Sunday, December 27, 2009

Does freedom *from* religion exist in the USA?

In light of the annual "you can't take the CHRIST out of CHRISTmas" screaming, this article (which I discovered via Richard Dawkins' Twitter account) seems disturbingly appropriate.

What is it going to take for Christian zealots to stop imposing their will upon other supposedly "free" Americans? This country was founded on the notion of freedom from religious oppression. While many will say "The pilgrims were still Christians fighting for their own Christian ideals and this is therefore a Christian nation" (see this insane interview with Indiana's bonehead governor), it seems silly to base our ideas of fairness in 2009 on principles laid out in the 1600s. Why are we not allowed to progress in our attitudes toward religion?

It is frightening to me to think that there is still so much religious hatred and persecution against non-believers. It seems Christians have more hatred for non-believers than they do for even Jews or Muslims. There are so many ridiculous statements floating about non-believers--several good examples are cited in the above links, especially the Gov. Mitch Daniels interview--it is difficult to even address them. What hubris does it take for a Christian, whose primary religious document warns strongly against casting stones, to accuse non-believers to be a group of morality-lacking lunatics? As if there are not Christian lunatics (Timothy McVeigh, Scott Roeder, any sampling of KKK group you want to cite). This is not to say that there are not good Christians, or that they are predominantly bad as a group, but rather to point out that there are bad applies in ANY group, but they hardly ever can accurately define a group.

This should be kept in mind when atheists are lumped into a category with Hitler and Stalin to point out what atheism does (the argument is usually that a lack of religion is a lack of morality/consequence that leads consistently to immoral behavior and moral decay). For one thing, Hitler wasn't an atheist! But even if he was, he no more represents all atheists than the KKK represents all Christians. This tactic is a logical fallacy known as "poisoning the well", and is weak at best.

But back to the point at hand: what about atheists inherently disqualifies them from being fit for public office? The first link about the North Carolina councilman is disturbing for several reasons. First of all, the hatred displayed toward the councilman--who has just taken office--is based on nothing more than the fact that he is not Christian. The man that was quoted as basically saying there is something wrong about having a non-Christian in elected office is shocking, because I have the strong suspicion this guy is also the type that says we need to "protect American values". The core of American values are the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and endorsing a Christian theocracy (which is the de facto result of this man's statements) is a DIRECT VIOLATION of those values. This is a prime example of personal religious conviction being placed above the foundation that is supposed to make this country great, and makes hypocrites of a great many self-proclaimed "patriots" that want prayer in public schools (just for a brief example).

If a candidate meets the requirements for public office and is qualified for the job description, there is absolutely no reason to take that person's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) into account. That is because any person in an elected office should in NO CIRCUMSTANCES base a decision for constituents on their own personal religious convictions, as it is in direct violation of our most cherished documents. It was disturbing to hear President G.W. Bush cite scripture in his official duties, as it is any time a governor (Mitch Daniels) or senator or even a councilman quotes some religious text. There is separation of church and state in this country, and we CANNOT let it become optional.

The fact that there is any debate whatsoever about the Ten Commandments in courthouses or gay marriage shows the very sad state of affairs in the United State when it comes to maintaining distance between the church and our governmental functions. Because Christians are the predominant religious group in the USA, those in control are likely to be Christians and therefore are imposing their beliefs upon the nation as a whole. Little by little, religious thought is creeping into the gears of the government, in the form of hatred for science, gays, other religions and non-belief. If Christians, Jews, Muslims, non-believers and every other flavor of religious identifier do not step up and maintain the laws of the land, it would not be surprising to wake up one day after a major terrorist attack or natural disaster and find ourselves being led into a theocracy (see PATRIOT Act).

The good news is that more and more non-believers, secularists, and rational thinkers are beginning to make noise and fight back. This is where the preservation of our Constitution and Bill of Rights must be protected, as to prevent ANY religious group from exercising a strong upper hand against equality and fairness.

Many people would deport non-believers (and gays, and those practicing other religions, etc). The "if you aren't with us, you're against us" mentality is as strong as ever. We are facing unprecedented economic, social, political, and environmental challenges, yet our politicians are spending time debating gay rights, for example. In the face of all these very REAL issues, our politicians are waxing poetic to defend their religiously-based views on relatively unimportant issues. I mean, really, how do two men marrying impact the future of our country more than the threat of bankruptcy, or terrorism, or global warming? These issues--which exist ONLY because of religious convictions--are holding this country back. There is absolutely NO reason to prevent gay marriage if you remove the Bible from the equation, no legal consequence or illegality; why is public policy being shaped by ONE religion?

These are very disturbing questions that will likely not be answered any time soon, if ever. But these are issues that must be addressed to protect the American spirit in a very ominous future.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Commercialization of Christmas

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Tax Rebate

I couldn't find the Lewis Black clip I was looking for. In the clip I was looking for, Lewis claims the US economy is "tied to Santa's ass!" While that commercialization of Christmas may be discouraging, another kind of Christmastime commercialization bothers me even more.

For each of the past two years, my fiancée (okay, she was my girlfriend last year) and I have attended Christmas pageants with the expectation that we would get to see some kids act and sing. We got a couple songs and no acting both times. Instead, we got a bait-and-switch live-and-in-person infomercial with larger-than-life screens and audio backing trying to sell their church to us.

These shows were not designed to spread goodwill and cheer. These shows were not even designed to push beliefs. These shows were designed to sell a product. These shows used marketing tactics and fearmongering to persuade and to try to persuade audience members to regularly attend (and presumably pay for) their products.

I'd like to take a moment to present you with a commercial of my own, but not for anything that directly benefits me. Pete Goebel has an excellent blog in which he shares his in-depth cover-to-cover reading of the Bible. The following passage from December 12's article (The Book of Proverbs) illustrates my concern with this type of product-payment system.

One more notable passage (I have a feeling I'm going to end up copyrighting that phrase before this is over):

"Honor the LORD with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine."

We've already read about "tithing," the thing about giving ten percent of your produce to God (assuming you're a farmer). More specifically, giving it to the Levitical priests who would store it up both for themselves, and the poor. So basically, it's a sort of taxation/social services combo. Well, at least that's what it was. Nowadays, tithing is a bit different. You're supposed to give ten percent of your income to your local church. If you're not completely clear on how that's the same thing, well, neither am I.

Not that I'm against charitable donations, at all. But it gets a bit icky to me when giving to churches goes beyond a "freewill offering" and becomes this spiritual obligation, like this is what's expected of you as a Christian. Why is it icky? Because the people telling you to give are the ones whose income is dependent upon that giving. It's even more icky when you look around and realize that most of your money is paying for stuff like this:

I say "most" because that's where church budget dollars tend to go -- their Sunday services. Now, I can understand a church getting in your face about being more charitable as a person. That makes sense as part of the whole "spiritual maturity" thing. Don't be focused on yourself; start to think more about others and their needs. Fair enough. But if a church spending the majority of its income on a weekly show for its members isn't "focusing on yourself," then I don't know what is.

But here's the ickiest part: the promise of divine blessing in the second verse. Give to God and he will give back to you abundantly! I can't tell you how many times I've seen cash-strapped couples advised to start or continue tithing on the basis of this passage. Credit card debt? Student loans? Crushing mortgage payment? Don't worry about it. Give to your local church and watch the financial blessing pour in. And that's real advice that people actually give. Heck, I was given that advice myself. And the irony is that Proverbs is often held up by Christians as a handbook for proper financial management.

In the presentation we attended this year, 50% or so of the songs opened by asking the listener if (s)he had ever lost a close friend or family member to death. The songs in each of these two pageants were separated by short skits (commercials) that illustrated or attempted to illustrate their respective church's relatablity and hospitality.

IMHO, this commercialization is more dangerous dangerous and unsettling than the simple buy-our-stuff-for-people-as-presents kind of commercialization. Instead of pushing a product as a product, these snakeoil salespeople are pushing a product as a matter of morality. These kinds of shows might be more extortion than pageant: If you decide not to embrace our product, everyone you love might go to Hell forever!!!.

On the other hand, some of the music was nice, and the kids were cute and had fun.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Criticism, How to Take It

According to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, including multiple life change units for multiple occurrences of the same major life event (i.e., +25+25=+50 for moving twice instead of just +25 for moving), my fiancée and I each score around 1200 for the past year, on a scale where anything over 300 LCU indicates a high-risk of mental illness. Amidst all this personal life change, I noticed something about life change: periods of life change tends to involve a lot more criticism than periods of life stability. From this observation, I began to think about criticism in general. I've noted a few things.
  • Criticism can be very useful and very helpful.
Whether criticism comes from oneself or from others is irrelevant to this point (perhaps irrelevant to all points). To improve anything, we need to know that something needs to be improved.
  • Criticism can be very hard to take.
Even though I almost always appreciate criticism, and I am always looking for ways to improve, specific instances of criticism still often makes me mad.
  • Some criticism is worthless, useless, pointless.
I never welcome criticism of non-flaws, such as gender, race, height, or appearance. I think criticism is not even an appropriate word in these cases.
  • Criticism often meets a harsh response, even if such criticism is warranted and helpful.

  • Criticism is often accompanied by suggestions, only some of which are worthwhile.
Some critics of Sarah Palin suggest that John McCain should resign from the United States Senate for choosing her as his presidential running mate. Palin was only 22 when McCain was first elected to the Senate. She was only 18 when he was first elected to Congress. She was only 9 when he was released from North Vietnamese war prison. She was only 3 when he was captured. His choice of presidential running mate does not affect his abilities as a Senator, a Congressperson, or as a person dedicated to the United States. At most, his choice of 2008 running mate rendered him inappropriate as 44th President of the United States. McCain is not the 44th President. Some useful suggestions might include "Don't choose Sarah Palin as your running mate" and some preferable alternative running mates for future potential presidential campaigns. To resign from a different job because of such a criticized choice would be silly and inappropriate.
  • Critics are often themselves critized or attacked in the guise of criticism.
"Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym. Those who can't teach gym, criticize," is a ridiculous aphorism, mostly untrue on each count. Surely exemplars exist for each statement, but these statements are hardly rules to live by. After spending a nearly insignificantly brief time thinking about criticism so I could write this article, I have come to realize that criticism is one of the most important actions that anyone can do. Also, anyone can criticize.

Now that I have begun thinking about criticism, I doubt I will ever stop. The topic fascinates me, especially the duality of its inherent helpfulness and unpleasantness. Whenever you are criticized, try to remember to appreciate the criticism (unless the so-called critic is just attacking a (some) non-flaw(s)). And please, criticize me often.

For more information about criticism, visit or visit your local library.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Art of Negotiation

Healthcare reform long ago took on the semblance of a three-ring circus. It seems that the crazy mudslinging (see: death panels, socialism, death of insurance, etc) has become nothing more than a tool in a war of attrition. Whereas Democrats are asking above and beyond what they actually expect to be in a bill, Republicans are shooting these plans down out-of-hand, generally without any sort of counter-proposal. I guess it should be that surprising, because American politics have long lived by the motto "I don't have an idea, I just know your idea is stupid". That somehow passes for rational democracy here.

It reminds me very much of John Lithgow's Bud Brumder character from the immensely underrated film "Orange County". While negotiating an endowment for a new athletic facility at Stanford, Brumber offers this advice:

"No, no, that's not how this works. You give me your offer and I counter with some ridiculous lowball offer, say $1,000 for a medicine ball."

There is your Republican strategy.