeeded in producing a religious reformation.”

The Catholic Church has changed because it wanted to.  In the last 50 or 60 years, it has changed, at least at the grass-roots level, because Leftists have infiltrated it.  But the Catholic Church does not change when a political movement attacks it from the front, which is what the Leftists in America have suddenly decided to do.

Incidentally, I’m not the only one seeing that, without in any way calling today’s Leftist’s Nazis, all of us can learn by examining the mistakes of the past.

Open warfare between the Left and America might be a good and clarifying thing

We are now at the point of open warfare between the Left and the traditional Judeo-Christian faiths in America.  We all know that there’s long been a covert war, but it’s finally out in the open now.  As I’ve pointed out on my blog, this week alone, the open war has played out in the Susan G. Komen versus Planned Parenthood fight, the ObamaCare versus Catholic Church fight, and the gay activists versus any religion fight.  Now, we can add one (or maybe two) more to the list:  the Leftists and Muslims versus Christians at West Point attack, with, as a companion piece, the silencing of military chaplains.

West Point Chapel

A flurry of very high profile attacks might actually be a good thing.  Covert attacks are very difficult to defend against.  There are a lot of Cassandras in covert wars, people who realize what’s happen, but whose are disregarded on the ground that their confused or paranoid.  It’s only when war is well and truly declared that people get energized and are willing to man the barricades.

Cassandra prophesying

America is a religious nation.  Ordinary Joe and Josephine might be willing to sit in their recliners in the face of one or two of these attacks, showing the same inertia seen in Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came. . . .” poem. These sustained attacks against all aspects of religion in public life, however, might make Joe and Josephine worry that they’re the next ones the government and its cohorts will come for.

Obama’s war on Catholics (and other faith-based organizations)

Jonathan Last has as good a summation as any I’ve seen of the now open warfare between Barack Obama and his erstwhile ally, the fairly liberal American Catholic Church.  The article ends with an effort to understand why Obama would pick this battle, and why he would pick it now.  It’s certainly an interesting fight to pick during election year.

Last points out that, while the Catholic Church was blindsided, and most middle-of-the-road Americans were completely unaware that anything at all was happening, the MoveOn.org left has been agitating for comprehensive birth control and abortifacient coverage for months now.  In other words, forcing all employers to cover birth control and abortion drugs mattered to the base.   Did Obama not realize that being forced in that way would also matter to the Catholic Church?

Was Obama (and when I say “Obama” I’m referring to the president and all his minions) thinking that, when push comes to shove, Catholics, like Jews and blacks, will vote Democrat no matter what?  In that regard, Obama appears to be unperturbed by the fact that small, but significant, numbers of Jewish voters are shifting Republican.  It’s unclear if this shift is because even liberal Jews couldn’t take Obama’s continuous assaults on Israel or because even liberal Jews, looking at their white-collar world, are beginning to realize that Obama’s policies are not improving their situation.

Alternatively, was Obama thinking that an energized base is the most important thing of all, as that will be the engine that powers his election train?

Or, as some here have speculated, is this simply an example of Obama’s hostility to Western religious institutions?  After all, the man lives in a liberal bubble, and I don’t think he has the wit or imagination to understand how deeply committed religious organizations and religious people to the right to life.  To him, they’re wrong, and he’ll bring them to the light.  (This is a point Michael Ramirez nailed in his latest editorial cartoon.)

I’m asking here, not answering.  What do all of you think?  What would make Obama pick this fight in an election year?

Barbara Boxer’s Orwellian defense of the way in which the new healthcare mandate advances religious freedom *UPDATED*

Barbara Boxer has taken to the pages of the Huffington Post to explain why the administration’s mandate that all insurers provide birth control, including drugs that induce abortion, advances rather than restricts, religious freedom.  If you like Orwell’s Newspeak, Boxer’s writing is a thing of beauty and will certainly be a joy forever as a model of obfuscation and deceit.  I think it deserves a nice fisking, I really do:

When President Obama announced that because of health care reform, birth control would soon be available for free in new insurance plans, you would have expected universal approval.

[Why in the world would there be universal approval for a policy that requires people to underwrite birth control for everyone, including the 1%?  It's not as if birth control was unavailable before ObamaCare.  Nor is birth control expensive.  Condoms will not break anyone's bank and the pill is one of the cheapest products around.  So remind me again why I'm celebrating being forced to pay for other people's personal birth control choices?]

After all, virtually all women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used birth control at some point in their lives and 71 percent of American voters, including 77 percent of Catholic women voters, support this policy.

[See above.  It's not about who uses birth control, Catholic women included.  It's about who pays for birth control.  Welcome to Boxer's first piece of Orwellian sleight of hand.]

That is why I was stunned to read E.J. Dionne’s column in the Washington Post today denouncing a decision that should instead be lauded, especially by those of us who care about religious freedom, women’s health, and economic fairness.

[Now we get to it:  the policy advances "religious freedom . . . and economic fairness."  I'm completely unclear what's economically fair about a working class Mom or a small business having to fund a policy that will help Paris Hilton get her birth control for free.  But let's get to the real meat.  Let's find out how, in Obama/Orwell land, forcing everyone to pay for birth control and abortion pills advancing religious freedom.]

The truth is, the president’s decision respects the diverse religious views of the American people, who deserve the right to follow their own conscience and choose whether to obtain contraceptives, regardless of where they work. [Uh, Babs -- nobody is banning them from getting contraceptives now.  Last I looked, I could walk into any pharmacy and, for a very affordable price, get myriad over-the-counter contraceptives.  And I can go to my doctor and get a prescription for other affordable contraceptives.  This isn't about access; it's about funding.]  And that is what this policy guarantees — with one carefully drawn exception. This decision respects the deeply-held views of religious institutions. If their mission is primarily religious and the majority of their employees and clients share that faith, religious institutions do not have to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.  [Here's where the real double-speak lies, since it overlooks the fact that the only entirely religious institutions are convents and monasteries.  Whether we're talking a vast Catholic educational institution, a soup kitchen, or the local parish, outside of ministering positions, the Catholic Church is required by law to hire people of different religions.  In any event, my understanding is that, again outside of the core religious functionaries, the Church freely hires those who are willing to accommodate its vision and goals.  In other words, the so-called "exception" probably covers six convents and a monastery.]

So, despite what his critics claim, the president’s policy does in fact respect religious freedom. [No, it doesn't, because it aims to prevent any Catholic institutions from competing in the employment marketplace, by intentionally creating a situation in which Catholic institutions can no longer give their employees insurance coverage.]  In addition, opponents of this policy shockingly ignore the facts: that it will reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions in our country — a goal I thought we all shared.  [Non sequitur.  We're not talking about reducing unintended pregnancies.  We're talking about a government policy that forces a religious organization to fund a practice that is doctrinally abhorrent.]

The president followed the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other independent medical experts who recommended that health plans cover preventive services that women cannot afford to miss, including annual exams, HIV screening and, yes, contraception. These experts know the truth: The best way to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions is to make birth control more accessible to women and men. Period. Without birth control, a couple has an 85 percent chance of having an unintended pregnancy within a year.

[See my last comment, above.  This is mixing Marxist apples with religious oranges.  We have a free country in which women already have access to birth control, sterilization, and abortion.  It's just that, until today, the government hasn't forced religious organizations to sponsor these practices.  It also ignores the fact that the Church believes that the best way to protect women is to teach them to treat sex as a sacred obligation within the bounds of marriage.  In other words, the Church's birth control is to take a stand against a promiscuous, hook-up culture.]

Finally, this decision will help working families by giving them access to free birth control. The cost of birth control can be prohibitive for many women, particularly in these difficult economic times. In fact, 34 percent of women voters report having struggled with the cost of prescription birth control. Surprisingly, Dionne glosses over the crucial issue of cost by recommending that the President simply require plans that won’t cover birth control to tell their employees where else they can buy it. He dismisses it as a “modest cost.” Well, tell that to the woman making minimum wage and struggling to buy groceries for her children — paying an extra $600 a year for birth control pills is a major expense for her, not a “modest cost.”

[Another red herring.  I have a suggestion, Babs.  Rather than making the Church pay for this "modest cost," why don't you tell the President to authorize the Keystone Pipeline?  That will create thousands of jobs and substantially drop the cost of oil.  This latter cost drives up the price of everything.  But it's clear that the President would rather attack the Catholic's core doctrines, than the Gaia worshippers' core doctrines.]

Improving access to affordable birth control is not a controversial issue for the American people, the vast majority of whom support family planning. The president’s decision should bring all sides together because it will help millions of women and their families. Certainly, that is a policy worthy of our praise.

[Doublespeak, doublespeak, doublespeak.  We have complete access in this country to birth control.  We have women who might be struggling to meet the cost because Obama's policies, including the stimulus and the refusal to exploit our energy resources, have made many things more expensive for many people.  Forcing religious institutions to fund practices that are morally abhorrent is not the way to balance out Obama's economic failings.]

Okay, enough with wandering around the cesspool that is Boxer’s brain and moral decency. If you really want to know what’s going on, I recommend Elizabeth Scalia’s article on the opening salvo in Obama’s war against the Catholic Church (and, of course, other religious organizations).

UPDATE:  Welcome, David Hogberg readers!

ObamaCare, the Catholic Church, and mandatory abortion payments

In the halcyon pre-Obama days, when Prop. 8 meant that gay marriage was a hot blogging issue, I argued that religion organizations, not the state, should be allowed to define what constitutes a “marriage,” with states confined to authorizing “civil unions.”  In that context, I commented upon the religious implications of the government mandating that a church engage in something that touches upon a core doctrinal belief:

The second problem right now with the emphasis on changing state definitions of marriage, rather than religious definitions, is the risk that there will be direct challenges between church and state. A lawyer I know assured me that this couldn’t happen because, for example, the Catholic church does not get sued because it opposes abortion.  That was facile reasoning.  While abortions may be a civil right, the Catholic church does not provide abortions.  What the Catholic church provides is communion, which is not a civil right, so the church can withhold it at will.  What happens, though, when the church provides something which is both a core doctrinal belief (marriage) and a state right (marriage)?  It’s a head-on collision, and I can guarantee you that the courts will get involved and that some activist judge will state that the Catholic Church is constitutionally required to marry gay couples.  (Emphasis added.)

I was prescient.  Mandating that the Catholic Church provide abortions is precisely what the Obama administration is doing.  Institutions such as the Catholic Church, which considers the right to life one of its core beliefs, must nevertheless fund abortions by providing insurance that makes abortion drugs available to all women on demand.  Funding an act is tantamount to committing that act yourself.

Whether you support a woman’s right to have an abortion or not, surely anyone who is intellectually honest must see that it is morally wrong to make a religious institution fund it.  To use an extreme analogy, this is the beginning of a continuum that ends with Jews being forced to dig their own mass burial pits before being lined upon along the edge of those pit and shot.

I assume that those who are celebrating this mandate will contend that, throughout the Bush years, they were forced to see their tax dollars go to fund a war they did not support, one that saw thousands of people die.  Likewise, those who oppose the death penalty must nevertheless pay taxes that fund the judicial and prison system.  That argument is a red herring.  The Constitution explicitly authorizes both war and capital punishment, which are legitimate government powers.  Those who don’t like that reality are welcome to try a Constitutional amendment to wipe out the government’s war powers and do away with capital punishment.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

There is nothing in the Constitution, however, that authorizes the Federal government (and, by extension through the 14th Amendment, any state government) to mandate that a religious institution be complicit in an act it believes constitutes murder.  More to the point, the Constitutional grant of religious freedom, by which the government agrees to stay out of managing a religious institutions affairs, either practical or doctrinal, should prohibit such conduct entirely.  This is one more example, as if we needed it, of the Obama administration’s fundamental lawlessness.

 

West Marin secularists very disturbed that Catholic organization wants to pray

One of the things that profoundly changed my thinking about religion and about liberalism was contrasting the belligerent anti-religious atmosphere in Berkeley with the tolerant Christian environment I encountered in Texas.  This is not to say that all non-religious places are belligerently anti-religious, or that all Christian environments are tolerant.  However, it did teach me a very useful lesson, which is that secularists can be every bit as rigid, dogmatic, and prejudiced as anyone else.

What’s interesting about secular prejudice is that it’s nihilistic.  Christians want to bring you to something; secularists want to back you away from everything.

The almost random hostility that is aggressive secularism reared its head in West Marin recently.  The Catholic Youth Organization (emphasis mine) sponsors all sorts of sports here in Marin.  Sign-up is open to everyone, not just Catholics, but the CYO doesn’t pretend not to be a Catholic organization.  It crossed a Marin line, however, when it announced that, before basketball games start, it wants to have a prayer.  A very non-denominational, practically Unitarian, prayer:

CYO Athletics provides an atmosphere of sportsmanship for youth that fosters their physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual strength.

Although it is not mandatory, we invite athletes, coaches, parents, and officials to take a moment to remember that God is present in each of us as we come together not just as competitors but as brothers and sisters. Please stand as we pray:

God, we pray that our hearts be open to see your presence in and through sports.

We pray for athletes who, through sports, develop character and values.

We pray for coaches who place players before winning and value sportsmanship.

We pray for parents who love their children for who they are, not for how they perform.

We pray for officials who inspire fair play.

We pray in God’s name. Amen.

It takes a special kind of mentality to be offended by a polite and voluntary request to a higher being asking for character development, sportsmanship, parental love and fair play. Fortunately for blogging fodder, here in Marin we have those special mentalities.  While some understand that a private organization sponsored by the Catholic church is within its rights to ask people to join it in a prayer, others are up in arms.  Some merely express discomfort — a la “religion has no place in sports” — but some are much more aggressive in their hostility to the idea:

A decision by Catholic Youth Organization leaders to ask young athletes to pray before basketball games has touched a nerve among residents of the San Geronimo Valley.

“I understand that if we rent to one religious group, we have to rent to them all. But I still don’t like it,” said Richard Sloan, a trustee of the Lagunitas School District, which co-owns the San Geronimo Valley Gym. “I’m going to put up a sign in front of the gym: ‘If you don’t pray in my school, I won’t think in your church.’”  (Emphasis mine.)

At least Sloan is honest about his incredible prejudice.  Others are trying different tactics, including the claim that many parents had no idea the Catholic Youth Organization was actually Catholic; that no one needs to ask God for help with pushy parents because there are only a few of them out there in West Marin; and that West Marin’s varying faiths are so delicately balanced against each other that no end of chaos could result because of this bland little prayer for good sportsmanship.

In a funny way (or maybe it’s not so funny at all), this secularist hostility and its aggressive efforts to shut down all forms of privately expressed faith in the public square reminds me of a problem I’ve always had with Islam:  namely the Islamists’ incredible fear that their religion can’t compete, so that the only way to preserve the faith is to kill (really kill, with sword, stone, hangman’s rope and bomb) the competition.

I like having a marketplace of religion.  This marketplace is not one in which practitioners of one religion coerce, kill, harass, humiliate, stone or demean members of other faiths.  Instead, it’s a marketplace in which various religions generously and often lovingly make their activities and rituals available to others, secure in the belief that there’s a viable product, one that builds, rather than destroys.  I’d be a lot happier if the secularists would have the same approach, rather than aping the Islamists, by trying to shut everyone else down.

Arbitrary and capricious gods, from ancient times to modern

Today at lunch, Don Quixote and I ended up talking about predestination and free will.  Along the way we touched upon whether prayers are necessary (if God is omniscient, doesn’t he already know what we want?) and funerals (definitely for the living, although one doesn’t want to disrespect the dead).  We also talked about the Christian concept of Grace, and the Puritan ethos of living a “holier than thou” lifestyle so as to make it clear to the neighbors that one had indeed embraced Christ and, presumably, been embraced right back.  (I know that’s a bit facetious and facile, but I’m assuming you all are reasonably familiar with the Puritan’s religious doctrine, religious practices, and lifestyles.)

We eventually ended up talking about the fact that God’s enormity makes him unknowable — yet so many are nevertheless certain that they can speak for God, predict his actions, and know his desires.  In that context, a little paradox flashed into my brain.  Pagan gods, rather consistently, are very human, and usually not in a very nice way.  If you cast your mind over the Greek and Roman panoply, you’ll see that the gods were greedy, lustful, vengeful, jealous, mischievous, vindictive, and impulsive.  And always, these characteristics showed themselves randomly.  The one consistent thing about the pagan gods was that they were unpredictable, arbitrary, and capricious.  For all that they mimicked human behaviors, they were impossible to understand.  One could only try to avoid and placate them.  For that reason, just like the children of abusive parents, pagan worshippers weren’t motivated by morality.  Rather, their goal, always, was to avoid abuse, no matter what it took.

The Jewish God was a different thing altogether.  Although abstract and invisible (no beautiful Aphrodite, thunderbolt-toting Zeus, or chariot-driving Apollo), the Jewish God did something unthinkable in the pagan world:  he entered into a fixed contract with his Chosen People.  He imposed an obligation upon himself to make these people his own and, in return, he imposed upon them a few specific, overarching moral rules (the commandments) and a raft of behavioral rules.  He never promised that his behavior would be comprehensible, but he make it clear that, if the Jews followed the rules, they would be his Chosen People and would not be at fault for the unknowable events that might affect their lives.

The irony, of course, is that humans, being human, haven’t been able to resist analyzing these practical and ethical obligations in an effort to reach into God’s mind and personality.  “If he tells us to do X, that must mean that he is (or wants) Y.“  The pagans didn’t bother to try to figure their gods out.  Doing so was like trying to herd cats or collect soap bubbles.  The Judeo-Christian God, though, by presenting humans with a rational template of behavior, gave the illusion that he is knowable.

As it happens, I don’t believe God can be knowable.  All we can do if we’re religious is follow the rules (whether Jewish or Christian), and take comfort from the fact that we’re holding up our side of the covenant.

Incidentally, because I can’t resist a bit of punditry myself, would it be too obvious if I suggested here that modern pagans, who rejoice in the “Progressive Environmentalist” label, engage in behaviors very similar to that practiced by the Greeks and Romans, in thrall to their own unpredictable earth goddess?  Because the earth they worship imposes no fixed moral standards or behavioral codes on them, they constantly take her temperature, trying to figure out if she’s running too hot or too cold.  And if the results of these investigations frighten them, they desperately try to placate her.

The human sacrifices the new pagans make aren’t as immediate as they once were — no people lobbed into swamps, buried in pits, tossed in volcanoes, or creatively eviscerated — but they’re just as real.  Thanks to the new pagans’ decision to abandon the petroleum products that have served us so long and so well, and their desperate move to turn crops into energy, rather than food, they’ve created starvation and unrest throughout the world.  (It’s been a while, but it’s worth remembering that Egypt was ripe for unrest because of skyrocketing food prices caused, in part, by the fact that food crops have been diverted to ethanol.)  If the immolation of large parts of the Middle East doesn’t count as a sizable human sacrifice to the unreliable, arbitrary and capricious Gaia, I don’t know what does.

 

Nancy Pelosi — tough and confused about principles

David Axelrod’s talk yesterday included a shout-out to the lovable Nancy Pelosi, whom he feels is unfairly maligned by the Rushes of this world.  Per David, Nancy is not an effete San Francisco liberal.  Instead, she’s a tough political operative — for all the right, i.e., Progressive, reasons, of course — who was trained in her Dad’s old-fashioned, rough-and-tumble ward rooms.  He described with affection Nancy ramming her finger repeatedly in his chest when she felt he’d failed to deliver on something or other.

What a charmer.

I can readily believe Axelrod’s talk about Nancy’s toughness and finger strikes.  The “principled” part, though, is a little harder.  Isn’t this the woman who recently castigated Catholics for having “this conscience thing“?  Hmmm….  Conscience?  Principles?  They kind of seem like a matched set to me.

Just the other day, Pelosi again stumbled on her principles when she complained that Bishops who object to forcing Catholics to subsidize things that they think are morally evil (abortions, for example) are “lobbyists.”  The Anchoress has more on this one.  When I think of Nancy Pelosi and principles, I keep getting a mental image of Jon Lovitz doing his compulsive liar shtick.  “Yeah, principles.  That’s the ticket!”

The Bible’s humanity

This weekend, Mr. Bookworm and I finally got around to watching “Koran by Heart,” an HBO documentary about an annual Koran memorization contest held in Cairo during Ramadan.  The documentary followed three ten-year old children — a boy from Tajikistan, a girl from the Maldives, and a boy from Senegal.  All three children were manifestly bright, curious, and possibly possessed of photographic memories.  And all three were trapped in a system that makes memorizing the Koran in the original Arabic (and none of these three children spoke Arabic) the apex of education.  In other words, this was a sheer memory exercise, unaccompanied by understanding and analysis. Indeed, the boy from Tajikistan was functionally illiterate in both Arabic and Tajik.  This show, more than any other we’ve ever watched, got Mr. Bookworm thinking about the vast chasm between the Western and Islamic worlds.

Spending an hour and a half watching a show about the Koran, which included periodic translations from the text, got me thinking about the Bible.  Around the world, billions of Christians and Jews read the Bible.  It is a living text.  Although last updated two thousand years ago, with the New Testament, it is as vital today as has been at any time during its history.

I don’t believe the Bible’s continuing vitality is simply because people of faith teach it to their children, and have done so for thousands of years.  I believe its ongoing relevance and resonance come about because the Bible is an intensely humanist document.  I cannot think of another religious treatise that is so people-oriented.  God is certainly there, as the creator, covenantor, moralist, teacher, guide and judge, but the Bible is fundamentally a story of human kind:  its virtues, foibles, fears, frustrations, good and evil.  It remains valid today because, while cultures change, people don’t.  We recognize ourselves in the Bible.  Our times may dictate the morality and other lessons we take from the book, but we are all there, every one of us, in all our permutations.

In the same vein, Yiddish is an intensely human-oriented language.  While the Inuits may have a lot of words for snow, jungle dwellers a range of words for animal and plant life, and farmers an endless repertoire of weather and crop words, Yiddish has words about people.  Not blunt, broad words, but myriad delicate words that contemplate the nature of humanity and all shades of human behavior.

Only Yiddish has such words as schlemiel and schlemazel.  You may already know the difference between those words:  the schlemiel spills the soup; the schlemazel gets it in his lap.  Or chutzpah, which is defined by looking at the man who kills both his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.  And how about mensch, which sounds exactly like the German word for person but, in Yiddish, means so much more:  a Yiddish mensch is a truly decent human being.  He’s not just a sentient ape; he is the apex of what ordinary people can aspire to be in their daily lives.

I don’t have anywhere else to go with this post.  I just thought that both the Bible and Yiddish are unusual insofar as they are intensely aware of human nature.

 

Legislating religion to death

During the gay marriage debate, I mentioned to a lawyer friend of mine that gay marriage would inevitably set up a church versus state conflict if a church refused to marry a gay couple — especially the Catholic Church, which counts marriage amongst its sacraments.  My lawyer friend came back with what he thought was a brilliant riposte:  “Well, abortion hasn’t created a church versus state conflict.”  I reminded him, gently, that the church doesn’t perform abortions, it just advocates against them, but that it does in fact perform marriages.  He looked perplexed.  I didn’t press the point, believing that it was more useful for his thought process to marinate in the idea.

Will you be surprised to learn that the Anchoress has taken my narrow, shallowly expressed thought and delved into it much more deeply?  No?  I wasn’t surprised either.  Please read what the Anchoress has to say on constant Progressive legislation that undermines religion’s reach in America and, if you feel so inclined, come back here and talk about it with me.

SF Chronicle assures us that the story about the teacher who banned “God bless you” was just a tempest in a teapot *UPDATED*

I’m growing very fond of Jill Tucker, a “journalist” at the San Francisco Chronicle who gives me lots of meat for my blogging.  A couple of weeks ago, I looked at her incurious (some might say lazy) reporting about the decision the Oakland Children’s Museum’s made to cancel a controversial art show consisting of pictures that Palestinian children had allegedly drawn.  (I say allegedly because people more familiar with fakes than I think it is highly unlikely that real children created the pictures.)

Tucker ignored entirely the far-Left, anti-American, anti-Israel, antisemitic nature of the group sponsoring the show, and managed to make it sound as if these works were equivalent to Jewish children’s drawings and poems from Terezinstadt.  With few exceptions, those child artists died in Auschwitz’s gas chambers.  They didn’t shop at local malls or swim in Olympic pools.  And when doctors attended those Jewish children, their goals were malevolent, not humanitarian.

Tucker is at it again, this time with a report purporting to explain that the teacher who punished students for saying “bless you” in class had no anti-religious motivation whatsoever.  To give Tucker credit where credit is due, this story starts with good spin.  She announces, loudly and repeatedly, that the kids who received penalties weren’t exercising ordinary good manners when they said “bless you;” they were, instead, acting out solely to irritate their teacher:

It all started when high school health teacher Steve Cuckovich disciplined his freshman students at Will C. Wood High School last week for repeatedly disrupting class by responding to sneezes with a overenthusiastic chorus of “Bless You.”

The sneezer would then thank each giver of the blessing individually.

Cuckovich, as teachers have done since time immemorial, decided to nip that behavior in the bud by docking student grades for the offense.

See?  Totally innocent.  Naughty students; appropriately strict teacher.  Every one of us remembers those days from our own high school years.

How in the world, then, did this story become a world-wide kerfuffle?  Tucker knows who was at fault:  A busy-body parents and Fox News turned garden-variety classroom discipline into a Christian-outrage cause célèbre:

A parent saw the deduction and made a phone call – not to the teacher or the principal or even an elected official, said district Superintendent John Niederkorn.

And that’s about when Cuckovich found a local Fox TV news reporter in his classroom asking why he was banning “Bless you.”

Our good soldier Tucker describes the way in which religious zealots around the world (i.e., Christians) got their knickers in a twist merely because a teacher clamped down on disruptive behavior.  She explains carefully, with myriad quotations yet, that Cuckovich’s only sin was the fact that, in the heat of the moment, he punished the students for saying “bless you,” rather than focusing more generally on the fact that they were disrupting his class.

So far, I am totally with Tucker.  she’s right.  Absolutely right.  Her damage control is pitch-perfect.  Tucker starts singing badly out of tune, however, when confronted by Cuckovich’s own conduct immediately after the fact.  That was when he got the opportunity to explain in his own words what happened in that classroom (emphasis mine):

Cuckovich, however, inadvertently added to the controversy by explaining to reporters that he used the situation as a teaching moment, educating students on the origins of “bless you.”

It appeared to be an effort to reason with students before punishing them, but it added fuel to the religious fury.

“The blessing doesn’t really make any sense anymore,” he told the Sacramento Fox TV news affiliate. “When you sneezed in the old days, they thought you were dispelling evil spirits out of your body. So they were saying God bless you for getting rid of the evil spirits. But today, I said, really what you’re doing doesn’t make sense anymore.”

I love that Tucker-ish word “inadvertently.”  You see, the problem wasn’t what Cuckovich did.  It was that he explained what he did.  Tucker seems to find nothing unnerving about a public school teacher who lectures students about the fact that “God bless you” is an archaic throwback to a primitive time when people actually believed in God and evil, and then explicitly censors that term in his classroom.

So there you have it:  In Tucker-world, it’s always entirely accidental when a teacher displays religious hostility in a classroom.

I don’t doubt that Cuckovich was legitimately irritated by genuinely bad behavior from his students.  Had Cuckovich limited himself to explaining the ancient origins of a commonly used phrase, while reminding students that disruptive behavior is always subject to penalty, there would have been no story.  What makes the whole story newsworthy, and Tucker’s spin silly, is the fact that Cuckovich launched into what amounts to a “God is dead” lecture to justify his decision and then took the extra step of explicitly prohibiting the phrase “God bless you.” You begin to get the feeling that this guy is an atheist (which is perfectly okay, as I’m periodically one myself), and that he wants to pass that belief-less system on to his health class students (which is not okay).

As it is, even thought I’m an intermittent atheist and periodic agnostic myself, I’m willing to take all the blessings I can get.  We live in a tough world, and there’s a lot to be said for a little good feeling coming from both those around us and, assuming he’s not dead, from God himself.

God bless you!

 

UPDATE:  I got the following comment.  Assuming that the author of the comment is who he says he is, it certainly deserves to be raised up to the level of the post itself:

Steve Cuckovich is my father-in-law, so I am speaking from experience that this had nothing to do with religion. He is not an atheist (not that there would be anything wrong if he was), sent all 3 of his kids to Catholic school, and has attended church most of the Sundays of his life. He is open to the views of others, including his Jewish son-in-law (me), and has been a dedicated and caring teacher for nearly 40 years. He teaches many freshmen and sees it as important to teach them that it is not always appropriate to blurt things out, such as at a wedding or a funeral or, yes, even in the middle of a classroom lesson, particularly if the purpose is create a distraction, which is clearly what was the case in this instance. The Chronicle has been the most accurate reporting on this whole issue (or really non-issue), although even they had things wrong. This is an example of Fox News taking one quote out of context (the one about evil spirits, which has nothing to do with the reason for the “ban”) to create a false religious scandal. Nearly every news story thereafter has repeated this out-of-context statement, which has led to hate mail and a lot of emotional turmoil for the family of a great man and excellent teacher.

Submission in a marriage *UPDATED*

As part of a larger rumination about religion, Barney Quick looked at the Christian notion of a woman’s submission within her marriage, since the media is going after Michele Bachmann on that point:

The recent dust-up over Michelle Bachmann’s statements on record that she feels Biblically commanded to be submissive in her marriage is another example of the kind of thing that hangs me up.  She’s not alone. There is even a network of blogs maintained by women who are proud to be submissive.

I know, I know.  The Christian view of marriage is that the man and woman become one, and the the man loves his wife like Christ loves the church, and therefore there is mutual respect, but ultimately there is no doubt that what is being asserted is that the man is the captain, the leader, the one in the family who makes the decisions to which the wife and children will defer.  I like Michelle Bachmann a lot; she’s one of my top three or four Pub presidential candidates.  But let’s be candid; she’s been dancing around the theological point since it resurfaced last week.

I’ve been thinking about the subject a lot myself, for years actually.  Twenty-five years to be precise.  Twenty-five years ago, in a single weekend, I went to two weddings.  The first wedding was a yuppie New Age ceremony with a mail-order minister who waffled on about universal harmonies, shakras, karma, the joining of souls, etc.  I found the ceremony peculiarly un-compelling.  I couldn’t figure out if the bride and groom had committed to each other for life, or were taking some sort of oath before embarking on a spaceship for galaxies unknown.

The next day, I went to the wedding of two people who belonged to a small, deeply fundamentalist church.  It was my first exposure to an evangelical wedding, which meant it was also the first time I’d heard a minister give voice to the notion that, just as Christ is the head of the Church, so too is the man the head of the married couple.  The minister said that, for the man, this position carries with it tremendous responsibility to love, honor, protect and respect the wife, but that the man still has the dominant position.  I was shocked to the core of my feminist soul . . . yet, even then, I had this sense that I had attended a real wedding, with the bride and groom committing themselves to each other and to God.  I also had a sense of order.

Fast forward to today.  I have a friend who has what is, without question, the most successful marriage I’ve ever seen.  He would say that it’s because he’s married to the most wonderful woman in the world which is, of course, true.  But she would say (I’m pretty sure), that it’s because she is married to the most wonderful man in the world, which also happens to be true.  These two like and respect each other at a level that I’ve only seen a few other times.  But here’s the kicker:  on the rare occasions when they have disputes that reach an impasse, he casts the deciding vote.  Because he loves, likes and respects her so much, he never casts a vote that is intended to hurt or demean her.  Nevertheless, he is the tie-breaker.

Frankly, this strikes me as a good thing.  When he finally makes a decision, she hasn’t lost, nor as he won.  He’s simply exercised his position within the relationship to resolve stalemates.  If you don’t have someone in the marriage who occupies that role, you end up with each dispute becoming a fight to the death.  Neither party can afford to give ground, lest they be seen as taking a subordinate place in the relationship.  Rather than tie-breakers, there are only winners (smug) and losers (demoralized).

If the Christian model is how Michele Bachmann’s marriage functions, fine.  In every marriage there are disputes, and every married couple has to figure out how to resolve those disputes.  It could be through a bloody emotional battle to the death (yeah, I know:  crazy metaphors), or it could be by designating one partner as the tie breaker.  Presidents always have their spouses at their side (or at their backs), and the spouse will always be part of the equation, regardless of the method they use for resolving their own disputes.

What do you think?

UPDATE:  Obama recently offered an insight into his own marriage, which James Taranto examined in the second entry in his BOTW column.  One gets the feeling that Michelle scares him, just a little bit.

Thinking in harmony with Dennis Prager

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the Ten Commandments.  Today, Dennis Prager published a long, deeply analytical, intelligent article about the Ten Commandments.  He’s right.  I’m right.  They are the Big Rules for a functioning society, and that is true whether you believe in God or not.  (That’s true even for the first rule, about believing in a God, because as a facebook commenter wrote, the big rule prevents us from our “God” being the face we see in the mirror, which is always a dangerous mindset.)