Friday, October 31, 2008

Stress? What Stress?

As much as I despise junk religion, I hate junk science. The October 24th issue of THE WEEK talks about “scientists in Texas and Illinois” who found that in times of stress, when people feel life is out of their control, they through common sense out the window and succumb to magical thinking and conspiracy theories. This is nonsense.

First of all, who are these so-called scientists, and why don’t they want their names printed in the magazine? If I conducted some legitimate study and a national news magazine wanted to report on it, I would want my name printed in full. I would want to get credit for a good job. I would want people to know not only about the study but also about me. Otherwise how would Oprah know whom to call to get to come on her show to discuss this study?

But if I were a bogus scientist running a bogus study simply to keep my grant money coming in when that money could be better spent on new clothes for Sarah Palin (or, better yet Joe the Plummer) I wouldn’t want anyone to know my name. So right away I think we can be pretty certain that these “scientists” are grifters.

Second of all, “Taxes” is a “word jumble” for “Texas” and “Illinois” is made up of two words, “ill” and “nois”. Now “ill” is about being sick, which is what raising our taxes is going to do to us, and “nois” is either “noise” misspelled suggesting that if pundits and scientists make enough noise we won’t realize how ill our taxes are making us, or it is French which is just as bad.

Third of all, I don’t have to be paranoid to know that the government is bailing out its cronies, and making it possible for them to build their secret island base to which they will all escape when the world goes mad so that they can avoid the great destruction that is coming. I even read somewhere that there are scientists working on disconnecting the island of Manhattan so that it will float out beyond the limits of US territorial waters and then it will declare itself an independent country. Which is part of a larger plan to do the same with Alaska as soon as Sarah Palin is elected Vice President. I learned from very reputable sources who shall remain unnamed that she plans to set off a series of nuclear blasts that will set Alaska free and that her husband and his Alaska Free party will declare itself to be an independent nation.

But I’m not worried. Nosiree. I’m building a perpetual knock on wood device that will start banging up a storm and keep me and mine safe and sound. It runs on a spring like a watch so I don’t need any gas or electricity to power it so I’ll be safe even when the energy is rationed in a way that makes Baghdad look like an electrical paradise. And I’m stocking up on taco chips and looking through them to find the Face of Jesus, and I am bribing a worker at our local Papa John’s to save any pizzas that have the Faces of any Gods or Goddesses on them and sell them to me exclusively.

So don’t you fret about magical thinking and conspiracy theories. Just make sure you don’t step on any cracks, and cover your house with tin foil to keep it safe from the black helicopters bound your way.

Stress? What stress?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Theocratic Voter's Guide

In today’s USA TODAY a group called Catholic Answers Action published a Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics, complete with a list of Five Non-Negotiable Issues that should determine your vote in next Tuesday's election. I found it very troubling. Here are some excerpts and my thoughts on them.

A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law that contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. No system of faith and morality is universal. For example, Judaism holds that the life of a pregnant mother always comes before the life of her unborn child, and Judaism considers abortion to save the life of the mother morally obligatory. Does Catholic morality trump Jewish morality?

Some things are always wrong, and no one may deliberately vote in favor of them. Citizens support these evils indirectly if they vote in favor of candidates who propose to advance them. I agree, and one of these always wrong things is torture, yet torture isn’t mentioned in the list of the Five Non-Negotiable Issues. Neither is racism, slavery, sex trafficking, anti-Semitism, genocide, destruction of the earth’s capacity to sustain life, and a host of other issues I would consider nonnegotiable. Am I to understand that torture is negotiable? Is the Church still defending the Inquisition?

Catholics must avoid voting for any candidate who intends to support programs or laws that are intrinsically evil. I agree. No one should vote for evil. But we cannot seem to agree on what evil is. I can't vote for anyone who would willfully kill an innocent mother simply to save the life of her unborn child. I can't vote for anyone who endorses torture, and promotes racism, and fosters hatred of one American for another, and for Americans against other human beings. But the Guide doesn't even mention these things!

When all of the candidates endorse morally harmful policies, citizens must vote in a way that will limit the harm likely to be done. I agree. So which is worse: embryoinic stem cell research that might save hundreds of thousands of lives or torture, destruction of the environment, undermining science and our capacity to enter what President Bush dismissed as the “reality based community”?

The Guide lists abortion as one if five non-negotiables, and defines abortion as the intentional and direct killing of an innocent human being, and therefore it is a form of homicide, and refuses to allow for abortion in any situation. I understand the moral ambiguity of aborting in cases of rape and incest—the unborn is innocent— but to decide that the life of the mother is worth less than the life of the unborn makes no moral sense. It is not based on anything other than theology: the mother has had her chance to accept Jesus as Christ, the unborn has not. Is it morally right to intentionally and directly kill an innocent mother by forcing her to carry her baby to term even though it will cost her her life? It may well be for Catholics, but what about the rest of us?

The Guide says of euthanasia that true compassion cannot include intentionally doing something intrinsically evil to another person. So “Five Non-Negotiable Issues listed in this Guide. What the Guide says is that Catholic voters cannot vote their conscience. They cannot think for themselves. That they must vote for those ideas and ideals and laws and lawmakers closest to the Catholic Church’s position on morality. This is not democracy but backdoor theocracy.

Of course Catholic Americans can vote anyway they wish, and if they feel compelled to vote the way their Church tells them to vote, so be it. But what about Catholic law makers and judges, and the five Catholic Supreme Court Justices. Who are these people obligated to: the Constitution of the United States or the Catholic Church? I am willing and excited about judges debating the meaning of the Constitution, I am horrified at the thought that they are morally obligated to bend the Constitution to the will of the Catholic Church.

I am shocked to find myself saying these things. They are so biased, so reminiscent of anti-Catholic fears that used to be systemic in this country. And yet I cannot help worrying that when the Church issues non-negotiable positions and hints that violating them might well place your eternal soul at risk of damnation we are placing our Catholic citizens in an untenable position, and perhaps placing our freedoms at risk.

I vote my values and want everyone to vote theirs, but I think it is wrong and dangerous to try to limit our voting by making these Christian-right obsessions the be-all and end-all of morality when there are other, equally if not more vital moral issues on the table.

Religion scares me more each day.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Et tu Hindu?

When I think of a religion committed to nonviolence I naturally think of Hinduism. Ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence that is at the heart of Hinduism, and which provided Gandhi with the moral high ground in his decades-long struggle with the South African and British governments. How sad, then, to have to finally admit that even this great religion has fallen to the madness of theo-fascism.

Yet it is so. I knew it was coming, but I had hoped they would avoid it. I was wrong to place any hope in religion. The headline in this morning’s THE TENNESSEAN said it all, Hindus in India tell Christians: Convert or die.

Of course the headline drips with hyperbole. There are hundreds of millions of Hindus in India and to imagine that they speak with a single voice on anything to anyone is ludicrous. But the facts remain: rioting by Hindus in the eastern state of Orissa have left 38 Christians dead and 30,000 homeless. And this is just one part of one state, and by no means the only one in which Christians must fear for their lives and livelihoods at the hands of Hindus.

But not all Hindus. Just as there were “righteous Gentiles,” Christians who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis, so there are “righteous Hindus” who are opening their homes to frightened Christians.

Analysts urge us to see the violence as political in nature. The Hindu nationalist party, Dajrang Dal, is stirring up anti-Christian sentiment to gain power and followers. But the mere fact that this works suggests that Hinduism is losing its soul. The fact that throughout history political movements have used religion to stir the people to injustice and evil does not excuse religion, but indicts it.

I have been in love with India and Hinduism (the Advaita Vendanta school specifically) since I was a teenager. The watchword of the Hinduism I loved came from the Rig Veda, perhaps the world’s oldest holy book: “Truth is one. Different people call it by different names.” This was a religion beyond tolerance, one rooted in a deep respect for the sanctity of life and the richness of human religiosity. I still admire the Vedanta school, and study with some of its swamis. But I can no longer abide by religion.

What madness to murder one another over “different names.” What insanity to excuse evil and injustice, theo-fascism and terror in the name of god.

As I write this theo-fascist Jews in Israel are terrorizing Palestinian farmers trying to hard their olive crop, while the government of Israel stands idly by; Wahhabi theo-fascists in Islam continue to degrade women, foment Jew-hatred, and deny freedom and democracy to millions; theo-fascist Christians in my own country continue to battle science, foment McCarthy-era fear and distrust, and preach hate from pulpits and political podiums around the nation.

Religion may not be the greatest evil in the world, but it is too often in league with it. We need a new spiritual movement in this country and around the world; a spiritual movement rooted in universal values of nonviolence, justice, compassion, and theological humility; a spiritual movement unfettered to nation-states, tribal loyalties, race, ethnicity, and god-sanctioned jingoism and xenophobia. We need a movement that will stand up to the god-inflamed madness that takes over the hearts and minds of millions, and hold up the idea of human dignity and the worth and sanctity of every human being. Not an interfaith movement that pretends religion is at its heart liberal and welcoming, but a spiritual movement that decries the insanity of organized religion and the evil it so often instigates and supports.

If Hindus can threaten Christians with death, the world is lost. They were my last best hope for religious sanity. They have failed. Religion has lost its last vestige of humility. It is time to abandon the madness.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Don't Look Now

If you are reading this—which of course you are because you’re reading this—try not to look like your reading it. Play it cool. Be nonchalant about it. Read on, but don’t let on that your reading on. Even if you are alone, be cool. You are never alone. And that is what I need to tell you.

God is watching. No, seriously. God is watching. He is watching you all the time, no matter what you are doing. The Guy never blinks, and never looks away. Creepy isn’t it? But don’t let on. You might piss Him off.

You see He wants you to act in a certain way, to love Him and to love your neighbor, but He wants this to be genuine. Don’t love Him because He tells you to love Him. That’s not real love, that’s just following orders. So you have to love Him, but you have to love Him freely. The fact that you can’t link “have to” with “freely” is the really hard part of this. And that is why He is watching you.

Two psychologists at the University of British Columbia have proven that people behave more nicely when they are being watched. This is true even if the eyes watching them aren’t real. They tacked a poster of a person over a charity jar and found that people donated three times as much money when the poster was up than when it wasn’t. Which proves that unless someone is watching or at least we feel like someone is watching we would be a lot worse than we are. And we are pretty bad as it is. Scary, isn’t it?

Maybe this is why people hang posters of their gods in their homes, or put god dolls around their rooms? Maybe this is why religions teach that God is watching us all the time? Do they know that unless we feel watched we would behave like wild murderous beasts? Do they know that we would be less apt to donate money to religious causes and institutions if we didn’t believe God was watching?

I think it is. But I can’t be sure. And ever since I read the article about the British Columbia experiment in THE WEEK (October 24, 2008) I have felt the eyes of God on me everywhere. Even in the bathroom. Weird.

But here’s my problem: I know God is looking, I don’t know which God is looking. I know I’ve got to behave and to love God, but I can’t tell which God to love and obey.

I’m afraid that if I think it’s YHVH and it turns out to Allah, I’m screwed. Or if I think it’s the Catholic Jesus and it turns out to be the Southern Baptist Jesus, I’m doomed. I’m hoping it is the elephant headed God Ganesha because he seems so much more pleasant than the others, but who knows? And if you did know and then just loved God because you knew you had to, then your love wouldn’t really be love at all, and you would be doomed anyway.

That’s why I don’t want God to see you reading this. Pretend you don’t know that God is watching, and pretend that your love is spontaneous and genuine and not just a ploy to avoid burning in Hell for all eternity. Oh, and pray that God is really really stupid so He won’t catch on. Oh, and pray that He doesn’t really hear your prayers so He won’t know you know.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Flush of Freedom

A recent Swiss law, backed by a 1992 amendment to their constitution, grants new rights to all “social animals.” According to the law people looking to buy a dog as a pet have to take a four hour pet care course, anglers must learn how to catch fish humanely; fish must not be kept in aquariums that do not provide them with places to hide, nor can goldfish be flushed down the toilet without first being anesthetized.

When I first read this new ruling I thought it absurd, but I came to see that this was more a matter of guilt than rational examination. I can’t remember how many unanaesthetized goldfish I have flushed down the toilet. But the more I thought about it (and I admit to thinking about it more than I should), the more I felt positively toward the Swiss law.

Take the goldfish conundrum. Prior to the Swiss, I thought about the procedure this way: fish live in water; toilets are full of water; flushing goldfish down the toilet simply freed the fish to swim in less constrictive circumstances. No moral dilemma. No need to anesthetize goldfish.

But I am not a fish, and I can’t pretend to know what the experience of being flushed down a toilet is like. So I tried to test my moral sensitivity by imagining a human equivalent:

Humans live in air; the sky is full of air; if I want to get rid of a human, tossing him or her from an airplane into the sky would simply be freeing him or her to live in a less constrictive environment. No moral dilemma. No need to anesthetize anyone.

But would I like to be tossed from a plane without a parachute? Would I appreciate the spaciousness of my new surroundings, or would I be terrified? And, fairly certain I would be terrified, should my would-be liberator take my terror into account?

It is clear to me that I should be anesthetized before being tossed from a plane. Therefore I, as a liberator of goldfish from tank to toilet to sea, should assume the same terror on behalf of my goldfish and thus refrain from the flush of freedom?

But wait! That is not what the law says. It doesn’t say I cannot flush the fish, only that I cannot flush them without first anesthetizing them. Terrorizing goldfish is still legal, as long as I drug them before doing so. Testing this against my human model, I am horrified: is it OK for someone to throw me from a plane as long as I am anesthetized? No, this cannot be right.

So what are we to do? I would suggest writing to the Swiss government, but, given the economy, I can’t afford the postage. I will register my protest instead by boycotting Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix.* (A protest that saves you money, can’t beat that.)

*I invite you to come with your own protest ideas, and welcome reading them in the comments section of this blog.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

One Nation, Four Gods

According to the recent Baylor University study on American religious beliefs, values, and behaviors, our beliefs about God are among the clearest indicators of how we will vote in this year’s presidential election. The Baylor study argues for four different “American theologies” what I will call the engaged and malevolent God, the engaged and benevolent God, the distant and disengaged God, and the distant and judgmental God.

The engaged and malevolent God is the God who punished the Jews with the Holocaust because they were not sufficiently observant; the God who decimated New Orleans with hurricane Katrina because the people there were wicked and lax in their hatred of homosexuality; and the God who used the horror of 9/11 to punish Americans for their support of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. According to the Baylor study, people who believe in the engaged and malevolent God vote Republican. This does not mean that all Republicans believe in the engaged and malevolent God, only that the vast majority of such believers align themselves with the Republican Party.

The engaged and benevolent God is the God who helped some Jews survive the Holocaust, and who rescued some people during Katrina and 9/11. This God is forgiving and loving, rather than angry and judgmental, and is actively involved in doing good in the world. People who believe in this God lean Republican, but may vote Democratic.

The distant and disengaged God is the God who created the universe but takes no active role in it. This is Einstein’s God, or the God of the Deists. This is the Force of Star Wars, and the Tao of the Chinese Taoists. You do not pray to this God to make things other than they are, nor do you imagine that things are as they are because God is making them as they are to teach us a lesson. People who believe in this God vote Democratic.

The distant and judgmental God does not intervene in the doings of nature or of humans on this earth, but is waiting to reward and punish us after we die. This God, like the engaged and malevolent God has strict moral code to which we are held accountable, but, unlike the engaged and malevolent God, this God’s judgment is reserved for the after life not this life. People who believe in the distant and judgmental God lean Democratic but may vote Republican.

Of course not everyone believes in God. Four percent of Americans are atheists, but this number is so small as to make the impact of atheism almost negligible. I suspect that the popularity of the New Atheists reflects not the rise of atheism among Americans, but the savvy marketing strategy of believers in the engaged and malevolent God who see in these often bellicose authors the perfect foil for their own theology, and a great way to galvanize their base in what seemed to be a waning of the Culture War.

The Culture War, in fact, is not really a conflict pitting secularists and atheists against theists and people of faith, but rather a civil war among theists. The Culture War is a theological war over competing ideas of God.

Which side am I on? If these are my only choices, I would have to side with the distant and disengaged God folks, but I am not really convinced they are right. For me God is both transcendent and imminent. For me nature is that aspect of God available to us through our senses and our technology. God is not in the world, God is the world, and that which is greater than the world. I believe that natural laws and moral principles are imbedded in reality, though I limit conversations about ethics and morals to the human domain. Animals and plants are not moral or immoral, but humans can be both. And while I do not believe God consciously acts to reward or punish either in this life or after it, I do believe that most of us find more happiness when we act in accordance with divine principles such as justice and compassion than when we act in violation of them.

So, if you want to know for whom your neighbors are voting, don’t be so crass as to ask them outright; ask instead about their understanding of God. Given my theology, for whom will I vote this November? Barack Obama. It also helps that he is pro-science, pro-Green, pro-education, pro-peace, pro-justice, pro-diplomacy, and incapable of giving simplistic answers to really complex issues.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mea Culpa: I Killed Jesus

Mea Culpa. I confess. I did it. I killed Jesus. I have denied this for years, but I can do so no longer. The evidence is overwhelming. At least that is what this fellow told me the other day as I was trying to free my bicycle from an incredibly crammed bike rack at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Why did you Jews reject Jesus,” he asked without even so much as a “Hello you damned Jew.”

“We didn’t,” I said. “Look at Palm Sunday we welcomed him with open arms.”

“Yeah, then why does John say, “He came to His own, and these who were His own did not receive Him,” (John 1:11)?”

“Well, John had an agenda when he wrote….”

“And why did you Jews kill Jesus?”

“We didn’t,” I said, “The Romans….”

“Then why does Acts say the “Men of Israel” nailed Him to a cross and put Him to death (Acts 2:22-23)? And why does Paul say, “the Jews…both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets” (Thessalonians 2:15)?”

“Name one prophet the Jews killed,” I said.

“Are you saying Paul is a liar?”

I was about to get into a real argument with this guy, but suddenly the wind just went out of my sails.

“You know,” I sighed, “you’re right. We killed Him. We rejected him and we killed him, and I for one am damn glad we did and so should you be as well, and if you aren’t grateful to me for killing Jesus you are insulting God and damning yourself to Hell for all eternity for rejecting God and God’s Son and the gift of redemption that He secured with His death.”

I think my confession confused him, and he just stared at me blankly. So I continued.

“Paul taught it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die and be resurrected (Acts 17:3). If you don’t die you don’t resurrect. And Acts says that Jesus was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (2:22). This was God’s plan. The Jews did God’s work. If not for the Jews there would be no Jesus and if not for the Jews there would be no Christ. If you get into heaven it is because we Jews were willing to do what God demanded. Just as Abraham was willing to kill his son so were we, commanded by God, willing to kill God’s Son. We could have said ‘no.’ We could have said, “You want Him dead, then kill Him Yourself.” But we didn’t; we did what we were created to do: we killed God.

“You think killing God was easy. No, sir. You have it easy. All you have to do is believe. We had to do the dirty work. And then people like you have the audacity to attack, condemn, brutalize, and even murder the very people God chose to bring redemption to the world. Jesus came to die, the Jews were destined by God to kill Him; this is God’s plan and you, my friend, are insulting the very God whom you pretend to love. Shame on you! And you call yourself a Christian. You are no Christian for you deny the power of God to carry out His will, and you spit on the servants of God who are tasked with doing His will. You are going to Hell for your blasphemy, and I pity you your fate. We Jews are going to heaven for our loyalty. And we will be embraced by the still bleeding hands of Jesus and the blood from His side will stain our newly white robes and we will have to find a place to wash them or perhaps a discount store where we might purchase new ones for we are destined to stand before God as the chosen servants of God who did His will by killing His Son so that people like you could have a chance at salvation which you have just blown by insulting me.”

It was a masterful speech, and, with its conclusion, I mounted my bike as if it were one of the four horses of the Apocalypse, and peddled away calling back over my shoulder, “Woe to you, blasphemer of God, woe to you and your seed and your seed’s seed’s seed’s seed unto a thousand generations of seed which is a lot of seed if you are lucky which you will not be for God hateth those who mocketh His will and those who carry it out. Woe to you, O Blasphemer, woe. And forgeteth not that this will go on thy permanent record. Woe!”

I didn’t look back but I imagined this poor fellow falling to his knees and asking Jesus for forgiveness. Most likely, however, he just went looking for another Jew.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Nobody Home

Lots of people are complaining that House of Representatives is off for the Jewish Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah. I’m one of them. In a country where we Jews are forever defending the secular nature of our democracy, we should be outraged that Congress is taking Rosh haShanah off. If Jewish members of Congress take the day off, fine. But to close the House is absurd. And do so for two days? All the more insane!

The only reason we have two days for our New Year is that ancient Jews hedged their bets when it came to calendar accuracy. The Bible says that Rosh haShanah is the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. (Yes, having a new year in the seventh month is also insane, but this was just one of God’s little jokes.) Since the only way to tell when a new month began was to send witnesses out to look at the moon, one could never be certain when the first of any month actually was. So to be safe we celebrate two days of most holidays. But that was then. We’ve actually landed a few golfers on the moon, do we still have to pretend like we don’t know what day it is?

And why focus on Rosh haShanah, anyway? Yom Kippur is more important. Why not take Yom Kippur off? And, technically speaking, Shabbat is more important still, so why not take Saturdays off? If I wanted to live in a country that closed down for the Jewish holydays I’d move to Israel.

Then again, the country isn’t closed. Banks are open, though they have no money. Schools are open, though our minds are increasingly closed. The mail is still being delivered, though the flood of offers to open new credit card accounts is slowing. Even the Senate is open, though without John McCain they can barely function. So, in fact, it is only the House that is closed. What are Gentile Representatives doing on Rosh haShanah? Trolling synagogues for Jewish votes?

And what about Moslem Americans, and Hindu and Buddhist Americans? Shouldn’t we close for their holy days as well? How about the Native American peyote church? Shouldn’t our legislators be eating peyote to honor the First Americans?

As long as there is an American who belongs to a religion that has a holy day I think Congress should close in honor of it. Add these religious days off to Congress’ already limited work schedule and legislators wouldn’t be in Washington more than a couple of weeks a year at most. This could be a good thing. The less time they have to make law the less time they have to make a mess of this country.

So let me offer a hearty l’Shana Tova to the House of Representatives. And I look forward to them fasting next year on Ramadan, and taking off this coming May 23 for the anniversary of the Declaration of the Bab. And a daily dose of peyote just might be what Congress needs after all. It might even be covered by their most generous healthcare plan.