Tuesday, October 25, 2011

L is for Little Stuff

1) CHERNOBYL: In 1985, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl almost melted down. It was a close call. In the aftermath of the disaster, volunteers were desperately needed to go into the bowels of the radioactive reactor to make sure it was not a ticking time bomb. The men and women who volunteered to do this work knew they were taking a very big chance. They knew that the radiation to which they would exposed, might, at the very least, significantly shorten their lives. And they knew radiation sickness is not an easy way to die.

Rarely has any group of people shown such courage.

Who were these volunteers? Without engaging in a full-scale investigation, we already know some things about them. They were born and raised in the Soviet Union and were educated there. They were exposed to strong doses of atheistic Communist propaganda in the schools. They heard all the usual attacks on religion and the glorification of the materialist philosophy of Marx and Lenin. In view of this, one suspects that many of those who made who the decision to volunteer were not motivated by any hope of a reward in the hereafter. That enhances their heroism.

2) WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? Pandering as usual to the credulous masses, American politicians have resorted increasingly to the formulaic WWJD? Ask yourself they say: What Would Jesus Do? Would he drive a Prius for example?

Let’s look back at some of the great turning points in American history from the WWJD? perspective. What Would Jesus Have Done in 1775? The American colonies revolted against the British Empire over the issues of unfair taxation. Americans were not represented in the British Parliament, and had not consented to any of these taxes. In Jesus’ time a similar unfair tax situation existed. Rome taxed the Jewish people although they had no representation in the Roman government. Many Jews thought Rome’s demand for taxes should be strongly, even violently, resisted.

Jesus was asked his opinion. He asked his questioners whose image was on their coins. “Caesar’s” he was told. Then Jesus answered: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s!” Stripped to its bare essentials, Jesus was urging his fellow Jews to pay their taxes to Rome—it’s only money after all—and not become distracted by such worldly questions. More important to follow God and save your soul.

Jesus was also (supposedly) against violence.

Can there be any doubt that Jesus would not have supported the American tax revolt and the War for Independence? If our forefathers had asked themselves the WWJD? question we’d still be part of the British Empire.

Four score and five years later a Civil War over slavery and secession broke out, threatening to destroy the American Union. Let’s ask the WWJD? question again. Jesus lived in a time of slavery. The Roman Empire was based on conquest and unfree labor. The institution of slavery was omnipresent. What did Jesus say about it? As far as we can tell, absolutely nothing. For a moral leader to live in a society based on slavery and to say nothing about it speaks volumes. The most one can say in Jesus’ defense is that he did not see slavery as an overriding moral issue. It’s hard to imagine Jesus strongly opposing slavery and keeping silent about it. It’s even harder imagining him—a fervent believer in non-violence—supporting a war that killed hundreds of thousands in order to eradicate it.

Can there be any doubt that Jesus would have opposed the Civil War? If Northerners had asked themselves the WWJD? question, the South would have been allowed to secede and slavery would have continued for who knows how long.

3) BELIEF AND ACTION: Ever since Edmund Burke, conservative thinkers have made the “disciplinary power of religion” central to their critique of rationalism and its contemporary variant, modern liberalism. They see us living in an era of moral decline and blame that decline on the liberal elite whose moral relativism and persistent scoffing have led to a loss of religious faith among the masses.

But what does anyone really know about the connection between religious belief and action? Can religion really keep people in line? Does it? What about atheists who live moral lives? Are they the exceptions that disprove the rule, or are they living proof that morality can thrive without religion? Can the masses live moral lives without it?

Open minded conservatives will, at least for the sake of argument, grant that the expression “moral atheist” is not oxymoronic. But they would still insist the masses need religion. How could you prove the masses could do just as well without it?

One way might be to compare Western Europe and the United States. Old fashioned religion is about as weak in Western Europe as it is strong in many parts of the USA. Perhaps we should compare the Netherlands with Texas. Where should we begin? Let’s start with weekly church attendance. Texas wins hands down. Let’s turn to the murder rate. The Dutch win that one. What about out-of wedlock births? What about assisted suicide? What about the rate of bankruptcy? Divorce? Child abuse? Tax evasion? Absenteeism at work?

Might there be a “moral dipstick” that could be inserted into a society and withdrawn to show researchers just how moral that society is? Suppose conservative and liberal sociologists could design such a dipstick. Suppose it were used on my examples and the Texans and  Dutch emerged in a dead heat? What would that prove? Suppose the Dutch or the Texans won hands down? Would those results convince anyone that religion is or is not a “disciplinary force” in society?

I suspect that it would not. The defeated side would find procedural flaws in the experiment or it would insist that the playing field was not truly level because of this or that overlooked factor. And so the argument would go on much as before, but with even less light and lots more heat.

What are we to make of people who say things like this: “Were it not for my religious faith I would commit crimes every day if I thought I could get away with them?” Such confessions “prove” to the satisfaction of conservatives that religion is absolutely necessary. You just heard this nice, churchgoing middle-aged housewife admit that she is a closet criminal. She wouldn’t say that about herself if it weren’t true. For conservatives a few million similar confessions from equally nice people like this dear lady and it’s case closed; We Win.

Why would anyone admit they are criminally-minded if they aren’t? Could we expose these people for the decent human beings they really are by running a controlled experiment? Suppose we could put them in a situation where they could act on their criminal impulses without fear of divine punishment? Would they?

But let’s go one step further without any experiments. Logically speaking, these self-confessed closet criminals must believe that the prison system is positively overflowing with atheists and agnostics. They aren’t. How to explain the fact that atheists and agnostics are much rarer in the prisons than they are in the population at large? They’d have to argue that inmates are just pretending to be religious—that if they really were religious their faith would provide them with the strength (or give them a sufficient fear of God) to resist criminal temptation. Heads we win; tails you lose. (This is akin to praying one’s way out of homosexuality.)

Being religious is tantamount to believing without evidence. Maybe that’s why there is no evidence, nor any logical argument, that can convince religious people that self-discipline can be every bit as effective as out-of-self discipline when it comes to resisting temptation.

4) YATES AND ABRAHAM: A hero is willing to sacrifice his/her own life for others or for some cause.  A fanatic is willing to sacrifice the lives of others for his/her cause.

As civilized people we should deplore fanatics and to admire heroes. The prototype of the fanatic is Abraham who was willing to sacrifice the life of his child Isaac for a cause he believed in deeply. Jews, Christians and Moslems venerate the example and memory of the fanatic Abraham whom they mistake for a hero.

If Abraham had been a hero he would have said to God: “Take me, not my son.” And if God hesitated, Abraham should have reminded the Almighty that murder is wrong and that the murder of one’s own flesh and blood is doubly wrong. Murder can only be justified in self-defense, or in the defense of an innocent person, and little Isaac was threatening no one.

And if God persisted, Abraham should have concluded that the commands he heard were not from the mouth of God but must be coming from the Devil.

A deranged Texas mother named Andrea Yates murdered all five of her children because she believed the Devil was within her and she had to kill the children to keep the Evil One from getting them. Then, she drowned them so as to send them to Heaven where they would be safe. Andrea Yates’ lawyers should have used the Abraham defense.  After all, Texas is a state known for its zealous religiosity and its frequent use of the death penalty. Interesting how these two always seem to go together.

5) 9/11/01: Where was God on September 11, 2001? The answers of the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are on record; God let it happen to punish America for it sins. These sins being abortion, homosexuality, pornography—the current laundry list of supposed societal ills perturbing the American Right. But who was killed in the WTC, and the Pentagon, and on the airplane that crashed in Western Pennsylvania on that dreadful day? Were the victims disproportionally gay? Were there abortion providers among them on their way to a convention perhaps? What about pornographers? Gay couples? Or atheists?

From what the New York Times has reported the victims were mainly responsible, middle class, religiously observant, productive people with jobs and families. Many of them—the New York City Firefighters and the airline passengers over Pennsylvania in particular—can rightly be called heroes. And God punished them for their goodness? Or were they simply unlucky to be on one of those planes or to be working that shift on that particular day?

Assuming God exists, it seems doubtful that He, She, It (or They) intends some message for us in what happened on September 11th. The peculiar agenda of the American Right was not fulfilled in the slightest on that day. Falwell and Robertson believe that God removed His protection from America on September 11th. That must mean that He (they see him as a fellow male, of course) had been effectively thwarting suicidal hijackers, and others who would do large scale harm to Americans, prior to that day. The God of Falwell and Robertson allows us to kill each other in fairly large numbers on a daily basis with hand guns and automobiles but small events of this type don’t rise to level of theological speculation. He doesn’t seem to have done much to stop abortions either although those claiming to be his agents have committed murder in futile attempts to do so. One wonders why thunderbolts and tornadoes don’t strike abortion clinics far more often than, say, churches.

But the larger question is this: Is the world a moral order? Or, to be more precise, is it a Divine Order? Do Allah, God, YHWH, Vishnu, Zeus and/or some other Gods or Goddesses intervene in human affairs? Or do they just watch from the sidelines? Or do they not exist outside the minds of believers?

According to the media there has been a sharp increase in religiosity since the 9/11 disaster. Religious Americans, we are told, always turn to God in times of distress. God Bless America has replaced Take Me Out To The Ball Game at our baseball stadiums. What sense does this make? Is this turning to God in a crisis a call for help or a search for an explanation? Or is it a way of reassuring God—in the face of such a massive Divine Failure—that His People still believe in Him?

Events like September 11th strongly suggest that Divine Intervention is not in the cards. If there are any Gods, they seem to hang back and let the game of life go on. They receive adulation and prayers but they don’t ever seem to actually do anything.

Nevertheless, believers continue to assert that God does intervene. Soon after a trailer park is devastated by a tornado, survivors will assert in front of the TV cameras that God spared them and then they thank Him for it. But they never seem to wonder why God didn’t use his Omnipotent Power to divert the tornado away from their trailer park entirely.

In recent days there has been much repetition of the old “No atheists in foxholes” slander. Atheists, heretics and unbelievers have fought and died in all of our wars. They are at least 5% of the population, probably more. Whether they waver or not in the face of imminent death is irrelevant. Surely some of them were among the dead on September 11th. Think About It: If no unbelievers died on that terrible day that might suggest Divine Intervention on their behalf! Now you might ask: Why would the Gods intervene on behalf of those who don’t believe in them? I can think of two reasons: (1) They might have a sense of humor. (2) They might respect those who can live moral lives without them.

Suppose those suicidal terrorists had not believed they had assurances from Allah Himself that they were about to enter Paradise. Would they have gone through with it? Can you imagine a gang of atheists doing what they did?

6) [NYT 6/17/05 Page A1]: Andrea Albanese, a 27-year-old employee of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., recently filled out an end-of-life form offered by her diocese because she wanted to ensure that her loved ones would not take steps to end her life even if she was in pain.

“There is value in suffering,” Ms. Albanese said. “In the Catholic perspective, we can offer up our sufferings to Christ. And it will be a benefit to us—our souls—in the next life.”

What a nice idea. You invest some pain in your account here on earth and Jesus, your heavenly investment counselor, sees to it that your soul receives a nice payoff in the next life.

Let’s hope for the sake of Ms. Albanese that Jesus really exists, that heaven really exists, that human beings have immortal souls, that Jesus is in heaven and can deliver on his promises, that he looks upon our sufferings as offerings, that he would want such offerings, and that he has the time, ability and inclination to keep careful track of each individual case and provide a fitting reward.

As for me I don’t believe in any of it, and I want the legal right to end my life whenever I conclude that I’ve had enough. In return for which I’ll take my chances when it comes to the possibility of any eternal rewards or punishments. And if Jesus really wants us to “offer up our sufferings” what does that say about Him?

There may be meaning in suffering, but one doubts if there is any value in it.

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