Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Riffin' on RFRA....(sorry)

Because, really, nothing else works here....

I was gonna put this in a comment, but it got too hard to read what I was saying in that tiny box.  So I'm moving it up here.

First, I'm responding (more or less) to Rick's comment.  I'm not arguing with it, mind; just using it to gather my own thoughts.  So here's Rick's comment first:


This is an issue that I've always been somewhat interested in because of my old involvement in a Peyote religion case. In my one trip to the Fifth Circuit they reversed the dismissal of my case on the basis that genuine religious conviction may, in the right circumstances, require even the setting aside of criminal drug laws.

Mr. Justice Scalia, in the Smith case, blew that old understanding of religious freedom out of the water, in an opinion so outrageous that Republicans and Democrats, in a rare show of near-unity, reinstated, by statute, the old standard in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It now looks like Scalia has won the "progressives," and the Republicans seem not far behind. There are differences between the federal statute and the state "me-too's," but I don't see them as terribly material. The prospect of boycotting Indiana for passing a law substantially similar to current governing federal law--a law which essentially states the principle of religious liberty as I learned it at law school from Archibald Cox--compels me to repeat one of your favorite phrases: "I'll retire to Bedlam."

And of course corporations have religion; and we all know what they worship.
I'm gonna exercise some very old mental muscles and see if I can parse out Smith from Hobby Lobby (the connection being RFRA):

Pre-Smith cases rejected 1st Amendment protection for discrimination (NTodd has the links) pretty much on the basis of "compelling state interest" (I haven't read into the cases linked, but I remember the cases on racial covenants in deeds, from ConLaw.  And yes, that was many, many years ago.).

Smith was not a discrimination case (which the law generally does not allow, although it allows religious institutions to discriminate in who can be a clergy, for example), but a question of banned substances.  Well, that's not the legal distinction, but as I say, the muscles are weak.  Anyway, a question of what the law forbids, and should it be allowed under circumstances involving religious belief/practice.

And 6-3, the Court said:  "No."

Then comes RFRA, which came under scrutiny in the Boerne case, where the Court found that RFRA appeared to create a substantive change in constitutional protections, exceeding rulings of the Court on the 14th Amendment(the 14th because the 1st applies to states only through the 14th, and the case was brought under RFRA against a state agency, i.e., a city of Texas.)  So RFRA, in brief, went too far.

And that's where things get very complicated.  Boerne led to RLUIPA, a law for religious owners of land (I ain't goin' further there), an amendment to RFRA in 2003 which applied it only to the Federal government; and a law for peyote smoking Indians:  the Religious Freedom Act Amendments in 1994.  But RFRA still exists, and now the question is:  how did Hobby Lobby v. Burwell lead to the Indiana version of RFRA?

States passed their own versions of the law, which is a bit odd, since they didn't really need to.  I mean, it sounds like a protection of peyote smoking Native Americans and churches that want a building permit.  But the former involves federal law on controlled substances, and the latter involves state law which RLUIPA is meant to deal with.  I have an interest (I find) in RLUIPA because I'm familiar with the church involved in a RLUIPA case.

St. John's UCC was a very old church located near what became O'Hare Airport.  O'Hare expanded and took over the property of the church, removing the old building to a new location in Bensenville, IL, the city next to O'Hare (I used to live there).  What was left behind was the church cemetery which, I was told, Chicago promised to preserve in perpetuity.  Well, as long as grass grows and rivers run, as we once promised the natives here.

Then O'Hare wanted to extend some runways, and the graves were in the way.  At that point we get into legal arguments about eminent domain v. land use regulations, and which laws RLUIPA covers.  St. John's lost the case, and their graveyard; and while there is a contention that RLUIPA grants religious organizations special privileges not available to other landowners, a case making that point has yet to make it to the Supreme Court.  Sadly, all the St. John's case proves is that a group of old white people (dear people, I knew them well) can't fight Chicago; especially when they don't even live in Chicago.

The meek shall inherit the earth, but only after the not-meek are through with it, I guess.

Still not sure how this gets us to Hobby Lobby, but somehow the Court decided that RFRA gives closely-held corporations the same protections for religious practice as are allowed to individuals.  As I said before, the answer there is to refine the definition of "person" in that statute.  Does Hobby Lobby somehow allow Indiana's clearly anti-gay version of RFRA?

No.  Well, IMHLO, anyway.

It doesn't because religious practice doesn't allow an individual to discriminate against another individual in business, at least.  We settled that issue with the Civil Rights Act cases.*  Churches can't be compelled to sanction same-sex marriages, but individuals can't be allowed to refuse service based on race, creed, national origin, or sexual preference.  Well, at least not where there is a statute protecting sexual preference as we protect race, creed, national origin, or gender.  These are not constitutional matters but statutory ones.  Discrimination is barred by statutory law, not by constitutional jurisprudence.  Banning discrimination is a compelling state interest, which means it is generally upheld by the courts.  So Indiana's RFRA is bad law that may yet come to a swift end.

The State is at least going to have trouble defending discrimination against homosexuals as a compelling state interest.  Because, to put it bluntly, if your rights stop at the end of my nose, this language seems to push my nose to somewhere in the back of my head:

“A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.”
Per Hobby Lobby, the courts cannot examine the legitimacy of a religious exercise claim, which gives the person under this law the freedom to make almost any religious claim they like.  That's going to run into limitations already recognized by law, or already existent in statutes; but it's also going to create a great deal of mischief where "religious freedom" is going to be used as cover for small-mindedness and sheer bigotry.

And if that's a return to the state of the law as Archibald Cox taught it, then the law is a ass.

* Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence or support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.
Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc. 

Addendum:  turns out there's a bit more to this, so let me revise and extend my remarks:

“This Indiana law, unlike federal RFRA, codifies the notion that for-profit corporations may avail themselves of the religious freedom rights formerly only accorded to individuals and religious non-profits,” Rachel Laser, the group’s deputy director, said in a statement. “In fact, it goes even further than the Hobby Lobby decision because it extends this right beyond closely held corporations to all corporations.”

The statement comes from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (via Religion Dispatches).  It makes my closing remark about Archibald Cox look glib (it was), because clearly this RFRA is not a return to the state of the law before Smith; this is an extension of the law after Hobby Lobby.  Which law never was, IMHO, very sound.

ONE LAST THING which makes my first conclusion extremely glib and frankly unsound:

When we talk about RFRA, we aren't talking about the law in Indiana:

Although the Supreme Court has held that the federal religious liberty law applies to some corporations, the statute itself applies only to people—and, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in dissent, extending it to for-profit companies strains the meaning of the text. There’s no such issue with the Indiana law, though: This measure was designed to apply to businesses, like florists who dislike gay people, as a straightforward reading of its text makes clear.

But it’s really the next provision that gives the Indiana law its startling and unique breadth. The federal religious freedom law was designed to protect individuals from government overreach, like a state law barring ritual drug use by American Indians. Indiana’s law, on the other hand, lets people (and businesses) cite their religious freedom as a defense in private lawsuits, even when they’re accused of violating a civil rights law. In practice, that means a baker who is required by a nondiscrimination ordinance to serve all customers may cite her religious opposition to homosexuality in order to refuse service to a gay couple. Here, then, is the true license to discriminate: A secular baker is still bound by the law; a Christian baker has a special religious right to kick out customers she dislikes due to her religion.
Which means, I think, the courts either have to allow discrimination of any kind under Indiana law; or it has to throw this law out wholesale, since it is unenforceable as written, because it so blatantly conflicts with so much settled law.

It certainly isn't the state of the law when Archibald Cox taught it, that's for sure. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

In which I admit I'm still confused by RFRA

If I could just index these posts by picture....


Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith (or, as Slacktivist calls it, which I get via NTodd, "Oregon v. Smith.").  The Court held that consumption of peyote was not privileged under the 1st Amendment, and that, we are told, led to RFRA.

Now I happen to be of the opinion that the Supreme Court is mostly a looney bin which comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted, and the Warren Court of blessed memory was the anomaly, not the rule, in American history (just as we have been living through an anomalous era in which church attendance has become the overwhelming norm).  But I'm still not sure where Scalia was wrong (arguments against me gratefully accepted in comments below).  One thing I do know:  Slacktivist is a poor legal scholar.

Oregon v. Smith was a big departure from precedent and tradition. Think back to the Prohibition Era, when the country actually rewrote the Constitution in order to outlaw alcohol. But even at the height of Prohibition, neither the courts nor the public thought that ought to apply to the sacramental wine that was an essential component of the religious practice of millions of American Christians. But Scalia’s argument in Oregon v. Smith veered off from that earlier way of thinking. 

Um, no, there was no "thinking" on the part of the courts or the public about this.  The Volstead Act, which implemented the 18th Amendment (much as the Voting Rights Act implemented the 15th Amendment) explicitly excluded sacramental wine from its prohibition.  The courts and the public (except through their elected representatives) had nothing to do with it.  There was no "earlier way of thinking" represented by Prohibition from which Scalia could veer off.  In fact, Prohibition itself was the "veering off" of the earlier way of thinking.  The exceptions in the law were merely a practical political consideration.  The other statutory exception was whiskey "for medicinal purposes," which is how that phrase entered American culture, and lingers in some corners to this day.

And here's the irony of the situation, as created now in Indiana:

(a) Although a State would be "prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]" in violation of the Clause if it sought to ban the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts solely because of their religious motivation, the Clause does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a law that incidentally forbids (or requires) the performance of an act that his religious belief requires (or forbids) if the law is not specifically directed to religious practice and is otherwise constitutional as applied to those who engage in the specified act for nonreligious reasons.... The only decisions in which this Court has held that the First Amendment bars application of a neutral, generally applicable law to religiously motivated action are distinguished on the ground that they involved not the Free Exercise Clause alone, but that Clause in conjunction with other constitutional [p873] protections. ....

(b) Respondents' claim for a religious exemption from the Oregon law cannot be evaluated under the balancing test set forth in the line of cases following Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 402-403, whereby governmental actions that substantially burden a religious practice must be justified by a "compelling governmental interest." That test was developed in a context -- unemployment compensation eligibility rules -- that lent itself to individualized governmental assessment of the reasons for the relevant conduct. The test is inapplicable to an across-the-board criminal prohibition on a particular form of conduct. A holding to the contrary would create an extraordinary right to ignore generally applicable laws that are not supported by "compelling governmental interest" on the basis of religious belief. Nor could such a right be limited to situations in which the conduct prohibited is "central" to the individual's religion, since that would enmesh judges in an impermissible inquiry into the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith. .... Thus, although it is constitutionally permissible to exempt sacramental peyote use from the operation of drug laws, it is not constitutionally required. Pp. 882-890.

The key point there is "compelling governmental interest."  That's where anti-discrimination laws get upheld; there is a compelling governmental interest is not permitting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, or religion.  Which should mean I can't refuse to serve a Roman Catholic in my place of business if I'm, say, MO Synod Lutheran (the official position of the denomination is that Rome is the whore of Babylon).  Or does it?

PENCE: Well, let -- let me explain to you, the purpose of this bill is to empower and has been for more than 20 years, George. This is not speculative. The purpose of this legislation, which is the law in all 50 states in our federal courts and it's the law by either statute or court decisions in some 30 other states, is very simply to empower individual when they believe that actions of government impinge on their constitutional First Amendment freedom of religion. And, frankly, George, there's a lot of people across this country who -- you're looking at ObamaCare and the Hobby Lobby decision, looking at other cases, who feel that their religious liberty is being infringed upon and -- and The Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the federal level and all the states now, including Indiana, who have it, are simply about addressing that.
And again, if my religious freedom to discriminate against Catholics ( or Jews, or blacks, or what-have-you) is infringed upon, isn't it a restoration of my religious freedom to let me discriminate against the members of such groups?  Or is the problem only the "avalance of intolerance" that is gay marriage?

PENCE: George, look, the issue here is, you know, is tolerance a two way street or not? I mean, you know, there's a lot of talk about tolerance in this country today having to do with people on the left. And a -- but here Indiana steps forward to protect the constitutional rights and privileges of freedom of religion for people of faith and families of faith in our state and this avalanche of intolerance that's been poured on our state is just outrageous. You've been to Indiana a bunch of times. You know it. There are no kinder, more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable people in America than in the 92 counties of Indiana.

I had to quote it because You Can't Make This Stuff Up.  And, again, Loving v. Virginia didn't create an "avalanche of intolerance," but federal court decisions on gay marriage has.  I guess.

Not that Gov. Pence is any greater a legal scholar than Slacktivist; but he does seem to understand the intent of Indiana law pretty clearly.  And yeah, it is (or should be) indefensible as a matter of law.  Because the irony is, Indiana and Gov. Pence are making the case Justice Scalia made in Smith: they want to enmesh judges in an "impermissible inquiry into the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith."  Although that seems to be the logical outcome of the holding in Hobby Lobby.  Or rather, I don't quite see why it can't be; it isn't, as Justice Scalia said in Smith, the required outcome; but I can see where it is the logical one, especially because it is being used that way ("Duh!").  And I still think the solution is to fix RFRA.

But I'm not holding my breath on that happening....

P.S.  Is the Indiana law meant to enshrine discrimination against "the gay."  No question about it, even without the bizarre statements of Gov. Pence:

Indiana’s is the only law that explicitly applies to disputes between private citizens.

And:

... the Indiana statute has two features the federal RFRA—and most state RFRAs—do not. First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.

The new Indiana statute also contains this odd language: “A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.” (My italics.) Neither the federal RFRA, nor 18 of the 19 state statutes cited by the Post, says anything like this; only the Texas RFRA, passed in 1999, contains similar language.
Which makes that "avalanche of intolerance" that has been poured onto Indiana look quite a bit different.  It is also clear this state law is the child of Hobby Lobby: the family resemblance is unmistakeable.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why ask why?


Adding to what I said below:

To this day, the motive for the pilot’s actions remain unclear, though rumors have circulated online that he was struggling with domestic problems. Mozambique has still not issued a final report on the crash. Yet what little we do know about the case does line up eerily with what little we know so far about the Germanwings crash: the perpetrator who waits until he is left alone in the cockpit, then appears to lock his colleague out; the use of autopilot to command an orderly descent down into the ground; the resulting high-speed crash that leaves the aircraft ripped to shreds, without the slightest possibility of survival.

An air of mystery surrounding the incident is not unusual in cases of what appear to be pilot suicides. Such a horrific act, in which an individual not only takes his only life but slaughters the passengers who have been put into his care, defies easy psychological classification. Suicide notes are rare, as are words of explanation on cockpit voice recorders. With the pilot dead, and the scene of the crime destroyed, all that remains is the unsolvable riddle: Why?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Lord, I can't go back there..."


I just wanna ask Mike Pence:

Can I open a business in Indiana and refuse to serve blacks because my religion tells me to have nothing to do with them?

Or is that kind of religion not recognized as valid anymore, but a religion that says I can discriminate against homosexuals, still is?

And does that mean the state of Indiana is now in the business of deciding which religions are acceptable, and which aren't?

And is that really where the state of Indiana wants to be in defending "religious freedom"?  Because what if I want to discriminate based on gender?  Or age? Or national origin?  Or religious belief?  I might have trouble coming up with a religious reason to discriminate against blacks, now that the Mormons have changed their minds on the subject; but I can pretty easily come up with the rest of those in several mainline denominations.

Will that religious belief be acceptable in Indiana?  And if not, why not?  Ain't I free to believe?

"There's just a meanness in this world"


When I lived in a parsonage I lived just a stone's throw from a cemetery that was well over 100 years old.  A local group of enthusiasts asked permission to come over one night and take pictures of ghosts.  The pictures they produced were interesting:  faint glowing balls of light above gravesites or in the windows of the church buildings nearby.  While they were there, they asked me if I believed in ghosts.  I told them I believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, so who was I to say ghosts were impossible?

Even if the idea, in the West anyway, goes back to Plato.

So I broach this suggestion with that background.  You may dismiss me (you probably will), you may deny me (three times, please, to make it official); you may think I'm mad (what took you so long?).  But this story of the German airliner crashing into the French Alps calls to mind the stories of the mass shootings in America.

There are different kinds of mass death.  There is the wholesale slaughter of peoples in modern history, conducted in foreign lands (and so not representative of the improvement in the "better angels of our nature" at controlling violence, as Stephen Pinker asserts.  You see?  I build my bulwark with the materials of my enemies!).  I'm thinking of a recent movie where the actors in that slaughter in southeast Asia (I should know more, but the keywords that fire Google are too much bother just now) re-enacted those scenes for a documentary, and perhaps came to understand just what they had done (or just relived old times, for all I know).  Violence against other humans is as human as culture itself.

But then there is the violence of the individual, the mass murderer, the person who takes weapons into a public setting and shoots everyone who moves.  Some of these shootings end in "suicide by cop," as they force the police to kill them.  Some are just happenstance; a man at a courthouse guns down his ex-wife, armed police officers open fire, and pretty soon everybody is shooting at everybody as the shooter just tries to escape his precipitate action with his life (he seldom does).  I'm thinking, though, of the planned massacres, of the man who goes to a school, a Naval yard, a public mall, and ends it by putting the gun in their mouth before the police can so much as arrive.

What drives a person to shoot so many strangers, and then pull the trigger on themselves?  Fear of dying alone?  Anger?  Outrage?  Mental disorder?

Yes.  I suppose so.  We come up with explanations, or we don't.  Adam Lanza was "troubled," but I've never heard an explanation for why that day, why that school, why his own mother and then children and teachers and finally himself.  As Bruce Springsteen sang, "Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

That's usually the only explanation we get.  Correlations, at best; seldom the neat causations of fiction:  despair over job loss, or a broken relationship, or mere loneliness.  We get some "picture" of the shooter, but it seldom adds up to a clear conclusion "This is why!"  We don't know more often than we do.  We guess, we shrug, we forget it; we move on.

Why did this pilot fly a plane into the Alps?  If the information available today prevails, it was a deliberate act, over the screams of the pilot pounding on the cockpit door, over the radio traffic from the ground and from other planes nearby.  He meant to do it, and he did it.  But why?  Will we ever know?

Probably not.  Probably we'll be given a narrative, or just a collective shrug, and decide "there's a just a meanness in this world."  By which we really mean nothing at all.  By which we mean we just don't know.

But what if that is what it is?  What if it is a "meanness" in the world?

I'm very hesitant to speak of "evil."  It offends my Protestant sensibilities.  It smacks of 'superstition,' the same as if I prayed to the plaster statue of a saint for intervention before the throne of the Most High.  I'm mature enough now not to think of that as "superstition," but I still prefer my cross unadorned with a bleeding figure of Christ, and I would never pray with an object in mind except the being of God alone.  Still, I can't help but wonder if "evil" isn't the explanation.

I don't like it for another reason, a theological reason.  Anxious as anyone to return to "first causes," I want to reject the dualism of Jesus v. Satan, of a power in the world almost equivalent to the Creator. That's a little too medieval even for me, and I hate using the word "medieval" as a pejorative.  Still, I can't help but wonder.

Why do people suddenly veer off their life's course and take up weapons and shoot people and then, as if suddenly aware of what they have done, kill themselves?  Why fly a plane into a mountain, when you can just as easily step off a precipice or bridge, or make sure you sleep and never wake up?  Death by plane suicide is no less revocable than death by gunshot; why take 150 people with you?  If you want to put a gun in your mouth, why empty so many guns into so many people first?

I know; it's "irrational."  It's "inexplicable."

What if it isn't?

Isn't that what the search for a motive is?  To find the rationale, to discern the explanation, so it won't be a mystery, something we cannot explain?  What if these are examples of pure evil, of something very nearly possession?

Why couldn't it be?

You will answer, quite sensibly:  why could it be?  I can't say.  I just no longer think it couldn't be.  It doesn't explain things any better; and it doesn't point toward a way to prevent it.  Someone on BBC was discussing how there is no perfect system to prevent these events, because this is not the first time a pilot has committed suicide by crashing a passenger plane.  After 9/11 cockpit doors became bullet and blast proof, and can be locked either permanently or for five minutes (news accounts vary, I'm not sure about this).  Five minutes, of course, is long enough to crash a plane.  Put two crew members in there?  In one case, the co-pilot killed the pilot before crashing the plane.

No system will save us from all contingencies.  So no system that adds "random evil/demonic possession" to the list of possibilities, will save us either.

But casting about for explanations, I find I'm no longer satisfied with the psychological ones.  They are always based, anyway, on analysis long after the fact, and far away from the patient, who is always dead.  My examples exclude mass murderers who survive their killing sprees.  I'm thinking of the ones who kill themselves, too.  I can't help but imagine some of them wake from some kind of daze, some kind of fog, realize what they have done, and remorse and/or guilt do the rest.  Is it a psychological state?  A problem of brain chemistry?  A misfire of neurons?

Why are those explanations better than this one?  In some cases, they are the right explanation; but in others.....

And how would it change the world to consider the possibility?  After all, I'm quite willing to accept the reality of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.  What else can I allow in?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NTodd made me do it

GREAT HORNY TOADIES!!!!

Well, he made me think about this business with license plates in Texas, and I decided to turn my comment into a blog post.  Viz:

My father spoke to a State Representative (TX) about raising taxes to pay for what was needed, like roads and schools and etc. (Dad's fairly conservative, he probably didn't want to raise taxes to pay for Medicaid. I have a friend who had to move to Kentucky, where she wes born some 80 years ago, to get on Medicaid because Texas is so stingy. That's another rant....).

This SR, probably a devout Baptist (to underline the importance of the metaphor lumbering around the corner towards us), said he'd rather burn in hell than raise taxes.

My father, a lifelong Republican, thought the guy was nuts. And also thought that anecdote pretty much explained the root of the problem.

So now we're in front of the Supreme Court arguing about images on license plates. This we can spend money on; healthcare for the poor? Screw 'em. And, by extension: this the Supreme Court can force the State of Texas to do. Again, healthcare for the poor? And offend state sovereignty?!?!?!?!????

I just wanna go home with the armadillo; and see one more horny toad in the wild before I die.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's all about the narrative





Random thoughts.

Yes, had the attacker been Muslim, the story would have been told very differently.  Why can't Muslims be mentally ill?  Perhaps the same reason white people with guns or hoodies are not inherently dangerous, but black people are?

If Mexican drug cartels were videotaping their beheadings and using them to promote their ideology (free market rules!  Especially a wholly unregulated market!), they would be ISIS and we'd be afraid of them, especially since they are separated from us by a shallow body of water that really isn't very wide.

And if Ted Cruz were not elegant and intelligent, maybe people would have noticed how bored the students at Liberty University were, rather than describing them as enthralled, because the narrative is that Cruz is an eloquent speaker.

Frankly, I spend an hour a day talking extemporaneously.  I never use notes, and I seldom prepare my remarks.  This doesn't make me eloquent or brilliant; it just means I'm doing my job.  Martin Luther King was a powerful speaker.  Barack Obama is a powerful speaker.  Both men could sway a nation, could persuade people to listen to them.  Ted Cruz can't even hold the interest of students required to be in attendance at his speech, or a group of firefighters; but still the narrative has it that he's a powerful speaker.

He's also really smart; although I've yet to see where that has gotten him, that arrogance and overwhelming self-confidence haven't.  Indeed, if you changed the narrative to describing Ted Cruz as Marjoe, I think that story would fit better and make more sense of his actions.  Cruz clearly loves attention, and he craves the money that grifting...er, I mean running....for President will bring him.  Nothing to keep him from raising campaign funds (one estimate was that he'd have to raise $50 million just to have a chance against Jeb Bush.  Anybody think Cruz can seriously raise that kind of cash?) and keeping the difference when it all goes south, as it inevitably will.

And yet that isn't the narrative, despite a history of such grift as outlined by Ron Perlstein.  That isn't the narrative, so it doesn't happen that way.  The same way ISIS is an "existential threat" to America because of social media, and the Mexican drug cartels are invisible and harmless.

Ted Cruz has no more interest in governing from the White House than he does in legislating from the Senate.  He doesn't even want to "enshrine" his ideas into law.  Like his evangelical preacher father, Cruz just wants people to pay attention to him.  He just wants to talk to adoring crowds and rouse them to some inchoate passion that he won't be around to be responsible for.  Rafael Cruz has never pastored a church, never stayed around to get involved in the messy politics of a local congregation, never lingered long enough to put anything into practice beyond his exhortations on morality and salvation.  He deals in vague and glittering generalities, as does his son.  Neither of them wants to get their hands dirty actually trying to help people in their everyday lives, of dealing with the consequences of what they preach.  Sen. Cruz doesn't even want to help corporations all that much.

He just wants people to pay attention to him, and reward him with their applause.  He's always looking for the next crowd to preach to, the next group to grift.  That's his true narrative; but since that one makes politics a most unseemly business, especially the holy pursuit of the highest office in the land; and since politics is now our secular religion, with the POTUS our supreme religious leader who is supposed to have the powers of Green Lantern, if he would but use the Presidential power ring; we must all take Ted Cruz seriously.

Even though he is no more serious than Mike Huckabee or Sara Palin

P.S.  This is really kinda funny.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ironies abound


You know that old saying about pointing a finger at me means there are four more pointing back at you?

Right back atcha!

It’s about intuitive expectations that we have, apparently, about how nature functions. Research in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and anthropology shows that we have a predisposition to think about organisms as having an essence: they have an immutable, unobservable core that determines the identity, the behavior, and the development of an organism, and we shouldn’t mess with that. This kind of thinking is essentialist thinking.
It isn't exactly essentialist thinking to think that science, in the guise of psychology and anthropology, proves that dualism (or essentialism; the difference between them is slight for our purposes here) is inherent to human thinking.  But essentially, that's just what it is.*

Essentialist thinking is inherent to Western thinking, ever since Plato came to dominate Western thought.  But that doesn't mean it is inherent to human biology and cognition.  After all, an "immutable, unobservable core that determines the identity, the behavior, and the development of an organism" is, in general parlance, a soul.  Richard Dawkins would say it was a "selfish gene."  The distinction, again, is unimportant; it is still two (or three, I suppose) ways of saying the same thing.

Essentially, anyway.

Never forget that, to the man with the hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

*what, after all, is predetermined about "intuitive expectations"?  According to Hume, none of our expectations are intuitive, they are learned.  Good empiricist, was old David.

"When so much public God-talk is cringeworthy and meanspirited, it’s worth noting moments like these."



I agree with everything that is said here.  If I add anything, it only to fill out the idea of theology as a public exercise, not to turn the conversation toward my experience, or even toward me.

When I was in seminary I had the distinct pleasure of giving a sermon (which, being good Protestants, we all thought was the main point of why we were leading worship.  I learned later to reconsider that opinion, although my congregations never did.  Gary Wills anticipates a Catholic church becoming more Protestant, but the emphasis on the Word, on preaching, is one thing I hope they don't take up.  Protestantism did itself more harm than good with that emphasis.  Ah, but I digress.....) to a church where I was a mere student (I was, shortly thereafter, a student pastor with my own congregation.  They were gracious enough to put up with me for the short time I inflicted myself on congregations.).  My sermon revolved around a story:  not a Biblical story, but one from television.

The details are another digression, so let me get to the point:  after the sermon (I think it was a week later, but memory now thinks it was immediately after), a mother came to me to thank me for the sermon, because it gave her son a way to understand Jesus as real to him.  It wasn't what I was going for, not by a long shot.  In fact, I was trying to get people to consider the invisibility of the poor, of the other; something typically highfalutin' like that.  Her son had taken it as a lesson in metaphysics, but who was I to judge him wrong?  I had a few other experiences like that, people pleasantly surprised at what I opened to them (but then just as often disillusioned when I didn't continue to give them more of the same, to keep them in their new comfort zone.  Ministry is hard; it really is.), but being the first, that's the one I remember the best.

They are still moments worth noting, especially since they don't neatly end with "And they all lived happily ever after."  The story ends there, the whole narrative goes on.  I know the name "Kathy Gissendaner" because of this article; and this article was written because she managed to make friends with very notable persons (it never occurred to me to become pen pals with Jurgen Moltmann; maybe I should have shown more interest in contemporary theology than in contemporary philosophy.  Still, it never occurred to me to become pen pals with Jacques Derrida, either.  Oh, well....).  It is still true that it isn't what you know, it's who you know.   Not, apparently, that it has commuted the death sentence on Ms. Gissendaner.

But aside from the interest she has managed to garner for herself, is the issue of value.  If theology is of value in her life, is it of value in the world?  Or should that even be the question?  Should we adjudge theology by it's value according to worldly standards?  And which ones are those?  I don't mean, by asking that, the silly ignorant standards of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris; and I don't mean the commercial standards of the market place, either.  Actually, the only "valuable" thing theology has done for Ms. Gissendaner is to make her a bit better known that she was.  Her death is still more scheduled than mine.  But has it been of value to her, personally?  And if it has, how do we assess that?

Perhaps we don't; perhaps we just acknowledge, or admire, how many more things there are in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies; perhaps we humble ourselves before the varieties of religious, and even non-religious, experiences.  Perhaps from a story like this we learn not to make our lives and our experiences and our understanding the one yardstick by which everyone else, and everything else, is measured.

Maybe we at least reconsider making so much of our public discussion so cringeworthy and mean spirited.

But where are the clicks in that?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Oral v. Written

One can easily get into an argument about the "real words" of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's been pointed out to me that Dom Crossan noted that, if Jesus spoke Aramaic, we don't have any of his original words, as the gospels were written in Greek.  I got into something of a discussion at Religious Dispatches over whether Jesus is a "myth" or not, simply because we have known for at least 150 years that the Gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus transcribing his words as he walked through Galilee (the idea that they did is a response to Biblical scholarship, not something reversed by Biblical scholarship.  The new standard among on-line atheists is to assume Christian fundamentalism as the default, reveal that stance as untenable, and declare Christianity "dead" as a result.  Non-fundamentalist Christians, in this "analysis," are not "real" Christians to begin with, so they are disposed of before the axe falls.).  The confusion about what we "know" Jesus said is one that arises in part from an insistence on fundamentalism as the only "correct" religious posture, but also from the privilege we accord written over oral cultures.

Let me back up a second:  we "know" what Jesus said as surely as we "know" what Socrates said.  Right away someone will say "yes, but we don't treat the words of Socrates as the "word of God."  Well, except that, as Whitehead noted, all of Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato (and that includes Aristotle).  And the adherence to "what Jesus said" by fundamentalists is still just an interpretation of what they think Jesus meant, which is not superior to any other reading.  What one Christian thinks is the "word of God" is not followed blindly by other Christians.  Most of us still think in terms of dualism, of "mind" v. "body," even if we don't know the term "dualism" or recognize it's grounding in Phaedo.  We might disagree with Socrates' argument there (if we know it), but we still accept the basic dualism of it.  It's very hard for us not to.  But does that mean we are following Socrates blindly?  In a sense, it does; and even if we say we don't, what difference does it make to our understanding and our behavior?

Back to the distinction between "written" and "oral:"  it's a distinction that occupied French philosophers for some time, especially the early work of Jacques Derrida.  That's a long and complicated argument, and I don't want to wade into it if I don't have to.  Fortunately, I don't, because I have an object lesson in "written" v. "oral" right here.




Leonard Cohen wrote the song they are singing.  In the third verse, he rewrites the song, changing a word from the written version.  Now, which version is correct?  The written version, or the version performed here by the author of the song?  Is one superior to the other, more "authentic," more "true"?

This is an old phenomenon noted by folklorists and anthropologists when they found still extant examples of oral culture and recorded them for posterity.  Poets working as Homer did, or the poet of "Beowulf," reciting a long poem without referring to a written text.  When the scholars recorded these performances, they noted slight variations from performance to performance; changes in the wording, small but notable when the recordings were compared, even when the ears of people used to a literate culture heard the remnants of a much older oral culture.  When they asked the poets about these changes, the poets denied any change at all.  The scholars were used to a literate society, where the text is set in stone by being printed.  Any change from the original must be noted, to guarantee transmission of the "original" text.  But for these poets the "original text" was the story, not each individual word; it was the whole, not any one atomized part.  And which was more "authentic", especially in the version of a poem that hadn't been reduced to print long, long ago?

Cohen's performed version here is not the performed version on Judy Collins' "Wildflowers" album; nor is it the text she included in her "Judy Collins Songbook."  Cohen has altered it, but did he do so because of a lapse of memory, or because he liked this wording better during that performance?  And which one is "correct"?  And why?

And most importantly:  why would it matter to us?  Is it the word that matters?  Or the meaning?  And of course, how do we know that apart from the words?  But if we focus too exclusively on the words, do we lose the meaning?  And if we don't pay attention to the words, how do we ever get the meaning?

Or is it just a cool song, no matter what?

And I will have some peace there....

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Morning Fun with Numbers

So Jeffrey Tayler takes on David Brooks and notes:


Brooks starts out by noting that those with no religious affiliation now account for a fifth of all Americans and a third of young American adults (a development that, in my view, is to be celebrated).  
Which is funny because in 1906 only 41% of Americans identified themselves with any religious affiliation.  By 1998, that number had risen to 70%,  which was roughly the high point of the 20th century.  Now if 1/5th of Americans are declaring "no religious affiliation," that would still mean the number declaring one is higher than it was in 1998.

Well, give or take.  It may be 10% is within the margin of error, or is of only slight statistical significance.  Either way, a precipitous crash in religious affiliation would not seem to be in the offing.  And only 1/3rd of "young Americans" declare a religious affiliation?  What else is new?

You know, there's a level on which this "discussion" is taking place that is just plain ignorant.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Poverty is a choice, but being racist is a product of your environment"

Continuing what is proving to be the theme of Lenten meditations around here:


The irresistible power of the hippity-hoppity made that poor drunk white boy do it.  When will blacks finally take responsibility for their evil rap music?

Mika Brzezinski still wants to know, because it's not about race, because it's never about race.

I swear nothing in this country has changed since I was a kid growing up in racist East Texas where none of us were racists, we just wanted blacks to mind their place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

It's Lent, so:


"Lord, when did we see you?"

I grew up in Sunday school thinking the Romans were really cruel and jailed people without due process and for no good reason, and it was probably a really nice thing that Jesus told his followers then to visit people in jail because that's where Jesus was, too.  Not, of course, that I ever visited anybody in jail.  Who did I know in jail?

It was many years before I began to consider why people are in jail in the first place:

Because homeless people are on the streets, in public view all the time, they are more exposed to surveillance by the police, to surveillance by other community members who might call the police. Behavior that’s completely innocent, that you or I take for granted — eating, going to the bathroom, all these things that are perfectly legal when done in a private setting — become criminal acts in public. Every time that kind of act is criminalized, it invites an interaction with the police that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
A small slice of an example of "what is a criminal act, and why."  Yes, urinating or defecating in public is both disgusting and unhygienic.  But then when we maintain no public restroom facilities in our cities, and no public housing either (not enough to deal with the homeless problem; don't strain at gnats and swallow camels here), do we make public urination a crime so we can solve a problem?  Or so we can punish people for being poor?  And then, of course, there are the cities that want to rigidly control where food is distributed because it bothers business, and as the sage lyricist said:  "It's money that matters/in the U.S.A."

And if you have a mental illness, well, then, the socially responsible thing to do is to shoot you; unless you live in San Antonio, Texas.

But what does criminalization of minor acts necessitated by poverty have to do with continuing poverty?  A great deal, it turns out:

There are statistics showing that 40 percent of homeless people work in any given month. For a significant population of homeless people, they are working; it’s not that they can’t or won’t or don’t want to work, but that they are simply working but aren’t able to save up enough to make their first and last month’s rent, security deposit or those sorts of things, especially in cities where the cost of living has gone up.

When you combine that with criminalization practices … we’ve seen a number of situations where people are on the cusp of getting housing and then all of a sudden they’re arrested for no good reason, they spend a night in jail, they aren’t able to go to their job the next day, they lose their job, and then they’re back at square one. Plus, they now have a criminal record, which makes it more difficult for them to get employment and access to housing or other services, so it’s actually putting further barriers between the people who are actively trying to get out of homelessness and their ability to do so.

Or, as Nanci Griffith said (another sage lyricist):  just a bank account away from America.



Can we even spare the time?

We can't even afford that, of course.  Texas politicians complain about the rising cost of Medicaid, even as they refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.  On the other hand, the outgoing head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said the Texas GNP was higher than that of the entire country of Canada.  Oddly, Canada can afford universal health care coverage, and probably does a better job of taking care of its homeless than Texas does.  We have the money; we just don't want to spend it on people.

People, you see, are too damned expensive.

Do you have a dime?

It really is about who we are as Americans. On the Statue of Liberty, the plaque reads, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Send the homeless to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door, but now we’re saying don’t send me your homeless. Even the homeless that are already here, we’re not lifting our lamp beside the golden door, we’re lifting our police baton beside the gilded gates of a gated community. It’s a different concept of who we should be, as Americans. I think we need to return to our best ideals, rather than the worst nightmares that we are becoming.

But Lord, when did we see you?

Saturday, March 07, 2015

It's Lent, and this is much on my mind....

Because the more things change:


Stephen Colbert before Congress:
When asked why any American worker would take these jobs, Colbert answered, “I don’t know if Americans would or would not want to work on jobs like this. I believe that Americans are tough, I agree with the congressman, Americans are tough and they do tough jobs. It is not a job I want to do and not a lot of people took Mr. Rodriguez up on his offer, and it seems from the statistics that my researchers found that there is a lack of labor in parts of the united states and that seems to say that Americans don’t want to take the jobs, but I don’t want to say definitively that they won’t.”


Colbert was later asked why he chose to speak up on this issue. He replied, “I like talking about people who don’t have any power. and this seems like one of the least powerful people in the united states are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result, and yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave, and that’s an interesting contradiction to me and, you know what so ever you do for the least of my brothers and these seem like the least of our brothers right now, a lot of people are least of the brothers right now because the economy is so hard and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them, but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

The Amazing Randi speaks

No one listens:

[R]eligion...is all magical thinking, thoroughly well organized and well established.
Says the magician who's only talent is in deceiving others, and who makes a profession of telling lies:  all of humanity throughout time and across space are benighted fools, except for me.

Nice work, if you can get it.  Not quite sure how so many centuries of "magical thinking" managed to produce the Amazing Randi, but I guess we should be grateful one of us isn't fooled by thinking that is well organized and well established.

Or something.

P.S.  He really is a lovely guy.  Reminds me of Richard Dawkins.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Because if it ain't in the news, it don't matter....

Can't we all just get along?

Came across yet another article about how ISIS is not "Islamic."  It was on the internet, so I'm sure it set off another round of comments about how ISIS is Islamic, because..... well, the arguments are tedious in the extreme, mostly because they are ignorant and, being ignorant, are impervious to change.

But I thought, this time:  "What about the 'Christian Identity' movement?  Why isn't that considered 'Christian' by default, the way ISIS or any Muslim terrorist is considered 'Islamic'?"  Even the most virulent New Atheists don't condemn the Catholic church because of Christian Identity, or associate it's virulently racist and anti-Semitic ideas with worldwide Christianity.  From their writings I'm not even sure Dawkins or Harris are aware of Christian Identity.  And yet ISIS speaks for and on behalf of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, despite the fact the majority of the world's Muslims are not Arabic, don't live in the Middle East, and don't support the actions or aims of ISIS.

Still, ISIS speaks for Muslims everywhere, and is thoroughly Islamic, while most Christians aren't even aware there is a "Christian Identity" movement, couldn't name one leader of the movement or a significant figure of the movement, or identify any particular idea that denotes "Christian Identity."  And, as I say, even the most prominent atheists seem unaware of its existence.

Which is a good thing.  It's a very fringe movement that should be watched by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, but not by the rest of us, because it is Christian in title only.  We are not allowed to say the same thing about ISIS, however, because....

Well, because ISIS has a better propaganda machine.  ISIS is very publicly and very actively recruiting members, while Christian Identity is not.  ISIS exists in a region the U.S. almost single handedly created as a lawless, chaotic region.  Christian Identity exists in countries where, if it tried to recruit through violence and terrorism as ISIS does, its members would be arrested and jailed almost immediately.  They may share the fanaticism and bloodlust of ISIS; they just can't put it into effect without finding  a country where the central government is so weak, or so challenged by rebellion, that they could set up shop and declare they speak for all Christians.

Even then, who in the West would accept them as the epitome of Christianity?  And is that because Christianity truly is the "religion of peace" that Islam isn't?  Or is it because Christianity is familiar in the Western world, and Islam, especially since it is identified as neither East nor West but as "Middle East" (despite the fact most of its adherents don't live in that region), is even more distinctly "other" than Christian white supremacists or Buddhists (I mean, aren't all Asians Buddhists?)?

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Oh, those Pastures of Plenty

Just because I found this:


laying around on the internet, and it made me think again of this.

Blessed are the Poor* (Offer not valid in America)


Why does this sign never seem to wear out?


Can we just say America is no country to be poor in?

Recent reports of "debtor's prisons" returning to America have come and gone.  Now they are being reinforced by stories about Ferguson, Missouri, financing it's city government on the backs of the poor.  

Pro Publica reveals how worker's compensation has been all but eliminated as a way to pay people who are injured on the job.  Worker's compensation was an idea that came out of Germany in the early 20th century, designed to replace the only recourse injured workers had: a tort claim in civil court.  It was the "no fault insurance" of its day:  the injured worker made a claim for compensation, which claim was paid based on a standard of payment for the type of injury incurred.  Although it came to involve lawyers (some of the first work I did when I was hired as a legal assistant by a law firm was worker's compensation cases), it was meant to keep contest out of the system, to lower the cost to everyone and get the money to the worker as quickly as possible.  Now it is a system for keeping money from the worker for as long as possible.

In Texas, the new Lite Guv (hat tip to the late Molly Ivins) is so concerned with the runaway cost potential of Medicaid he wants to drastically reduce the number of Texans eligible for Medicaid.  Seems the number of individuals who qualify for even the stingy Medicaid Texas allows has gone up too rapidly in the past few years.  Texas crows about the number of people who move here, a sure sign of our economic success and proper balance of government and bidness.  When that brings an inordinate number of poor people (because we have the highest percentage of population in the country earning the minimum wage), we solve that problem by making more poor people invisible.

The proposed solution is health savings accounts and co-pays placed on Medicaid recipients.  The problem with that solution is, the majority of Texans on Medicaid are children, pregnant women, the elderly poor, and disabled workers (back to worker's comp).  These are people living not paycheck to paycheck, but without paychecks.  Where they get the money to save for an HSA (or the life span, in the case of the children) and meet co-pays, is their problem.  People are too damned expensive.  Medicaid is "unsustainable," largely because the powers that be in Texas don't want to sustain it.

Sorry, poor Texans:  sucks to be you.

I'm not sure which is the greater scandal:  Ferguson, Missouri, or the absolute disdain for the poor in Texas.  The latter cuts across racial lines:  it's money that matters in the U.S.A., and without money skin color doesn't really get to be a factor.  It is hideous what the government of Ferguson did to its residents, and that it did so on the basis of skin color. But it more clearly acted on the basis of income, which makes it of a piece with Texas' disdain for the poor, and the nationwide scandal that is the worker's compensation system (each state runs and funds its own system).

This is America, where poverty and race go hand in hand.  But it's not about race, because it's never about race.  And we have no class system; to even suggest that, is to spark class warfare.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Wasteland


Now I'm just being obnoxious to point this out, but Noam Chomsky is right:

“Is there a slave museum in the United States?” Chomsky asks. “Actually, the first one is just being established now by private—some private donor. I mean, this is the core of our history, along with the extermination or expulsion of the native population, but it’s not part of our consciousness. ”

There are a number of "Holocaust" museums in America, including one in the town where I live.  Nothing wrong with that, but America had bugger all to do with the Holocaust, yet we want to remember it.

Fine.  Well and good.  Where is the museum commemorating the "Trail of Tears"?  Wounded Knee?  Indeed, the virtual extermination of the natives who were here when Europeans first arrived?  Slavery was a 400 year old business.  It built much of the wealth of America.

Where do we remember it?

We don't, of course. We remember the Holocaust, because we should never forget.  But we forget our own historical genocides, our own complicity in slavery.  The wound runs deep, even today.  I tried to find the link for it, but BBC World Service is not so accommodating.  They've been running a series of stories from Selma, Alabama.  Day before yesterday residents of Selma complained about their notoriety based on events which happened 50 years ago.  Selma has changed, they insisted; it isn't like that anymore.

Yesterday they ran a story about schools in Selma.  Seems the public schools are predominately, and in some cases exclusively, black.  Private schools are predominately, and in some cases exclusively, white.  They interviewed an African American woman who told of getting her child enrolled in a private school.  She was invited to the first meeting of parents, before school started, and was treated to a parent standing up and castigating school leaders for destroying the "traditions" of that school; by admitting her daughter, of course.

But wait, it gets worse.  A spokesman for Alabama schools told the BBC that Brown v. Board had tried to force people to do what they didn't want to do, and the federal government can't mandate that.  State governments, of course, can mandate racial segregation, but the federal government can't override that mandate.  White private schools and black public schools are just a result of Brown v. Board, of the federal government meddling where it doesn't belong, of not understanding what people really want.

In short, the very same racist arguments I heard as a child, unchanged by time, undimmed by the passage of the years.  But challenge that man, call him a racist, and you would offend him; as you would had he been making those arguments 50 years ago.

As Charlie Pierce says, it's not about race, because it's never about race (especially in Ferguson).  As Wendell Berry says, we have a hidden wound, and that wound is how much our country was founded upon, and still depends upon, racism.

We work very, very hard to keep that wound hidden.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Sunday Mornin' comin' down


So Alternet (via Salon) tells me, once again, that religion is in sharp decline in America, and it's all over but the crying as we are now a "post-religious" country, and soon atheism will rule the land with Richard Dawkins as our acknowledged savior.

Okay, some of that might not be true.

But via Thought Criminal I get this link, and this fascinating chart.  It seems that, as of 1906, 41% of the population (per the Census Bureau) considered themselves members of a religious organization (I'll presume this is self-reported, rather than derived from an analysis of church records).  92 years later, that percentage was 70%.

And I'm supposed to believe, in 17 years, that number has plummeted to a record low?  Or at least low enough to indicate we are all atheists now, or will be by the time my grandchildren are around?

Yeah, right.  So, what were we in 1906?

I've said before that the massive increase in church attendance after World War II was an historical aberration, and that, if anything, we are slowly returning to a normal level in the population.  Per the information at that link, we are returning very slowly, indeed.  You can see in the charts there that the percentage of the population claiming religious membership leaps forward in 1940, a climb that is unabated until about 1970, and begins to rise again in 1980.  It's probably true, as Alternet says, that fundamentalism is loosening the death grip on American society it seemed to have in the last decade or so (although neo-atheists still insist it is being rammed down our throats somewhere, somehow), but that's hardly the same thing as saying we are all "nones" now.

Let me just point out the Salon/Alternet article makes much of the fact that "unaffiliated" is the second largest category of the population in some states.  In 1906, it was the largest category in the nation, and stayed that way until sometime in the 1950's.  What Baby Boomers have grown up with is the aberration, not the norm.  But that norm hadn't shifted much by the end of the century:

At the end of the century, eight of every ten Americans were Christian, one adhered to another religion, and one had no religious preference. The non- Christians included Jews, Buddhists, and a rapidly growing number of Muslims

10% had "no religious preference," which is not the same thing as no religious belief.  If that has changed dramatically in only 14 years, where are all the empty churches and synagogues and mosques?  A mere addition of 1% would be over 3 million people.  Surely that would impact the number of people attending worship, even if the percentage of those attending worship didn't change.

Speaking of which, in 1939, 43% reported attending worship regularly; by 1988, that number was at 40%.  It climbed to around 50% in the late 50's,  but pretty much stayed around the 40% mark for half a century.    The shifts over that time are barely statistically significant.   That seems to be a fairly culturally set number.  I see no reason to expect it has plummeted since 1998.

There have been changes in American attitudes toward religion:

As recently as the 1920s, church membership was routinely inherited and implied obedience to a set of behavioral rules. Over the years, church membership became elective and behav ioral rules lost their importance.

American religion lost much of its authoritative character. The mainline Protestant churches no longer applied their traditional sanctions against fornication, illegitimacy, divorce, homosexuality, suicide, and blasphemy. The majority of Catholics favored and practiced birth control, contrary to church doctrine.

The growth of evangelical denominations committed to biblical literalism can be interpreted as a reaction against this general trend, as the 1999 figures in the two charts suggest (see page 108). But even in that conservative sector of the religious spectrum, some old prohibitions—including those against fornication, illegitimacy, drinking, dancing, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, and illegal drug use—often appeared less enforceable by the end of the century.
But those changes reflect changes in culture, not the authority of religion.  Many of the strictures that were less enforceable in 1999 have become even less enforceable 15 years later, especially with the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage.  But shifts in church or culture, if anything, have still changed worship attendance (decline in attendance to Catholic Mass is attributed to the changes wrought by Vatican II) only slightly.  The fact that the attendance number is so steady indicates the role of religion in individual lives hasn't changed much in, well, my lifetime, at least.  Same as it ever was, in other words.

These statistics, to me, reflect social approval and opprobrium, set in a culture accepting of religious belief.  The shifts over time reflect shifts in the society, not shifts guiding the society.  The chapter I've been quoting starts off noting:

More than 150 years ago, in his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.” That might still be said at the close of the twentieth century. Tocqueville attributed this phenomenon to the multiplicity of independent sects in the United States, unmatched anywhere else in the world, and to the equally unusual separation of organized religion from the state.

I think Tocqueville is right.  This year marks the 180th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of his most famous work.  I don't think there has been any change in American culture to fundamentally change his observation in all that time.  However it seems there has been a fundamental change in religious sentiment, one that began during the Baby Boom, and while that change may be ebbing, it is not rapidly receding.

It hasn't really receded since the rise began, and that rise now constitutes about 1/3rd of the time that has passed since Tocqueville's observations.  In the succeeding 10% or so of that total span of time, which constitutes the new century, there is no reason to think there has been another fundamental change, or even that one is about to occur.  Unless the change is to a rapid disinterest in theism, or even a fervid embrace of atheism, the only possible change is a return to the status quo at the beginning of the 20th century.

But it's far too early to decide whether even that is happening.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Born in the USA


So I go to see the "feel good" movie "McFarland USA," not because I want to, but because I know somebody who knows somebody who is related to one of the actors (no, I'm not saying more than that).

And I was pleasantly surprised by the "Pastures of Plenty" vibe the whole story gave off, since it is set in California's agricultural region where Mexicans (by and large) are "pickers" in the field, back-breaking labor that starts at dawn and continues without relent all day.  When Kevin Costner's character joins them for one day (there are reason), he asks if they get paid by the hour.  No, they tell him; by the field.  So the faster they pick, the better.  It's a hard-knock life doesn't begin to cover it.

It isn't long before Costner's character understands that he understands almost nothing about the lives of the members of his track team.  He goes from trying to motivate them with toughness, to realizing nothing could be harder than the conditions they live under.  He finally motivates them from his respect for them, his willingness to acknowledge they are human beings whose lives matter.

But I see this movie about how invisible such workers are (and it's set in 1987; nothing had changed since Woody Guthrie's song, nothing has really changed since), and then I read this:

More recently, writer Michael Shermer has expanded on this idea. In his new book, “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom,” he argues that “moral progress” can be directly attributed to the values associated with the West’s embrace of science and reason, which he traces to the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 17th century. As an example, he cites the famous “golden rule” — that we should do unto others as we’d want them to do unto us. The rule is hardly new — it’s found in the Bible — but it is no mean feat to actually put it into practice. To fully wrap your head around the golden rule, you have to mentally place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is a cognitively demanding task, and one that calls for abstract reasoning.

Today we recoil from the idea of inflicting harm on others — but it is far from clear why we would have evolved such a stance. 
Actually what we recoil from is images of harm being inflicted on others, especially when it is done in our name.  Like the Romans, we still prefer to pay people to inflict harm for us:  be they soldiers or police. We don't recoil from inflicting harm; we don't even recoil from the death penalty.  What we recoil from is getting our hands dirty.

Values associated with the West's "embrace of science and reason" led to the near extermination of the natives in this country; to an international slave trade whose fruits our Enlightenment Founding Fathers enjoyed robustly, as well as the industrial scale genocide of the Holocaust and such delights as forced sterilization ("three generations of imbeciles is enough!"  "Imbeciles" was a legal term incorporated from science at the time) and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the fire-bombing of Dresden.  I don't mean to pick on any particular country in that catalog, but we are so prone to exclude ourselves from such accountings that it bears focussing on our sins.

As for the "Golden Rule," it's quite an old one (it was old when Jesus cited it), and to this day few have managed to "wrap their heads" around it.  I have no idea how science and reason create the abstract reasoning possible to realize the implementation of that rule, but then abstract reasoning is hardly a product of the Enlightenment alone.  If Mr. Schermer, or  Mr. Falk, think it is, then they need to go back to grade school and start over; they really missed something.

What's primarily missing is any respect for the "other."  What's primarily missing is any ability to wrap their heads around the golden rule, no matter now capable of abstract reasoning they think themselves.  No matter what, like Kevin Costner's character, they are reasoning from their experience; and their experience, they think, is both universal, and privileged.  Privileged because it is correct; and correct, because it is theirs.

That Golden Rule really is no mean feat to put into practice, is it?

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Holier than thou


I think this pretty much gets to the objection most atheists have with religion:

Obeisance to imaginary celestial despots and faith in ancient Middle Eastern “holy books” of whatever kind have never owned a place in my life. If believers should try to convert me, I would respond with one or another version of Lucifer’s fabled retort to God’s command to submit to Him or be cast out of heaven: Non serviam! I shall not serve!
That comes in the context of quoting Christopher Hitchens, that "the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”  There's already a lively debate over that subject (and I think the answer is "human nature," not "religion"), but interestingly that quote is used to justify the assertion "I shall not serve!"

I would counter, with Dylan, that "you're gonna have to serve somebody."  But that's merely to raise a point of opposition; the real issue is, for most atheists, religion involves some kind of crooking of the knee.  It's one reason Nietzsche, in undiluted form or in some watered-down variant, is so appealing to them.

It's the reason prayer is despised as:

...sitting for a quiet moment and beseeching his or her Lord for intervention in matters of grave import...with lowered head and genuflections and other toadying gestures of obeisance — behavior that without faith’s halo would be classified as symptoms of mental derangement. 

This, by the way, is presented as an "objective" view of the activity of prayer; and note the behavior, complete with "toadying gestures of obeisance" is "objectively" classified as "symptoms of mental derangement."  Mr. Tayler writes on the internet, which makes him an expert in diagnoses of mental states.

But there we have it again:  "toadying gestures of obeisance" is a dismissive an attitude as one can have.  It isn't just dismissive, it's hostile.  One has to wonder why the quiet action of prayer produces such anger in Mr. Tayler, why "obeisance" requires "toadying gestures".  Of course, he also wants to identify himself with Satan, prompting one to point out:  you ain't that important.  And to wonder:  do you have a boss?  Do you recognize the legitimacy of authority at all?  Because you're starting to sound like the most radical of the anti-government crowd, who use this sort of argument to deny the authority of anyone but the county sheriff, and then only when the sheriff isn't coming for them.

There is worthwhile discussion to be had here, somewhere between the strident defiance of Nietzsche and Merton finding in Abbey Gethsemani "the four walls of my freedom."  What's interesting is the refusal to admit that complexity, as if anyone anywhere who kneels to pray is impinging on the identity, the very personhood, of Mr. Tayler.  I find this kind of "boundary violation" very often in cases of such stridency.  Ironically, it may be the reason for the shooting in Chapel Hill which is the subject of Mr. Tayler's latest screed, although the boundary may have been merely the stripes between spaces on a parking lot.  One boundary is as abstract as the other, and it may well be Christopher Stephen Hicks was very concerned about the boundaries around a parking space that he imagined were inviolate.  It's a bit ironic that his atheism would be identified with the protection of a "holy space."  'Holy," after all, is not a theological term; it means something that must remain pure, undefiled, set apart.

It's an easy enough term to apply to Mr. Hicks' apparent obsession with a designated area of a parking lot.  As I said, violence has a lot less to do with religion, than it does with human nature.