Monday, March 9, 2015

The Relativism of Religion

In almost all  religions, especially theistic ones, often a faction of believers take what is described as an extremist position that supposedly differs from that held by the moderate mainstream membersor what outsiders are told by apologists is the mainstreamespecially when the dissenters verbally disrespect or commit an act of violence against "infidels". When such divisions occur, these extremists are sometimes accused of hijacking or distorting the message of those religions. Recently, President Obama and Jordan's King Abdullah both denounced ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as a fanatical organization that does not really represent Islam. And Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania, has gone so far as to advocate dropping the letter "I" for Islamic when referring  to ISIS' for that same reason.

But IMO, the hijacking accusation misses the point and is irrelevant.  To begin with, there is the matter of relativism:.  There is no objective standard for determining the claim of validity for any god-based religion's "true" tenets and doctrines. On March 7, there was a commemoration ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday",  a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama whose participants were viciously attacked by white law enforcers who were upholding a then legal system of racial segregation against black Americans that was prevalent throughout the South at that time.  These white Christians and the culture that they represented  justified their long standing rabid opposition to racial integration on their interpretation of the bible as their antebellum forebears did to support the institution of black slavery.

However, the   overwhelming majority of blacks in the South have also been Christians since that era as the result of this belief being imposed on them by their masters and since then had long submitted to and suffered under white supremacy. This changed when civil rights leaders exemplified by Martin Luther King, a  Christian minister, finally used the same bible to strike back at segregation and discrimination and to demand an end to these unjust legal and social barriers. In short, each side took their respective courses of action firmly convinced that they were doing so with God's blessings.


Almost every theology claims to be divinely inspired and is dismissive of other nonconforming dogmas as heresy. Yet the contents of almost all holy books are open to a gazillion interpretations and are published in various versions, none of whose followers, however, try to  back up any of them as correct or true based on any verifiable data and sound reasoning. Instead, the understanding and acceptance of the meaning of these
texts are filtered through the believers' personal or group perspective which is entirely subjective, and whose faith in which can become unwavering: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Further, if there are enough of these individuals who share a like-minded creed that differs from their majority follower counterparts, their  radical belief of today  may become tomorrow's establishment-accepted religion. But in time some of the worshipers of that congregation will also become spiritually restless and will splinter off to form yet a new congregation, ad infinitum. 

In contrast to these religious scripture with their often vague wording and with the sometimes bitter and even violent disputes among their followers as to which is the "right" meaning, all that's ever really been required to be an atheist is merely non-belief in a supreme being, or at least a conviction  that there is no proof for the existence of one.  And for those nonbelievers who live a moral life, doing so without the need of a supernatural coercion  or contradictory and confusing texts is the simplest and most logical choice to living and importantly a non-relativistic one as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pope Francis' Words of (Dis)comfort

It would not  be a surprise that if in nine months, there's a spike in the number of births in the Philippines, thanks to Pope Francis' overall reaffirmation of the Catholic Church's stand against family planning via the use of artificial contraceptives. Although he acknowledged that Catholics "should not breed like rabbits", he advocated that couples use such undependable birth control methods as "natural" family planning,(more popularly  known as Vatican roulette for obvious reasons). The Pope made these pronouncements during and following his just completed visit to this predominantly Roman Catholic country where he is extremely popular and his millions of followers hang on his every word. So those Filipinos who have been using  or considered using reliable artificial contraceptives, which are more reliable for pregnancy prevention, might now cease to do so.

This is despite the fact that the Philippines is poverty ridden and very overpopulated. For example there are over a million street children throughout the country. In Metro-Manila, there are  thousands of these kids some as young as three years old(I have seen them myself) who have been abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves. There is a government Department of Social Services, but that bureau can only do so much.

So why are there no Catholic orphanages to get these kids off the streets?  In fact at a rally for the Pope, a former street child who was fortunate enough to have been rescued even asked the him directly why God allows such a fate of  homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution to befall theses kids. Francis'  response was one of double-talk and evasion, saying that there is no answer, and by golly the people should know how to feel pity for these children. But he didn't say one word about getting the Church to actively help these unfortunates by utilizing its immense wealth towards this end. For example in the Philippines, the Church owns shares in such companies as a local bank, a mining company,  and major real estate developers. The Archdiocese of Manila itself is also well off, and Cardinal Antonio Tagle who heads this Archdiocese is also a major investor in the above mentioned bank.  So one can only conclude that this institution doesn't really care about homeless children. Otherwise it could build enough shelters to take them all in.   Evidently, the Catholic Church which claims to be pro-life in its opposition to abortion loves fetuses, but once they're born, they're on their own.

To make matters worse, half the population in the Philippines is under age than 23 years of age, and one in 10 women between age 15 through 19 are already mothers or are pregnant with their first child.   Unless the recently passed Reproductive Health Act, which was recently implemented in the Philippines after a 15 year struggle in Congress and vehemently opposed by the local Catholic hierarchy, and by the Pope as well, starts making a dent in these demographics,  imagine how the number of births will explode in a society that already can't  take care of its people.  BTW, while in Manila, it so happened that the Pope was hosted by Cardinal  Tagle, one of the RH measure's fiercest opponents, Well, birds of a feather and all that.

The irony--or the failure to connect on Pope Francis' part--is that he has also expressed concern about the need to protect the environment and about global warming. But one of the biggest causes  or at least a major factors of environmental degradation and climate change is overpopulation.  Natural resources in the Philippines such as forests and rivers are being depleted because conservation which is given lip service is ultimately not a priority here. The main reason for deforestation, for example, is that there are too many people chasing too few means of food and shelter.

The Pope comes across as a compassionate prelate. But at the end of the day, he's just another brick in the wall against rational thinking and family planning in the Philippines. He  is gone now, but the demographic and resulting socioeconomic problems that his words may well have aggravated will remain indefinitely.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Prayer-adox": The Illogic of Pleading for Divine Intervention

Whenever there's the a typhoon or other natural disaster or even the the threat of such an occurrence here in the Philippines,a country which has the world's highest percentage of theists, the people immediately call upon divine intervention to save them. In fact Church authorities urge the faithful  to "storm heaven" with prayers for God to bring relief from or to ward off impending calamity. Such was the case with the recent typhoon "Hagupit"  (locally known as "Ruby") that struck this country beginning almost two weeks ago and and finally departing around the middle of this past week.

Even those who are highly educated and should therefore have an understanding of  the workings of nature than are not immune from this irrational mindset.   For example Boo Chanco, a highly respected business professional, made the following observation in  his  Dec. 7 "Philippine Star" newspaper column: "Thank God It's Over":

"I don’t care what some atheists say about the power of prayer, but in this case it surely worked. The faith of millions of Filipinos at home and abroad praying had been powerful enough to cause the typhoon to start dissipating and weakening after it hit land. Earlier forecasts warned of Ruby keeping her strength as it hits the metro area." 

Following is an open letter to Mr. Chanco which addresses his assertion about the cause of the typhoon's abatement.

Dear Mr Chanco:

I don't understand how highly intelligent people like yourself can be so insistent  about believing in the power of prayer and in theism.  But let's assume for the sake of argument that God exists and hears these pleas directed to him. Are you claiming that God loves some parts of the Philippines more than others? After all, the God that "spared" Metro Manila is the same deity that caused or allowed the typhoon to happen in the first place and that caused fatalities elsewhere in the country. Yes there certainly were fewer deaths than from "Yolanda", but fatalities are still fatalities, no matter how few.  And unlike in the case of Yolanda, that decline in the death rate was the result of preparedness by the authorities. Still, it must be cold comfort for the  victims' families to know that only THEIR loved ones, unlike the thousands of people who died in Yolanda,  were killed this time.

As for faith and prayers changing God's mind, how can that be if he already has a divine plan for the world?  Being supposedly omniscient, he knows everything that has happenspast, present and future.  Hence he would be aware before hand that Filipinos would pray for deliverance when he created and turned "Ruby" loose in the first place. So if he changed his mind based on those prayers, then he's not omniscient after all. And after all, isn't God pestered with prayers for favors every second from millions of people around the world, pleas that are often at odds with each other?  Moreover, who are these Pinoys or any supplicant for that matter to challenge the wisdom which is manifested in his decisions?

In reality of course, the typhoon weakened not because of some "godly" intervention. According to PAGASA (the government weather agency) it was simply "intrusion of cold air mass from the Northeast Monsoon, or Amihan."  That's all it was: no miracles, simply a weather pattern that prevails in the local climate at this time of the year. And just as there was a rational scientific explanation for the reduction  in the intensity of this storm, so there is for all natural phenomenon everywhere, regardless of their degree of impact on us humans.

In short, there is no evidence for any other kind of explanation, particularly the supernatural.

Very truly yours,
Rick Levy
Eastwood City

Monday, November 17, 2014

America's Deformed Immigration Reform

I strenuously object to  President Obama's plans to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants residing in the U.S; For that matter I am against such leniency towards these gate crashers under any circumstances. Why should these people be rewarded for flagrantly making a mockery of the American legal system? Giving in this way  and especially considering a pathway to citizenship for them as well is a slap in the face of LEGAL immigrants who have waited years for a visa to enter the U,S, abided by laws of the U.S. and still must wait more years before being naturalized.

Further inflaming the matter is the politically correct propaganda disseminated by advocates for the illegals and their "rights"(!). These supporters have deliberately and unscrupulously confused the issue by referring to undocumented aliens simply as "immigrants" thus conflating them with those aliens who entered the U.S. by the book. This false label distorts the issue and makes those who oppose the presence in America of the  lawbreakers as being against all immigration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Foreigners in America whose visa status allows them to be there are welcome and should not be considered  part of the problem at hand.   

But beyond ethical and moral considerations, there are practical repercussions as well. The economic status of the American worker has been eroding for decades. And  employment and salaries for the American labor force have never fully recovered from the economic crash in 2008 (the jobs are supposedly back but not the previous wages). Flooding the  workforce with five million  more workers, most of whom are low and unskilled, will likely drag down job openings and  the wage scale for U.S. workers as a whole even further. If the border crashers are in the U.S. due to economic hardship in their native countries, especially Mexico and other parts of Latin America, where is it written that the U.S.  has to act as safety valve for the economies of those countries?  The governments of those places need to clean up their act and  start instituting socioeconomic reforms instead of sending their surplus populations, including unaccompanied minors who put a strain on American social services, to el norte .

Even if the pending amnesty applies only to those illegals who have been in the U.S. for a certain number of years, it will only encourage more border crashers to enter the country, hoping that they too will also eventually be allowed to stay. For those who don't remember,  there was a previous amnesty in 1986  (under a Republican administration that time) after which there were  supposed to be employer verification of job applicants' legal status to work in the U.S. and tighter borders. These never really happened because of lax enforcement. This time around I don't even find a pretense of such restrictions in  Obama's blanket amnesty proposal.

I also find it infuriating that just like in 1986 legal immigrants (disclosure: one of whom was my wife),   are being unjustly  left out of the picture. If the President  is so gung-ho on letting  undocumented aliens  stay in the U.S., then in all fairness, his executive order should also offer immediate citizenship to qualified immigrant permanent residents in the U.S.  But instead just like 28 years ago, legal aliens will get wind up receiving NOTHING but the frustration of seeing illegals getting preferential treatment. What else would you call it when the latter will receive the  permission to remain in the U.S. for which their legal alien counterparts had to apply and wait, often as previously noted for many years?   How betrayed and foolish they must feel. So the message is clear: Sneak into the country, bide your time, and you will eventually be home free.

In effect, America has lost control of its borders, and the resulting implications for the country's security are ominous. What a sorry state of affairs.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Into The Light of Day

When I became an atheist over 20 years ago while living in the U.S., I knew that there would be consequences. Nevertheless, I didn't try to pretend  to myself or to others that I was still a God-believer . This alienated some of the people in my life at the time, especially  at the workplace. And although I couldn't prove it, I may have even lost one job as a result.

As for my family, as it turned out, no one was particularly bothered by my rejection of theism, least of all my wife Lydia who had been an atheist most of her life and had been patiently waiting for me to catch up with her. Importantly, I am on good terms with her family members, who have taken my non-belief in stride, even though, most of them are devout believers.. 

Now as as a senior and a retiree living a minimalist but  independent-minded life style, at this stage of life I feel that I have little to lose in my relationship with others by  making clear when the occasion presents itself my non-belief in a supreme being, including to fellow members of the local synagogue that I occasionally attend for social purposes.  In fact, overall, here in the Philippines  where my wife Lydia and I have resided as expats for over 9 years and which is a highly religious society,  I feel more comfortable as an atheist than I did in the States . Again, this is likely because I am more in control of my life than in my earlier years.

It might seem strange, even paradoxical, that I would have this sense of freedom while living in a country which is predominantly and observantly Roman Catholic and which has the world's highest rate of God-believers. Yet there are nascent atheist and humanist organizations that have taken root here.  Among them are PATASFilipino Free Thinkers, and HAPI.  It's no surprise that their membership constitutes a minute fraction of the country's population. But the truth is that no one really knows how many atheists there are in the Philippines.  This is because many non-believers in this culture of dependency are stuck in the closet for fear of jeopardizing their ties with the members of their circles of interest, which usually include nuclear and extended families and close friends.

 It cannot be overemphasized that  these relationships are taken very seriously here. Hence, many secret atheists here do not want to risk being forsaken or shunned by coming out. I recall a social media entry by  a Filipino who stated that he's a 22 year old closet atheist and wanted to disclose his non-belief to his parents. However, he was afraid that if he do so, they would disown him , and he wanted advice on how to handle the situation. Now, on one level, I can certainly sympathize with his plight. Most people do not want to be turned away from their families. But my response to him was that he needs step up and unashamedly declare his atheism. After all, he's 22, not 12. In other words, he is not a child and has as much right to his convictions and principles as his parents do theirs.

The alternative for this young man and others who share his predicament is to live a lie. But regardless of  nationality or culture, when you do that,  you are disowning yourself. And that is the worst kind of rejection of all.

Friday, September 12, 2014

American Atheists And Their Struggle For Equal Rights

There are those who say that atheists are simply those who do not believe in a supreme being. And technically that's true in the abstract. But in the real, concrete world we can't "do" atheism without ensuring that our rights as nonbelievers are recognized and protected. Separation of church and state is probably the most paramount of these interests. How can I claim to be an atheist for example but then be forced to swear on a bible that I will tell "... nothing but the truth so help me God" when appearing in court as a witness, or making a pledge to uphold the law or as a candidate for jury duty? In the past, there were discriminatory laws against atheists throughout the U.S. And I would bet that if some Christian legislators were to have their way at present, atheists would be barred from giving legal testimony or serving as jurors for refusing to comply with this form of oath-taking.

Coincidentally, shortly after entering the above observation in my Facebook page,  I came across the following news story also in FB. It's one that shows just how hostile theistic government officials can be to non-believers. An atheist, Joseph Richardson was forced by mayor John Rees of Winter Park, Florida to leave a City Commission public meeting under police escort because he refused to stand when requested to do for a Christian prayer and for  the pledge of allegiance which contains the phrase "under God". According to previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Richardson was completely within his rights to take this position (no pun intended) but was still "escorted" from the chamber by a police officer. Fortunately, through intervention by the  Freedom From Religion Foundation, the City Commission agreed to refrain from further such infringements on personal rights.  But the trampling of Richardson's personal freedoms should never have happened in the first place.

Then there is the matter of a U.S. Air Force  sergeant (who has chosen to not be publicly identified)  who wanted to extend his term of service but was rejected just  because he crossed out the phrase "under God" in the oath section of his  re-enlistment contract. He is now in the unenviable position of having to file suit against the U.S. Government in order  to challenge this unconstitutional requirement just to be allowed to continue serving his country.

In short, it should be small wonder that atheists resent attempts by advocates of Christian privilege not only for their attempts to impose their beliefs on others but especially their means of doing so, such as by abuse of political power,  contempt for the American Constitution, and lack of common decency towards others who do not share their beliefs.

This anti-atheist malice by those in power can make life difficult for non-believers. But considering what's at stake, it's essential for atheists to stand our ground and fight back by asserting ourselves and our rights when faced with such stumbling blocks. When these challenges arise, remember people like Joseph Richardson or the beleaguered Air Force sergeant, and be inspired by their courage. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In Support of Israel: What's God Got Do With It?

Whenever I read or hear  the statement that God is on Israel's side in these troubled times for that country and for that reason, all Jews must support Israel,  I cringe with embarrassment. The justification that "God is with us" is also used by Hamas for their cause to annihilate  Israel and by almost every country  where theism is part of the culture in order to drum up blind faith in its people for whatever goal their leaders have in mind, whether it's honorable or dishonorable.

Instead, I  stand with Israel  in its confrontation  with Hamas in the interest of simple fair play   Israel as a nation is being held by its bashers to a ridiculous standard in its self-defense  that no other country in the world is expected to follow. For example the U.N. has condemned Israel for not sharing its Iron Dome anti-missile defense system with Hamas as a war crime!  WTF! What would any other nation do if it were being attacked by missiles from across its border day after day? Certainly not sit back and take it or hand over its self-protection technology to the enemy.  Instead it would counter-attack until the other side is incapable of further aggression. Pardon the pun but that's not rocket science. And in this case, if Israel happens to have superior firepower, which of course results in great destruction in Gaza, that will stop when Hamas does.

BTW there's no end to irrational condemnation of Israel. A United Nations official has revived a canard that blames wife beating by Palestinian men on Israel.because of the these husbands' dissatisfaction over their lives under the occupation.  Never mind that such domestic violence is as normal as breathing  in Arab-Islamic societies  in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.

And as I mentioned in a Facebook entry, there is the  matter of the recent riots in Europe against Jews along with the destruction of Jewish owned businesses and temples there with cries of "Gas the Jews" by Palestinian and other protesters. These actions originally began with demonstrations opposing Israel's "attack" on Gaza . But when they turned into pogroms, that  proved that Zionism and Israel were not the real issue. As is usually the case, that was just a pretext. At the end of the day, the real reason is just plain out and out Jew hatred.  So how in the world can Israel ever be expected to negotiate with the likes of Hamas and its ilk who not only want to wipe out Israeli Jews but Jews everywhere.

At this writing, Israel has pulled its troops from Gaza, and  has entered into a 72-hour ceasefire with  Hamas. Whether this cessation will hold and lead to a more lasting armistice is anybody's guess, but based on Hamas' past violations of such temporary truces, I wouldn't bet on it. However,  I hope that I'm wrong  about this as  I, like many others, am tired of the bloodshed.  But there can never be permanent peace between Israel and Hamas until the latter revokes its destructive charter and sincerely accepts the existence of Israel once and for all.   

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why Religious Interference By Employers Is A Bad Business Practice

After the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 that American corporations  have the constitutional right to free speech, it's no surprise that SCOTUS would  grant them freedom of religion as well (closely held ones anyway, e.g. those owned by families) . This is what happened on June 30 in the Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision, which allows employers to refuse to follow the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") regarding the requirement to pay for women's contraceptives in their company health plans. As I understand it, this includes employees who are co-paying for such insurance.  However, in the latter cases there may be a recourse for these workers available through  the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The USDHHS   has a plan for use by religious-nonprofit organization whereby the employer's insurance company covers the employee directly for the cost of her contraceptives. Supposedly, this system  could be expanded to include workers at for-profit corporations as well.

Also this ruling is  limited to the issue of contraceptives and supposedly could not be used as a precedent  (um, yeah) for other types of religious meddling by employers, such as a Jehovah's Witness owned corporation whose company health plan refuses to cover the cost of blood transfusions. But that leads to the question: What is so special about contraceptives as compared to other forms of health protection that allows employers to invoke "religious principles" as a reason to refuse including them in their company in their group insurance plans? Why do they have this obsession with the sex life of their employees?

Moreover, big business and conservative Christians have a peculiar perspective about corporations: That this type of organization should have a special legal status that enables it to conduct business transactions as a separate entity from its shareholders and which protects them from lawsuits and other legal actions that might be filed against the corporation itself  Yet at the same time the businesses /  conservative Christians  support the endowment of  corporations with the status of "personhood"  (which is a standing that it does have in the eyes of the law) and extend the meaning of that word to include, as mentioned above, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. What's next? Designation of corporations as fully human so that the state can't ever revoke their  charters, as this would constitute cruel and unusual punishment?

But this whole uproar simply points out that employees shouldn't have to rely on their employers for insurance in the first place. The Affordable Care Act doesn't go far enough in dealing with this problem.. A more realistic and long overdue solution is is Medicare for all. If this coverage were ever enacted, Americans would have access to health care as a fundamental human right like the rest of the civilized world, not as a privilege. And it would be one less opportunity for conservative Christian owned Christians  to impose their religious beliefs on others.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Confronting America's Gun Obession

As a result of the Isla Vista massacre, many gun control advocates are predictably blaming the  National Rifle Association  for at least an indirect role in this nightmare.  But I think that the NRA (which weapons manufacturers now likewise support)  and the gun lobby as a whole are not so much the cause of such violence but are rather the result of a destructive flaw in the American character. How else could the gun nuts flourish in the U.S, the way that they do unlike in other Western industrialized countries? As an example one such fanatic,  political icon Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher,  publicly commented that the dead kids of the Sandy Hook mass murder don't trump his constitutional rights. How could anyone  with an ounce of decency so shamelessly make such a remark? Evidently his obsession with firearms crushes any respect that he may have ever had for humanity. And his type appears to be more the rule than the exception among the pro-gun crowd, the very mention of whom seems to cause the typical vote-seeking politician to cringe in fear for his /her  job if  (s)he is even perceived as favoring gun control legislation. Yet why wasn't the grievous wounding a member of Congress,  Rep. Gabriella Gifford, in a 2011 shooting rampage enough to make elected officials angry enough to finally say "enough, already"  especially considering  that she was also a legislator?

So what is it  that allowed the NRA and its ilk to mutate from their former role as supporters  for the right of Americans to own and properly use ordinary weapons such as hunting weapons, into a rabid political force that in the name of defending their rights  defeated a ban on personal possession of assault weapons?  One alibi that the gun lovers offer for such an interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is that the  right of the people to bear arms is a means of protection against a tyrannical government, especially one that might try to "take away their weapons".  But this doesn't wash simply because an attempted rebellion by these tinfoil-hat loonies would be crushed by the obviously superior firepower of U.S.military in a heartbeat. Perhaps their real motive is that they feel so personally inadequate that gun ownership gives them the feeling of strength and power that can't achieve on their own.

The previously mentioned cowardice of so many of our  leaders in the face of the gun lobby says more about them than it does about the organizations that are exercising this "persuasion". But these pro-gun groups do not intimidate the millions of American who despise their  goals of turning the country not just into a "wild West" but into a violent "gun-ocracy". Clearly, the NRA and their ilk have proven themselves to be such vociferous extremists that there's no point in continuing to try engaging them in polite debate on this matter.  Instead, we need to make our voices heard and our own political clout felt from the local to the federal level.

The main method by which the gun lobby has become so powerful  is by outspending their opponents in achieving their ambitions to control public policy. Enter former mayor of New York and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate  who has proposed using $50 million of his own wealth to push back against this imbalance.   In doing so he will fight fire with fire.  Then there is Richard Martinez, a father one of the Isla Vista victims who is also determined to take on the NRA. Yes, we've had false starts before following shooting sprees, but  maybe this will be the start of a new chapter in American history in which we will finally be able to bring sanity to our gun laws, take back the country from the gun freaks, and most importantly repair and transform our damaged culture into one that will no longer allow them to thrive.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Justice Kennedy Doesn't Get It

Like most other American atheists and secularists, I'm disappointed with the SCOTUS Town of Greece v. Galloway decision which strengthens government endorsement of religious sectarianism in local official legislative settings.  I believe that the ruling  was wrong on  many levels. But I'd like to focus on one in particular: the cluelessness  factor.  For example, Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote the decision for the  majority determined that members of the audience who are bothered by the  sectarian (read Christian) nature of prayers recited by  government officials to open a public meeting (such as a city council session) are "mature adults" who are not coerced to listen,  supposedly unlike to children in similar circumstances of peer and authority pressure, and are  free to leave and return when the prayer is finished.

But Kennedy who evidently made this smug assertion from the perspective of Christian privilege misses the point, perhaps deliberately.   For example  if such an invocation is recited,  is the audience expected to stand and /or bow their heads during the benediction? If so, when a public official  gives a Christian oriented invocation among a like-minded group of constituents,  those in the minority maybe even a single individualwho refuse to rise or who may otherwise register dissent may well be subject to severe social opprobrium  and reprisals, and perhaps even criminal charges of creating a disturbance if they vocally protest. But why should any non-Christian be put in the awkward position of having to make such a choice  and to be made to feel like an outsider in his or her own community? For a more articulate discussion in accordance with this line of reasoning, click here to read Justice Elena Kagan's opinion  which she wrote in behalf of the dissenting Supreme Court minority in this case.

Significantly, in the Town of Greece decision, the three justices on the Supreme Court who are Jewish all dissented with the majority opinion.  Perhaps they may  been subjected to such discrimination, and hence saw how the above ruling could lead to negative consequences. An event somewhat similar to the above group pressure scenario happened to me. At a company  where I once worked, I was the only Jew in my  department and experienced an incident there in which I was deliberately placed into an an outsider position vis-a-vis my non-Jewish co-workers. What happened was that I attended what was supposed to be (as in previous years) a "secular"  Christmas season office luncheon.  But just  as we were about to start eating, the department supervisor turned to one of my co-workers, a lay preacher, and asked him if he would like to offer a Christmas prayer,  a request to which he eagerly consented.  They both knew that I was the only Jew there and asked me if I would like to step out and return when the grace was finished, By  turning the party into a religious occasion, they evidently didn't care about  what an awkward position they were putting me in, especially with everyone watching to see what I would do. Because I was totally blind-sided,  I was uncertain how to handle the matter, so  I complied and left the room. When I came back, I was upset but said nothing.   Perhaps I should have complained afterwards to the department manager or to personnel.  Instead, I let the matter drop. But to this day I recall the incident with a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

Granted, the above episode was in a workplace setting not a government held public assembly.  But in both cases the pattern was identical: an attempt by those in power or authority to  inculcate or reinforce in dissident individuals a sense of separateness and exclusion from their peers or community.   Such imposition of majority religious beliefs on others  for their personally held convictions is not only a violation of the Constitution, but of human dignity as well.

Oh BTW, according to the New Testament (Matt:6:5-6), Jesus admonishes his followers to pray  only in private and not to make a spectacle of themselves by performing this act of worship in public. So if Christians would only follow this exhortation, cases like Town of Greece would likely never happen in the first place.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On The Absurdity Of God-Belief

I hope that it's not a sign of the inflexibility that often accompanies advancing age, but as time goes by I find myself becoming less patient with theists, more specifically the theistic mentality, particularly in the U.S.  It just make no sense in this day and age for the majority of adults in a supposed First-World  country to believe in the fantastic tales from the scriptures, especially the one purporting the existence of a supreme being just because they are told these myths are true, even though evidence for their claims is non-existent. Moreover, most of these stories fly in the face of logic and are totally refuted by scientific facts. An example of such nonsense that has been thoroughly discredited but just won't go away is creationism. . 

Or take the recent movie "Noah" which has generated controversy because some Christian viewers are upset that over the film's  "historical inaccuracies" in depicting a biblical story. Let that sink in for a minute. There was no such event in history as  "The Flood".  It's just a made-up story and not even original to the book of Genesis at that. The authors of that section of the bible apparently borrowed it from an earlier  Babylonian tale regarding a similar event.  Regardless,  theist literalists believe it was real and don't think that the movie should have taken liberties in its narration  So what did the producer Darren Aronofsky do in response to this complaint? He edited the movie to soothe the Christians' ruffled feathers. And here I thought the days had long since passed when Hollywood allowed itself to be censored by religious groups. What's next, reinstatement  of the Hays Code?

But why  have critics of the movie and others have ignored the larger issue about this biblical story. I'm referring to the enormity of the mass murder committed by God in wiping out almost all life on earth, an act that I call "biocide". God did this .just because he didn't like the way that humans,  whom he made "in his own  image" were behaving. What?  He didn't have the power to correct or change them, so in a hissy-fit he obliterated them instead, along with most other life forms? A supreme being like that deserves contempt, not worship; and the best thing that can be said about him is that in real life he doesn't exist.

Compare this and other bible stories to other ancient myths such as the Greek legends. Christians and other theists rightfully dismiss them for the fiction that they are  (although IMO the Greek myths do a better job of imparting  lessons about the human condition than  both the Old and New Testaments). Yet there is no more proof for the existence of God and Jesus as his son and the of scriptural events surrounding them than for the deities of Mt. Olympus and their accompanying tales.. Nevertheless, many (most?) Christians accept the former anyway because as I previously mentioned they're told these events really happened.

Some apologists might respond that most such believers are indoctrinated from early childhood with these fables, so it's very difficult if not impossible to change their thinking.  But can't the same be said about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? Yet how many of these grownups still believe in them? In other words, as adults isn't it our responsibility to outgrow beliefs that are obviously baseless and that prevent us from seeing and dealing with the world as it really is?

And for those who claim that religion is necessary as the only means of imparting personal morality and that fear of God is a must in order to keep people from indulging in criminal behavior, consider this. The record shows that countries with the lowest crime rates are those with highest rate of non-believers.  And nations with high percentages of theists have high crime rates. (The latter is especially the case here in the Philippines, a country which has the highest percentage of religious believers in the world and yet is plagued with lawlessness).

Yet there is hope. In the U.S., the number of people who claim no religious affiliation is on the rise. Just google  the phrase  religious "nones" in america increasing  and note the numerous search results responses that confirm this trend.  True, in and of itself, this doesn't mean necessarily that people in this category are all atheists. Many (most?) of them may still be god-believers but prefer not to affiliate with any particular congregation or sect. Yet this is still a step in the right direction.

If the number of atheists in the U.S.  is in fact on the upswing, it will probably be many years before their political impact is felt and their non-belief  is fully accepted as an alternative to religion.  That is  something that will not likely happen in my lifetime, my impatience notwithstanding.   But based on  the experience of countries where atheists already predominate, when it does take place, America will likely be a better country for it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Pulling The Plug On Israel's Freeloaders

Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews seem to have a natural talent for chutzpah. They are upset that the Israeli Parliament is seriously considering legislation that would require their eligibility for military conscription just like the rest of the citizenry but  from which they have  been exempted since Israel became a nation in 1948,.in order to  pursue yeshiva studies  which they also have also used as an excuse to not seek gainful employment.  But the rest of Israeli society is  getting tired of these abuses and of carrying these inter-generational deadbeats who also happen to have  a high birth rate, e.g. the  haredim, who are "ultra-ultra":Orthodox and who  number about 11% of Israel's 8 million total population.

The zealots'  response to this proposed change in the law was a large protest demonstration on March 2 and even threatened to leave the country if their status were changed.  After decades of being coddled, is it any wonder that they think they deserve their special privileges? Yet they have carried this narcissism  to the point that  not only do they not feel obligated to contribute to the welfare of the society in which they live but instead should receive welfare from that society.

This mindset is an example of how religious beliefs can twist minds into a state of total irrationality.  The character of these people is so narcissistic as a result of the long standing collective power of their rabbis and their supporting political parties that they refuse to recognize the "otherness" the existenceof those outside their own circle of interest. In other words these ultra Orthodox  have no qualms about biting the hands that have been feeding them for all these decades:, namely the rest of  Israelis who perform their civic duty  and at the same time carry the burden of taxes and military service that they choose to shirk. And as though that weren't outrageous enough, many of  the Israeli haredim are anti-Zionist because they believe that only God can decree the establishment of  Israel  as a nation which won't happen until the arrival of the messianic age. Yet you can bet they wouldn't refuse protection from the Zionist government  and soldiers who would put their lives on the line for these extremists if the country were attacked or if their safety were otherwise threatened..

As I mentioned in my previous post "Change The Channel" American Jews who are opposed to these moochers can do their part by not donating to organizations like Chabad and other Hasidic groups. Protestations to the contrary, who knows how much of the charitable funds contributed to  them  likely  wind up channeled  into the hands of the Israeli ultra Orthodox leaders.

In short, Israel's holy rollers have been allowed  to become wholly useless.  Here's hoping their free ride will soon be over.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Hereditary Religion—A Tainted Legacy?

In societies such as the U.S. where religion, especially theism, is an important cultural component, the roots of this belief system are planted in most people at a very early age such that just past toddler-hood, many (most?) children are already taught by their families to recite simple prayers to a god who they are also told will punish them if they misbehave and / or fail to adhere to certain rituals.

Theists have long understood the importance of indoctrinating young minds. Francis Xavier, the founder of the Roman Catholic Jesuits order, is credited with the motto  "Give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you the man".  Among Orthodox Jews, boys customarily began Torah study  at age four. My grandfather was one of them, and no doubt his zealous piety was likely the result of this intense education.  That happened well over a century ago; yet such thought control practices continue into the modern era.  It may sound like an overreaction on my part that I feel sad when I see little kids already dressed in religiously traditional garb before they can even understand what's going on. But IMO such apparel is symbolic of the oppression to which their  young minds are just starting to be conditioned.

These are just a few examples of  hereditary religion,  and some atheists assert that such training is brainwashing and a form of child abuse. However, devout parents may respond that freedom of religion entitles them  to raise their children as they see fit,  and as such they have the right and the duty to instill a godly morality in them.  Further,  they  may argue that the state has no right to dictate to them how to practice such parental obligations  (short of prohibiting demonstrable cruelty). And in fact, doesn't this argument cuts both ways? Can't it be used by  atheist families to protect their rights to bring up their kids as non-believers? For them this freedom is an important bulwark especially  in the "red" states Christian where privilege prevails and church-state separation is frequently violated. 

That is why the case for legal challenges to hereditary religion is difficult to make. So rather than fruitlessly trying to compel parents from indoctrinating  their children, as distasteful to nonbelievers as such practices might be, atheists need to try to counter that kind of setting  when children are outside the home.  One way to do this is by advocating the requirement that public schools  proved a strictly secular their students with special vigilance against creationism being taught in the classroom. Another step is promoting the revocation of tax exempt tuition for religious schools. Normally, such expenses are not tax deductible, but may be under certain circumstances. (IMO donations to religious institutions should be  tax-exempt under no circumstances).  This won't prevent parents and these institutions from inculcating religious belief in their children, but it will send a message that doing so comes at a price (literally and figuratively) and that secularists will no longer accept the burden of paying the shifted taxes for which these families should be responsible.  

As long as there are religious believers, they will likely try to pass their faith on to the next generation,  and in itself that's not necessarily a guarantee that their kids will not eventually kick over the trances and become atheists. Many nonbelievers were onetime theists, myself included.  Realistically, we can't interfere with the family life of believers without  being accused of proselytizing.  So all that secularists can do is  work to provide a public environment where kids are encouraged to think and question the myths that they've been taught to accept as the truth.   If doing so can help even a few of them overcome their theistic upbringing, it will be well worth the effort.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why Atheists Shouldn't Be Insulted Over Threats of Eternal Damnation

One of my favorite blogs, "Atheist Revolution" had a rather interesting post yesterday. The topic regards a statement from  a well-known evangelist, Mark Driscoll, that all non-Christians are hell-bound. An important point made in that post is whether at least some of Driscolls followers agree with him.

This may in turn also lead to the question that for every influential fundamentalist like Driscoll who comes up with this kind of remark, how many other Christians feel the same but aren't as vocal about it as he is. Probably not very many. Fundamentalists like these usually aren't shy about expressing their hellfire opinions to anyone who will listen and of course even to those who aren't interested. Importantly though, for non-Christian theists such rhetoric may be hurtful and outrageous.

But as an atheist, I couldn't care less that some Christian fundie says that I'm going to a place that  doesn't even exist. His beliefs  are so wrong on so many levels that it's futile to try to have an intelligent discussion with people like that.  Naturally, if you call them down with logic and reason and ask for evidence for their assertions, they'll just say that it's in the bible and may even quote chapter and verse to support their contention.  If you  counter with another biblical passage that contradicts their position, they'll just mumble something about "your incorrect understanding"  and / or change the topic.

So what it comes down to is this: In God-centered religions, especially Christianity, there are no objective standards, just interpretations about stories that never even happened and characters who likely never existed in the first place.  And debating believers on their terms in these matters  is about as productive as arguing over the color of unicorns. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reasons to Believe That Nelson Mandela Was a Non-Believer

Of all the words attributed to the late Nelson Mandela, the ones that I didn't find in his discussions of such matters as his political views,  his 27 year imprisonment and eventual release by South Africa's apartheid rulers, and his presidency of that country  were references to a belief in or a guidance by a supernatural power. In the matter of the unjust and horrific  incarceration such as what Mandela experienced, the tendency of many well known political leaders who have undergone similar hardship is to invoke prayer and faith in God as the source of their strength that got them through their ordeal.  However, in a passage from Nelson Mandela: Prison Years  Mandela instead said "...We drew strength and sustenance from the knowledge  that were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim."  Further, his outlook on life as reflected in  129 of  his quotes  are free of theistic allusions.
So was Nelson Mandela an atheist? Apparently, he was, even though he never declared himself outright as a non-believer. But even if it turns out that he was a theist, his lack of attribution to a supernatural being for his achievements was refreshing.

However, assuming for the sake of argument that Mandela was an atheist, did he come by this stance on his own or was it his membership in the African National Congress whose ally was the South African Communist Party that shaped his irreligionist views? In fact one source says that he was active and even held a leadership position in the latter organization.. But another source shades his affiliation with communism as tenuous and temporary. Mandela himself went so far as to acknowledge that the Communist Party did changed his views into accepting all races into the ANC and into realizing that African nationalism itself was not the exclusive property of any one ethnicity,  However, as previously noted, he doesn't mention whether the Party, known for its atheism, influenced him in this matter as well.

But in the end, the measure of this man was not a label on his philosophy but the scope of his deeds and his personal fortitude as the contribution that he made to not just South Africa but to a whole. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Getting Back At The Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving

Economist Robert Reich's noteworthy essay "What Walmart Could Learn From Henry Ford" discusses among other issues Walmart's business model of reliance on low wages rather than more sales for its operations. He further discusses how  this policy is bad for the American economy as a whole. Reich urges consumers to boycott Walmart on Nov. 28 and 29th.  The  28th is Thanksgiving, but it is now also a retroactive extension of  Black Friday and is just another working day for Walmart employees who will "celebrate" the holiday in the break room instead of with their families.

Let's face it.  Walmart gets away with its abusive practices because consumers continue to shop there. All that people have to do to get this company to act humanely to its workers is boycott the damn place. But that won't happen because evidently shoppers in the U.S.would rather save a few bucks on the backs of exploited employees at places like Walmart, even though the ones who work there are their neighbors and maybe even family members.  (As a tacit admission that it doesn't adequately pay its people, a Walmart store in Ohio is  requesting holiday donations of canned food from employees for their hard up co-workers {how the store  will determine criteria for the recipients is unclear}). However, the company as a whole could increase its average wage of $9.00  per hour to $14.89 simply by refraining from buying back its own stock!

We all know that most Americans  workers were hurt  to one extent or another by the Great Recession.  Yet when it comes to the plight of Walmart employees, they show no sympathy for these fellow  members of the labor  force, let alone demonstrate a willingness to take to the streets to demand redress even for their own interests, unlike their forbears in the U.S. and modern day counterparts in Europe.

But for those who are are too intimidated or lazy to hit the bricks,  then they can simply refuse to do business  not just for two days at the end of November as per Reich's suggestion, but every day against companies like Walmart that not only underpay and mistreat  their employees, but in doing so drag down wages across the board for Americans as a wholeFurthermore, such boycotts  would not require a great deal of personal effort, and they  would be a major  step in the right direction of taking back the country from exploitive businesses.  In short, it's high time that Americans finally recognize and stand up for the entitled rights of U.S. workers to decent pay and working conditions. Only when that happens will  we be able to  put the"thanks" back into Thanksgiving.
Nov. 24 Update, To add insult to injury, according to "Walmart Thanksgiving Pay: Sounds Good, But…" unlike many (most?) other retailers Walmart doesn't even pay its employees who work on Thanksgiving a fixed overtime rate, e.g. the standard time and a half.  Instead the additional wage is computed based on a formula that depending on the number of hours the worker put in during the week prior the holiday,  his/her Thanksgiving pay may be little more than that earned on a regular workday.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Religion: Getting Credit Where Credit Is Not Due

Recently, a friend introduced me to an article "Neuroscience +Rabbinic Wisdom=Better Jewish Education", by Rabbi Justus N. Baird. The essay which was published  in discusses a  supposed link between neuroscience and rabbinic teachings about the mind and memory.  But as I see it, by making this  connection. Baird's conclusion is a forced marriage between science and religion.

His attribution to ancient rabbis scholars of having sophisticated awareness brings to mind  the old popular misconception that the ancient rabbis prohibited pork for consumption by Jews because undercooked pig's meat caused trichinosis. But they couldn't possibly have known such a thing. The parasite that causes this disease, Trichinella, was not discovered  until the 19th Century  through the use of microscopy, a process that was not used until the 1600's.  Furthermore, chickens and other fowl  also root in the dirt like pigs and likewise cause illness if not properly cooked.  Yet they're not considered traif (unclean under ancient Jewish dietary laws).

Similarly, there's no way that these men could have comprehended brain functions and the workings of the mind. One of the examples given in the article that supposedly demonstrates their keen awareness of  mental activity is spending years learning Torah and progressively forgetting this accumulation of this knowledge if it is not then regularly reviewed. However, awareness of this lapse  is just plain common sense (but has nevertheless  been validated by scientific studies). As my wife, a psychologist, who agrees that the phenomenon is not rocket science aptly expresses it, "What you have you may either use or lose".

The point is that there's no basis for the author to project specialized knowledge to people who didn't even have an awareness of the concept of science, let alone of the discoveries that have been made about the  mind and body in modern times. And as I pointed out in a previous post, the more we have come to understand the natural world by using the scientific method, the less need we have to look to biblical tales and a mythological supreme being  for answers. So in short, believing that the square peg of science can be joined with the round hole of religion under any circumstances in order to gain an understanding of humankind is utter folly.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Born Male—The New Original Sin?

Is violence towards women really the default setting of the male mentality? Christopher Zumki Finke, the author of "A New Dad Asks: If Male Violence Is the Biggest Threat to Women, How Do I Raise a Kind Son?"seems to think so and urges all other men to assume collective guilt and atone for the misogyny and vicious behavior of some members of our gender.

Sorry, Mr. Finke, I refuse to accept blame for a crime that I've never committed. Further, I believe that being expected to take that kind of heat is not only degrading to men, it in turn also feeds a sterotype of women as helpless creatures and  and encourages them to play the victim card instead of standing up for themselves and their rights and fighting back against abusers. Especially for mothers, such assertiveness  is essential not just for their own survival but as an example for their daughters.

And speaking of setting examples, it's obvious that men's behave towards the opposite sex is likewise heavily influenced by family upbringing.  The best thing a father can do for his son as my father did for me is to  set a positive example.  Sadly though, one of the biggest disappointments and insults that conscientious fathers and sons face is the unjust tarring by radical and misandric feminists and the media of all males as rapists and violent oppressors of women.

Personally (and no doubt as the result of what my father taught me), as far back as I can remember, I was a male proto-feminist before the latter term was even coined. I've never had a problem with a qualified female in positions of authority any more than I would have with a qualified male, and I vehemently oppose gender-based discrimination.

In the U.S. publicity is skewed towards aggressive and violent males ("If it bleeds, it leads") thus giving the misimpression that this is how all men behave. It doesn't matter that there are probably millions of other men who quietly go about their business, would never even think about raising a hand against a woman,and who automatically consider and treat them as their equals without giving it a second thought.  However, you'll never hear about them because they don't seek the limelight for doing the right thing. But it's time that their their presence is acknowledged.  In the name of fairness, aren't they just as deserving of the same respect from society that women expect for themselves? 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Buried Treasure: A Hidden Gem in Obmacare

Although as an expatriate, I'm not eligible for coverage under the Affordable Health Act, (and as a retiree living outside the U.S., not even Medicare for that matter), I'm glad to see that the ACA has finally been enacted.  One outstanding plus about Obamacare not often mentioned is that it may well end job lock, which is the refusal of workers to leaveor to fear of getting fired fromjobs that they hate because their  employers offer badly needed health insurance at still relatively affordable rates. vs. those for an individual policy.  And as discussed below, therein lies the problem. (BTW as one who had "been there, done that" in my working years, I sympathize with those who are putting up with such employment conditions.)

Instead, under Obamacare, those in the labor force will be able to obtain insurance on their own at affordable rates. In doing so, job lock employees would be able to switch to companies that don't offer health insurance benefits, thereby giving workers more freedom when seeking or changing employment. In turn this could level the playing field and stimulate the job market as workers would no longer be at sharp disadvantage in this area in making decisions about working for such prospective employers.

Moreover, the system of employer-sponsored health plans (which was introduced in a full labor market  during World War II in lieu of pay raises that were restricted due to government imposed wage controls)  has lost its usefulness.  Over the past several years  premiums and co-pays have increased, wages adjusted for inflation have dropped,  and unemployment has soared. This is especially the case since the Great Recession. Meanwhile, individual insurance premiums have become prohibitively expensive for many Americans, especially those who are older and / or have pre-existing health conditions. Obviously, something needed to be done.

Yet it seems that the mindset of workers in the U.S. has nevertheless continued to be one of denial by ignoring the flaws in this "fringe benefit"(especially the fact that  employer sponsored health insurance terminates when the employee does and that COBRA can be very expensive), a misplaced attitude that has only aggravated the problem.  Maybe it would actually been better in the long run  if businesses had totally abandoned health care coverage long before now,  as employees' dependence on this ultimately unreliable source of protection artificially only delayed a day of reckoning and popular demand fornot to mention the  necessity ofgovernment sponsored insurance for the working people.  In other words, if workers had been more realistic about the limitations of  their companies' interest in their welfare, then America might have enjoyed Medicare for all by now.

Meanwhile, here in the Philippines, the government healthcare plan, Philhealth. which is already very popular  is aiming for universal coverage by 2016. Wouldn't it be sad if a third-world country were to implement a single payer plan for all ahead of America? One can only hope that the Obamacare will also eventually evolve into such a system, just like those in other first world countries and in at least one less developed nation as well. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Back to Basics

The question posed by the clergy to religious believers "Where will you spend eternity" is of course a reminder to them that when they die, there is a  heaven and hell where God will send their souls forever. In which of the two destinations they will wind up is based on their faith in and adherence to biblical scripture.

As an atheist I find such a doctrine utterly absurd on so many levels. For one thing there's no evidence of  either a God; nor is there any proof of an afterlife, let alone one in the sky populated by harp-playing angels and streets of gold or alternatively, the other at the center of the earth filled with souls writhing in fire and brimstone. Then there are those who project "the next life" as a continuation of our current existence.  I know a woman who every year wishes her deceased mother a happy birthday in heaven. Then there are those who think that they will be reunited with their departed loved ones.

These are the images of eternity with which Americans and other Western world people (especially Christians) are most familiar and in which they are likely to believe.  However, this set of  fables is just one of many myths of life after death which are equal to the number of religions throughout  the world. They can't all be right, but most of their respective adherents claim that their particular version is the only real one.

I have considered another and more sublime scenario that awaits us when we die and one that sounds reasonable:  We know of course  that our bodies decompose and our minds cease to function.  But beyond that we disintegrate into the scattered atoms that constitute the elements of the universe from which we were formed individually and to which we will return. From there they may combine with other animate and inanimate substances alike. Further, this process will continue as long as the universe existsmost likely at least several billion more yearswhich is as close to immortality as we can hope to achieve.  As Carl Sagan put it: "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made from interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff."

On a personal level, IMO there is no reason to worry about death.  In the words of Mark Twain:  “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”  Nor do we have reason to believe that we will do so after we're gone.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Change The Channel

The annual televised Chabad Telethon will air  in thr U.S. this month. Chabad is a branch of  the Jewish ultra-orthodox Hasidic movement. Chabad in turn is divided  into various sects that have  a history of intense and violent rivalry with each other.  However, they all have some common traditions such as perpetrating  obscurantism by allowing only a  minimal secular education for their followers and by fostering a belief within each sect that its founder is the Messiah. The men wear black suits and the women wear headscarves and long dresses. Followers also have large families which is the result of official opposition and enforced ignorance for its members about birth control, along with a patriarchal social structure resulting in limitation of women's roles and rights. The latter not only includes their  expected function as serial child bearers but also the prohibition of their participation in Torah study and ordination as rabbis (Note the striking doctrinal similarities in this regard with Catholicism and Mormonism).

Of course this is not the image that Chabad and its ilk present to the public, especially when seeking contributions.   The logo of the program is a symbol or silhouette of a Chabad "rebbe" (rabbi)  dancing in spiritual joy.(Of course this avatar doesn't include his perpetually pregnant wife.)

But one would have to be practically living in a cave not to know that there's more to the story behind that facade. So why do many non-Orthodox and even non-observant Jews give undue deference and in the case of the telethon, donations  to the Ultra-Orthodox and its leaders?  Could it be due to feelings of inferiority and / or guilt about not being "observant enough", e.g. not keeping kosher, such that members of  devout sects are looked up to as "real Jews"?   And considering that this respect for these "holy" men is not reciprocal , it's stranger still.

One rationale for elevated status of Chabad is the supposed "good works" that it does not just for Jews but for the community at large. So the telethon includes non-Jewish celebrities as well in order to appeal to a wider audience and so to appear ecumenical.

Yet there are many other charitable sectarian and  nonsectarian organizations who likewise perform diverse and extensive services to the public without imposing the baggage of unenlightenment and oppressively strict  behavior codes on their congregants on one hand while displaying a deceitfully benign mask to the outside world with the other.  In short, the  mere visibility of its representatives on TV does not compensate for Chabad's lack of  transparency about the medieval culture and stifling lifestyle to which its members are expected to devote their lives.

Articles for further reading:

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America

Jewish Outreach: What You're Rabbi Isn't Telling You

Reform Reflections: The Good and Bad of Chabad 

Out of Enclaves, a Pressure to Accommodate Traditions 

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Response to Intrusive Evangelical Christianity

One of the more troubling doctrines of Christianity is its tenet of evangelism which is an often invasive and downright obnoxious means of  trying to gain new followers. One such Christian organization,  the Israel Restoration Ministries  has been targeting Jews in St Louis, MO  with solicitation phone calls promoting  the "good news"about Jesus,  and urging them to convert. The recipients of these annoying calls BTW were selected from the phone book based on Jewish sounding names. On a larger scale, Christian extremist Pat Robertson, through an organization called the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice, has made inroads in Brazil using religion as a front for right wing political activity in that country.

Why can't these fundamentalists get it through their arrogant skulls that there are billions of people in the world who have never heard of Christianity or who know about it but want no connection (Think China and Japan for example) and who are doing just fine with their own beliefs.  Do Christians think that they're going to be able to reach and "save" each and everyone of these "heathens" when they have no business trying to convert even one? Moreover, if the Christian deity is a god and Jesus a savior whom everyone must accept or otherwise be condemned to hell, why did he and his son supposedly reveal themselves  to only a very small portion of humankind, and only for a brief era centuries ago? If there's no way that those who have never heard or never will hear about this dynamic duo, then they are damned for eternity through no fault of their own? How can anyone in their right minds be persuaded into worshiping such extortionists?

And the upshot is that there is of course no more proof for the existence of the biblical God and  of Jesus as a divine messiah than there is of the numerous other ancient deities of legend such a Zeus and Woden, just to name a few.  Nor is there any  physical evidence of any of the miraculous events narrated in the scriptures. Furthermore,  the theme of a man-god rising from the dead is not even a Christian original. It occurs in pre-Christian religions too,

So in order  to counter  the sectarianism that Christians try to force on others in American society, including public elementary and high schools where they try to impose prayer and creationism,  I propose that colleges and universitiesespecially the secular ones— in the U.S.form and offer courses in Christianity as mythology just as they do for the religions of ancient Greece and Rome. By doing this,  these institutions of higher learning would be officially placing the story of Jesus into the category of  fiction which it really is anyway.  And despite the firestorm of protest they would likely encounter from believers, scholars would be taking an academic step that's long overdue. And hopefully, this  reassessment of Christianity would catch on in other countries as well. 

Importantly, this relegation might prompt enlightened Christians to reconsider their beliefs. Who knows, it might also well take some of the wind out of the sales of Christian evangelism if it is officially categorized at least by some authorities as a relic. In any event, there's no reason for believers of this religion and its practices to continue receiving the privileges and deference that they have been afforded for entirely too long.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Corporate Fraud As a Weapon Against Workers

I recently saw a program  about Andrew Carnegie on the History Channel Series, "The Innovators: The Men Who Built America". Carnegie is usually portrayed as one of the great philanthropists of America of the 19th Century.  But he had a dark side: his feckless dealings with the American labor movement. Rather than face  the likely prospect of labor unrest in one of his own factoriesHomestead Steelhimself, Carnegie shoved off the job of dealing with disgruntled workers onto the Homestead's chairman Henry Clay Frick while Carnegie ran off on a visit to Scotland.  In the name of reducing company expenses,  Frick, at the behest of Carnegie's implied directive and his own antipathy toward the working man cut wages and increased the work day to 12 hours, 6 days per week. Under such conditions, accidents and casualties on the production floor of course mounted until, in 1892, the workers finally rebelled. went on strike, and barricaded themselves in the plant.  Frick responded by bringing in the Pinkerton Agency whose agents shot and killed  9 workers and wounded many more. In the end, the strikers were forced to surrender. Carnegie's reputation suffered for this incident, but the struggle for workers'  rights and unions would continue for many decades.

This was just one of many incidents of physical volence in American history against workers in their attempts to organize and fight for their rights. But there have been other methods utilized as well by employers to render them and their unions powerless, some of which wereand are incredibly brazen.  One example is Peabody Energy Corp. This company, in a deliberate attempt to evade its retiree benefits obligations created a separate entity called Patriot Coal Corp. and transferred those liabilites to that corporation. Subsequently, Patriot filed bankruptcy in order to get out from under these expenses, leaving Peabody indemnified. So apparently, Patriot was really a shell organization all along set up by Peabody for the very purpose of reneging on its contract with the United Mine Workers to which the affected retirees belong. Yet the court approved the bankruptcy.

Union members are protesting this decision and are hoping for legislation or a successful appeal that will overturn this verdict Meantime,  the UMW is continuing negotiations with Patriot. But the very fact that this company and its parent organization would resort to such underhanded tactics in the first place demonstrates bad faith and a lack of trustworthiness that will likely make such bargaining futile and will once again leave the pensioners holding the bag. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

For Exploited Workers Everywhere, All Roads Lead to Bangladesh

Over the past several days I've come across several articles, such as "All talk about job creation" by columnist Boo Chanco that discuss programs and incentives to attract more foreign investments to third world countries like the Philippines (where, as an American expatriate, I happen to reside) and how bringing in such capital and employment opportunities will improve the economy of these nations.

One matter of concern that all these commentaries mention is the cost of doing business  including labor expenses in these locales, and how supposedly inflexible minimum wage policies for example can discourage foreign companies that are seeking to expand their international horizons from setting up shop in places that have this kind of  worker protection law. The Philippines is one such country. 

One proposed solution is to create special economic zones here for foreign companies that would be exempt from these salary restrictions, the logic being that a  minimum wage reduces the number of people that a foreign prospective employer is willing to hire, thus leaving many unemployed Filipinos out in the cold who would otherwise be in the labor force. And furthermore, according to this line of reasoning, isn't it better for the unemployed seeking jobs to work for less than minimum wage than for them to have no income at all?  However this proposal places the outcome of bidding down labor costs on the backs of the working people who even when paid minimum wagewhich itself is a pittancecan barely afford the basics. And under such a plan, nowhere have I seen a suggestion for the government to subsidize the difference between the substandard pay of the "special zone" employer and the minimum wage in that locale. Yet the government has no problem  about offering revenue-draining tax holidays to foreign companies to open plants here, but it can't offer a measly subsidy to their workers too? 

Moreover, is labor cost the real or even a major reason that more companies from abroad are discouraged from opening their doors or staying in the countries like the Philippines?  Actually, there are more onerous factors that drive up the cost of doing business in this country  such as expensive electricity, poor infrastructure, and corruption.  Yet if the Philippines managed to overcome all these problems, and as a result workers were to become more efficient and to expect higher wages, international businesses here would likely do what they always do when faced with having to pay their workers more: Pick up their operations and chase the lowest wages possible across the globe in a race to the bottom . American workers experienced this phenomenon with the textile industry. Years ago, apparel and linen manufacturers were originally located  mainly in New England  but then relocated to the Deep South, then to Mexico, and finally, along with major American and European retailers, outsourced their labor needs to contractors and subcontractors in Asia, including the Philippinesand Bangladesh   

The garment business in Bangladesh and the recent collapse of a shoddily built factory there that killed hundreds of employees are a logical outcome of this practice. They are a stark reminder of what happens when labor costs are slashed and worker safety standards are ignored with impunity. According to a CNN report, government officials themselves including members of parliament there often own such businesses and as such have no interest in enforcing regulations intended to protect the health and safety of employees or pay them decent salaries. The wage of  a garment worker in Bangladesh is $38.00 per month. If the Philippines were to become a major manufacturing  hub bolstered by companies from abroad, will this country which already has labor law enforcement issues turn into another Bangladesh for its factory workers?

And finally, I would like to add a word about the current plight of American workers, who have seen jobs, wages, rights and working conditions spiral downward since the Reagan era (which I personally witnessed and experienced prior my retirement), and especially since the Great Recession.  The latest assault  by the Republicans who have been mainly responsible for this decades-long attack is an attempt to end required overtime pay for employees  who labor beyond an  8-hour day or a 40-hour week and require them to take "comp time" instead. The joker in the deck is that it will be the employer, not the worker who decides if and when such time off will be scheduledif ever.

In short workers who have to put off with inequitable pay, unsafe working conditions leading to death and injury, and deprivation of their labor and human rights when there's less excuse than ever in this supposed modern, progressive era for these conditions to exist in the first place are really no better off than their counterparts of the past who toiled under similar circumstances in less enlightened times. For these people the only thing that's changed after all this time is the calendar.