My Uncertainty Principle

Noted non-believer Richard Dawkins provided a handy seven-point scale for us mortals to determine our levels of belief – or lack thereof – in a deity.  Copied and pasted here:

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
  2. De facto Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
  5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
  6. De facto Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
  7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

 

Dawkins scores himself at 6.9, or 6.99, but short of a perfect seven.  To my way of thinking, that’s logical.  He is a person of science, and scientists are predisposed to reconsider truths in the face of new information.

Because if there’s anything that pisses me off, it’s certainty.  Though it is less problematic with dyed-in-the-wool Atheists with a capital ‘A,’ there certainly is no shortage of strident non-believers who insist you non-believe as they do.

I think a central tenet of any faith – or lack thereof – should be, “But I could be wrong.”

My personality is such that I resist extremes of any kind.  If I do a survey asking that I rate things or statements on a scale of one to five, almost none of my answers will be one or five.  So as I rate myself on the Dawkins scale, I would place myself around three.  But I reserve the right to change.  Maybe I’m closer to six.  Maybe I’m a solid four.  Maybe my rating is fluid.

Certainty is my foe.  I am an avowed un-Fundamentalist.  I wholeheartedly reject the notions of infallibility and/or inerrancy of scripture.  Not for Christianity, not for Judaism, not for Islam, not for Hinduism….  Every religion, major or minor, ought to adopt the overriding philosophy, “But I could be wrong.”  Because plainly, you could.  There are lots of people of lots of faiths (or lack thereof) who would insist that you are wrong.  So how, in the face of significant disagreement, can you know?

You can’t.  Pure ‘Ones’ and pure ‘Sevens’ are frauds.  They are pretenders.  If they could actually prove for absolute certain that God does or does not exist, they would do so.  And they would convince the other extreme and everyone in-between of their error.  No degree of bull-headedness can refute the irrefutable.

The pure ‘Ones,’ the True Believers, are most definitely an insufferable lot, and their insistence that the rest of us must believe as they do or we will be condemned to Hell for all of eternity does not in- and of itself make for any kind of convincing argument.  In fact, it makes me less inclined to hear what they have to say.

But worse, these people are the dangerous ones.  They are the ones who would kill or torture or condemn or persecute or shun for the sake of their beliefs.  Conversely, no one ever says, “Death to the infidels… but I could be wrong.”  No one says, “You are going to Hell… but I could be wrong.”  No one says, “God hates you… but I could be wrong.”

And of course they could be wrong.  Of course they ARE wrong!  A god that requires you to kill and hate and condemn and persecute is a tyrannical punk neither worthy of worship nor praise.  (Nor a capital ‘G.’)  Their punk-god does not inspire me to believe.  If anything, rigid dogma pushes me away from belief.

That does not seem to be the way publicly expressed religious beliefs work.  People tend not to join a religion or a church for uncertainty.  They want to know absolutely and unequivocally that their religion is the one that God truly favors, that their beliefs are the correct ones, and that they have found The Truth with a capital ‘T.’  God is on their side!  God is against their enemies (real or perceived)!

The trouble with hardened, rigid beliefs is that they do not bend —  They break.  They crack.  They shatter.  I am more comfortable with a shatter-resistent belief system.  I prefer to leave wiggle room for new information or new interpretations.  I am NOT certain.  I COULD be wrong.  And if everyone on Earth strongly agreed with my views, I STILL could be wrong.  Uncertainty is the only thing that makes sense to me.

So if you rate yourself on the Dawkins scale as a pure ‘One’ or a pure ‘Seven’ because you just KNOW that what you believe is true, no, you don’t.  And you can’t.  And you won’t know until it’s too late to report back with your findings.  So kindly refrain from inflicting your unprovable belief requirements on me.

I’m a Creationist! (No, Not That Kind)

I had a dream!

In my dream, I was in a place with a crowd, but it was not crowded.  I thought I was there to meet and pay homage to my favorite maker of crossword puzzles, Merl Reagle.  That evening before retiring, I had just completed a puzzle that I had started the night before, but could not stay awake to finish going through the ‘down’ clues.  Maybe that influenced the opening topic of this dream, but the thread did not stay on crossword puzzles throughout.

Reagle was there, but he was not embodied as the actual person that he is, a dark-haired man with a goatee and wearing glasses.  Instead, he was Lindsay Wagner, an actress whose heyday was a few decades ago who most recently has been hawking high-end mattresses in TV commercials.  There was another puzzle maker there, too (unnamed in the dream, perhaps an amalgam of a plurality of puzzle makers), of whose puzzles I was not particularly fond.  He was embodied by Kelsey Grammer, a square-jawed, rich voiced actor whose fame peaked as a sitcom star, but was lately taking more dramatic roles.  I did not interact with him much except to note his glowering stare in my direction.

While basking in the presence of puzzle makers and fellow cruciverbal enthusiasts, someone shouted, “Allahu Akbar!”

Someone – maybe it was me – responded, “Don’t say that!”

“Why not?” queried Lindsay.  “Do you know what it means?”

“Yes.  God is great.”

“Are you saying God is not great?”

“Not at all,” I muttered.  Then I was struck by an urge to thank God for the gift of crossword puzzles.

“You want to thank God?”

“Yes.”

“You want to sing praises to God?”

“Yes.  Praise and thanksgiving.”

“Then you know where you are.”

I was taken aback by Lindsay’s remark.  Suddenly the place seemed much, much larger than I had perceived it to be.  The crossword puzzle group was surrounded by many other groups, much the same way a crossword puzzle is but a small portion of a Sunday newspaper, only more immense than a Sunday newspaper, if you can imagine that.

Suddenly, I became aware that my daughter was here in Heaven in the music section, and I could be with her.  I never did see her face during the dream, but I had access to wherever she was.

“People don’t create,” Lindsay told me, steering my perceptions in a new direction.  “They tap into Creation.”

That was the impetus for the momentum of my train of thought.  “People don’t create:  They tap into creation.”  That means that Merl Reagle didn’t create amusing crossword puzzles I considered to be creative, but rather he tapped into the vast reservoir of Creation.  Beethoven didn’t create music – he tapped into creation.

“And your daughter,” Lindsey interjected, unprompted.

My daughter sang beautifully in her life, and now she is singing at the source of her gift.

“You’re thinking in terms of the past.  Past tense is irrelevant,” Lindsay advised.  “Language is an earthly construct, and it’s finite.”

My mind took another trip down the train tracks.  Language is finite.  Science is finite.  Religion….

“Religion is finite.  You cannot understand all there is about the nature of Creation.  Language limits your ability to comprehend.  It’s useful on Earth, but here it is irrelevant.  Your gender-specific pronouns, some languages assigning gender to inanimate objects – all limiting.”

“Are you God?” I tepidly but still-too-boldly asked Lindsay.

Her cold stare as a response did not answer my question.  I took that to mean that I had to decide that for myself.  Maybe she was God.  Maybe she was the Son of God.  Maybe she was me, or some form of me.  Maybe she was none-of-the-above.  There’s that past tense again.

So Mozart and Zappa tap into creation.  Newton and Einstein and Hawking tap into creation.  But their understandings are in terms of earthly human constructs, and therefore finite.  And Hawking is a noted non-believer….

“Belief is finite,” Lindsay finally spoke.  “You have said yourself that you believe in God only because you want to.  You say ‘God,’ I say ‘Creation.’  Either way, your understanding is finite.  You have said that whether there is one True God, or multiple gods, or no god, what’s true is true, and what one believes is irrelevant to what is true.  Within the construct of time, you can change your mind about what you believe, but it is nonetheless irrelevant what you believe.”

I pondered the bible, the holy scripture of Christianity.  I have said that a God worthy of worship and praise cannot possibly be contained by a book, or a stack of books, or any volume of books.  Scripture, like all earthly things, is finite.  The universe is a vast place, and our galaxy is a small speck in it.  And our solar system is a small speck in the galaxy, and our planet is a small speck in the solar system, and we are small specks on Earth, our only known home in the universe.  What an arrogant conceit that God can be contained in something we can hold in one hand!  And as finite as it is, still we get it wrong.  Assuming God, of course.  But that’s another essay.

I am no expert in interpreting dreams or divining meaning from them.  For the most part, I don’t even remember dreams no matter how seemingly meaningful they are at the time I am having them.  Usually when I do remember a dream, it’s because I spoke of it out loud the next morning.  Dreams otherwise disappear from my memory very quickly.  This dream of heaven was one that I kept having lying awake well before my usual waking hour, and I did not want to drift back to sleep for fear of losing it.  But in this dream, I was not having original thoughts.  I likely have never had an original thought in my life and probably never will.  What I think I am doing, daily and in this dream, is tapping Creation.

My dream consisted of elements that were already familiar to me.  It was a heaven in which belief – or lack thereof – was irrelevant.  It was a heaven where maybe all my questions would be answered, but because I am a mere mortal having a dream, my current understanding is limited by the finite constructs of my terrestrial observations and experience.  It was a place where I could be reunited with departed loved ones.  (Or maybe not-yet-departed loved ones, seeing as how past- and present tenses are limited and irrelevant.)  It was a physical realm that could be experienced with my earthly senses because I am presently unable to process it otherwise.

Here on the physical Earth, belief or lack thereof seems to be highly relevant to a great many people.  Some even go as far as to kill over it.  To my way of thinking, requiring others to believe as I do is a decidedly ungodly way to interact with other people.  It violates the so-called Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Would you have others require you to believe as they do?  Or how about the first five verses of Matthew 7, starting out “Judge not lest you be judged,” and going on to say we shouldn’t go about pointing out ‘specks in the eyes’ of others while disregarding ‘logs’ in our own.  Judging others is what we do reflexively even though the Matthew 7 verses are attributed to Jesus himself.  It bothers me that ‘Christians’ are so prolific at invoking the name of Jesus while practically dismissing what Jesus did and said and taught, per scripture, the very scripture they claim to cherish and regard as inerrant and infallible.

Another thing that bothers me about ‘Christians’ and makes me think they are ruining Christianity for me; certainty.  They say they know there is a God, and that they know that Christianity is the one true path to a blissful life everlasting, and they know that all other religions are wrong.  But they don’t know.  They believe.  They cannot know until they enter that next realm, and then they won’t be in a position to report back to us.  The heaven of my dream is an awesome place, but I do not know that ‘place’ is an appropriate word to describe it.  Maybe heaven is just as I want it to be.  Maybe, as a non-believer might offer, when we die, our energy still exists in the universe.  I am not going to claim to know anything that belongs in the arena of faith and belief.  But I maintain that on Earth as it is in my dream Heaven, belief is irrelevant to what’s true.

Consider:  I was born into a Christian family, raised with the Christian faith, and have attended Christian worship services my whole life.  What further evidence is required to prove Christianity is the One True Faith?  … Uh….  That’s one hell of a conceit!  But who tries out all of the religions to see which is the best fit?  Who has the time?

Something else that is irrelevant in my dream Heaven (and therefore also on Earth); blasphemy.  Assuming there is One True God, that God is as big as the universe.  That God is omnipresent, all-knowing, all-forgiving, gracious, merciful, loving.  It does not stand to reason (pardon the paradox) that such a God would write off part of Creation for something as trivial as non-belief or hurling insults.  How could I possibly hurt God’s feelings?  I believe that an all-everything God can forgive any blasphemy or heresy or non-belief or hate I can direct.  Such a God understands me, an imperfect vessel, better than I understand myself.  And if I’m wrong about the omni-God, if God does condemn people for their transgressions and banish them to Hell for all eternity, well then that God is a punk.  That God is a diminished deity, unworthy of worship or praise.  It does not make sense to me to believe in, let alone worship or praise, a God for fear of punishment for not believing, or believing wrong, or not believing strongly enough, or not constantly enough.  A God that demands laud and honor strikes me as needy and thin-skinned.  Why believe in a God that’s so… human?

Yeah, I know.  Jesus was God in human form.  Pardon my use of scripture as my guide, but wasn’t Jesus more than human?  Wasn’t he transcendent?  Wasn’t he gracious, forgiving, merciful, loving?  Was he not forgiving even of those who killed him?  Did he not show grace and mercy to the adulteress and the tax collector and the skeptic?  He did not seem to be in the damning business.  The way I view many people who invoke the name of Jesus is that they don’t put down their stones.  They embrace the name of Jesus but the operating philosophy of the Pharisees.  I can’t do that.  That’s no God to me.  If you insist on calling that heresy, then I’m a heretic.

I consider it of utmost importance, therefore, that my dream Heaven had people of other faiths (“Allahu Akbar!”) and non-believers in it.  If God is universal and ubiquitous, if God cares at all about us tiny specks on a dinky planet in an immeasurably vast universe, then there is room in eternity for all of us specks.  And that’s based on the finite parameters of our physical being.  Humans on Earth have tapped into Creation from time immemorial, before forming a concept of deity.  Someone discovered applications for fire (and yet the great chefs of the world pay that person no royalties!) and someone discovered uses for simple tools.  These people certainly predated written language and possibly spoken language as well.  Great discoveries that have advanced humanity – even if it can be argued that God had a hand in them – came about regardless of acknowledgement of God’s hand.  God did not then take away fire or levers or wheels until such a time that God could be credited.

Here is what a mere mortal such as myself understands about creation:  Creation is more difficult and requires more effort than destruction.  Destruction is easy!  How much easier and quicker it is to knock over a tower of building blocks than it is to construct it!  Small children know this.  Amateur critics criticize because it is easier than making reasoned alternative solutions to problems.  Reflexive haters spew hate because it is easier than trying to understand a differing point of view.  Terrorists terrorize because that’s what is within the reach of their resources.  If they could build a functioning society, they would do that.  But tearing down what others have built is way, way easier.  And issuing threats is easier still, especially in the absence of resources to carry them out.

Destroying is easier than creating, killing is easier than negotiating and cooperating, hating is easier than loving or respecting.

I am not dismissing the role destruction plays in creation.  Death is a part of life.  Some buildings have to be demolished to make way for parks or wilderness restoration or new buildings.  Fires are naturally occurring events in healthy forests.  Seismic activity plays a part in creating land.  But hating and killing and bombing do not seem to me to be part of a cycle or have regenerative components to them.  Maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe my human limitations make me fail to comprehend a natural role for hate and killing and destruction.  Maybe these things will become clearer in my heaven when Lindsay Wagner explains it to me.  I mean Merl Reagle.

So Creation is my religion.  If it is less true than yours, kindly make your case.  Just don’t rely on scripture to make that case, because scripture is limited.  And don’t tell me how certain you are.  If you are as absolutely, irrefutably correct as you believe yourself to be, then make an argument that would convince a non-believer.  Or someone of a completely different faith.

If God is as big as the universe, then there is room for your expression of faith or lack thereof.  Omni-God is not going to quibble with, “No, no, no, you’re doing it wrong!”  Omni-God is not going to thank you for the shout-outs in our pledges of allegiance or on our currency, or any other inclusions in our various forms of idolatry.  Omni-God is not going to punish you for the idolatry, or for cursing Omni-God, or denying Omni-God’s existence.  Omni-God is Creation, and Creation exists for us to tap into.

Thus, I am a Creationist.

** Sad note:  I originally posted this on June 3, 2015.  Less than two months later, August 21, the crossword puzzle maker Merl Reagle died from a sudden illness.  My wife and I have been missing his entertaining 21×21 grids ever since.  I think he is irreplaceable.

A Christian Nation?

Luke 15: 1-7  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

I am not in the habit of quoting scripture in my writings, and my reasons for this are both multiple and already stated in prior essays.  But all too often I encounter people who seem to want to impress us with how ‘Christian’ they are while lacking any foundation from anything Jesus did, said, or taught in the Gospels.  (Similarly, some of these same people throw around the words, “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” as if they know more about the U.S. Constitution than someone who taught constitutional law at an accredited law school.  But I digress.)

When Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – or “Pvt.” Bergdahl, to hear him tell it –was released from captivity with the Taliban in Afghanistan in a prisoner exchange, there was an issue.  That issue was that it happened while the President of the United States was Mr. “I-Hate-That-Guy.”  Never mind that Bergdahl had been captive for 59 months (Quick math: One month shy of five years), a good chunk of his life.  Never mind the military code of “No soldier left on the battlefield.”  No, the accomplishment of getting our sole POW from our Afghanistan engagement had to be besmirched by the conservative media and talking heads.  First, criticize the President for giving a go-ahead to the swap because, you know, the five Guantanamo detainees are the Taliban’s ‘A-Team.’  Then, slime Bergdahl himself; “He’s a deserter!”  “He’s a traitor!”  “Soldiers were killed looking for him!”

Oh, and before President Obama was criticized for getting Bergdahl released at all, he was criticized for not bringing him home sooner.  One could get whiplash from such a quick pivot!

Meanwhile, as of this writing, the criticisms have not yet passed the sniff test, if they ever will.  Four of the five Guantanamo prisoners exchanged for Bergahl’s release were Taliban bureaucrats, not active combatants.  The fifth may have had a military role with the Taliban, but all five had aged over a decade in captivity.  They will spend a year in an American-friendly nation monitored and unable to leave that country.  In the unlikely event that any become combat-ready to threaten the U.S. or our allies, it won’t be soon.  If we were at war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the five detainees were POWs and eligible for a prisoner exchange under normal wartime policies.  If they are terrorists as the term is commonly understood, then they are criminals who long ago should have been charged, put on trial, and convicted in accordance with our constitution.  Calling them “enemy combatants” instead of POWs is a distinction without an articulated difference, and appears only to serve violations of our constitution.

As for consequences for what led to his capture, that is under investigation.  So far we know that deaths of soldiers have not been directly linked to any search for him, and it may be impossible to do so.  What do we know of Bergdahl’s version of events?  So far all that has been given is that he was beaten and held in isolation after an escape attempt.  It’s easy to take a side when you only have heard one, but “innocent until proven guilty” is a principle that applies to American military justice as well as our more familiar court system.  The expedience of rushing to judgment does not qualify as an American value.

But more to my point, where is the joy in the finding of our ‘lost sheep?’  Where is the celebration for the return of the son who insulted his father and squandered his inheritance, as told in the parable of The Prodigal?  Where in the Gospels does Jesus say, “Him?  Fuck that guy.”

I realize that not everyone is a Christian, and the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that none of us is required to be.  If you are of a different faith tradition or are a non-believer, you are not one I am calling out here.  My quarrel is with those who proclaim the name of Jesus with little or no regard for his teachings. If you truly believe that Jesus would have you leave Sergeant (unless it’s ‘Private’) Bergdahl in the hands of hostile captors, kindly make your case.

And now I shift my focus to the people of Murrieta, California.  At least I think most of them dwell in or near Murrieta.  I’m not aware of a residence survey, nor do I know for certain who or how many among them self-identify as Christian.  So my disclaimer here is that I am making an assumption that at least some of the protesters call themselves Christian despite their un-Christ-like conduct.  The activity that put this community — very near where I was born and raised — in the news is that a crowd of protesters successfully got three busloads of undocumented immigrants from Central America to turn around and go back to San Diego rather than be screened and processed at the Murrieta station.  These immigrants, mostly children, had been flown to San Diego from Texas, where they had crossed the border with Mexico and surrendered to the Border Patrol.  Most of the children were unaccompanied by adults, and tens of thousands of them have been crossing into the U.S. in recent months, more than can be processed – as U.S. law requires – efficiently in Texas.  It is very apparent that the protesters do not grasp the function of the immigrant processing center in its outskirts, what ‘processing’ entails, or appreciate the jobs or other economic benefits such a facility brings to its community.

The law, passed by The House and approved in the Senate by unanimous consent and signed in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, says that unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous states (i.e., not Mexico or Canada) must be processed by the Department of Health and Human Services, have safe housing provided, and advised of legal rights until they can appear in court prior to deportation.  Calls for President Obama to immediately deport them to their home countries – or Mexico — are really asking him to break the law.  Some of the fear for following this law is that some of the undocumented immigrants might be bringing diseases into the U.S., and therefore into their communities.  Fair enough, but processing includes screening for diseases, so the bus turn-around only delayed that.  Nice job.  And do some of these protesters really believe that just dumping them just across the border in Mexico will keep disease from coming into the U.S.?  Are they aware that Mexicans cross the border, too?  Only they don’t usually surrender to the Border Patrol immediately upon doing so.

But paranoia trumps facts.  I get that.  Who wants to contemplate empirical truths when it contradicts your raging predispositions?

So, dear Christians, ponder; Luke 10: 25-37.  This is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  I trust this one is familiar enough that I don’t need to retell the story.  However, I would point out that Jesus chose a Samaritan as the good guy because of how Jews in his day regarded them.  Samaritans were considered not just foreign, but as reviled, heretical half-breeds.  I think it’s clear enough that Jesus wanted his listeners, Pharisees, to consider the humanity of those they hated or feared.  Also, there’s Matthew 25: 31-46.  You can look up this passage yourself to read it in full, but I will tell that it does not say, “I was a stranger and you shouted, “GO HOME!” at me.

I would venture that most – if not all – of the children on the buses were unable to read the messages on the protesters’ picket signs, and likely they were unfamiliar with the language of the angry shouts and chants directed their way.  But even the toddlers among them could have discerned hostility from friendliness.  Kindly explain to me how irate shouting at children is something that Jesus would have you do.  Hell, explain how this comports with your concept of basic human decency.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam….

A couple of apologies are in order here.  First, I apologize for the lack of new posts for far too long.  I could offer up excuses, but I doubt many who take the time to visit and read this site have any interest in them.

Second, I apologize for not adding comments of those of you who have taken the time and trouble to remark on my existing posts.  The reason for this is that this site has been bombarded with spam.  Thousands and thousands of spam messages have polluted my WordPress account, and I have had to sift and purge on a scale I did not imagine when I started the Godless Liberals For Christ (gl4c) blog.  And when I say thousands and thousands, I am not overstating.

A fraction of these messages find their way into my email.  True to the ‘tip of the iceberg’ analogy, when I click on the link to ‘spam’ a comment, there are dozens more to purge.  Each page for sifting contains twenty ‘comments,’ and there are multiple pages each day.  There is an option to check a box that checks all the boxes on a given page, and then I scroll down to see if any might be legitimate.  Most often there are none, so then I click the bulk option that allows me to move all the comments to the spam folder.  But I also find some comments that might be legitimate, so I uncheck those boxes.  Or sometimes I try to uncheck the boxes, but they’re small and I’m working quickly and I miss the checkbox and I accidentally move a good comment to the spam folder.  When I suspect I’ve done that, I have to sort through the hundreds of comments that I’ve spammed in order to find it, and by that time my eyes are fairly glazed.  So if I have erroneously deleted your comment that I should have allowed, I’m sorry.

Then again, of the ones I select for further review, many have a recurring theme of praise for the site or for the article without making any reference to the article in question or the general purpose of the site.  Some of these are written in a tortured syntax that suggests that English may not be their primary language.

Here are some suggestions if you want me to post your comment to something I have written.  First, do not include commercial links.  I do not want to purchase medications online, nor designer clothing or accessories, nor fake designer goods, nor streaming movies still in theaters….  Let’s just say that I don’t use my blog for any personal shopping, and I don’t want it to be a medium for peddling anyone else’s products or services.  Second, I like adulation as much as the next guy, but give me some indication that you have actually read what I wrote.  I am glad that you like my writing, or find me to be knowledgeable on the topic (What topic?  Please advise.), or I’ve been the answer to your long prior quest for ‘information on this topic.’  All well and good, but I’m far more likely to approve of well-argued criticism than general praise.  Finally, in addition to commenting on a post, send me an email to let me know that you’re a real person.  The address is on the “About Me” page, and my email inbox is far less cluttered than my spam-plagued WordPress inbox.  Thank you!

—  Rufus  —

Please Explain…

At the risk of alienating some friends, I have questions in the wake of the second of two recent mass shootings in the United States. The first occurred on July 20th in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, and the second happened on August 5th in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I have read some online remarks on news articles and seen some posts on Facebook that make me wonder about the thinking process of some gun owners. I don’t mean all gun owners, of course. I’d like to think that most gun owners are reasonable, responsible people, and I recall reading that the majority of rank-and-file members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) are far less militant than the leadership of the organization. But even among my Facebook friends, there are some shared pictures that I find bothersome. Here’s why:

· First of all, what is the perceived threat to the Second Amendment to the Constitution? Nobody but nobody is making any organized effort to repeal the Second Amendment. That would require a constitutional amendment in itself, and do you grasp what a major undertaking that would be? Constitutional amendments require two-thirds majority votes from both houses of Congress plus ratification by three-fourths of the states. Do you truly think a movement to repeal the Second Amendment could get that kind of support? Get real. Besides the delusional rants of NRA leadership, where does this cockamamie notion come from?

· Furthermore, no one is trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Again, the source of this kind of paranoia is a curiosity. In this political climate, lawmakers can’t even pass laws to make it harder for people on the Terrorist Watch List to purchase guns. That’s the stranglehold the gun lobby has on legislators. With the ironclad sanctity of the Second Amendment, your guns are safe. (On the other hand, if you’re really that paranoid, should you possess a gun?)

· Why, so fresh off the tragedies in which multiple people are shot to death and wounded, do these assertions of the right to gun ownership ramp up? This is not about political correctness; I’m talking about basic human decency. People are mourning their murdered loved ones and tending to the wounded, and communities are shattered by the violence. But you (I don’t mean you in particular, but rather the impersonal you) feel this is the perfect time to thump your chest and declare that nobody better try to take your weapon away. You (again, impersonally) can spout off all the vapid clichés about cold, dead fingers and outlaws having guns and how guns don’t kill people all you want. But I can’t imagine those trite sayings and bumper-sticker slogans offer any comfort to the victims and their families. Why the extreme insensitivity toward shooting victims and their families so soon after mass shootings? ‘Insensitivity’ is too mild a word, come to think of it. Why the shameless, brash, in-your-face, down-your-throat, bad-ass bullying assertion of your God-given right to own enough firepower to kill several persons in under a minute? Are your rights more valuable than people’s lives?

What we get from certain politicians and pundits are calls for gun control advocates not to exploit these tragedies to push for restrictions on the types of weapons people may own and carry, or the size of ammunition clips. “Now is not the time…” they say. So if I have it straight, they — pols and pundits– are saying it’s bad form to take these teachable moments and learn something from them, but it’s not too soon for gun enthusiasts to seize the moment, even before memorial services have been held, to declare their love for guns, victims be damned.

So when is the time? When do rational people get to have a conversation about reinstating the all-too-sensible assault weapons ban? The wackos have had their say and they have had their way. Spare me the Second Amendment argument:
The law banning assault weapons expired — it did not lose in court. During its implementation, it was never challenged as unconstitutional. Reinstating the ban will not then restrict possession of handguns or rifles, let alone the single-shot muskets that existed when the Bill of Rights was written.

Why should I – and those who might agree with me – be the ones who have to shut up? I respectfully submit we should have spoken up sooner, but when is that elusive appropriate time for us to be heard? It has been reported that the accused shooters of Aurora and Oak Creek obtained their weapons and ammunition legally. Is there some comfort to be taken by this fact? What is your plan to keep guns out of the hands of persons who would use them to wreak mayhem? Do you have one? Certainly you must agree that such persons exist. I submit Aurora and Oak Creek as examples that the status quo is not particularly effective. A reasonable person might think that’s cause to change the laws to make it more difficult for an individual to obtain an assault weapon or thousands of bullets. If the status quo is your preferred course of action, or inaction as the case may be, how many more of these mass shootings are acceptable to you? Or does doing nothing seem more reasonable?

If you are someone who has been offended by what I have written here and take my challenges to you personally, I have one final question: What’s the matter with you?

On Prayer

There was a prominent sign visible from the freeway near the on-ramp where I entered the flow of traffic. “Prayer Changes Things,” it stated. Black letters on a bright orange background, the sign mocked me. So I mocked back: “Like what, for example?”

I am a prayer skeptic. I do not say this to dissuade anyone from praying, because people I know – people I love, people I respect – pray in earnest. They value it. They believe in it. Prayer has purpose. So if you’re someone who prays, good for you. More power to you! Have at it, and I will not make fun of you for doing so… except it will seem from this point for a while that I am doing just that. I apologize preemptively.

As a prayer skeptic, I do not believe in an intervening God. I don’t believe God will grant my prayer request just because I attain an optimum level of sincerity, or because I pray in a manner that meets God’s standards, or because I met a population threshold of compatriots praying for the same thing I’m praying for. I know that in Matthew 18 it says that where two or more are gathered and are in agreement over anything they ask for, it will be done by “my Father in heaven.” Yes, it’s a red-letter passage. And yet, it rings false. God does not grant wishes just because a plurality asks for them. Sorry, but no. Go ahead and try to convince me otherwise.

Not to belabor the subject of my daughter’s death from brain cancer, but this is Exhibit A in my case against “Prayer Changes Things.” (In my defense, the event truly is a pervading element of my life.) There was no shortage of prayer on her behalf. People who knew and loved her prayed for her. People who had heard about her prayed for her. At churches, in homes, wherever people were, they prayed. We (yes, I prayed, too) certainly met the Matthew 18 criteria for numbers. The sincerity-level needle spiked in the red zone. She was beloved by many, many people. She was young, intelligent, kind… I could go on and on about what a wonderful young woman she was. And if there was something defective about our prayers, I can’t imagine what it might be. My wife and I even had a fallback prayer: that one of us would acquire the cancer in her place. Either one of us would have gladly made that trade. An intervening God had an ironclad case to consider.

So much for the power of that kind of prayer. God is not a wish-granting genie.

As a child, I grew up with prayer. I was taught to pray a bedtime prayer, naming family members both nuclear and extended, as well as friends and a kid in an Asian village who we supposedly sponsored through some organization or another. We recited a table grace that my father composed, a version of the Lord’s Prayer as it happens, and not really anything specifically having to do with food. I taught my own kids that prayer. And of course we prayed in church. There were the printed, chanted litanies and responsive prayers that sounded like so much blah, blah, blah….Come to think of it, they still sound somewhat like that to me today. If I’m reading someone else’s words, how sincere could it possibly be?

And then there’s the aforementioned Lord’s Prayer. I learned two versions. First I learned the King James version, then a more modern one. The church I’ve attended most recently uses the King James version even at the so-called ‘contemporary’ (as opposed to ‘traditional’) service. Why? Why say “Thy” and “Thine” when only a freak would use those pronouns in any other context? “Our Father who art in heaven….” He art? Really? I’m pretty sure that when Jesus taught that prayer to the disciples, he did not say it in 18th century English. So why should I sound like a doofus?

Some people in church close their eyes and raise their hands palms-up. Maybe that’s for better reception; I don’t know. But it seems showy to me and foreign to my perception of sincere communication with God. In short, I cannot imagine that God is impressed by it.

Now that you’ve read this far, I’m going to switch out of my prayer-bashing mode. I’m done with that now.

What role I acknowledge for prayer in people’s lives is a meditative, contemplative or focusing activity. I think that this kind of prayer can be beneficial to the persons who engage in it, not merely harmless. Furthermore, I think even some non-believers engage in a similarly purposeful exercise as a matter of routine even if they call it something other than prayer.

But the real benefit of prayer occurred to me in a way that surprised me. It was during the years of my daughter’s illness and death, and I would periodically send email messages to a group of friends and relatives about what she was going through. I would receive responses: “I’m (or we’re) praying for her.” “I’m praying for you and your family” Or, in the cases of non-believers, “I’m thinking of you.” The sentiments of believers praying for us and non-believers thinking of us were the same. I received messages of concern, sympathy, warmth, and love. Prayer skeptic that I was and am, I found these messages to be curiously comforting. I cannot rely on reason alone to explain how this made me feel.

Recently I heard a saying that instantly rang true for me due to my experience: “A joy shared is a joy multiplied, and a sorrow shared is a sorrow divided.” You might think that a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic such as myself would find that saying to be corny. And yet, I wish I’d heard it earlier. Maybe I wish I’d thought of it myself. Maybe that should be in scripture!

So yes, it turns out that prayer does change things after all. Curiously and surprisingly, prayers divided my sorrow and softened my heart.

Moral Objections

Lately there has been much complaining from certain quarters that ‘religious freedom’ is being infringed.  I suppose that there is a case to be made… if those doing the complaining are Muslims.  There have been widely reported instances of NIMBYism* when it comes to proposed building of mosques, or in one famous case, a community center.

Curiously, it is not Muslims who are complaining about trampling of religious rights, but rather Catholics and other Christians of a conservative stripe.  And by Catholics, I do not mean regular members of the Roman Catholic Church, parishioners or worshippers.  No, I mean the leaders.  I mean the exclusively male members of the hierarchy.

In fact, rank-and-file Catholics frequently and routinely disregard or even defy the pronouncements of the leadership.  For example, the Church (i.e., the hierarchy) has an official position on capital punishment, but members are split on the issue.  Politicians of the Catholic faith who favor capital punishment are seldom called to account by the Church.  When it comes to the issue of abortion, however, the Church has threatened excommunication to its office-seeking or office–holding members who don’t share its hard-line position.

Most prominently in recent months, and most pertinently for my writing, is the issue of birth control pills.  Per polling, 98% of Catholic women of childbearing age use birth-control methods disapproved by Church doctrine, compared to 99% of the general population.  The Catholic Church hierarchy can make doctrine and policy and rules all they want, but their members apparently do not feel particularly bound by it.  They make choices as to when and whether to be followers and let their own consciences be their guides.

However, in the name of religious freedom, they (leaders) are not content to impose their doctrine on their own not-really-under-their-control members.  No, they want to inflict their religious views on their employees of affiliated institutions – such as hospitals and colleges – whether or not those employees share their faith.  Never mind that the cost of birth control coverage on health insurance policies has been taken up willingly by the insurers; that’s not good enough for the Church leaders.  And never mind that they are, in fact, exempt from providing that coverage to church employees.  This is a labor law (that they didn’t resist in 28 states where it already exists) that they want to break.

So the ‘freedom under attack,’ per their reasoning, is the freedom to impose their religion on people who work for them.  So what then becomes of the religious freedom of those employees?  Why does the boss’s religion win the day?

If your boss is a Seventh Day Adventist, could you be refused insurance coverage for treatment on a Saturday?  If your boss is a Scientologist, could you be denied psychiatric care?  If your boss is a Jehovah’s Witness, could you be denied a blood transfusion?  Or a life-saving organ transplant?

As if denial of coverage for certain medical treatments on the grounds of religious objection were not enough of an overreach, some legislators proposed extending grounds for objection to moral ones.  So an employer does not need to be a Catholic to deny birth control pills or IUDs to women:  He or she could be any kind of Puritan with an inclination to pass moral judgment.  An employer could deny coverage for treatment of Type 2 Diabetes on the grounds that the employee’s own lifestyle choices contributed to the manifestation of the disease.

For that matter, under a ‘moral objection’ clause, an employer could deny prenatal and maternity coverage for an employee (or spouse) who already has two or more children.  The boss could have a moral objection to subsidizing the worker’s irresponsible reproductive choices.  Maybe the boss could even require an abortion!

Okay, the required abortion scenario is highly unlikely.  But I still want medical decisions to be made between patients and doctors, and I kindly thank medical insurers for respecting that.  And, importantly, I believe input on my medical issues from my employer to be unwarranted, unwanted, and inappropriate.  In fact, I find my boss’s nose in my medical business to be morally objectionable.

 

*NIMBY is an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard.”

Quoting Andrew Sullivan

Regarding Rick Santorum-style Catholicism:

“What we’re seeing is an alliance for the first time between the Catholic heirarchy and the evangelical base.  You might consider this a massive step forward in interfaith dialogue, but in fact it’s a popular front for a certain kind of sexually terrified religious fundamentalism against the living faith of real people.  And I think it’s time that people of faith really took on these power-mongers and bigots in our own congregations.”

At end of panel discussion segment of “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO, Friday, March 23, 2012.

Andrew Sullivan is an author, editor, political commentator and blogger who describes himself as a political conservative.He is gay and Catholic.  He is a former editor of The New Republic and perhaps best known for his blog The Dish, but I know him mostly from his appearances as a panelist on “Real Time.”  If you feel the quote needs broader context, feel free to check out the show.

FYI

Many of my recent articles are published both as ‘posts’ and ‘pages.’  The difference is that pages’ titles appear in the black bar on the home page as links to the article, whereas posts appear on the home page itself.  Eventually I delete posts.  Accordingly, if you want your comment to be somewhat permanent, comment on the page.  If you are okay with its eventual deletion, comment on the post appearing on the home page.  Clear as mud?  Great!

Hypocrisy

Matthew 7:1-5

New International Version (NIV)

1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

I know, I know.  I am not typically impressed by people who can quote scripture chapter and verse.  I admit that I wrote that.  It’s still true, but it turns out that I myself have favorite passages.

Is hypocrisy in the eye of the beholder?  I thought that espousing a view while behaving in a manner contrary to that view is a pretty clear-cut case of being hypocritical.  Am I wrong about this?  There seems to be an opposing view.

Take, for example, Presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (R-GA).  While he was Speaker, he famously led the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, based largely on extramarital improprieties, while simultaneously engaged in an affair with then-future wife # 3 as he was still married to wife # 2.  [Historical revisionists will tell you that the impeachment was not about sex, but about perjury and obstruction.  Those of us who were alive back then and have reasonably good memories recall that the investigation started as a probe into a real estate deal gone bad and turned to the sex scandal when the suspicions about the Clintons’ role in the land deal were found to be groundless.]  So putting Gingrich’s picture in the dictionary with the “hypocrite” entry is not out of order.  At the very least, Gingrich has forever lost the privilege of sanctimoniously judging the extramarital dalliances of others.

Likewise, Gingrich, given his history of how he left wives #s 1 and 2 for then-future wives (I’m finished using that term, I swear!) #s 2 and 3 respectively, among other transgressions, he has forfeited the right to use the word ‘despicable’ to describe someone other than himself.  His picture could appear in the dictionary there, too.

So now Gingrich has asked for and received forgiveness.  Great!  I’m all for forgiveness and redemption.  It’s quite biblical.  He has received some support and votes from Evangelical Christians, who, despite their claim to embrace all things biblical, tend to be less than generous with forgiveness.  The thing is, Newt talks the talk.  I’d maybe be more confident he is capable of walking the walk as well if he displayed the requisite humility, if he weren’t so bombastic and judgmental when it comes to the conduct of others.  Alas, perhaps it will one day occur to him.  In the meantime, I’ll regard Newt with the same head-shaking as I do radio windbag Rush Limbaugh who, without an apparent sense of irony, condemns people who abuse and/or are addicted to drugs.

Mind you, I don’t personally condone President Clinton’s behavior with the intern.  Technically she was a consenting adult and there was nothing illegal about their relationship.  But even setting aside the immorality of extramarital sex, there is a disparity of power between the Leader of the Free World and an intern in her mid-twenties.  By that measurement, the relationship was exploitative.  What I will say in Clinton’s defense is that he was not a hypocrite.  He did not pursue the issue of other people’s sexual conduct as a matter of policy or politics.

Most of that is pretty old news.  A more recent event is the Twitter-fed scandal of former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who took suggestive photos of himself with his phone and sent them to women other than his wife.  I don’t want to make fun of his name; that would be immature.  But let’s just say that some of the pictures included shots of… for the sake of propriety, let’s just call it his priebus.*  There was no report of any of the recipients of the pictures actually requesting or in any way wanting to see Weiner’s priebus.  Neither was there any report that Weiner stuck his priebus into anyone other than his wife.  Still, to call taking and sending such pictures a lapse in judgment is an understatement.  It was stupid.  It was creepy.  Once it became known that he did what he did and not that his Twitter account had been hacked as he had originally claimed, he resigned from office within days.

Resignation was the correct course of action for Weiner.  With the story out, that will be the thing for which he will be most remembered for years to come, perhaps for all posterity.  He can no longer be a credible firebrand for the causes in which he believes, which align largely with the causes in which I believe.  Damn!  A special election was held in his district to fill his seat for the remainder of the term, and a Republican won.  Damn, damn!

Some months before the Weiner scandal, another U.S. Representative, Christopher Lee (R-NY) posted a picture on Craigslist, unclothed from the waist up, also self-shot with a cell phone, in an apparent attempt to solicit an extramarital affair.  When the picture surfaced, Lee resigned immediately.  It happened so fast, there may not have been sufficient time for his party’s leadership to ask him to quit.  A special election was held in his district to fill the remainder of his term, and that seat was won by a Democrat.

Besides being members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of New York, Weiner and Lee have other things in common.  Both are married men who took pictures of themselves that they posted online.  Both apparently work out and are proud of their bodies.  Neither apparently engaged in a physical extramarital affair, though their intentions are suspect.  Neither was known for sanctimoniously campaigning or promoting policies while in office that judged others for their sexual conduct.  Both resigned relatively quickly.

That, to my way of thinking, is how you ought to respond to a scandal!  Quit quickly.

However, that is apparently not the standard for Republican U.S. Senators.  Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has been implicated twice for sexual impropriety, each time for involvement with prostitutes.  In 2002, he was running for governor of Louisiana when a newspaper ran an article accusing him of having a relationship with a prostitute.  He dropped out of the governor’s race, citing problems in his marriage.  As a senator, having been elected in 2004, he was implicated as a client in the DC Madam scandal of 2007.  He was not prosecuted due to the statute of limitations, but he asked forgiveness for his indiscretion.  He did not offer to resign his seat, and the national Republican Party was willing to forgive him because the Governor of Louisiana at the time was a Democrat, and she likely would have appointed a Democrat to finish Vitter’s term.  For reasons I will leave for Louisiana voters to explain, Vitter won re-election in 2010.  Just to clarify, in case you are wondering, neither prostitution nor solicitation of prostitutes is legal in Louisiana or Washington, DC.

Prostitution is legal in parts of Nevada, but that’s not part of the scandal in which Senator John Ensign (R-NV) became entwined.  No, his scandal was a good old-fashioned extramarital affair.  The principal parties to this affair, besides Ensign, are Doug and Cynthia Hampton, a married couple.  Doug was Senator Ensign’s top administrative assistant and Cynthia was Ensign’s political treasurer, so their family was entirely dependent on Senator Ensign for income.  It was reported that Cynthia wanted to end the affair but was afraid for their job statuses.  (Punch line:  Ensign fired them.)  Doug was desperate for the affair to end and threatened to go public with the story, but Ensign found out about Doug’s plan and went public about the affair before Doug could do so.  (Thanks for the heads-up, former Senator Rick Santorum, R-PA!)

There was also financial impropriety in the scandal:  Ensign’s parents paid the Hamptons $ 96,000, claiming it was a ‘gift’ to close family friends (but certainly not severance pay!), and Ensign illegally arranged for Doug to get a lobbying job.  Ultimately it was the financial elements that forced Ensign to resign, but that was not his Plan A.  His Plan A was to remain in office and run for re-election in 2012.  When he discovered that two rivals for his seat, one Democratic and one Republican, had each raised considerably more campaign contributions, Ensign switched to Plan B, which was to complete his term and not run for re-election.  He said that he didn’t want to put his family through an “exceptionally ugly campaign.”  (Big of him to consider his family, eh?)  Plan C, resignation, came into play when it became clear he would have to testify to a Senate ethics committee which could expose criminal liability.  His resignation was timed to become effective the day before he would have had to testify.  A Republican was appointed by Nevada’s Republican governor to finish his term.

Besides being Republican Senators, David Vitter and John Ensign fashioned their political careers around social issues.  They presented themselves as ‘family values’ candidates and legislators.  Ensign, in 1998, called for President Bill Clinton to resign because of his dalliance with an intern, stating that the president had no credibility left.  He voted for conviction after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton.  In speaking against same-sex marriage, he said that marriage was “the cornerstone on which our society was founded.”  He also cited the “sanctity of the institution” in the same quote.  As of this writing, Ensign’s marriage has survived his affair.  The same cannot be said of the Hamptons’ marriage.  Vitter consistently opposes abortion rights, sex education that includes information on contraception, and same-sex unions.  Clearly he has no problem telling others how to conduct themselves, but he would be hard pressed to claim that he has held himself to a high standard.

So to recap:  If you take suggestive pictures of yourself and post them online, pictures that subsequently become public, resign your elected office quickly even though no one is accusing you of putting your priebus into someone who is not your wife.  But if you’re a Republican Senator who actually does put your filthy priebus into someone who is not your wife, stick it out.  Your term in office, that is.  Ensign only quit when his only other option was to submit to an ethics violation and face possible criminal prosecution.

During the Anthony Weiner blow-up, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Something-Or-Other,* publicly called upon Weiner to resign.  Hold on there, Reince:  Neither you nor any other prominent Republican called on Ensign or Vitter to resign at the height of their respective scandals, and you’re not calling on Vitter to resign even now.  That is textbook hypocrisy.

Forgiveness and redemption?  All well and good.  I encourage it!  But once you are a recipient of such grace, kindly refrain from judging others for not living up to a standard you yourself did not meet.  Your credibility is shot.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got something stuck in my eye.

 

*End note:  Reince Priebus is the name of the current Chairman of the Republican National Committee, having succeeded Michael Steele in January 2011.  Ordinarily I am averse to “explaining the joke,” but my editor advises that this bit of knowledge may not be as widely known as I fancy it to be.