Christian Humanism

Just Published: The Gospel of Christian HumanismChristianity without God will appeal to skeptics, agnostics, non-theists, liberal Christians or former Christians who have difficulty with the mythology and the concept of god in traditional Christian theology but find the life and ethical teachings of Jesus compelling as a way of life and a basis for ethics. The author argues that Christian Humanism is essentially Christian, is justified on historical grounds, and is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the early Church Fathers so far as we can determine with reasonable historical and literary accuracy. He argues for an approach to Christianity based on rational inquiry, human freedom, individual conscience, and a commitment to the values taught by Jesus as a guide to ethical decision-making; and further that these values are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of it.

Available on Amazon Kindle. Free e-book download July 5-6. Paperback version.

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.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Forgiveness For Priests And Other Child Molesters?

How should we treat child molesters? Harshly, even brutally, according to our Christian neighbors, as evidenced by the public outcry in the aftermath of a particularly troublesome incident in my local community, but which I am sure is typical of attitudes throughout the country.

A local story: A fireman—churchgoer, family man, pillar of the community—called 911 recently in obvious despair, telling the operator he was sitting at home with a gun in his hand and was about to kill himself. As the operator talked to him the man confessed that he had been molesting his now 14-year old stepdaughter for a number of months, was remorseful, and wanted the nightmare (his and hers) to end.

The newspaper allowed feedback comments on this story on its website (many responsible papers do not permit comments on stories likely to inflame passions. The comments were ugly but predictable—hang him without benefit of trial, put him in a cell with others and let the other prisoners know what he had done so they would “take care of the problem,” castrate him, etc. There were also several condemnatory comments to the effect that the 911 operator should be ashamed of herself for trying to talk the pervert out of committing suicide, even suggesting she should be fired for not letting the molester kill himself to save the state money.

Appalled by the community reaction, one citizen wrote a letter to the editor, which I have included below in its entirety (Press Journal, March 12, 2010):

To the editor:

I listened to the tape of a 911 operator speaking a man down from hurting himself as he had just confessed to molesting a 14-year-old girl, and there in the midst of my judging I found myself praying for this man.

It was very moving and I couldn’t help but remember that the Lord forgives us from even the most vile acts. I pray that he and his family can overcome all that has happened and that we remember that we are all worthy of forgiveness.

It’s a lot easier when you can look at people as being ill. And who among us wouldn’t pray for someone who was sick?

Laura Hernandez
As we have come to expect, the ugly comments began anew, even after Ms. Hernandez' plea for compassion.  Many of the writers expressed the view that they were Christians, but nevertheless believed that such acts against children were unforgivable and that Christianity could not tolerate such behavior, that such evil people were beyond hope and redemption and should be destroyed on earth and suffer in hell for eternity. One cynical self-described atheist laughed at the notion that prayer was anything but a waste of time.

Here is a sampling of their comments:
I do pray for the man. I pray that he drops dead, but not until he gets abused in jail. Feel sorry for the piece-of-crap? I don't think so!

He is not "sick" he is evil. I'll save my prayer for the little girl he injured. She is the one carrying around the true burden. Children are fragile and should be cared for with love not sexual abuse. This step father is supposed to shield her from the world! This pig should have expressed his repentance by sticking that gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger. Only then would I agree that he has expressed true remorse. Laura, why do you identify with the oppressor and not the afflicted? Is that what you gain out of the scriptures?

The 911 operator should have encouraged the man to kill himself to save the taxpayers money.
I wrote a comment in response both in defense of the original letter writer and to counter the viciousness of the comments being made by purported Christians who denied that forgiveness was possible for child molesters.
The letter writer has expressed the appropriate Christian sentiments—forgiveness after true confession and repentance. Isn’t that response an accurate reflection of "what would Jesus do?" Isn’t that the model of appropriate conduct to which we aspire? 
I agree with those who believe that prayer is futile if prayer means expecting a conversational partner at the other end. That is not the point—prayer is also an attitude of reverence and introspection that reminds us that we all fall short in our behavior and that “falling short” includes expressing the hateful and non-Christian attitudes of the preceding posts.
Consider this—if forgiveness is not possible for you, then being a Christian is not possible for you. Christianity is all about forgiving.

Of course nothing that I said about the Christian value of forgiveness means that those who commit crimes such as molestation should not be reported to the police and face judicial punishment.

Remember that forgiveness comes after the penitent has confessed, is truly sorry, and accepts the consequences of his actions. It does not mean that consequences of serious criminal or immoral actions are ignored.

Contrary to the mean-spirited comments, Ms. Hernandez is courageous to be able to express her views of Christian compassion in a community of vengeful hatemongers who do not grasp the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian.
However the question at hand is whether it is reasonable to talk about “forgiveness” of child molesters, and if it is, under what circumstances is forgiveness reasonable, and what, in practical terms, does forgiveness mean? Does “forgiveness” mean that child molesters should be allowed back into society after their sentence is over? [This molestation was not of strangers, it was an opportunistic molestation within the family, so we probably do not need to conclude that there is a danger to society by this perpetrator.] Should we continue to keep molesters out of society by virtual life in prison? Should we incarcerate them again after their sentence for “treatment” which we know will not “cure” them? Or prohibit where they can live? Post their names and addresses on websites so they cannot get jobs? Make them wear a scarlet “P” wherever they go, so that decent people can avoid them?

The Roman Catholic Church is facing a serious crisis with the priest sexual abuse and molestation scandal that has erupted into public view once again. We have instances of widespread sexual abuse in Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, the United States, Canada, Australia, and throughout the world. The Church’s response to the crisis and to the victims of molestation and pedophilia has been odd, slow, belligerent, denial, secretive, abysmal, appalling, unbelievable, and inexcusable. Almost any negative adjective will do.

We have seen credible evidence that Vatican officials have known about this problem for years and have chosen to protect the church from scandal rather than protect the victims from abuse. We have seen credible evidence that the Pope had a direct role in returning pedophiles to parishes in Germany when he was Archbishop of Munich. We have seen credible evidence that as head of the office in the Vatican responsible for disciplining priests for 21 years that Cardinal Joseph Rattinger issued orders for Bishops to be secretive about handling charges of sexual misconduct. We have seen evidence that the Vatican ignored the problem until it could no longer be ignored. We saw on Easter Sunday that the Pope ignored the crisis and the Pope’s spokesman blamed the Press for unwarranted attacks on the Church based on malicious “gossip.”

So how do we respond to the Catholic Church over this institutional problem that seems to have infected it so completely? It is apparent that there are many sexual abusers in the Church still functioning as priests. It is apparent that the Church is still in denial about the extent and seriousness of the problem and apparently believes that the scandal will go away if they keep stalling any inquiries, deny requests for information, and refuse to acknowledge and confess their guilt except in a very vague and general way. They are still insistent that the Pope saw nothing and heard nothing and was in no way responsible for the current problem, an assertion that stretches incredulity to the limit.

The Church wants forgiveness. In the Christian sense of what forgiveness means, it is only possible if there is genuine acknowledgement, confession and repentance and if the perpetrator accepts responsibility for his actions and the consequences (financial and legal) of what he has done. In the case of the Catholic Church there are some very specific implications: not only must individual priests acknowledge their guilt and accept the legal consequences of their actions in courts of law, the Church itself and its hierarchy must accept responsibility right at the top of the organization—and that means that the Pope himself must acknowledge his role in covering up immoral and illegal acts by priests and take responsibility for the Church’s moral failure in its effort to protect itself at the expense of those it was charged to care for. It must also act to protect its members from abusive priests by turning over to law enforcement whatever it knows about molesters and abusers, and then defrock and excommunicate priests who have betrayed their office and the public trust. Only then will we be able to take its confession seriously.

As a society, and regardless of our particular religious persuasion, it seems to me that we need a serious rethinking of how we handle perpetrators of sexual offenses against children, and how, and on what terms, we forgive perpetrators of sexual abuse and molestation.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Paying Taxes Is A Privilege

We are fast approaching that horrific day each spring when our annual accounting with the IRS takes place, so I guess it is time once again for our occasional rant about taxes. Hear me out. Notice that I did not say rant against taxes, just about taxes. That’s because I believe that taxes are a good thing, necessary to our lives, our convenience, our health, our security, our education. My rant is against the rants of the tax complainers, the tax cutters, the tax cheats, the flat taxers, the tax avoiders—all those uninformed ideologically-driven anti-tax fanatics holding up signs at Tea Party rallies.

Don’t get me wrong. No one likes to pay taxes, including me. No one wants to see tax money wasted. No one (except in the minds of the loonies, fanatics and extremists) really wants government to be any bigger than it needs to be. Most people I know want to see serious efforts to deal with mismanagement and waste wherever it is found regardless of party or ideology.

That said, I accept what ought to be obvious to all, that if we want the services that go with modern civilization we have to pay for them and taxes are how we pay for them. Taxes are what makes civilized society possible—taxes fund roads, libraries, schools, street lights, fire and rescue services, child protection agencies, parks and playgrounds, airports and train stations, commuter rail and bus services, boat launches and all the other things we take for granted each day that make our life more pleasant.

Griping about taxes is almost a national pastime. Nevertheless I was surprised to read that Americans complain about taxes more than citizens of most other countries, while our tax burden is considerably less than in most other countries. The complaining does not seem justified by the reality. The U.S. ranks 27 out of 30 in overall tax burden in OECD countries, and has a comparable rank in what Forbes calls the “misery index,” which ranks taxes at the highest marginal rate, a rate which only the wealthy pay and then only on the portion of their income that exceeds $370,000. That is not a heavy burden.

I come at the question of taxes from the perspective of a Christian Humanist. I take quite seriously the teachings of Jesus that we have a duty to our neighbor, that compassion is a primary ethical value, that we are all in this sea of life together and must do our part to shoulder the burdens of life. I also take my commitment as a humanist quite seriously. We share a common humanity and a common commitment to the social compact theory of government that implies that we empower the government on our behalf and on behalf of each other to look out for our common welfare, and that requires a source of common funds to make it happen.

Some years ago when I got my annual bonus check [which was performance-based for meeting specific goals!] I made a comment to the CEO that he perceived as griping about the amount of money that was taken out of that check for Federal and State taxes, and he observed drily that I should be grateful because the amount of taxes taken out reflected a pretty significant income and that I should consider it a privilege and a duty to have the income that could pay taxes at that level—and he was right, and it was an important lesson that has stayed with me through the years.

Massachusetts (where I spend my summers) is considered a high tax state and is sometimes derisively called “Taxachusetts” by its residents. Taxes were on the minds of unhappy Massachusetts residents who, apparently influenced partly by the drumbeat of anti-tax ads attacking “big government,” elected Scott Brown to the Senate a few months ago. So the Boston Globe, mindful that taxes were on the minds of citizens, published an article recently about the attitudes and the realities of taxes in Massachusetts. It was an interesting and instructive read about the way people think about taxes. Some of their observations and conclusions are relevant to this article:

[a] Many people believe that government is too big and wasteful and that some programs need to be cut, but they were unable to name which programs they actually want to cut.

[b] When the sales tax was raised recently from 5% to 6.25% many residents flooded over the border to New Hampshire, which has no sales tax, to buy groceries and clothing, despite the fact that those items are not subject to sales tax in Massachusetts, an obviously funny and irrational response.

[c] Restrictions on real estate tax levies by towns require voter approval to bypass, yet most levies that go to voters are approved, apparently indicating that while voters are against taxes in general, they do not oppose taxes for something the value of which is obvious to them.
I live most of the year in Florida. We have no income tax, a sales tax rate of 7%, and property taxes (for residents with homestead exemption) that are below the median of the other states. We read complaining letters in our newspapers and hear rants about taxes on talk radio. The State budget, as is true in most states, has been cut for the past several years and is still in deficit. The public demanded drastic cuts and no new taxes. The legislature reiterated the public demand for cuts and the mantra of no new taxes. We have a Republican governor and Republicans control the legislature by a significant margin, so it should be easy for the Republicans to make the cuts they say they want. However, the legislature has run into the reality that most everyone says they want cuts but they don’t want programs cut that matter to them.

I see the same “cut our taxes but don’t cut our favorite programs” dilemma at the local level. Our county commissioners, all Republicans, complain loudly about foolish government waste and overspending on government programs (of course, at the Federal and State level) and promise that they will keep tax rates low with no new taxes. They cannot agree on what to cut—do we cut police and fire budgets, do we reduce teacher pay or lay off teachers or increase class size, do we cut athletics from the schools, do we reduce all county employees pay or just employees making over $100,000, do we cut the health department or ignore our sewage system repair needs? Is rebuilding the boat launching ramp at a city park an extravagance or a necessity?

The stated objective of the tax cutting movement (at the Federal level) is to lower the “marginal” income tax rates to benefit the wealthiest Americans. The essence of the argument supporting lower marginal income tax rates 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 that would have the added benefit of simplifying the tax code. Simplifying the tax code is long overdue, but that is a different issue. The question of tax “fairness” is a complicated one and 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. Arguing otherwise involves an “Alice in Wonderland” view of reality. 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.

Then there is the inconsistency in thinking by our political leaders. The same politicians who complain loudly and regularly that government bailouts of the financial industry or the auto industry lead the country toward socialism had no problem giving a local aircraft manufacturer $35 million in tax reductions, incentives and grants on the basis of his promise to stay in the area and hire more employees (a mixture of State and local funds were granted); the manufacturer took the money, laid off a good portion of the remaining employees, then sold the company to a Brunei corporation that may move the company out of the United States to Asia. When some locals objected to this expenditure of tax money to subsidize private enterprise, the same right wing blue collar types who protest Obama’s waste of money for bankrupting the country and believe that subsidizing private industry is socialism when the Federal government does it, said that this situation was different, it involved keeping local jobs so it was not really a waste of money and it was unfair to call it socialism. It was important and necessary.

So what do we make of this muddle-headed and inconsistent thinking, both from politicians and from the general public? We note with some amusement that:

[a] People do not like taxes in general but they do not object to taxes if they agree with the program the taxes will pay for. If I benefit from a tax-supported program, it’s ok; if my neighbor benefits, it is a waste of tax dollars.

[b] The more distant the taxing authority, the less people like paying the taxes. Federal taxes are worse, State next, local taxes are grudgingly acceptable.

[c] Earmarks (Federal money that pays for local projects) are always a waste of money unless they are in your local district. Then the money is “free” and doesn’t really cost taxpayers anything.

[d] State money is also “free.” An example: County Commissioners are spending $10 million on a beach re-nourishment project to spread new sand on beaches in the northern part of the county in front of ocean front mansions where the sand is annually washed away during storms. One commissioner said in response to complaints this project was wasting taxpayers money by throwing sand into the sea, “this is costing the taxpayers practically nothing, so it’s a no brainer”—but the commissioner was the one with no brain, because 90% of the funds were from the State and Federal government and was tax money.
Why do we have such ambiguous, inconsistent and ultimately selfish attitudes toward taxes? I think there are three reasons:

[a] Right wing anti-tax activists have been very vocal in print and in various media including talk radio in insisting that our tax system is not fair, that we pay too much of our “hard-earned income” in taxes, that government is bad and wastes our money, and that the purpose of taxation is to take from those who earned their money in order to give it to deadbeats—so they have created mistrust among the populace.

[b] The public is increasingly uneducated, intellectually lazy and ill-informed so they are uncritical in their thinking, inclined to believe what they are told on talk radio, and unable to form independent judgments based on evidence and common sense.

[c] Our elected leaders have been negligent and provocative by encouraging the anti-tax revolt as part of their continual drive to get re-elected and by their failure to lead and educate the public—to explain the role taxes play in a democratic society, to explain that taxes are for the benefit of everyone and are not just for those things that one personally agrees with, that taxes are necessary to support the community and the nation.
We need a new national conversation on the role of taxes in a democracy, that paying taxes is both a necessity and a privilege—but don’t count on that happening in our divisive and self-interested political climate.

Friday, April 2, 2010

On Good Friday The Church Crucifies Itself

The Associated Press is reporting the story (carried by MSNBC) that in a Good Friday sermon in front of the Pope, the Pope’s own preacher, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the attacks on the Catholic Church over the priest abuse scandal to attacks on the Jews during the Holocaust, thereby drawing outrage from around the world for a strained comparison in victimization that seems more concerned about defending and protecting the hierarchy than dealing with the widespread problem of sexual abuse and molestation by priests and attempts to conceal the problem by Bishops. It appears that Good Friday in 2010 will be seen as the church crucifying itself before the world.

Fr. Cantalamessa’s comments leave me almost speechless—almost! When an individual or a corporation has a public relations nightmare, the wisest voices always suggest that the resolution of the crisis will only come when and if: (a) there is immediate ownership of the problem; (b) get the news out quickly, don’t let it come out piecemeal so that the story drags out; (c) say you’re sorry you screwed up; (d) make amends as quickly as possible.

The Roman Catholic Church has a major crisis on its hands and it is doing everything wrong. Every principle of crisis management is being ignored. We see denials of responsibility. We see attacks on the press for reporting the problem. We have priests like Fr. Cantalamessa making really stupid and unbelievable statements, implying that the church is the victim in this crisis as were the Jews in the holocaust, a “victim of collective violence,” with “violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world.” That is chutzpah!

No wonder there is outrage. They seem not to be aware of who the real victims are in this crisis. These “attacks” as Fr. Catalamessa refers to them are reports of priest abuse and molestation that are coming forth daily in a never ending stream, along with the release of documents that show that the church hierarchy very clearly knew about the abuse and tried in very amateurish fashion to conceal what was going on in the church and to protect the priests from having to accept any responsibility or pay any price. This is not an attack on the faithful of the whole world, it is an attack on the unfaithful in the hierarchy and in the Vatican. It is too bad if Vatican officials don’t like the crop that they sowed, but it is their problem.

Is it an attack on the Pope? If so, it has been a pretty muted attack. What is reported (and denied, but not convincingly) is that this problem has been going on and been known to be a problem for decades, the church did not deal with the problem, the church moved offending priests to other dioceses where they continued to abuse, that Archbishop of Munich Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger knew (or should have known) what was going on in his diocese. As head of the office in the Vatican charged with dealing with sexual abuse, for Joseph Ratzinger to say he did not know about abuse is simply not believable, particularly because he was the author of instructions to dioceses around the world to keep such matters secret.

Attacking the messengers, and trying to play the victim in this sad story, will not play well on the world’s or history’s stage.

Anti-abortion Terrorists and the Absurdity of the Roeder Argument

Abortion doctor murderer Scott Roeder admitted on the witness stand that he killed Dr. Tiller who engaged in lawful medical procedures that he objects to. He also said that only god can give or take life. So, in order to prevent what he (wrongly) believes is the taking of human life, he asserts the right to take a human life, in effect putting himself in the place of god and thereby nullifying his argument.

The law has spoken. Roeder was sentenced yesterday to life in prison and won’t be eligible for parole for 50 years — the maximum allowed by law. Under the circumstances, that is the proper result and the best we could hope for. Regrettably this decision is unlikely to have much deterrent effect, given the convoluted and absurd views of extreme anti-abortionists, who seem to be able to convince themselves that murder is the appropriate response for them to take in what they believe is the greater evil of abortion.

Leave aside for another discussion whether aborting a fetus is “killing a child,” an assertion that is specious on both Christian religious grounds and on common sense (an argument that I made in an earlier posting). Also leave aside for another discussion whether it is morally acceptable to take any life or any reason, or what circumstances would make it appropriate to take the life when a third person is in imminent danger of harm or death. In the case of Roeder we are left with his argument that murdering an individual person can be justified if the perpetrator (Roeder) believes (rightly or wrongly) that his action will prevent the future speculative but lawful killing of other persons who do not yet exist. Fortunately the court did not buy into this argument.

I can think of a number of instances in which the absurdity of Mr. Roeder’s argument becomes apparent. Soldiers are engaged in lawful killing. Is a pacifist justified in killing a soldier on his way to Iraq because killing him/her may prevent the lawful killing of enemy combatants? Criminal court judges sentence some persons convicted of serious crimes to be executed by hanging or lethal injection. Is an opponent of capital punishment justified in killing judges who have lawfully sentenced criminals to death in order to prevent the judge from sentencing more criminals to die? I could go on, but I think the point is so obvious as to not need any further elucidation.

Here is an article in The Guardian that points out the fear that terrorists like Scott Roeder create in the medical community. Scott Roeder and others like him are domestic terrorists. If we are serious about getting rid of terrorists and terrorism we have to start with convicting our domestic terrorists as well as Islamic jihadists. Both operate with the same twisted logic that justifies killing and terrorizing others for reasons arising out of their fundamentalist religious views.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Private Religion and Public Life: Do Obama’s Religious Views Matter

Pundits have been discussing Barack Obama’s sporadic attendance at church services in the nation’s capital city and his failure to settle on membership in a particular church. Seriously, though, do Obama’s religious views matter to anyone but him? Does it matter whether the President exhibits his religious faith publicly or attends church regularly? Should we care?

The Boston Globe carried a front page article a month or so ago that discussed the President’s religious views but Mr. Obama was immediately trashed by the usual knee-jerk anti-Obama hysterical critics for all manner of specious reasons. I concluded from the article that the President believes his faith is a private matter and that joining any particular church in Washington would be disruptive to that church and its members, a distraction from his agenda, divisive since he is president of all the people, and grounds for more attempts by the religious and political right to attack him. He has stated that he believes faith should be lived, that he should walk the walk, and not have to talk the talk in public.

I am quite used to seeing illiterate, hateful and nonsensical posts in my local paper [I live in very conservative Florida] but I was shocked at the comments made in the Globe because I had assumed that because Boston was a more cultured area that the tone of the posts would be more respectful and literate. Was I wrong! Some of the posters must have immediately consulted their Glen Beck handbook for hateful irrelevancies to assist them in their silly comments. Many of the comments were just excuses to trash the President and to repeat the same astonishing lies that have been debunked many times over and are not worth responding to.

It was obvious from the tone of the comments on that article that the President can never please the fear mongers and the haters and may just as well ignore them. It is not important to our national governance that he be seen as a religious leader. It is important that he be seen as leader of all the people and leader of the free world. It is important that he bring back respect for the U.S. and its traditional values—democracy, dignity and peace. It is important that he lives the values of Jesus – feeding the hungry (food stamps, unemployment benefits), sheltering the homeless (housing programs, mortgage relief, heating oil subsidy), clothing the naked (welfare benefits), standing with the poor against the powerful (voter registration, electoral reform, campaign reform, term limits).

Many who posted hateful comments showed that they do not have a clue what Christianity is all about. They need to be reminded regularly that it is not about what they say they believe, surely it is not about “being saved,” it is about the content of one’s life, of “walking the walk” in the vernacular of our times. We had enough of that false public religion from the fundamentalist “I talk to god” hypocrite George Bush, whose religious faith led him to start wars that were unnecessary, take away civil rights in the name of presumptive war powers, hide the cost of the war by putting it “off budget,” and put the economy into recession by letting the bankers and corporate chiefs run amuck in a perversion of free enterprise.

We conclude that it matters what Obama’s faith is, because it results in the sort of person he is and the values he holds. We conclude that it is important that he “walk the walk.” We conclude that he is wise to keep a low profile about his religion, because public display is simply another opportunity for the right wing “religious” radicals to attack him.

Thank god (for those of you who believe there is a god) for President Obama.

It's Time To End Entitlements For The Wealthy

The sense of entitlement by the wealthy never ceases to amaze me. The wealthy are no smarter, nor do they work harder, than anyone else in society [and for those that think so, I can point to examples of wealthy and poor who are dumber than rocks and who don't work hard]. The continued right wing claim that a robber baron whose company purchased another with borrowed funds, fired a bunch of people to show “profit” at the end of the quarter, then bankrupted both companies by strategic errors is “smarter” or that he “worked harder” than other people and therefore deserves his $100 million bonus is so blinded by ideology that he cannot see the facts.

So here is a fun 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 tax rate of .00325%. The lower paid person pays a rate 2,354 times HIGHER than the millionaire.*

All the screaming by the wealthy that they pay too much serves to disguise the fact that they pay too little and benefit from a tax code that is riddled with special favors and tax breaks for the wealthy that the rest of us do not get.

If we really want to fix the structural deficit and our national debt we could start by removing all those tax breaks for the wealthy and for corporations from the tax code so that they pay their fair share.

We have all heard the protest of the “Tea Party” movement that taxes are too high, but the facts seem to suggest otherwise. The objective of the tax cutting movement is to lower the “marginal” income tax rates to benefit the wealthiest Americans and the essence of the argument supporting lower marginal income tax is “fairness” and the tactic is a proposed “flat tax” that everyone would pay at the same rate that would have the added benefit of simplifying the tax code.

The question of “fairness” is a complicated one and could be answered in different ways depending on what values and assumptions are considered, 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.

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 their income as tax, which cuts into the amounts required for food, clothing and shelter, creates a much greater burden on the middle class than 10% tax on the income of a millionaire creates on the lifestyle of the wealthy.

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) from the lower and middle class to the wealthy, and that cannot be fair in any reasonable sense of what “fairness” means.

It’s time to end the entitlements for the wealthiest American taxpayers that are built into our archaic tax code.


* In a recent email I was asked the source for that data. There is no link to an external source. I did those calculations myself. 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 0.0032436%.

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

The person making $2,500,000 pays 0.0032436% ($8109) of their income to social security.

7.65% (the rate paid by the lower income) divided by 0.0032436% (the rate paid by high income) is 2,358 times higher.
This is not fair or reasonable by any measure of fairness. Even advocates of a flat tax (same tax rate for everyone) would have to concede the inherent bias in favor of the wealthy of this particular tax.