What's All This Then?

commentary on the passing parade

Agree? Disagree? Tell me

My Other Blog

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Obviously, the "passing parade" involves many more issues than that of religion, but it’s hard to get away from it when, in one way or another, it dominates the news. If, by some misstep of history Rick Santorum becomes the Republican candidate for president, it’s pretty clear that one of his campaign themes will be no separation of church and state, no college for kids because it’ll remove their faith and no women allowed to make personal decisions about their bodies . Oh, and of course his faith is better than Obama’s faith. Or some such barrel of nonsense. It boggles the mind that a potential presidential candidate will ask voters to elect him on the basis of his version of theological belief versus that of the sitting president. It doubly boggles the mind when this kind of nonsensical talk is being spouted while Iraqis who believe in one version of their Islamic faith explode bombs that kill dozens of Iraqis who presumably believe in a different version. This in a country that we "freed" from the shackles of an evil dictator. It boggles the mind that this kind of idiocy is being offered by Mr. Santorum as a reason to vote for him while the results of a similar idiocy in Afghanistan has resulted in the murder of four Americans at the time of this writing. This in a country that we are trying to "free" - from what I’m not sure, though we are sure of the cost of this frustrating endeavor, well described in a Chicago Tribune op ed piece the other day by Mark Doyle, owner of Prairie Avenue Advisors, a strategic consulting firm specializing in forensic loss recovery of assets for state governments.

And having criticized - or maybe the better word is mocked Rick Santorum, I find myself agreeing with him on one aspect of one topic. I too do not think the President should have apologized to the people of Afghanistan for the inadvertent burning of copies of the Quran instead of discarding them in ways dictated by Islamic tradition. Apologies had already been offered by senior military personnel on the ground. Close up and personnel. Knowing previous reactions to "insults" to their religion, it was probably no surprise that Muslims would react to this "insult" with deadly violence. The reaction was mindless and idiotic- the kind that could not be mollified by an apology. It was going to run its course no matter how many times and how many generals said they were sorry - that it was a mistake - that no one intended any insult to their religion. But by adding his apology, the President escalated the incidence to a level far above its importance.

Despite the protestations of many in this country that Islam should command as much respect as other religions and that those opposing the building of Mosques close to ground zero in New York or in Phoenix or San Francisco or other cities are intolerant or uninformed, it is a fact that among the more than two billion Muslims in the world, can be found some of the world’s craziest people who are not only intolerant of non Muslims , but ready to run amok and murder as many of them as they can lay their hands on at the slightest hint that their religion or its prophet Mohammed or any of its artifacts have been "insulted." They are crazy people who, once embarked upon one of their fits of mayhem, cannot be placated or persuaded to stop their murderous rampages by apologies. When President Obama apologized for the accidental, though incorrect destruction of some of their holy books, he legitimized their irrational behavior.

Contrast the President’s approach to that of Harmid Karzai who offered "condolences" for the murder of two American military officers who were acting as advisors to his government. Condolences for the murder of two human beings. A letter of apology for the burning of some books. There’s something out of whack in this equation.

I don’t go so far as to agree with people like Dutch politician Geert Wilders who a condemns the entire religion as evil and compares the Quran to Mein Kampf. There are millions of Muslims world wide who live ordinary lives without the thought of violence crossing their minds because of some alleged "insult" to their faith. Some of them are our neighbors and friends. But it seems clear that the acts of violence that have been carried out by Muslims around the world - and that continue in one country or another, almost on a daily basis, if not instructed by their faith, are related to it. People who strap on explosive vests or drive cars rigged to explode near crowds are not just crazy people who happen to be Muslims. Being a Muslim is at the heart of their crazed acts.

There are people of other faiths who are passionate about their religion and can sometimes be intolerant of those who don’t agree with them. Rick Santorum is a good example. But I doubt if he would go on a murderous rampage if he learned that the followers of some radical Imam burned a stack of King James Bibles chanting "death to the infidels." A Hebrew Torah Scroll is considered a holy object by orthodox Jews, but you’re not likely to see bands of Rabbis firing Uzis randomly at crowds of people in the street shouting "Death to the Nazis." It might have been a good idea if they’d been able to do it during the Nazi era when indeed Torahs were being destroyed along with other religious artifacts - and of course the Jews themselves. But in the twenty first century, it is only Muslims who react murderously because of alleged insults to or differences with fellow Muslims about their religion..

The rampage in Afghanistan may run its course and die down, but that it happened at all confirms everything that Mark Doyle said in his Tribune op-ed piece linked above. It is a hopeless situation. We are not going to change the people of Afghanistan, bring them into the twenty first century, persuade them to be tolerant of other religions and change their tribal structure to a version of western democracy. Right wing hawks of course will insist that we stay in Afghanistan until we achieve "victory" - whatever that means to those who think we should be at war everywhere in the world - and any speed up of withdrawal of our troops will bring accusations of "weakness." We’ve seen this play before. It was called Vietnam. Where we never wanted to finish the last act and lower the curtain until we could leave victorious and with our honor intact.

It’s unfortunate that Obama will likely be influenced by some of this thinking and by the importance he placed on Afghanistan during his presidential campaign. But I hope he will come to the same conclusion of many who have long since concluded that we cannot "win" anything in that misbegotten nation and at least speed up the withdrawal of our troops. Of course we want the people of Afghanistan - and indeed people everywhere - to be able to live, if not in a western style democracy, at least in some measure of freedom where men and women are equal and people are not flayed or slain because of how they practice or do not practice their faith. But we can only help them if this is something they truly want for themselves, in which case they wouldn’t be trying to maim or kill us on a daily basis.

In 1971, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Vietnam, a 27 year old John Kerry asked the question "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" It’s a question that the President and the American people should ask themselves about Afghanistan. And the answer should be that there is no way and we should get the hell out before we ask anyone else to die. I don’t think the kids who will come home alive and with limbs intact will think of it as "weakness."

Monday, February 20, 2012

The madness of religious influence over the lives of billions around the world continues wit the current American contribution being a continuing battle over how women may get birth control services from their employee health plans without co-pays. Despite the offer of a "compromise" allowing women to get needed contraceptives directly from their health plan’s insurance company rather than from their Catholic associated employers, which is more window dressing than compromise - someone still has to pay premiums to the insurance companies - Catholic Bishops are having none of it. They vow to battle this intrusion on their right to provide medical coverage to employees of Catholic institution based on their religious beliefs. And of course they are getting support from right wing politicians, columnists and assorted pundits.

We know what is at the heart of the administration’s policy in this matter and supported, if not vocally at least tacitly by most women, including Catholic women who use birth control - and that is the right of all women to have access to contraception as part of their employer’s insurance plans and the right to be able to exercise some measure of control over their bodies. But what is at the heart of the objections to the policy? For the politicians and pundits, it’s simply because it is an Obama proposal - and we all know that anything Obama proposes is bad. After all, he is an avowed Muslim born in Kenya whose plan is to lead the world into universal socialism before he reveals himself as the anti-Christ. But what about the Catholic Priests and Bishops and the Pope? Are their objections merely religious objections or is there something more basic at play?

Think about the nature of religion and why most people are religious or at the very least believe in a deity. They don’t look at the world around then when they reach the age of reason and make decisions about what to believe - what is fact and what is fantasy - what is and what isn’t supported by reason and logic. They are told at a very early age that there is a God and that they are members of a particular religion. And depending on the religion involved, they are also told that there is a Heaven and Hell and an after life and countless other mythological concepts. And as they grow, these concepts are reinforced to the point where they are believed as a matter of absolute truth. They - we - are brainwashed into believing in a deity and in the correctness of a particular religion with all of its creative descriptions, rules and regulations. And most of us never question any of it - or if we do, it’s some trimming that we think is too much trouble to deal with - but not the basic premise of the religion. And in the case of the Catholic Church, that’s fine, because it allows it to continue to exercise control over the lives of Catholics - and that’s what this battle is about - control.

I may have mentioned this before but it bears repeating. Many years ago, I had an office in downtown Chicago and had a phone number that was one digit removed from that of a Catholic church. From time to tine I would get a call that was meant for the church and because much of the time I was the only one in the office, I was the one answering phone calls. The church callers obviously didn’t listen carefully to my salutation because, hearing a man’s voice, they assumed they had reached a priest and immediately launched into the reason for their call - and often it was to ask if something they wanted to do was O.K. I remember answering more than one call from church members asking if it was O.K. to read a particular book. I don’t remember what the book was but I do remember how I answered the question. I didn’t tell them they had reached a wrong number . I told them it was not just O.K. to read the book - it was a good idea - a book well worth reading. I don’t think I condemned those callers to an eternity in Hell - but it’s likely that’s what they would have believed had they discovered that they had read something not approved by their church and without the permission of a priest.

The Catholic church hierarchy knows only too well that Catholic women use contraceptives at the same rate as non Catholics, but to publicly acknowledge or accept it would mean surrendering some of the power they wield over their flocks - the same power they wield by scaring their members to death , describing what will happen to them if they die other than in a state of grace. Just as Muslim jihadists believe they are going to paradise when they kill themselves in the act of murdering infidels - so do Catholics have beliefs drummed into them that makes them fear - excuse the expression - a "fate worse than death" if they violate the rules of their church.

This is a battle from which the Obama administration should not retreat. There is no way that the requirement on contraception violates the first amendment. Religious organizations are allowed all the freedoms of the constitution including things that are not in that document - such as enjoying all the protections paid for by taxes without having to contribute to them. That should be enough. If we start exempting religious organizations from obeying laws simply because they say they conflict with their religious beliefs, we will have opened a Pandora’s box, the contents of which will be that of a reverse Cornucopia - there will be no end to the exemptions that believers will demand.

The first amendment to the constitution says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It doesn’t say that government or the laws of the land can be made subservient to religious practices and beliefs. For most of our history, religion has been given something close to a free ride. It’s way past time for some quid pro quo from churches and synagogues and mosques by way of acknowledging that "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" doesn’t establish a right for these institutions to ignore any legislation that the rest of us live under just because it conflicts with their particular religious beliefs.

Monday, February 06, 2012

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about religion and when I do it’s often a frustrating experience, knowing that logic and rational thought are unwanted strangers in a world awash with religious beliefs of all kinds. But people do keep trying and a group of them have recently reached out to me with an invitation to share their logic and rational thought. A magazine called "Free Inquiry" wants me as a subscriber, promising "challenging interviews, articles and essays from some of the bravest original thinkers of our time." That may be so, but the major thrust of the magazine seems to be to take apart religions and religious beliefs as demonstrated by one of the pitches enclosed in the solicitation package, this one by Englishman Richard Dawkins
If you live in America the chances are that your next door neighbors believe the following: The inventor of the laws of physics and programmer of the DNA code decided to enter the uterus of a Jewish virgin, got himself born, then deliberately had himself tortured and executed because he couldn’t think of a better way to forgive the theft of an apple , committed at the instigation of a talking snake. As creator of the majestically expanding universe , he not only understands relativist and quantum mechanics but actually designed them. Yet what he really cares about is "sin," abortion, how often you go to church and whether gay people should marry. Statistically, the chances are that your neighbors believe all that - and they can vote.
He could have added that millions of those neighbors also believe that God is personally involved in their lives and in the life of every creature on earth and that includes murderers and rapists and child molesters and people of every race, color and religions other than Christianity and that maybe God "has plans" for all those people too. But what grabbed my attention more than anything else was the reminder that the people who Dawkins is talking about can vote. And he could have added that not only are American politicians aware of what so many voters believe, but fail to pander to those beliefs at their peril.

I don’t know of any other democracy where the stated religious beliefs of candidates for national office is a major issue for voters. Even in Israel, where it’s almost impossible to form a government without the support of religious parties, politicians from other parties don’t have to profess religious beliefs to get themselves elected. Only here. I wasn’t around to observe the Brits elect their 650 Members of Parliament in 2010 - but I would wager at least Romney’s ten thousand dollar challenge to Rick Perry that not a single one of them said, during his or her campaign "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of Mankind" - as Mitt Romney has said in this and previous campaigns. The British have an official religion for Pete’s sake but they are somehow able to elect their representatives without requiring them to profess their belief in a deity or how they feel about abortion.

While politicians running for the House or Senate don’t necessarily have to make public statements about their religious beliefs in order to get elected - it has become a necessary ingredient in presidential campaigns, more so in primaries to select a challenger to an incumbent - particularly in Republican primaries and particularly in those states heavily populated by so called Christian Evangelicals. I have no doubt that Romney and other candidates who say similar things, actually believe in a deity, but I have a hard time believing that in their private moments, away from the glare of the crowd, they buy in to the mythology that has grown up around those beliefs. If I’m wrong about this, our democracy is shakier than I would ever have imagined. While right wing fear mongers blather about the mythical danger of Sharia law achieving precedence over federal and state laws, it is more likely that our politicians will not just turn a blind eye on any encroachment of Christian beliefs on secular laws, but give it tacit approval. And as we are now witnessing, woe to any president who puts rational public policy before the religious beliefs of Christian voters.

What is more natural and practical than the requirement under the new health care law that employer sponsored health plans, including those of religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges and social services offer contraception services to enrollees? I’m not sure that they need to be free of charge, but otherwise, what’s wrong with it? I’m not familiar with the wording of the proposition but I am reasonably sure that the statement "if requested" is implied. No one will be forcing anyone who doesn't believe in birth control because of religious belief to use contraception services. It just needs to be available as part of their health care plan. But of course it has immediately become a political issue. Newt Gingrich accuses the administration of launching an attack on Christianity!! On the PBS News Hour the other day, syndicated columnist Mark Shields called the decision "a catastrophe" and New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed. Leaders of the Catholic Church are up in arms over what they consider encroachment of their religious beliefs and there is much speculation that the policy will be reversed. This is an election year and Obama needs those Catholic votes.

Personally, I hope that the administration holds firm. No one will force anyone to use the available birth control services - so for religious based medical organizations to be able to say that they will not make certain commonly used medications, devices and medical services available to patients because of their religious belief is ridiculous. When doctors take the Hippocratic oath do they insert a caveat about not offering needed and medically approved services to patients if they object to them on religious grounds? How far can religion be allowed to go to trump secular law and practice? Such things are rife in nations that we consider antithetical to our values and way of life. But are we that far from theocracies and near theocracies when our politicians have to publicly profess belief in the western version of a God in order to get elected to office? How different are we from those countries whose religious based practices we condemn? Sure, maybe we don’t stone women to death or execute men who don’t grow beards - but the principles espoused by devout Catholics and Christian fundamentalists are the same - that the laws of their religion take precedence over all other considerations.

We’ve already abandoned common sense with Medicare coverage of some aspects of Christian Science "health care." That’s as far as we should go in appeasing religious views when it comes to the practice of medicine. If we go further, we’ll be on our way to becoming a mirror image of those we ridicule for their religious practices. That may be just fine with some American fundamentalists but it just isn’t America.