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Monday, April 16, 2012

To Believe Or Not To Believe?

Any of you who've ever read this blog know that I am of no particular religious persuasion. I was raised in a couple of mid-sized Methodist Churches in the south, and what "religious instruction" I got was pretty mild and liberal. Still, it was too much for me, and from my late-high-school years on I flirted with a variety of alternatives to (what was then) mainstream American Christianity, until I found myself professing atheistic "non-beliefs."

I have recently opted to profess something different: I live and behave as an atheist. I simply cannot believe that there's any deity out there in the cosmos that would care one way or the other what I do in my tiny little life, or send me to "hell" if I'm "bad" or take me into "heaven" if I'm "good," much less stop its work making sure the gears turn and the joints are lubricated and whatever else it takes to keep the universe spinning, just to send me a winning lottery ticket. Despite this, I am more open than I've been in years to the possibility that there's probably more - lots more - about the cosmos than we'll ever know, and in that vast unknown there might be something that would seem to us to be a deity of some sort or another. I'm certainly not prepared to claim that I know what's going on out there. So I'm a skeptical agnostic, I suppose.

I recently had a half-discussion with an old friend over a cup of tea... I say "half-discussion" because we not only didn't come to any conclusions, but actually made a conscious decision not to pursue the debate to the bitter end. We are friends, after all. My friend is of a deeply-felt religious persuasion (never mind what faith), and our congenial debate was over the scope of Article I of the Bill Of Rights. Here it is in its entirety:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

My friend is cranky over his perception that "society" is eroding his "right" to worship as he sees fit, in the form of "prayers" or "invocations" or what-have-you before his local city council meetings and football games. The essence of his argument (and I hope he can forgive me for paraphrasing something he's so passionate - and informed - about) is that the phrase "...respecting an establishment of religion..." means that our government will not create a state religion. He thinks that's the beginning and the end of it.

As for the public (meaning state-funded, county-funded, city-funded, etc.) display of religious faith, he doesn't think that the Constitution has anything to do with it, and these types of displays are perfectly legal, even when tax dollars pay for them. He sees them as an expression of free speech by the majority, and since free speech is equally protected in the same article, well... there you go. He also believes that "activist judges" (again I paraphrase) have enacted changes in the law that are not the original intent of the Constitution, and are in fact contradicted by it - by definition, unconstitutional.

My friend thinks that commentary written by historians over the years is inevitably biased, and on this point I happen to agree with him. At the remove of over 200 years, it seems risky to assume we know what the founding fathers were talking about, even when we have their original writings to ponder. That doesn't change the fact that Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no God."

That's why Article I of the Bill Of Rights exists.

Many folks of deeply-held religious belief tear their hair and gnash their teeth (sometimes to the brink of inciting outright armed rebellion... no joke!) when their tax dollars fund something they don't like, such as abortion. I can understand their moral outrage, even when I vigorously disagree with them. I have no doubt they love their country (something they don't always grant to me, I might add) and yet their government is forcibly taking their money and using it for something that is morally repugnant to them.

That's the way I feel when my country, my state, my county, or my city use my money to fund any public religious display, and I don't really care whether the majority "wants" it or not.

Such a display, prayer, invocation, nativity-scene-on-the-courthouse-lawn, or whatever doesn't hurt me outright, but I can think of a lot of things I'd rather have my tax dollars used for. I'll even admit that for me, it doesn't even seem like much of a moral issue... until I think about using that money to fund shelters for abused children. Or a detox center for alcoholics. Or a music program in the local schools. That's when I get a little cranky myself.

I'll even go so far as to admit the possibility that my friend - when examining the letter of the law - might be right. I'm not enough of a constitutional scholar to really know (which might be the point after all). But it doesn't seem to me that interpreting Article I as either allowing or not allowing Our Lady Of Guadalupe statuettes (for example) on the courthouse lawn has much to do with the spirit of the law.

There are members of the "Christian Right" in America that openly profess their desire to replace the existing government of the United States with a Christian government. There are atheists that openly decry every single public influence of religion and militantly argue for its eradication. I might agree with one side more than the other, but I find them all equally shrill and obnoxious to listen to.

If my neighbor decides to erect a fifty-foot cross in his yard, that's his right. I might not like it, but I often encounter broccoli, reality television, and light jazz, all of which I don't like either but I survive somehow. As difficult and cantankerous as they can be, there just doesn't seem to be all that many serious problems between actual people.

It's when politicians get in the way that the real trouble starts.

But we are only human, and the sum total of our experience - including our religion - will inevitably affect our worldview, and our behavior. That religion has entered into politics isn't odd in the least... it has been doing so for thousands of years. Even the caesars took it upon themselves to arbitrate which of the Gods of Rome's conquered lands would be taken into the Latinate pantheon - and it seemed to change with each change of caesar!

There is no denying that religion (or the lack thereof) is jamming the accelerator of our global engines these days. There's plenty of raised voices right here in America - witness Rick Santorum's run for the Republican presidential nomination, for one example out of many... then there's Islamic fundamentalism... there's furors over alleged sexual misdeeds by Catholic priests... there's the exile of the Dalai Lama, and on and on and on, all over the world. I challenge anybody out there to get into a conversation with a religious fundamentalist of any stripe that doesn't turn political within minutes... I suspect it can't be done. I'm amazed anybody is surprised by this.

Solutions? Well, they're gonna be hard to come by, but I'll say this: I'll let every single Christian in America have their prayers before football, their invocations at Presidential Inaugurals, their displays of crosses and nativities and whatever-else they want on public property, even paid for by public funds, if they'll allow me tax-financed public health care - including abortion and contraception. Basically, I'll allow you your moral outrage if you'll allow me mine. Maybe that's what it means to live here, to be an American. E Pluribus Unum, baby. Something else Jefferson said, in a letter of April 27, 1781: "Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals." I would add: even if their reasoning is based on allegedly divine commands.

Let me be blunt: I find it very difficult - if not potentially dangerous - to believe much of anything anymore. That includes religious "beliefs" but also virtually anything else you can name, from the original intent of the framers of the Constitution to the latest findings of astronomers. Heck, I can't prove that anything in my sensory perception even exists outside of and independent of my mind (whatever that is)!

I would say to those of fervent religious belief, YES: believe what you will, and I'll never complain. But don't use your beliefs to force any law or behavior on me. That's not good enough. I may not need proof that God exists (and I'll probably never get it!) but I do need proof that your legal impositions on me have some basis in this reality, independent of your mythical cosmology.

I don't really think that's gonna happen. After all, Jefferson also said "An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes."

He also said "The way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them."

Maybe I should have never said anything at all.


Blogger Green Man said...

Well stated. Someone must have exposed you to critical thinking and dynamic writing styles.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Dick O. said...

Nice writing Cuz-in-law! I think you should have this published in a newspaper or something. You really are a well thought out writer. I know that last sentence I wrote is not too well thought out before I wrote it. Anyhow, I am for Liberty in whatever form it takes. I've found that as I get older I go back and forth with that same question in my mind that keeps asking, "what is this life all about" But then I feel inside that there is something more to all of this, I don't know. Just keep loving and trying and we'll all find out in the end. I believe there is a place for all of us. Remember that dreams are lies, its the dreaming that's real. Keep rocking, and Love and Mercy to us all.

Dick Ourada

6:07 PM  

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