Monday, November 30, 2009

Un-holy War

Some facts:

- Pope Benedict is not President of the United States

- The First Amendment has not been repealed

- America, while predominantly Christian, is not 100% Christian (roughly 84%)

Now, while this country was founded primarily by members of Christian sects, who emigrated to America to escape persecution or start new lives, and also given that many of the Founding Fathers were members of Christian faiths, men who were strong believers in God, but also in the freedom to worship the god (or gods) you saw fit, it is interesting to note that one enjoinder that is pivotal to the formation of this nation as a free nation, is the one regarding the government's ability to establish a national religion. So important was this idea, that the government should not be able to establish, recognize, or support a single religion, that it was made a part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The founders were well aware that the contentious differences between religions as a whole, and divisions of those religions in particular, would be anathema. For representative government to work, and for all sides to receive fair and equal representation, various aspects of a person's life would have to be kept separate from governance. The general welfare of all Americans was more important than the petty squabbles brought about by differing belief systems. There would be enough squabbling created by the simple act of trying to get so many different States to agree on anything.

We must also remember that there were many among the founders who were Freemasons, and one of their main precepts was that it did not matter which god you believed in; as long as you believed in "god," then it was possible to have discussions about other things without needing to invoke any particular religion's deity to make a point. Mind you, this way of thinking still denies the atheists their due, but at the time, it was more enlightened thinking than "worship my god or else!"

Personal belief had to be separated from governance, if the expounded principles found in the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") were to be realized. The citizens of the United States had to be taken as individuals, each in his or her own way, and treated equally, irrespective of religion -- though race, gender, and the like were sadly lacking in equal treatment.

Flash forward more than 200 years, and we find the Roman Catholic Church, or at least some high priests of it in the United States, attempting to dictate social policies affecting all Americans, because they conflict with Catholic values. They have gone so far, as to use Holy Communion as a political tool, making it clear that any Catholic public servant who takes positions contrary to the Catholic Church should not receive Communion.

Now, my days of calling myself a Catholic are long over, mainly due to such improper manifestations of power as these. While there is nothing wrong with the Catholic belief system, per se, there is a great deal wrong with those who consider themselves "keepers of the faith." It is quite clear that the church is becoming quite reactionary, to the point of overstepping its bounds in America by attempting to meddle in the affairs of the nation. This bombast and hypocrisy has made its way throughout Christianity, to the point of poisoning my view of organized religion. I am a great believer in spirituality and its role in making people better, by encouraging us to look towards the needs of our fellow humans and giving them the same care and concern we would expect them to give us.

What I am not a great believer in, is the idea that there is one "true" religion, whose precepts are manifestly better than any others, and whose system is to be placed ahead of all other consideration. I have nothing against those who worship in any particular belief system, as long as they understand that they are free to live by those codes if they choose, but they cannot impose those same codes on me. On Earth, humanity and fellowship must reign, and religious belief must be a function of the individual; it is against the founding ideals and laws of this nation, that any one religion may hold sway over public policy, for the laws of humanity must apply equally and without rancor, if there is to be true freedom and justice.

It is safe to say that any public official has a duty to all citizens first, above and beyond personal considerations. Anyone who cannot see this is not fit for public service. The constituency any public representative is representing, stands to be a complex mixture of race, culture, gender, and belief. To claim that personal preference trumps the will of the citizenry, is to claim that an individual's personal belief is somehow "superior" to the judgment of those he or she represents. This is hubris of the highest order, for no matter what an individuals capabilities or beliefs, when elected to an office by the citizenry, it is the task of the elected to not only carry out what is in their best interests, but what is in everyone's best interests. This will no doubt cause consternation among the citizens, as it will be impossible to please everyone, but in the end, to maintain the principles of freedom and democracy, it will be necessary to make hard decisions which go against popular sentiment, because they stand to give everyone greater latitude and liberty.

So, it must be said, strongly and forcefully, that the ministrations of Catholic bishops are better spent on their flocks, than in the political arena. While it is admirable that they would look to "protect" people, the basis for their efforts is a flawed understanding of what individual liberty and freedom are. Any American is free to worship as they choose, and accept or reject the precepts of any religion or belief system as they see fit. In the end, the only way to protect such freedom is in the way outlined by the founders, in the strictest terms, by compelling the government to respect the rights of individuals to their beliefs, and conversely, for the government to protect Americans from the undue imposition of any other group's beliefs. Only by maintaining such balance, and by keeping politics and religion separate, can we progress toward a more harmonious future.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leap Of Faith

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the most remarkable books to ever come out in the many fields of science: On the Origin of Species. It is interesting to note that the book, that outlined the process of natural selection which is the driving force behind evolution, was not as feared in the mid-19th Century as it is today. In fact, Charles Darwin sent a copy of the book to Reverend Charles Kingsley, a prominent member of the Church of England, who, upon reviewing the work, wrote back to Darwin: "It's just as noble a conception of God to think that he created animals and plants that then evolved, that were capable of self-development, as it is to think that God has to constantly create new forms and fill in the gaps that he's left in his own creation."

The fact is, that if you look down the corridors of history, and specifically those of science, you see that faith was often the starting point for explorations of the workings of the universe. In every faith, everywhere, we see thinkers, looking around at the world, and up to the heavens, wondering how it was all put together, why it all works the way it does. The natural curiosity of philosophers, scientists, and even clergy, throughout the centuries, led to the expansion of human knowledge and the growth of human society. Concepts first outlined in one place and time worked their way forward to inspire others. So it was that the Egyptians inspired the Greeks, who inspired the Romans, and so on, taking concepts of the universe and its workings and passing them down the line to be refined.

One has to realize that this process, of identifying nature and attempting to explain its workings in more rational terms, is not some new phenomenon of the later centuries of Mankind, but a continuous thread that runs through the tapestry of human society. Science, far from denigrating faith or impugning religion, sought to open up the curtains, to see how the creation of the universe was accomplished. It was not enough for some to believe in a god or gods, but that if these deities were responsible for everything, including the appearance of Mankind, then surely their fingerprints were still indelibly etched on the world. To their minds, the perfection of creation was something to not just be mindful of, but to be understood, that they might know their creator better.

Their names are writ large throughout history: Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and yes, even Einstein, who remarked: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." At some point, their personal beliefs drove them to think about, and discover, more about the universe. They believed that if the creation were the work of a god or gods, then it should be comprehensible and logical.

Thus it is inconceivable, given the breadth of human knowledge and the world we now live in, that at the beginning of Third Millennium of Humanity (as per the Christian doctrine), we should see religion attack science for its attempts to pervert or destroy faith. Specifically, we see Christian faiths decrying such things as the teaching of evolution in schools, because it somehow "attacks" their faith. The "intelligent design" movement is just the latest "theory" to provide a direct response to this "threat," attempting to show that there is a "scientific basis" for creationism. This goes far beyond a refutation of evolution, for traces of it can be found in the firestorm of protest over stem cell research, abortion, and the rights of homosexuals. It is all part of a toxic mix, designed to cloud judgment and pander to fear. It is not too far removed from the conditions that ultimately led to the Salem Witch Trials; faith in Christ can lead to salvation, peace, and a better regard for your fellow humans, but it can also lead to suspicion, self-righteousness, and fear-mongering.

It is a measure of the fear of some Christian groups -- and the Roman Catholic Church, from which they sprung -- that such vehement opposition is raised. The mantra heard most often is that science, and government, seek to destroy faith, through the imposition of secular ideals at the expense of that faith. Evolution offends them, contradicts what they know from The Bible, and that somehow diminishes them. Allowing a woman to decide if she will keep a child or not contravenes the lessons of their belief, that it is the command of God to "be fruitful and multiply," that to terminate a pregnancy somehow extinguishes a soul. Allowing homosexuals to marry will erode the meaning of what it is to be married, because homosexuality is an "abomination" in the eyes of the Lord and for them to marry means their faith is somehow stained, and they will not be found worthy.

What the Christian faithful do not truly understand, is that science is not interested in matters of individual faith, per se. Science is interested in teasing apart what makes the universe, and the great variety of things in it, work. It seeks to uncover the watchmaker's fingerprints, to understand the architecture and peruse the blueprints of the creation. Far from annihilating faith, science expands the avenues of it, by showing us the glories of the universe. Who can look at a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and not be moved by how the glowing stars and their home galaxies stretch out into space, filling it with delicate structures, like cathedrals of light? Who cannot marvel at how the sum total of the universe is built of the tiniest number and type of particles, particles too small to see, yet leading to the profusion of things we experience? And how can you not be astounded by a feat of biological engineering, to build such a simple mechanism as evolution, to take a handful of living things, and fill a world?

Blind faith is just that: blind. To take only the words of a book as gospel, to avert your gaze from the true marvels of creation, to wallow in a comfortable stupor as the world changes around you, to never question or show curiosity, is to travel a lonely road to salvation. If you believe in God, and you believe Mankind was made in his image, then is it so far a leap to believe that the brains we were given, the curiosity we were imbued with, and the world we were placed upon are not at once his gifts, but also his puzzle and the means to solve it? Perhaps salvation does not rely on a closed system of faith, but an open system of wonder and belief in a greater world to be explored.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It Must Be Nice

It must be nice to have the moral high ground, even as you exhort people to "stop the baby-killers."

It must be nice to remind people of the word of Jesus, even as you seek to shun the poor and the destitute.

It must be nice to speak of Jesus' love, even as you seek to bar homosexuals from the rights and privileges they deserve.

It must be nice to complain about the "tyranny of the government," when no one is knocking on your door or taking one single gun from you.

It must be nice to shout about "taxation without representation," when you elect the same representatives again and again, who spend your tax money with little regard for your feelings.

It must be nice to cast aspersions on and make claims of malfeasance about someone, while hiding behind the First Amendment.

It must be nice to appreciate your freedom, even as you are giving it away.

It must be nice to speak of the principles of fairness and justice in a free society, even as you seek to deprive that society's enemies of the same fairness and justice.

It must be nice to claim you are following the "will of the people," even as you are subverting that will to your own ends.

It must be nice to talk about family values, even as you are cheating on your wife.

It must be nice to speak of how you are being persecuted by the "liberal" media, even as you use that media to peddle your book.

It must be nice to share the secrets of becoming wealthy, even as you are bilking others out of their wealth to make yours.

It must be nice to disparage the President of the United States, after spending years telling people they should not do so.

It must be nice to claim you represent the "true faith," even when your version bears little resemblance to the faith you claim to follow.

It must be nice to send others to die as martyrs, while you sit in your home with your family and live another day.

It must be nice to complain about the burden of your taxes, even as you make billions off the sweat of other people's brows.

It must be nice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fear Factor

It has come to pass, that since the horrible events of September 11th, 2001, we have lived in fear so long, that it has overwhelmed our better judgment. It does not help that some in Congress have become so reflexively afraid of anything that smacks of progress or change, that their impulse is to run to their constituents and the American public and scream at the top of their lungs about how the country is being sold into slavery, how freedoms are being trampled, and how it is all the fault of liberals.

Consider the vitriol that has been used in the health care debate, from "death panels," to "baby killing." It is far easier, apparently, to pander to the fears of the many, than to look out for their best interests. The common good appears to come with its own bogeyman attached, the idea that dark forces will leap out of the bushes, force women to have abortions on the Federal dime, that the old and infirm will be strapped to tables and murdered wholesale, and that this will all be done while jack-booted thugs go door-to-door, relieving the good citizens of our country of every dime they have.

Consider the idea, that bringing those who are responsible for the current "war on terror," -- the masterminds behind 9/11, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and the attacks on our embassies overseas -- into this country, to face the same kind of justice that we hold so dear as citizens of America, constitutes some kind of horrible security breach, which will bring about a fresh reign of terror, as they mastermind their escape from confinement, and exhort their minions to pour into the streets and murder us in an orgy of mindless, heathen slaughter.

Consider how a whole class of people, homosexuals, is being marginalized and minimized, turned from decent, hard-working, tax-paying citizens, into purveyors of bestiality, roaming the streets in gangs, looking to poison the minds of our youth, turning them gay with mere words, corrupting future generations, leaving us vulnerable to their machinations. Were gays to be given the right to marry, straight couples would suddenly feel their hearts seize, their minds go blurry, their bonds of love being torn asunder, overwhelmed by the sheer force of homosexuality, obliterating modern human civilization and leading to anarchy and chaos.

When we look back into the human historical past, we are often amused by the quaint, superstitious, and frankly ridiculous beliefs that people held, laughing to ourselves at how silly they were to believe the things they did. We believe ourselves immune to the hysteria, the debauchery, the destruction of the past, because we are somehow more enlightened, more learned, more sophisticated. We would not be so easily duped, to be held down by rich lords, looking to use our labors to further their power, or cowed by the forces of nature, which we know to be natural, not the result of gods on high. We want to believe that we are better than that.

We're not.

We carry the baggage of human history with us, to this day, in the superstitions we continue to believe, in the irrational fear we feel at certain thoughts, and the beliefs we cling to, even when it is clear they are no longer valid or relevant. Our history continues to be littered with the detritus and debris of human stupidity and ignorance, for while we have grown smarter, we have not grown wiser. Knowledge does not beget wisdom, it is only one component thereof. How else do we explain the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, "Reverend" Jim Jones, Bernie Madoff, or Timothy McVeigh? Were we wiser, would we have not seen the potential for destruction in them, and stopped them before they could harm humanity?

It is, perhaps, our fate to be hoodwinked, as long as we refuse to apply the precepts of reason and logic, as long as we are willing to surrender our individuality to the mob and abdicate our own need for clear, concise thought. Appeals to our emotions will garner greater energies than appeals to reason, for our feelings carry life within us, while reason feels cold and sterile. Yet, sadly, it is the exact opposite, for reason carries with it the continuation of life and the ability to live it free of fear and loathing, while emotions simply drain away our impulses toward goodness and decency, making us mindless automata, ripe for programming by those who would command us to our own destruction.

If we are to grow, as a people and as a culture, we must deny the comfort of charming words and their attendant feelings. We must not give in to simple impulses, but must ask what the ramifications of our actions are, or will be. We must tread carefully, deliberately, moving forward in measured increments, always keeping the greater good in our foremost thoughts. We cannot act in isolation, but must act in concert, if we are to slough off abject fear and replace it with steadfast resolution. We must not reject fear out of hand, for fear is the genesis of courage, but we must learn to examine it, dissect it, and take from it only what is necessary to move forward. To wallow in fear is to be sucked down into an abyss, from which humankind will be unable to extricate itself.