Christian Humanism

Christian Humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, rational inquiry and a commitment to the values taught by Jesus as a guide to the ethical life are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. Being a Christian means at the least feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, supporting the poor, comforting the lonely, seeking peace and standing with the powerless against the mighty.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Israel Attempts To Stifle Dissent

A disturbing article appeared in today's Guardian that discloses an attempt by Benyamin Netanyahu's extremist party to stifle dissent among Israeli academics and intellectual leaders who are openly supporting the peaceful boycott by Palestinians of merchandise and agricultural products from Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Israel has been steadily trying to take over Palestinian lands by constant expansion of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territory. The Guardian reports:


A protest petition has been signed by 500 academics, including two former education ministers, following recent comments by Israel's education minister, Gideon Saar, that the government intends to take action against the boycott's supporters. A proposed bill introduced into the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – would outlaw boycotts and penalise their supporters. Individuals who initiated, encouraged or provided support or information for any boycott or divestment action would be made to pay damages to the companies affected. Foreign nationals involved in boycott activity would be banned from entering Israel for 10 years, and any "foreign state entity" engaged in such activity would be liable to pay damages.
Boycotts have long been recognized as a peaceful means of protest and dissent. The boycott movement [known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, or BDS] among the Palestinians has been going on for more than five years, but since the violent attack by the Israeli military against the peaceful flotilla that tried to bring in food, medical and building supplies to Gaza last month the campaign has gotten increased support both inside Israel and among others throughout the world community.

Supporters and Israel-watchers alike have been dismayed over Israel's increasing tone-deafness to the effect its increasingly repressive tactics are having on the rest of the world community. Israel is becoming more and more isolated as its objectives and tactics are being subjected to scrutiny by the world community.

Silencing of dissent and the punishment of peaceful protestors in Israel, and the constant rejection of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy by the right wing Zionist extremists, are indications that democratic freedoms, including the freedom of speech and the right of protest are being closed down in an Israeli state that is becoming increasingly repressive and fascist. That is disappointing to some of us who had hoped for better things from Israel. It used to be a nation to admire.

Fanatics are dangerous to democratic values and ideals—and religious fanatics are the most dangerous of all because they find justification for extremism and violence in their religious faith and commitment. Christians, Jews and Muslims all contain an irrational strain of violence among their extremist fundamentalist supporters that seek political power to silence dissent and undermine democracy.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is Peace in the Middle East Possible?

After a long hiatus in which neither side seemed interested in negotiating a settlement to their longstanding conflict, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are tentatively feeling their way through indirect talks coordinated by the US representative, former Senator George Mitchell.


Skeptics are probably correct that this is much ado about nothing. We do not expect very much progress toward peace will come from these talks. The primary and persistent obstacle to resumption of serious negotiations has been Israel's policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in East Jerusalem. Israel has agreed to a temporary freeze on new home construction in East Jerusalem but—and this is an important “but”—Israel continues to insist that Jerusalem, all of it, is its “undivided capital” and that the status of Jerusalem is not subject to negotiation. That is a major obstacle. The Palestinians intend that East Jerusalem will be the capital of their new state. The Arab nations agreed reluctantly to support the Palestinians in the indirect talks but with the proviso that before direct talks between the parties Israel must stop building settlements in the occupied Palestinian land because the occupied territory is the heart of the proposed Palestinian state. That seems reasonable—but unlikely.

The fact of the matter is that recent actions by the government of Benyamin Netanyahu and his political allies have made peace less likely because they have imposed a series of draconian measures on the occupied territories [restricted movement, building new Jewish settlements, taking Palestinian lands and dispossessing the inhabitants, bulldozing Palestinian homes built without Israeli permits, repressive and aggressive military and police actions, restrictions on food, medical supplies, fuel and food brought into the territories, blocking export of trade goods out of the territories, interference with international charitable and social service agencies providing relief services, etc.] using the excuse that they need these repressive and unwarranted actions as part of their “defensive” strategy.

To a non-partisan in this struggle, recent Israeli actions appear to be more vengeful and punitive than defensive. A reasonable person might conclude that they are strategic actions intended to provoke the Palestinians, making it more difficult for Palestinian leaders to work for peaceful resolution of the conflict and strengthening the hand of advocates of violent resistance to the peace process among the activists on both sides of the dispute.

Why does Israel seemingly act against their own stated interests by provoking the Palestinians? I think the answer is obvious. Retaliatory acts of violence by Palestinians against Israel give Israel’s current extremist leaders cover to justify their repressive tactics while they continue to build and expand settlements in Palestinian territory. Our conclusion is that neither side is much interested in serious discussion of peace.

There are both political and “religious” reasons underlying the Israeli intransigence. The current Israeli leadership does not want serious negotiations because they prefer the status quo—the Palestinians are under subjugation and the political extremists (primarily Fatah and Hamas) are not strong enough to create a real threat, giving the Israelis the opportunity to continue building settlements in the occupied territory to establish a permanent foothold that will be difficult to dislodge through peace negotiations.

The Palestinian leadership is likewise uninterested in serious peace discussions because (a) they do not trust the motives of the Israelis, do not believe the Israelis will negotiate in good faith, and are convinced (apparently with good reason) that the Israelis will continue to stall any final settlement because they want to grab as much Palestinian territory as they can; and (b) given that the more radical elements among the Palestinians still do not concede Israel's right to exist, the leadership fears loss of political control if they appear too willing to concede basic issues at stake in this conflict.

The politics of the Palestinians is complex, but the extremist parties that struggle for Palestinians’ allegiance have a vested interest in continuing the conflict to maintain the loyalty of their followers to their extremist position that all of Israel occupies Palestinian land and needs to be driven out. They rely on outside funds and need conflict to keep the flow of money coming from radical Arab and Muslim groups outside of Palestinian territory that are driven by ideology and not interested in a final settlement with Israel.

To put it bluntly, the leaders on both sides have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Both fear loss of power and influence without an “enemy” to unite their constituencies. Both get financial support from outside groups (the Arab community and the UN pay the bills for the Palestinians, and the US and the American Jewish community subsidize Israel) that will end or be substantially reduced when peace is achieved. Without conflict to deflect attention from home problems, both would have to set about the mundane business of government and the personalities of the leaders on both sides of this conflict do not fit well with a peace agenda. I do not know whether others agree with my assessment but I conclude that neither the current elected political leaders nor the political activists and extremists really want peace because they profit from the current standoff. The voices of moderation and peace have been muscled out of the political arena.

The Netanyahu government is a loose coalition of conservative and orthodox elements in Israel, controlled by religious fanatics who believe that Israel has some inherent historical and biblical right to much of the occupied territories, a position supported by some fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States. It appears that the Israeli tactic is to continue to stall any final settlement while settling increasing numbers of Jews in the occupied territories, thus making it increasingly difficult to abandon the settlements in any “peace for land” swap necessary for a Palestinian state.

In an earlier day there were reasonable people in the Israeli government who seriously wanted to end the conflict and were willing to compromise and trade land for peace, but until the current government is replaced by moderates and until the government stops its attempts to silence its critics by attacking Israelis and other Jews around the world who support peace, we will not make much progress toward a final resolution of this conflict. The Israeli leadership continues to shoot itself in the foot by its extremism, which not only makes dealing with its enemies even harder, but also aggravates and disappoints its friends and frustrates potential allies.

Somewhere in the middle, the need of the Palestinians and the Israelis for a peaceful two state solution must be found, but it will require political will of the moderates to bring about peace. The seeds of peace have been planted but they are being crowded out by the fast-growing weeds of extremism and conflict.

There are non-violent peace movements on both sides that promise hope although we do not hear much about them in the media. The New York Times carried a story [Palestinians Try a Less Violent Path to Resistance] recently about new forms of passive resistance among the Palestinians: senior Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have joined unarmed protest marches against Israeli policies, goods produced in Israeli settlements have been burned in public demonstrations, the Palestinian prime minister entered the West Bank to plant trees and declare the land part of the future state of Palestine, a campaign has been launched against buying goods made in the settlements, a prohibition has been issued against using Israeli telephone cards by Palestinians. Non-violent resistance is beginning and is a welcome change. With support from all sides it has the potential to become a serious movement that could help change public opinion about the Palestinian cause.

There are also serious attempts at a less violent approach to the conflict in Israel and among Israel's supporters. In the US, there are several activist Israeli-Jewish groups promoting peace, including the Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street.  Within Israel there is an active peace movement and even in the Israeli Defense Force there are passive resistors, including officers who have been jailed for refusal to carry out military missions in the Occupied Territories.

There is hope. Those of us who care, and that includes the Progressive community whether religious or secular, need to make our voices heard strongly and repeatedly—in the media, by letters to the editor, by commentary from the pulpit, in the streets if necessary—to counteract those loud voices of aggression that would drown out this conversation about peace with name-calling or attempts to derail the peace movement with irrelevant arguments that question the motives of the peacemakers. It is time that the forces for peace take control of the conversation.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Conflict of Values: Traitor, Patriot or Scoundrel?

Some things we learn early in childhood. Tell the truth. Keep your word. Don't betray your friends. Don't tell secrets. Sometimes we struggled with telling the truth over a broken window or whether to tell on our brother for some misdeed. For a child, morality is simple and straight-forward.


Then we grew up and moral values such as loyalty and truth, integrity and honesty, reliability and patriotism, became a lot more complicated. It is not always clear that keeping secrets, or loyalty to a friend or an employer, is the right thing to do. It is no longer obvious that keeping silent about a friend's crime or misconduct, or a government official's duplicity or conflict of interest, or a corporation's reckless endangerment, fraud or betrayal of our national values should be protected out of loyalty.

Most people respect the values of honesty, integrity, loyalty, reliability and patriotism. The issue for the ethically mature person is that values are often in conflict in real world situations and we have to work our way through the conflicts to reach the position that best reflects our core moral values. The conflict of these values creates much of the tension surrounding arguments over the right thing to do in particular situations.

That point should be obvious, but it is lost in most discussions amidst loud and angry arguments in which the combatants fail to see the moral complexity of the underlying issues and consequently question the integrity or judgment of the other side. This came clearly into focus for me yesterday when I read an article in the Washington Post about the controversy generated by WikiLeaks, a website on which leaked corporate and government documents are posted anonymously by concerned citizens who are either patriots or traitors depending on your values.

One recent disclosure in particular generated a lot of press coverage—a video from the cockpit gun camera on a US military Apache gunship in Iraq that fired into a group of civilians, killing 12 to 15 Iraqis including two reporters for Reuters and wounding several children. The video seems to show a different version of events than the account released by the Pentagon following the shooting. The point here is not to discuss that event or whether the US covered up an embarrassing incident, but rather the issues related to the fact that WikiLeaks posted the video, which the Defense Department considered “classified” information. Critics of WikiLeaks (mostly in the government) were furious about the leak. Some supporters of the Pentagon went so far as to call releasing the video to the public an act of treason and suggested the CIA shut it down by “black ops” if necessary. Proponents of truth and government in the sunshine lavished praise on WikiLeaks for its patriotic courage in upholding our national values of truth and honor and keeping the public informed about events that the government wanted to conceal.

Moving past the hysterics, the release of that footage was certainly not "treason" (which requires intent to harm the country) and clearly no harm to the nation was intended or resulted. To the contrary, the intent was to tell the truth about the event. The video was embarrassing and made more so by the Pentagon's attempt to cover up what happened, but no information was released about any vital national interest and the security of the country was not harmed. Some idiot will of course argue that anything that puts the US in an embarrassing situation could lead to spiteful acts of revenge, but that does not come close to the concept of treason. It is hard to make a convincing argument that preventing embarrassment is sufficient grounds to justify a coverup, or to classify information “top secret,” or to pursue those who leak information as if they had done something disloyal. The controversy here is between those who believe that preserving government secrets is more important than disclosure, against those who believe that the real patriotic duty lies in protecting and preserving the honor of the US by telling the truth whether or not it is embarrassing to government officials.

Our government at all levels, Federal, state and local, has a bias toward secrecy and a desire to keep actions of government officials behind closed doors and in locked file cabinets. Attempts to create laws to compel “government in the sunshine” and to provide for “freedom of information” are fought by bureaucrats and legislators. Releasing information to the public that some bureaucrat doesn't want released is treated as disloyalty and grounds for termination of employment or prosecution for violating disclosure laws. The same is true in corporate America. Corporations conceal vital information that the public needs to know, whether that is safety information or evidence of fraud or contract irregularities involving public funds. The government bureaucrat and the corporate executive attack employees who release information to the public with accusations of disloyalty or of bad motives.

An example of corporate attempts to conceal damaging information from the public occurred while I was writing this article. A CBS news crew attempted to film oil spill damage on a Louisiana beach when they were approached by a boat operated by BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board who refused to let them film oil on the beach and ordered them to leave the area under threat of arrest. The Coast Guard said those were BP rules, not theirs. [We will not get into the issue of how BP, a private corporation, can issue rules that prohibit a news crew from filming on a public beach, with enforcement of corporate rules by the Coast Guard. We wish that CBS had pressed the issue to see if the Coast Guard would attempt an arrest on behalf of BP.]

The ethical issue faced now by CBS is whether its journalistic integrity requires making an issue of the public's “right to know” and its right to film oil damage on a public beach at the risk of angering BP and losing access to information, or whether CBS will quietly let BP get away with using government intimidation to conceal damaging information and thereby preserve its access to whatever news BP is willing to let CBS cover.

There are only three types of information that should not be released to the public: [a] information that would jeopardize specific operations and methods in national security or law enforcement activities, [b] legitimate commercial trade secrets of corporations, and [c] personal information about individuals where that information may be damaging with no redeeming public interest at stake. Most everything else that governments and corporations try to protect are things they don't want the public to know about, and that is why we need WikiLeaks and other media outlets, why we must protect the press' right to publish, why we must ensure the public nature of government activities, why we must insist that government operate under the disinfecting qualities of sunshine, and why we must vigilantly guard against government interference in the public's right to know.

This essay is not about WikiLeaks, at least not directly. It is about the conflict of moral and ethical values that we face daily and a reminder that we need to be careful that we do not get so concerned about one value that we forgot other values that may be in play in any given situation. Our argument with someone else may result from the other party ranking values differently than we do in a particular context. That does not necessarily make them wrong and us right. An argument that one person sees as an issue of loyalty to country may be seen by another as an issue of integrity, and the disagreement arises because the parties rank these issues in different priority order in a given situation, or are not contemplating that there is one than one value in play.

Loyalty, integrity, honor and truth are often competing values in the real situations we face daily. Our job, as ethical human beings, is to work our way through the values that are in conflict in any given situation and make the best judgment we can about what our duty is in that context.

For a broader discussion of ethics and duty, in the context of a Humanist and a Christian, see this discussion.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The National Day of Prayer – A Day of Political Posturing

Tomorrow (May 6) is officially the National Day of Prayer, even though a federal court ruled last month that official government sponsorship was unconstitutional, immediately suspending its ruling long enough for the Obama administration to appeal. Today's Boston Globe published its lead editorial unqualifiedly endorsing in syrupy prose the National Day of Prayer, taking a “what's the big deal” attitude over the federal court decision. Quoting directly: “From time to time, public officials try to enforce their religious beliefs on others, but the National Day of Prayer hardly qualifies as such an effort.”  Hold on, Mr. Editor, but that is exactly what the organizers of that government-sponsored day of prayer have on their agenda.

The editorial writer did not do his homework and apparently is ignorant of the background of the lawsuit that led the federal court to declare the National Day of Prayer to be unconstitutional. It is not about whether or not a day of prayer, reflection or meditation violates the separation of church and state. It is much more troubling than that. It is about whether this day of prayer, and the organization behind it, are violating the “establishment” clause of the Constitution by promoting a particular religion, Evangelical Protestant Christianity.

So a little history. The National Day of Prayer is an evangelical Christian program, funded by a task force led by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, the founder of the conservative political activist organization, Focus on the Family.

According to its website, the task force is “a privately funded organization whose purpose is to encourage participation on the National Day of Prayer” and “to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer... and to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.”

Its origin is traced to a 1952 rally in Washington by the evangelical minister Rev. Billy Graham, in which he called for a national day of prayer and envisioned a "great spiritual awakening" for the capital with "thousands coming to Jesus Christ." The initial bill proposing the National Day of Prayer was introduced in the Senate (1952) by Senator Absalom Robertson (father of Pat Robertson) as a measure against the "corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based."

Apparently it was not implemented, so it was reintroduced in the Senate in 1987 by Strom Thurmond, according to the time line on the National Day of Prayer's website. The driving force behind the day of prayer was a little known group, the National Prayer Committee, a creation of the International Congress on World Evangelization, held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974.

In short, this is a project of a right wing Christian group to promote their particular take on Christianity and to try to get control of the conversation about religion in American life, including proseletyzing for evangelical Christianity and promoting their view that the United States is a Christian nation—which it is not, and has not been since its founding. See my recent article on the issue.

The federal court found that the day of prayer served no secular public purpose and that is why it was ruled to be unconstitutional. The judge said in her opinion that “the U.S. government may not enact a statute supporting prayer any more than it can encourage citizens to 'fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.'"

If it were a neutral day for all people, whether or not religious, for reflection and meditation on our common values, maybe it could be found to be lawful, but as it is now structured, it is a project of a narrow Christian evangelical group with a clear sectarian purpose. Americans are certainly free to pray or not as they choose, but there is no justification for a public government sponsored day of sectarian religious prayer.

Prayer is not necessarily objectionable if not done in public or with public sponsorship but it is probably pointless except as a prelude to action that involves a serious commitment to real Christian (and human) values--working toward peace in Afghanistan and the Middle East [being peacemakers, bring our troops home], feeding the hungry [support the food bank and food kitchens], sheltering the homeless [supporting the homeless shelter, the abused women's shelter, the children's home], healing the sick [funding CHIP, supporting health care for all], etc. Prayer by itself without action is empty and meaningless words. If our world is to become a better place the people of our nation will have to work together with others around the world to make it happen. A national day of sectarian prayer will not accomplish that.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Enigma of the Tea Party

I live in a Florida city that like most of Florida is filled with grumpy retirees. Many are early retired from corporations, with large savings accounts, ample pensions and generous medical insurance plans, and there are others retired from blue collar factory jobs from the mid-west and northeast, so it is possible to walk around many neighborhoods in the afternoon without missing a line from Rush Limbaugh on talk radio. Needless to say, it is a pretty hostile climate for progressives. Tea Partiers thrive in this warm moist climate, most with plenty of time on their hands that they use to write mean and angry postings on the comment page of the local newspaper bashing liberals, socialists, commies, freedom-haters, Obama-lovers and others of questionable loyalty to American values that they imagine are trying to turn the United States into a third-world socialist nation by bankrupting the country with unnecessary taxes, giveaways to the corporations and banks, and a government run healthcare program that will have government bureaucrats dictating what care we can have before we are sent to the end of life death panels that they fear.

The two things that really set them off are taxes—they are too high—and socialist welfare programs for the poor, the unemployed, the lazy—all those scabs on the backs of true blue-blooded working Americans who have to work hard only to have their just financial rewards stolen from them by the government and redistributed to those who don’t deserve it.  Every news article, editorial, or letter to the editor becomes an occasion for these extremists to vent their increasing anger and frustration at society, at government, and at local and national politicians.

The Tea Party is something of an enigma. It is difficult and may be unwise to attempt to characterize a group that is as diverse and fluid as the Tea Party appears to be, yet there are some things that can be said about them. "They" appear to be a motley assortment of folks, well meaning in their intentions for the most part, gullible enough to be led astray by the right wing buffoons and rabble-rousers of talk radio and Fox News, foolish and naïve in their public displays and rallys, appallingly ignorant about American history and values, unable to make serious practical political judgments (note their fascination with Sarah Palin), and ultimately dangerous because they foster ignorance and mob rule. They do not understand either democracy or the realities of a republic, yet they are powerful enough to create real damage because they are frustrated and angry and they are lashing out at whatever seems to be a good target for their rage.

A recent dialogue illustrates the difficulty of intelligent conversation with a Tea Party supporter who advocates values that he does not really understand. In response to a newspaper critique of inflammatory rhetoric by speakers at a local rally in which supporters of President Obama were called everything from socialists to traitors, he said (talking about his friends who participated in the rally):

“They just want to be reassured that you’re an American and that you believe in capitalism, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s all.”
I responded to him:

“The vast majority of Americans believe in capitalism, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, including me. I fear that what you mean is that you want people to believe in your way of understanding these terms, and that is where our disagreement arises.
[a] I believe that capitalism is the best economic system but it needs operating rules, and it needs to get disconnected from corporatism and monopolies, so that there is real and fair competition between equal parties in commercial transactions. When one party to a financial transaction makes the rules (for instance, the banks), then real and fair competition does not occur and the basic premise of capitalism is defeated.
[b] I believe in Constitutional government, as do most people, including the courts and judges. The issue is how the Constitution is interpreted. That is what we argue about. If you mean that you want judges who make Constitututional decisions the way you want them decided, and I want judges inclined to go along with my read of the Constitution, both of us believe in the Constitution, but we disagree about what it means and how it is to be interpreted.
[c] I believe in the Bill of Rights. I believe in freedom of speech. I think that provision was put into the Constitution to apply specifically to political speech. No one should be able to muzzle your freedom to express and advocate for your political beliefs. But I want that strictly interpreted. Speech is speech. Actions are not speech. Money is not speech. Corporations are not people. So my take on this is that what the courts have called “symbolic speech” – i.e., flag burning, desecrating public buildings with splattered blood, or disrupting public meetings, etc. is not properly an exercise of “free speech.” I also maintain that “money” is not free speech and campaign contributions can be limited without any individual being deprived of his right to speak his mind.
In other words, we do not disagree about the importance of capitalism, or the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, but we surely disagree about what they mean.”
The leadership of the Tea Party movement says that the characterizations and estimates of the Tea Party should not be based on what happens at public demonstrations, what is yelled out, what is written on crude illiterate signs. It is apparent that the excesses of the Tea Party followers and hangers-on have proven to be an embarrassment to its leaders, who have visions of being taken seriously and having some impact on future political events. Fox News, in a surprisingly candid article on the Tea Party following its national tour, said that “while organizers have held the tour as a way to stay front-and-center as a political force, the rallies have also attracted the kinds of mistruths, exaggerations and conspiracy theories that make Tea Party leaders cringe. Though the movement is still trying to shore up its credentials as a grassroots power that's here to stay, the so-called "fringe" and its accompanying antics continue to give critics fodder.”

Adherents of the Tea Party movement are supposedly brighter than the average citizen (a questionable judgment based on the signs they carry and the slogans they shout), but regardless even those identified as its leadership seem strangely deficient in knowledge of history and the meaning of some of the simplest political concepts—socialism, communism, tyranny, fascism, Nazi—which they use in the most bizarre and uninformed way. An analysis of this aspect of the Tea Partiers appears in a recent issue of Slate, in a perceptive article worth the read by Ron Rosenbaum, The Tea Party's Toxic Take on History. In his critique of the lack of historical awareness evidenced by the Tea Party Rosenbaum says:

“Most people with a basic grounding in history find Tea Party ignorance something to laugh about, certainly not something to take seriously. But I would argue that history demonstrates that historical ignorance is dangerous and that it can have tragic consequences, however laughable it may initially seem. And thus the media, liberals, and others are misguided in laughing it off. And educated conservatives are irresponsible in staying silent in the face of these distortions.... The muddled Tea Party version of history is more than wrong and fraudulent. It's offensive. Calling Obama a tyrant, a communist, or a fascist is deeply offensive to all the real victims of tyranny, the real victims of communism and fascism.... The media for the most part has shown itself afraid to challenge the insidious distortions of language and history Tea Partiers promote.”
It would be nice if the so-called “Tea Party” crowd were actually a new third party instead of what appears to be merely “Republicans with attitude” who talk about change we might believe in but are actually just the same “angry white folks” with the same tired complaints about big government, unbalanced budgets, porous borders, gay marriage, enemies behind every bush, government giveaway programs, and high taxes. They are Republicans wearing camouflage, and I guess they assume we won't notice.

When the Tea Party movement first surfaced I had hoped for more. I really hoped for a third party of fiscal and social moderates that would give some balance to the flaky fringe of the right and the left and might lead to a national conversation about needs and priorities and a willingness (and necessity) to compromise in the interest of accomplishing something useful and workable for our nation and to move us beyond anger and frustration.

I wanted a party for fiscal moderates, a party that would not engage in unnecessary wars and that if and when a war was necessary for our defense would have the integrity to pay for that war by raising taxes so they could show they were serious and were not just engaging in political rhetoric for short term political gain at long term cost to the next generation of ever increasing debt and ever decreasing quality of life.

I wanted a party that would commit to making lobbying illegal; end campaign donations by corporations, businesses, labor unions, trade associations and political action committees; reform campaign finance laws and amend the “free speech” provisions of the Constitution so that corporations were not deemed to be persons and money was not deemed a proxy for speech; and eliminate the influence of corporatism in our lives.

I wanted a party that would enforce our borders and our immigration laws; end agricultural visas for farmers and technical visas for computer programmers and other professionals unless coupled with enforceable provisions requiring those with temporary work visas to leave when their visas expire; stand up to the Republican Party that wants our immigration laws to be ignored to keep the cost of labor down and ensure a continuous supply of low cost workers to business in order to undermine worker protections and unions; stand up to the Democrats who also want the immigration laws to be ignored so that more poor workers and minorities will increase the potential membership of their party; and change the national conversation about immigration so that there was no implication that open national boundaries are desirable and enforcing our immigration laws was somehow “racist.”

I hoped for a party that would encourage free enterprise to flourish by breaking up the big banks and big corporations that dominate our markets and prevent real competition in price and quality of goods and services; devise regulations to make markets fair and competitive; eliminate manufacturer agreements with retailers that arbitrarily fix prices and penalize retailers who compete on price; remove legal constraints on Medicare so that drug companies would have to bid successfully to get their drugs on an approved list; and enforce trade agreements to prevent dumping and other unfair and anti-competitive practices that undermine our economy and our workers.

I hoped for a party that would recognize that government is separate from religion and would not try to impose sectarian or religious values into the political sphere or try to impose particular religious standards on the rest of society.

But I am a realist and I do not think this will happen. I am afraid that the Tea Party is not really a serious political movement that will give us a real choice because we have seen the Tea Party movement co-opted by the Republican Party to try to win unhappy independents. Our choices will still be between Republicans and Democrats. That is a great disappointment to me, because both parties are firmly in the control of the corporations and despite what they say with their campaign rhetoric, fundamental change will not happen. The existing political parties are too entrenched in their ways, too entangled with lobbyists, too much under the influence of corporations, PACS and political cronies, too sure they can continue their current ways with no real consequences, too inclined to protect and advantage their friends. That said, and with considerable reluctance, I will continue to support the Democrats in elections as a moral choice of the lesser of the evils because they tend to be less selfish and more inclined to support programs that benefit people.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Liberal Disenchantment With Israeli Policy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues his game-playing on the Palestinian question by trying to have his cake and eat it too. It is patently obvious that Israel, under its present government anyway, has no intention of seriously negotiating any of the outstanding issues that stand in the way of peace including the Jerusalem question.

Last month the Obama Administration attempted to jump start peace negotiations by obtaining a concession from Israel that might get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, and with that objective in mind, Vice President Biden went to Israel to meet with Mr. Netanyahu to discuss the settlements issue in East Jerusalem. While Mr. Biden was in Israel the Israeli government publicly rebuffed him by announcing additional settlements to be built in East Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly stated (in the style of Ariel Sharon before him) that he has no intention of giving up any part of Jerusalem and he continues to insist that all of Jerusalem is now and shall remain forever Israel's undivided capital city. The ultimate status of Jerusalem is one of the issues in contention that is to be the subject of negotiations between the parties, so the announcement by Israel of continuing the controversial settlements policy seems to have been calculated to upset the Palestinians and discourage them from coming back to the negotiating table, and the snub to Mr. Biden also had to be a calculated attempt to see if Israel could continue to push back on the U.S. and get President Obama to back off his criticism of the settlements.

So after the public humiliation of the Vice President and a refusal to apologize for the affront, the U.S. made light of the public insult [either through weakness and fear of the Jewish lobby, or by a calculated decision to take the high road] and proposed sending George Mitchell, the special envoy on Mid-East peace, back to Israel and Palestine to hold separate talks with the parties. Enter now Mr. Netanyahu, with a proposal for a Palestinian state with “temporary borders”—an approach previously rejected by the Palestinians, once again making Mr. Netanyahu appear to be giving up something that he knows the other side will reject. [See April 23 Reuters article carried in the Washington Post.] Just today as I was writing this paragraph [April 25] Mr. Netanyahu announced that he was “temporarily” suspending new construction in East Jerusalem, despite opposition by his party and the threat by some in his coalition to bring down the government.

For those having trouble keeping up with the machinations on this 50-year old unsettled conflict, every few years there are negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians brokered by the United States. The negotiations break down because neither side really wants to give up anything it believes is important because any concession tends to weaken the political standing of the negotiators who do not get more than they give. Each side then pressures the other, the Israelis by closing down trade, limiting travel, and general harassment of the Palestinians, and the Palestinians respond with rock-throwing at Israeli troops and occasional Katusha rockets launched from within the Palestinian territory, some of which actually reach Israel and cause minor damage. The attacks serve each side as an excuse to escalate and so it goes. The extremists in Israel do not want to concede territory and do not want a Palestinian state. The extremists among the Palestinians, particular Hamas and Hezbollah, want Palestinian land back and do not want to have to concede that the land taken from the Palestinians for the new State of Israel is permanently lost, a position that leads them to call for the destruction of Israel. The extremists on both sides know how to wreak enough trouble to keep the peace process from moving forward. The result: stalemate.

After the last intifada, the Israelis launched a brutal, indiscriminate and devastating attack into the Palestinian territories that clearly went beyond reasonable retaliation. Israel's friends were embarrassed and appalled at the attack. The UN launched an investigation under Justice Richard Goldstone, an eminent jurist, a Jew, a supporter of Israel and a Zionist. The Goldstone Report was lengthy, exhaustive and detailed, despite the fact that Israel refused to cooperate in the investigation and arrogantly questioned the motives of anyone who questioned Israel's honorable actions, their conduct or their intentions.

We now learn, through an extensive article by Chris Hedges in Truthdig [Israel Crackdown Puts Liberal Jews on the Spot] that, in the words of Mr. Hedges,

“The Israeli government ... has implemented a series of draconian measures to silence and discredit dissidents, leading intellectuals and human rights organizations inside and outside Israel that are accused—often falsely—of assisting Goldstone’s U.N. investigators. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to shut down Israel’s premier human rights organizations, including B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund (NIF) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It is busy expelling or excluding peace activists and foreign nationals from the Palestinian territories....”

“The campaign against Israeli dissidents has taken the form of venomous denunciations of activists and jurists, including Justice Goldstone. It includes a bill before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, which will make it possible to imprison the leaders of Israeli human rights groups if they fail to comply with crippling new registration conditions. Human rights activists from outside Israel who work in the Palestinian territories are being rounded up and deported. The government is refusing to issue work visas to employees of 150 NGOs operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The new tourist visas effectively bar these employees from Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation.... Im Tirzu, the front organization behind many of the attacks, includes among its financial backers the John Hagee Ministries and the New York Central Fund, which also support extremist settler organizations...."

“The Knesset bill, if passed, will force human rights groups to register as political bodies and turn over identification numbers and addresses of all members to the government. These groups will lose their tax-exempt status. Most governmental organizations, such as the European Union, which is a large donor to Israeli human rights organizations, cannot legally pay taxes to another government, and the new law will effectively end European Union and other outside funding. The groups will be mandated to provide the government with the records of all foreign donations and account for how these donations were spent. Any public statement, event or speech, even if it lasts half a minute, by these groups must include a declaration that they are being supported and funded by a foreign power. Those who fail to follow these guidelines, including local volunteers, can face a year in jail....”
There is no rational basis to justify these attempts to shut down criticism and deny freedom of political speech. These extreme measures show how deadly serious the current Israeli government is about stifling criticism and the extent to which they will go to silence those who speak for values of freedom and truth. The article is powerfully written and readers are encouraged to read for themselves the trouble and second guessing these government actions are generating among those who would ordinarily have been inclined to be sympathetic to Israel. It is often true that we become the enemy, and Israel surely must begin to take a look at itself and see what it is becoming and whether it likes what it sees. More important for the U.S, we must begin to see the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the harsh glare of reality and begin to ease ourselves away from uncritical support of whatever Israel does. It is long past the days when Israel can continue to gain international support by merely mentioning the Holocaust and playing on the guilt of the world. American interests are not tied to Israel and American policy cannot afford to ignore our country's national interests only to be held captive to the interests of Israel.

It is apparent that many Americans do not understand the Palestinian issue. There are many reasons for this. The events that started this conflict occurred at the end of World War 2 and most Americans were not yet alive or not old enough to remember the early history of this conflict, and that includes most reporters who cover the continuing story. American attitudes have been honed by our affinity for the underdog and carefully developed by Jewish organizations and by friends of Israel in the United States, including a number of dual Israeli-US citizens who serve in our government. Religious Israelis argue that the land of Israel is the same as biblical Israel and that god has given them this land, an argument that resonates with Christian fundamentalists but fails to acknowledge the Muslim interest in Jerusalem as sacred to its past just as it is to Jews and Christians. The frustration of the Palestinians at their treatment by Israel and their failure to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, the failure to understand the root issues of Palestinian anger, the attacks on the Palestinians by Israel that are characterized without challenge as “defensive strategies,” and the unwillingness of the U.S. to criticize Israel and end massive military and social services funding for Israel, are the root causes of the Palestinian acts of terrorism against Israel and hatred of the U.S. by Muslims throughout the world who see the United States as an enemy because of our uncritical support of Israel.

A quick refresher on the history of this conflict–After the War, Palestinians who owned homes and businesses in Palestine were displaced, many moving into large refugee camps to make a place for the Jews of Europe, who were encouraged by the Zionists to emigrate to Israel. They were supposed to be compensated, but they weren’t. Israel declared itself an independent nation. A series of wars occurred between Israel and displaced Palestinians supported by neighboring Muslim states, who intended to regain control of Palestinian land and abolish the new state of Israel. The Israelis won the war and decided to keep the land they took from their neighbors, now called the “occupied territories.” Israel controlled this land surrounding their fledgling nation and began to move new settlers there, taking homes from Palestinians and forcing more Palestinians to lose their homes. The Israelis had captured east Jerusalem in the war and subsequently declared all of Jerusalem was Israeli territory and Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. Other nations, including the US, do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. However under their view that all of Jerusalem was Israeli territory, despite international law to the contrary, and despite repeated UN Resolutions, the Israelis have continued to build houses for Jews and are forcing more and more Muslims from their homes in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want their lands and homes back and they are doing it in the only way they can–by fighting the Israelis. They see themselves as freedom fighters. But Israel is very vicious in its retaliatory offensives against Palestinians and thinks it can justify revenge attacks by calling what they are doing “defending Israel.”

Without recognizing the root cause of Palestinian and Muslim anger and frustration and finding a way to resolve those underlying issues it will not be possible to resolve the Arab-Palestinian problem. This is NOT an anti-Israel or pro-Arab conclusion; it is merely a statement of the underlying issues that seem to have become lost in the Israeli attempts to characterize the standoff as Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism. There is a reason for the terrorism that the current discussions ignore. Whether or not the Palestinians are patriotic freedom fighters trying to recover their land from an outside conqueror or terrorists, seems to be a matter of perspective on which side's argument one is inclined to believe has the most merit.

Because humanists do not have a religious bias for or against the parties on underlying religious grounds, they may be able to see the issues more clearly. Unfortunately given the political realities and the intransigence of the parties that may not help resolve the problem.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Unbelievers: Ministers Who Conclude There Is No God

The Boston Globe published a disconcerting feature article on Sunday April 11 entitled “The Unbelievers: What happens when a minister decides there’s no God.” The article is based on a study conducted by Professor Daniel Dennett of Tufts University that summarizes the content of interviews he conducted in depth with a number of ministers who over the years found that they have lost their faith in god and yet who continue to serve as ministers of churches because they are “trapped” in a profession that they do not know how to gracefully remove themselves from. In many cases these ministers are also caught in a situation in which they do not know how to break the news to family, friends and parishioners. Someone described the situation of these ministers as similar to being a closeted gay, unsure how they will be accepted once they come out of the church closet and conflicted about remaining in the ministry (as many do) or how they will support themselves if they have to give up their vocation as a result of their unbelief.


This study resonates with me because to some extent it is my story also, a story that I have told in some detail on my Christian Humanist website. Professor Dennett calls himself an atheist, but I prefer the term non-theist, because it is less confrontational and softer. I do not see any particular reason to be combative on the issue of belief in god or about my other beliefs and I do not want to provoke traditional believers. The question of the existence or reality of god does not interest me or seem worth the trouble to argue about any more than I am interested in arguing about whether tooth fairies or unicorns exist. I have just lost interest in god and do not find that term helpful, necessary or meaningful.

On the other hand, I believe that an ethical system is necessary. I find there is a great deal of value in Christian ethical beliefs and in the teachings of Jesus and I choose to base my ethical choices and priorities on those teachings. Therefore while I am a Humanist in that I value humanity and the humanities (and like many humanists, I do not believe in deities), I am a Christian in that I choose to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus. There are quite a few of us who identify ourselves as Christian Humanists, some who believe in god, some who do not.

Professor Dennett is right, however, when he observes the difficulty that a minister or priest encounters when they realize that faith has quietly left them and they must figure out how to navigate their way through some treacherous waters as they try to work out the implications for them, for their family and friends, and for their church. Over the past two years since I set up my website I have been contacted by a number of ministers who are struggling with the issue of faith, belief and vocation. The crisis of faith is sometimes so difficult that it results in the breakup of marriages, conflicts with families, and private despair for those who want desperately to believe, feel the loss of faith as a great loss in their life, but know that they cannot go back again.

Dennett summarizes his study this way:
"What emerges is a portrait of men (the one woman interviewed backed out at the last minute) grappling earnestly and incisively with the sort of theological quandaries familiar to anyone who has studied and doubted Christian doctrine. Just as strong, though, is the sense of secrecy and evasion that pervades their lives: having to hide their lack of belief from parishioners, friends, and even family members. Some spoke of feeling trapped: questioning their fitness for the pulpit but unable to leave because of a mix of personal, cultural, and even financial reasons.”
The Boston Globe allows reader comments on most of its news and commentary articles. This is the sort of article that attracts comments and as I slogged my way through the many hostile, angry and mean-spirited comments I was intrigued by a few of the more perceptive and interesting comments.

One comment observed cynically that “perhaps Mr. Bennett is on to something, that certain seminaries are in reality teaching 'anti-theology.'” Perhaps in some sense that observation has an element of truth to it, not because seminaries set out to undermine faith and not because they are deliberately engaged in false teaching, but because they have the mission of education in the broad sense of what that means (as compared to indoctrination, which is what happens in some seminaries).

Unfortunately some young theological students have the expectation that a theological education will resolve their doubts about matters of faith, but it rarely does, and as they learn more about the basis of faith, the biblical books and their background, various approaches to theology, philosophical issues surrounding faith, and the integration of theological knowledge with the world of knowledge, they discover that their doubts have increased rather than receded. That was certainly true in my case—I went to theological seminary with an undergraduate major in religion and I found that as my knowledge increased so did my doubts, and I came out of theological school with another graduate degree and a terminal case of agnosticism.

I have run into several variations on that theme from people who have contacted me through my website, most frequently suggesting that higher education is the source of the problem of the loss of faith and that as students are more exposed to liberal and atheistic college professors their innocent faith can be seriously damaged. The fear of losing faith (sometimes rationalized as a way of strengthening their faith) is a factor for students who attend conservative religious colleges and bible colleges, which tend to insulate students from confronting issues in science and philosophy that most of us expect students to be exposed to while in college as part of their educational growth toward intellectual maturity.

Here are some of the comments posted by Globe readers. It is apparent that readers were interested in loss of religious faith among their contemporaries generally, not just among the professional clergy, so the conversation begins to shift as more people comment.


"Mr. Dennett clearly has an agenda. His attempt to characterize his work as a study is fairly transparent. His self-serving drivel is an attempt to undermine religion and to coax those who may be weak and/or vulnerable to his position - kind of like gathering his own flock. And using others to do it for him is pure cowardice. Regardless of the denomination, it's about faith. Lot's have it, some don't. And that's okay. But to dedicate yourself to trying to destroy it in others is pathetic and very very sad."
# # #
"Dennett's notion that we might develop a secular form of religion, incorporating rituals similar to those of authentic religion, has no credibility whatever. Unitarianism is the most plausible candidate, but it's an abject failure at the task. There are no tenets worth speaking of, only the blandest of the bland platitudes. How can one be transported by such inanity? Insofar as one is pulled out of religious belief by thinking, how can one be pulled back into a secular religion by such vacuousness? It's sad of course that we can't replace the satisfying experience of religious transport by something secular. But it is the price exacted by thinking."
# # #


"When Dennett begins to recommend that non-believers be elevated to positions of leadership within churches, he steps away from any pretense of a "study." He is not attempting to open the church for those who doubt - he is attempting to take away the reasons for which most of us go to church in the first place. We already have an institution where non-believers come together for a pseudo-religious service and the purpose of doing good in the community. It's called the Unitarian Church, and they are a wonderful, historied organization full of community-minded people. I would direct Mr. Dennett there, but it seems his purpose in this "study" is not to find a place for non-believers who enjoy the trappings of religion, but to destroy the churches of those who have experienced and do experience doubt, yet continue to believe. No thanks. I'd rather live my life as though there is a higher purpose and a loving God, who commands us to come together to worship, to learn about Him and to do good in His name - even if I'm wrong."
The most interesting and perceptive comment, which appears to come from someone well informed on theological issues, deals directly with the issue of theological education and its impact on a serious theological student:


In his interview of Daniel Dennett, Drake Bennett raised the issue as to whether seminary education itself was a prime factor in the loss of faith among the clergy. Both Bennett and Dennett emphasized the study of biblical criticism as a factor in the undermining of religious faith. However, the study of theology itself can help to undermine religious faith too. Seminary students would, presumably, be exposed to the work of such eminent 20th century theologians as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Hans Kung, whose work wittingly or unwittingly, deconstructed traditional concepts of God. Interestingly enough, all of those theologians were strongly influenced by the work of the 19th century atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, as well as by Nietzsche and Freud.

Tillich, in this regard is most interesting. The (atheist) philosopher Sidney Hook once remarked of Tillich:

"With amazing courage Tillich boldly says that the God of the multitudes does not exist, and further, that to believe in His existence is to believe in an idol and ultimately to embrace superstition. God cannot be an entity among entities, even the highest. He is being-in-itself. In this sense Tillich's God is like the God of Spinoza and the God of Hegel. Both Spinoza and Hegel were denounced for their atheism by the theologians of the past because their God was not a Being or an Entity. Tillich, however, is one of the foremost theologians of our time."

And Tillich himself once summarized his position in the following terms:

"If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him, and if you assert that He does exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing besides others within the universe of existing things. . . Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and restate the meaning of the tremendous word God."

Given this, one had to agree with Daniel Dennett that anyone who comes out seminary still believing in God (or at least the God of traditional theism) wasn't paying attention.”
The next quote reinforces the observation that theological education plays a key role in the loss of faith but also serves as an educational resource and incubator for those seeking a way to accommodate their loss of faith with a leadership role in the religious community. My own experience confirms that. Several of my fellow students during my theological school days were exploring religion for their personal and educational interest without seriously considering becoming a minister or going into professional church work. Others were struggling with issues of faith, with several different paths ultimately pursued. Some left the church or gave up any plan to enter the ministry as a career while others shifted to a religious denomination in which they believed they could fit comfortably, one into the Unitarian Universalist ministry, and two others into the Episcopal Church, the latter for a quite interesting reason—they were able to say “the Church believes” rather than “I believe.” I think that “out” was seen as an acceptable way to deal with the questions of faith among ministers to a much greater degree than is commonly admitted.

So we turn to a current theological student for the final comment:

As a student at Harvard Divinity School, I was hardly surprised at this study. I'd hazard a guess that at least 25% of the students at HDS are atheists or spiritual non-theists. Some, like me, are pursuing the academic study of religion: why people believe, what they believe, and how religious practices and institutions impact a wider society. But quite a few are aspiring clergy who do not accept anthropomorphic deities, yet still see a place for "benign" forms of religiosity in our culture. I did find myself nodding sympathetically as I read about the role of seminaries in fostering non-belief. I was a bona fide theist and practicing pastor when I went to seminary, but by the close of my first year the force of empirical evidence compelled me to surrender my faith. My professors spoke of the necessity of "re-enchantment" or a "second naïvete" as part of spiritual formation, but I never experienced a rebirth of this sort. And, for the record, I'm glad of it.
So where does this leave us? A significant number of ministers in American Protestantism (and I think this comment is true for Protestantism generally in the English speaking world) are facing a crisis of faith that has serious implications for the vocation of ministry. Critics have argued that this is a particular problem of the more liberal theological seminaries and is not a widespread problem. I think they are mistaken, perhaps even deluded.

There is increasing evidence that the problem is much larger than is generally realized because, as Professor Dennett’s study shows and as I have discovered from contacts with many ministers facing a crisis of faith, it is a secret that cannot easily be talked about even with close friends and family. Ministers feel trapped in a vocation that is not just a job, it is a faith commitment and a vocational commitment, it has taken years of professional training, it involves the religious faith of friends and family, it is a commitment to a congregation which is itself a community.

The loss of faith is not just a desire not to do the job anymore; if that was all it involved, it would require a career change and some career counseling. For the minister it is a great deal more than that, it is an admission of personal failure in the struggle for faith, it is an acknowledgment before family, friends and congregation that one has been living a lie, it is a personal loss, almost a death of the spirit. It is a personal tragedy. But perhaps it is a necessary step in order to keep one’s integrity.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Argument Between Belief And Unbelief

For some reason that must be deep in the psyche of our contemporaries there seems to be a lot of interest in the debate about god—is he or isn’t he? Advocates on either side of the issue from the well-known outspoken advocates of atheism to the defenders of the reality of god are on the airways and the bookstands defending their views. The sudden recent interest in this issue puzzles me because it seems like a regression backward to an earlier generation of lively debate on the topic. I had thought the issue had been placed in the “no point of arguing” bucket because there was no way to resolve the issue by discussion. Some seemed inclined, regardless of evidence, to take that “leap of faith” into the world of gods and spirits, apparently believing that it could do no harm to decide for god, whereas believing the contrary might put them uncomfortably in harm’s way if god were real and vindictive.


I fall on the side of the non-believer in that I do not think that the arguments for god have much persuasive ability or much attraction. I used to “believe” in god as a child and young man, but over time and education, the belief in god seemed uninteresting and irrelevant. There was never an “ah-ha” moment when the light bulb went off and I changed my mind on the subject. It was like many childish ideas in that as I got older and knew more about the world and had more experiences, the inherent problems with religious belief just became insurmountable and the concept disappeared from my consciousness and my belief system.

I have never felt a need to become militantly atheistic. I think you have to take the concept seriously in order to debate it seriously, and I do not have much interest in the topic. However since I have been writing on the subject of Christian Humanism I have had numerous people write to me to show me the error of my thinking, asserting that if I just understood more, or listened to their arguments carefully, or gave god a chance, or did not close my mind to religious thinking and opened my heart to the Holy Spirit, or even if I prayed with them about my unbelief, that they could get me back on the path of right thinking on the subject of religion and restore my belief. One of the usual tactics is to tell me that it is my education that destroyed my belief and that education is the work of the devil, subtly taking away belief when I bit into the attractive apple of knowledge. I must admit to being annoyed by the arrogance of belief that dismisses unbelief as a churlish refusal to believe what to them is so obvious.

In graduate school I did a lot of reading in philosophy of religion. Back in the 1950s (when I was in grad school) some of the most interesting philosophers were in England. One writer in particular made a significant impact on my early thinking in the philosophy of religion, Antony Flew, an Oxford professor who was a prolific writer and speaker who regularly took the negative side in frequent debates about the meaningfulness of religious language in general and talk about god in particular. One passage in particular struck me as stating in very simple language the essence of the argument, a short article in his book Logic and Language, entitled “Theology and Falsification,” (Blackwell, 1953). I still have that book in my library.

He says:

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revolutionary article "Gods." Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a "picture preference." The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena). The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Wells' invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.

And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance. Take such utterances as "God has a plan," "God created the world," "God loves us as a father loves his children." They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intended them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective).

Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case. Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. [emphasis mine]. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, "Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?" he was suggesting that the Believer's earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding "there wasn't a God after all" or "God does not really love us then." Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — God's love is "not merely human love" or it is "an inscrutable love," perhaps — and we realize that such suffering are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that "God loves us as a father (but of course…)." We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God's (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say "God does not love us" or even "God does not exist"? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?"
The issue here is so obvious that it does not need any further exposition. It is known in philosophy as the “principle of falsification.” If there is no fact, experience or observation that would lead one to conclude that a statement was not true, then there is nothing that the statement asserts. In other words, if a statement cannot be falsified the statement is meaningless. That is the fundamental issue that must be faced by those who assert the meaningfulness of language about god.

_________________

Note: I am not unaware of the controversy surrounding some statements made by Antony Flew prior to his death in which he is alleged to have conceded that modern science may not be inconsistent with deism to which we respond that [a] if true, it is not relevant to the logic of the statement above; and [b] he was in his 80’s, admittedly senile and may have been mis-quoted or quoted out of context.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tax Day – Renewing The Case For Fairness

The New York Times, in an article April 13 by David Leonhardt, reports that 47% of households owe no Federal income tax for 2009 but concludes that figure is highly misleading because it does not tell the whole story. The usual suspects on cable television and talk radio are using that number ahead of the Tax Day Tea Party protests coming up on April 15 to suggest that “the wealthy face a much higher tax burden than they once did while growing numbers of Americans are effectively on the dole.”

Leonhardt makes three important observations on why that conclusion is misleading:

[a] Over the last 30 years, rates have fallen more for the wealthy, and especially for the very wealthy, than for any other group. At the same time, their incomes have soared, and the incomes of most workers have grown only moderately faster than inflation. So a much greater share of income is now concentrated at the top of distribution, while each dollar there is taxed less than it once was. [emphasis mine]

[b] Taking into account both taxes and tax credits, the average household in this group paid a total income tax rate of just 3 percent…. But the picture starts to change when you look not just at income taxes but at all taxes. This average household would have paid 0.8 percent of its income in corporate taxes (through the stocks it owned), 0.9 percent in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes. Add these up, and the family’s total federal tax rate was 14.2 percent.

[c] State and local taxes … may actually be regressive. That is, middle-class and poor families may face higher tax rates than the wealthy. As Kim Rueben of the Tax Policy Center notes, state and local income taxes and property taxes are less progressive than federal taxes, while sales taxes end up being regressive. The typical family pays a lot of state and local taxes, too — almost half as much as in federal taxes.
A week ago I wrote an article entitled Paying Taxes is a Privilege in which I noted that the stated objective of the tax cutting movement is to lower the “marginal” Federal income tax rates to benefit the wealthiest Americans. The essence of the argument is “fairness” and the tactic is a proposal to eliminate differential income tax rates in favor of a “flat tax” that everyone would pay at the same rate. The question of tax “fairness” is a complicated one that could be answered in different ways depending on what values and assumptions are considered in the discussion but, regardless, the practical effect of lowering taxes on the wealthy inevitably involves shifting more of the burden onto the middle class and the poor. That is not an opinion—it is just a mathematical fact.

It is reasonable to argue that “fairness” of the tax burden means fairness in terms of ability to pay and that those who are wealthy have profited more from society and should pay more for its support. It is also obvious that requiring a wage earner with a middle class income to pay 10% of his income as tax, which cuts into the amounts required for food, clothing and shelter, creates a much greater burden on the middle class than a 10% tax on the income of a millionaire creates on the lifestyle of the wealthy. Does anyone seriously doubt that is true?

Remember, as pointed out above, the current real Federal tax rate paid by most of that 47% taxpayer group is 14.2% which includes payroll taxes of 7.65% for Social Security and Medicare taxes, so it is important that the implications of the Flat Tax proposal be compared on an “apples to apples” basis. In other words, does the Flat Tax proposal include all Federal taxes, or does it intend to exclude the 7.65% FICA tax paid now by all wage earners, because if the FICA tax is in addition to the flat tax rate, then to get the actual rate paid by lower and middle income taxpayers you need to add the two rates together for a real Federal tax rate of 17.65%.

To clarify the fuzzy math of the flat tax advocates, as I argued in more detail in an earlier essay, [It’s Time To End Entitlements For The Wealthy] here is a fact, from the IRS, about the super wealthy–they paid an effective tax rate of 16.6% on their average income of $344.8 MILLION, a tax rate slightly lower than my tax rate, because of loopholes, capital gains and other tax gimmicks that favor the wealthy.

Here’s another fun fact about how the tax system transfers wealth from lower income people to the wealthy—Social Security tax is paid on wage income up to $106,000 at a rate of 7.65%. An individual making $50,000 per year has $3825 taken out of his wages. An individual making $2.5 million has $8109 taken out of his wages, for a net FICA tax rate of 0.324%. The lower paid person pays a rate 23.54 times HIGHER than the millionaire.

For the doubters out there, here are the actual calculations:

$50,000 x 7.65% = $3825 total social security tax on the individual.

$2,500,000 income is taxed only on the first $106,000. $106,000 x 7.65% = $8109 total tax on the individual.

$8109 divided by $2,500,000 is a rate of 0.32436%.

The person making $50,000 pays 7.65% of their income ($3825) to social security.

The person making $2,500,000 pays 0.32436% ($8109) of their income to social security.

7.65% (the rate paid by the lower income) divided by 0.32436% (the rate paid by high income) is 23.58 times higher.
As David Leonhardt states in the article referenced at the beginning of this essay, the amount of tax money that goes into the Treasury accounts as Social Security and Medicare funds and the tax money that goes into the Treasury as Federal Income Tax funds are just bookkeeping entries. The fact is that they are all Federal tax funds. This is important in looking at the implications for the Flat Tax concept. Here’s why. If the Flat Tax applies only to the portion of Federal taxes designated as income tax and all taxpayers continue to pay the FICA tax as now structured, the inequity of the present system is compounded because a person making $50,000 would be taxed on his earned income at 17.65% and a person making $2.5 million would be taxed on his income at 10.3%. The absurdity of this should be obvious. That is neither reasonable nor fair.

Contrary to the argument made by the wealthy, lowering taxes on the wealthy and shifting the burden onto the middle class involves a wealth transfer (redistribution of wealth, anathema to the right) from the lower and middle class to the wealthy, and that cannot be fair in any reasonable sense of what “fairness” means. This is a message that needs to be constantly repeated to the Flat Tax advocates. It sounds on the surface like a good idea, but the Flat Tax approach will not pay the bills without transferring the burden away from the wealthy to the middle class, and that is clearly the primary objective of the flat taxers despite their denials.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Is The United States A Christian Nation? Since When?

When the political-religious right wants to have the government subsidize some religiously-based project or entity, or promote prayer or Bible-reading in schools or other public places, or undermine science with creationist theories, or put up religious symbols in public places, or legislate morality for our citizenry, they insist that they are justified because the United States is a Christian nation. But is the United States really a Christian nation? If so, what particular version of Christianity (fundamentalist, Catholic, traditional) applies? What are the practical implications of being a Christian nation?

Leave aside for the moment the inconvenient fact (despite uninformed assertions to the contrary) that the United States is not, and from the earliest days of nationhood was never intended by its founders to be, a “Christian” nation. Our national Constitution (in the “Establishment Clause”) expressly forbids any federal government support of, or involvement in, religion. The claim that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation is based on ignorance from misreading (or simply not reading) our nation’s history and the writings of our brilliant and wise founding fathers.

Thomas Jefferson, who probably had more influence on our founding principles than any other single individual, was adamant about the necessity of the separation of government from religion. He was not a Christian. Like many of the intelligentsia who guided our nation in its formative days, he was a Deist.* Our founding principles as written into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution largely reflected European philosophical thinking of the time, particularly the French revolutionary ideas of liberte, fraternite, and egalite, roughly translated as the freedom of the individual, the brotherhood of man and the equality of all citizens, ideas that are consistent with Christian principles and may have been partly derived from them as well as from some of the philosophy of the time that was fairly widespread in Europe as well as in the Colonies during that period. The fact that some the principles underlying our democracy may have been derived from Christianity does not make us a “Christian nation.”

Many of our original 13 colonies were founded by religious immigrants from Europe (Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, Huguenots, Calvinists, Ana-Baptists, Roman Catholics) who wanted to escape from the tyrannical domination and oppression by the state Christian churches of Europe. During the 1600s and early 1700s these small American colonies were founded based on the particular beliefs of groups of settlers and the settlers did not distinguish between political and religious rules. They were not interested in religious freedom as a general principle; they were only interested in religious freedom for themselves and they could be as intolerant of those who did not share those beliefs as were the state churches in the countries from which they had come. The colonists punished dissent sometimes by various corporal punishments or by public humiliation and sometimes by expulsion from their churches or their colonies. [While researching my family history I found that a distant relative and his family had been expelled from their town for inappropriate behavior for which they refused to accept church punishment.]  Some religious dissenters voluntarily or forcibly left their communities to relocate elsewhere, a prominent example of which is Roger Williams, a Baptist made unwelcome in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who famously emigrated to Rhode Island to found a new colony.

By the latter half of the 1700s intolerance of differences gave way to religious freedom as it became increasingly obvious that diversity of religious belief was not going to end, the various colonies and their citizens had widely different views about religion, and these local religious squabbles and differences inhibited cooperation with their neighbors. Tolerance of differences and mutual respect were necessary for getting along with their neighbors and therefore essential qualities in cooperation to displace their colonial masters, the English. The nation’s leaders wisely recognized that the young nation would not survive unless its government stayed out of religion with its continuing disagreements and controversies.

The founders of our nation established the principle, based on the earlier religious freedom clause in the Virginia constitution, that the Federal government would be neutral with respect to religion and would have no role in religious matters. The Constitution expressly prohibited the “establishment” of any religion, by which it intended no state religion, no state support for religion, no state prohibition against any religion, no state position in religious controversy. There would be a clear line of separation of the State from any religious role, support or function. Clearly some of our early leaders were practicing Christians from diverse traditions, but many others were not, and their unhappy experience with state-sponsored religion in Europe led them to the decision that the best course of action was for the government to be neutral on religion.

While we believe that the record is clear that we are not now and have never been a Christian nation, if we assume for the moment that we are a nation founded on principles that are consistent with Christianity, and if we further assume that the majority of our citizens identify themselves as Christians, and given that some of our citizens want to believe that we are a Christian nation, what would it mean, theoretically speaking of course, to say that the United States is a Christian nation? What operating principles are implied in being a Christian nation, and how would we then differ from a nation that was not a Christian nation? What would being a Christian nation imply for our laws? For our treatment of our citizens? For social policy? For our foreign policy and our relationships with other countries? For our views on crime and punishment? For economic and distributive justice? For our views on war and peace?

In short, if we are a Christian nation, as some would like us to believe, what behavior and policy considerations are implied by that fact?

There are two different ways to approach the question of what it would mean to be a Christian nation.

The first way is to look for guidance to the principles consciously established by the founding fathers which, as we have already said, are consistent with Christian values and may have been derived from them, as annunciated most clearly and emphatically in the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal at least in the eyes of the law and therefore have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Inalienable means that inherent rights cannot be taken away, even if the government thinks that it can better protect us if it takes away those rights. We believe that those fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imply and underlie the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. We believe that they are based in the social contract theory of government, that we join together for the common good, for protection, for security. We believe that fundamental human rights include the right to a job or other financial security, to be free from hunger, to shelter, to health care, to a share of the benefits of our society. That at least establishes the legal basis for developing implications for policy and conduct that is consistent with being a Christian nation. It gets us to the same place as the second approach, but admittedly takes more work to parse out the implications in concrete terms.

The second approach, which I assume Christian leaders and followers would be eager to pursue, is to look at the implications of Jesus’ teaching and the model of his life as a guide to our national and international policies. It should be obvious (but needs repeating) that being a Christian nation should not be merely a hollow phrase or an empty slogan. Being a Christian nation has serious implications for our behavior as a nation. Just as being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus and living out his teachings in our daily life, so being a Christian nation means valuing and using the teachings of Jesus as a guide to our national policies and our behavior as a nation.

So we look to the teachings of Jesus for guidance, at least to the extent that we can know them through words attributed to him in the Gospels as they have survived through the centuries, and we look to the example and model of his life, again to the extent that we know anything about his life from the surviving historical documents. On the basis of what we know or think we know about the life and teachings of Jesus, there are some useful fragments we can assemble to guide us in our policy considerations and our actions.

When I was a child, both through various church activities and groups, as well as by parental dictate, I was forced to memorize passages from the Bible—some psalms, the ten commandments, some bits from the prophets, the essay on love in Corinthians, the Lord’s Prayer, a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, and that particular portion of collected wisdom that we know as the Beatitudes. They have stuck with me and 60 years later I can still recite them from memory. They remind me what fundamental Christian values are about and they impact my thinking about social and public policy.

It is clear from the teachings of Jesus as we have come to know them as well as from the writings of his followers that have come down to us through the generations that love is the essential Christian value, sometimes crystallized into the singular phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself.” To avoid any misunderstanding or misinterpretation, we need to elaborate a bit about what love means when used by the Christian as the fundamental guiding principle behind Christian moral values.

While Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, the common language of the region in which he lived and taught, what we know about Jesus and his teachings has come down to us in Greek, the language commonly used in the centuries following Jesus’ time. In Greek there are three different words with quite different meanings that are all translated into English as “love”–eros, philos and agape. Eros refers to sexual attraction, sexuality, making love. Philos is best understood as a “liking for” or “enjoyment of” as in the love of a good friend, or the pleasure of a beautiful sunset, or the love of a good book, and is often joined with another word in the Greek, as in philosophy (philos + sophia), the love of wisdom, or in philanthropy (philos + anthropos), the love of mankind resulting in works of compassion.

The Christian use of love comes from agape, which means the affirmation of the worth and dignity of another person, valuing others for who they are as persons, respecting the humanity of others and treating them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Love in this sense of the term is what Christian love is all about. So when we use the phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself” we understand it to be the fundamental premise of Christian values—what it means is to treat others with the respect and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, just as you would wish for yourself if you were in their place.

If the United States were a Christian nation, the principle of love, of respect for others and the affirmation of their dignity and essential humanity, would be the guiding principle underlying our laws, our social policy, our treatment of our citizens, and the basis of our foreign policy, and we would expect to judge ourselves and have others judge us on the basis of how well we fulfilled our national commitment to express love (agape) in our laws, our social policies and our actions.

Even a cursory reading about the life and teachings of Jesus suggests that if our nation were to become a Christian nation, with Christian values playing out in our public policy, it would be a very different country than it is today.

Our domestic policy priority would be to care for all of our citizens without regard to power or influence. We would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, care for the sick, provide for the widows and the elderly, heal the veterans, teach and protect the children. We would be a caring nation, which means that we would see that all in our society were cared for. We do this now, grudgingly, stingily and with much complaining on the part of ideological Republicans that people must be responsible for themselves and that government should have no role in caring for the plight of individuals who cannot make it on their own. The selfish in our society want all their money for themselves as an entitlement and do not want to part with it in taxes levied for the common welfare of all, but this attitude reflects just the opposite of Christian values. [Oddly, those who are most likely to argue that the U.S. is a Christian nation are the same people most likely to complain that the government should not tax “hard working Americans” to provide benefits to others under some theory of individual responsibility.]

Our foreign policy would be less arrogant, more humble, not so quick to take offense, not as bellicose and belligerent, less inclined to resort to force, less inclined to see every problem in the world as requiring a military solution, more interested in making and keeping peace. Our Peace Corps would be larger than our military. When Air Force planes or Navy ships headed to another country their holds would be filled with food, water, tents and medical supplies rather than bombs, and the primary mission would be to provide aid in response to famine, flood or earthquake, with sufficient strength for robust defense if and when necessary.

Our government and our citizens would demand justice and equal treatment for all: economic crimes and white collar criminals would be treated as any other crimes and criminals; our officials would throw the money changers, money managers and lobbyists out of the temples of power in the state and national legislatures; corporations and business interests would have no more power and influence than the least among us; we would value integrity and honesty in our public and private dealings and we would not tolerate hypocrisy and self-dealing in our public officials.

We would speak truth to power. As a people we would stand with the victims among us against their oppressors. Our people would not be so quick to condemn others for their actions while ignoring their own foibles. We would not stone adulterers or lesbians or throw rocks at gays or condemn those whose values and priorities are different than ours but no less legitimate. We would not attempt to compel others to live by our values while disrespecting their values and beliefs. We would not condemn so easily those who believe in a woman’s right to choose, and we would not support violence against those who support the right to abortion. We would not pretend to support a culture of life while building bombs, promoting war and supporting the death penalty.

Critics say that these Christian values are impractical, idealistic and unworkable as national policy. Maybe so. But then don’t tell me this is a Christian country. That’s not realistic either.

*Deism is the belief in an impersonal designer-creator god of the universe discovered by reason rather than revelation.