Friday, December 25, 2009

Decmber Reflections

It's just amazing that in this day and age anybody with at least half a brain can still believe the Christmas story. Yet obviously millions still do despite the advances of science over the centuries and the resulting rational explanation of religious "miracles". That in itself is enough to make Christmas a day of mourning for free- thinkers and progressives everywhere.

Nowhere perhaps is this more evident than here in the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic country. I admit that some of the festivities surrounding this holiday here can be very enjoyable, especially the special foods that are prepared especially for this season. But it's astonishing how most people here regardless of advanced educational status wholeheartedly accept the story of the birth of Jesus as an historical event in all its literal detail. However, I will say that most Christians in the Philippines do not try to force their beliefs on others. So life for me as a Jewish nontheist is relatively uncomplicated in that regard.

Unfortunately, such is not the case in the U.S. where every year, Christian fundamentalists complain about the non-existent "war on Christmas". Predictably, they rail at restrictions on religious displays in government offices and become confrontational with merchants who, in terms of interaction with customers, don't share the extremists' perspective on observing this holiday and have little regard for non-Christians and less for atheists' refusal to celebrate Christmas.

What can free-thinkers and non-Christians do about this? Just hold the line and keep on pushing for our rights as Americans. The last time that I looked there is still a Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state and an establishment clause to back it up. It may be a protracted struggle to make our presence known and respected especially in the month of December , but it's a fight that we must never give up.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Religious Extremism: Israel's and America's Threat from Within

If ever a prize for and chutzpah and religious hypocrisy were ever awarded, a top contender for first place would be a fanatical Orthodox Jewish extremist group in Israel, the haredim. Members of this sect do not work for a living and instead spend their time in prayer and Torah study. On one hand this fringe group have no problem accepting welfare and financial support from the Israeli government. Yet on the other, they do not recognize the state of Israel because according to their belief, it is only upon the arrival of the Messiah that Israel will become a nation.

In their anti-Zionist zeal, haredim were apparently the ones who went so far last week as to rip out pages from prayer books at the Western Wall that bless the State of Israel and members of the Israeli military--from which by the way haredim are draft-exempt. I'm certainly no fan of prayer, but I find such rudeness detestable. Can you imagine the outrage that would ensue if a secular or atheist Jewish group did such a thing? If such incivility weren't enough, the haredim also have rioted and stoned those outsiders who enter or pass through their neighborhoods on Saturdays and who do not follow haredim rules for observing Shabbat. Also just a few weeks ago, they rallied on Shabbat against the opening of a parking lot in Jerusalem that took place on a Saturday. In other words, these fundamentalist desecrate prayer books in the name of Torah and violate the Sabbath in order to save it.

Women in the Orthodox Jewish world are at best second class citizens. In Israel, on special public transportation bus lines set aside for haredim, women must sit in the back. On Nov. 29, a woman who dared to assert the notion of women's religious equality by donning a tallit (prayer shawl), wearing a kippah (skull cap) and carrying a torah scroll at the Western Wall. According to strict tradition, only men are permitted to perform these rituals. So she was arrested by the police for her act of defiance. These are perfect examples of the disproportionate power being held by the Orthodox minority in Israel.

It's just mind-boggling that the Israeli taxpayers have been putting up with and supporting these radicals, so it's good to see that more rational people there are at the end of their patience and are beginning to push back by staging protests against Orthodox repression. May the day soon come that they take back the legislative power to reign in extremists.


Israel's problems furnish a lesson for Americans: This is what happens when religious fundamentalists are granted special privilege or take power. We had a taste of this scenario under the Bush Administration. For example, during that era, because of Bush's religious beliefs and those of his hack political appointees, life saving stem cell research was almost completely shut down. Significantly, Bush and his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, justified the war in Iraq as a "holy Christian crusade". The Bush regime also saw an intensification of hostility in the U.S. against teaching the theory of evolution in public schools.

Currently, right wing Christian extremist and far right political groups such as "teabaggers" and "birthers" along with their radio commentator allies are manufacturing outlandish myths about President Obama, and some members of these groups are even praying for his death.

Then there is the prospect of Republican Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee running for president in the 2012 elections. Gov. Huckabee is an unapologetic Christian theocrat who believes that America should be governed according to biblical commandments. And don't even get me started on Sarah Palin, another possible 2012 contender.

In short, at the end of the day, when religious interests take control of a country's government no matter what religion or country, its citizens can kiss freedom good bye.

Addendum: Dec. 14. It turns out that the situation in Israel is even worse than I indicated above. A friend of mine sent me article today that reports Justice Minister is proposing the imposition of Torah "as the binding law of the nation" Click here for the story.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning

Even though my wife and are retired and don't have to follow a schedule, I like to arise every morning around 5am, and spend much of the next hour in contemplative activities such as reading philosophy or watching the dawn light up the sky just before the sun finally appears on the horizon, and enjoying the relative calm and quiet before the daily distractions of life in begin full force.

As it is for most people this is the time of the day when my mind is freest. Awareness, thoughts and emotion are most intense. So another kind of meditation that I often practice during these fleeting minutes is reflecting on such wonders of nature as the infinite vastness of the universe and the complexity of the web of life that has evolved on our humble planet which itself is less than a speck in the grandeur of the cosmos. And given the staggering odds against the likelihood of humankind's existing in the first place, does life have—can it have—any meaning? There is no evidence of a divine force who will furnish the answer for us. Personally, I agree with the humanistic psychoanalyst Erich Fromm who said that there is no meaning to life other than what we give it. But whether this is a viable conclusion is something that each of us must decide for him or herself.

I urge those of you who are not already doing so to set aside a few moments out of your day at whatever time is best for you, preferably in solitude and in as quiet an environment as you can find to explore your mind and see where your innermost thoughts take you. By doing so you may well gain a new and enriched perspective on the world around you that you never thought possible.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Repair Job

On Saturday I attended Shabbat services at the synagogue here in Metro-Manila. It so happened that there was a guest speaker who spoke about tikkun olam. This is an ancient Hebrew phrase referring to the Torah and Talmudic teachings which acknowledge that the world is imperfect, and so it is the duty of each Jew to try to repair it. (Side note: So if the world is imperfect, then that reflects on an imperfect and therefore non-existent God?).

Interestingly, the lecturer, a rather engaging speaker, was an Orthodox rabbi. Yet in the course of his address, I don't recall that he mentioned God even once. But even if he had, it wouldn't have made a difference in light of the subject matter. For historically, not only traditional Jews, but progressive and radical Jews as well have identified with or may well have been influenced by the creed of tikkun olam. This can be seen in the works of such great Jewish historical figures and thinkers such as Spinoza, Marx, and Freud, (none of whom were theists). In American history many Jews were active in the U.S. labor, civil rights, the anti-Vietnam war, and feminist movements. They likewise personified this precept and and although their respective paths were controversial to many people, they did try to make America and the world a better place.

As an atheistic Jew, tikkun olam is a principle in which I too have long been interested, and I believe that it is something that all of us, Jewish or not, can practice. It doesn't necessarily require a great personal sacrifice or struggle. It can simply entail such actions as living decent, humane lives, and respecting the environment, or as in the words of the Jewish sage Hillel "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor".

If nothing else, it's in our own self-interest to to try to improve society and in turn benefit from these efforts. Moreover, through such responsible living perhaps people will mature ethically and will outgrow the need to look to an imaginary supreme being for guidance. Under these circumstances, "God" will wither away, and civilization can then advance, liberated at last from the constraints of theism.

The world will never be perfect. But what is there to lose by striving to leave it a better place than we found it?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Atheism: The Essence of Morality

On Sept. 17, the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a story about a rookie cop in Manila who found and returned to its rightful owner a lost wallet containing a large amount of cash despite, as the police officer acknowledged, the temptation to keep it for himself. Given the usually deserved reputation for corruption which police and other officials are known for and with the overall high crime rate here in the Philippines, it was refreshing to hear about this display of honesty.

Despite the high crime rate in this country, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is extremely influential (which is not as paradoxical is it may seem at first glance*). So it was not surprising that the reason stated by the officer for his good deed was fear of God's punishment if he kept the money. So as honorable as his actions were, they truly driven by morality? In the conventional sense of the word, most people would say yes.

As an atheist, I would disagree. The reason is that in my opinion true morality has no intrinsic tie with religion and exists independently from it. Good behavior that is based on the fear of or the desire to score points with God or even on a belief in karma is a really a shallow, self-serving ulterior motive for acting decently. Without fear as a motivating factor, theists would have no reason to inhibit the beast within.

This turns on its head the concept of atheists as being more likely to indulge in criminal behavior than theists. I would like to think that I too would have returned the wallet but for an entirely different reason from that of the police officer. I believe that virtue is its own reward. Performing such a deed is simply the ethical thing to do for its own sake and in the interest of a just and progressive society.

(*See myFeb.28, 2009 post,Corruption And Religion: Not Such Strange Bedfellows)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Disgrace for Yale University

Yale University Press recently compiled a publication called "The Cartoons That Shook the World" but in doing so, decided to exclude caricatures that offended Muslim sensibilities. This omission was done under the threat of violence by Islamic extremists (is that a redundancy?) if the cartoons in question were published. By caving in to such extortion and then censoring its publications accordingly , Yale has jettisoned the concept of a university as a haven for inquiry and exploration of ideas.

But here is the bigger issue: What gives any individual or group, especially religious organizations, regardless of what they consider provocation, the right to dictate to others what they may say or write? However, it takes two to tango: It's a slap in the face of intellectual integrity for this institution to kowtow to these fanatics, who having now seen what they can get away with, most likely won't stop with an act of intimidation against just one American school.

Shame on Yale for setting such a disgraceful precedent against academic freedom in this country.

Friday, September 4, 2009

President Obama: In the Shadow of a Prairie Giant

As the country prepares to observe Labor Day which was created to honor the American working people and their contribution to society, some questions need to asked regarding a basic entitlement of workers and for that matter of all Americans: universal health care.

First of all, it’s disgraceful how the campaign to reform the health care system has turned into a 3-ring circus. Why on Earth has President Obama allowed the Republicans to hijack and sully the debate on this issue and the drag the of concept nationalized health care through the mud, especially in view of the fact that the Democrats control both the Senate and the House?

But the bigger question is why has the U.S. , despite the negative experiences of so many people here under the present system historically refused to face up to the need for access to affordable health care for all its citizens as the rest of the industrialized nations have done? Indeed, why have Americans failed to recognize that such access to health care is a human right, not a privilege and that the insurance industry has made total hash of the providing such coverage thanks to its greed for profits at the expense of the insured and uninsured alike?

President Obama, of course, ostensibly favors health care reform. But if he truly believes that Americans deserve a better deal in this matter than what we’ve been getting, he should take out a few hours and see the movie “Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story”. Douglas, as depicted in this production and in real life, came from an ordinary background but almost single-handedly brought nationalized health care to Canada first on the provincial and eventually the federal level in the face of entrenched special interest groups including those in the U.S. who fought tooth and nail against this his program. He succeeded by sticking to his guns and refusing to give up in the face of this powerful opposition. Douglas eventually came to be hailed as that nation's "Greatest Canadian."

As a leader, rather than trying to please all sides in this cause, Obama needs to emulate Douglas' determination by getting a pair of balls and putting the necessary pressure on Congress to get the job of overhauling health care done, once and for all. Failure to do so which was a blemish on the Clinton Administration is not an option this time—not just for the sake of Obama’s standing and reputation as President but in the interest of the American people.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Toxic Traditions

I recently read two news items that were published on the same day and which appeared to be unrelated to each other. But the more I thought about it, the more I noticed a similarity in their content.

In India there is a custom—probably a symbolic child sacrifice ritual—practiced by both Muslim and Hindu parents, in which they throw their babies off temple towers into makeshift nets (actually taut bedsheets) near the ground. The purpose of this act is that according to local beliefs it will assure the health and good fortune of these infants. And supposedly, since these babies are caught before they hit the ground, none have suffered any physical harm. But even if such a"perfect" record were true (which is extremely doubtful), who knows what psychic damage they may suffer. According to my wife who is a child psychologist, such trauma can be profound. Falling—especially from a great height—is one of the most traumatic events that the mind can register, no matter how young the victim. So it's no surprise that according to the article the infants were said to be screaming during their plunge.

In the other news story, a father in Wisconsin was convicted in the death of his seriously ill daughter. He withheld medical attention from her in favor of faith healing as a cure, which of course failed to save her. The victim's mother was also convicted a few months earlier on the same charge. Incidentally, have you noticed that it's almost always children and never adults who die as a result of being "prayed" to death instead of receiving medical care. If there are any adults who have died as a result of withholding medical care from themselves and opting for faith healing instead (and I haven't heard of any), it's their own choice, and not forced on them by other adults.

That is the point of this post. Regardless of culture or society, children are powerless and must rely on their parents or guardians to look after their welfare. When those in control use religion as an excuse to inflict harm on their children, whether actively as in the form of physical and emotional violence or passively by refusal to provide medical care for illness or injury, this is out and out child abuse. And it's no less the case than if committed in an alcoholic or other drug induced rage, or because of the sadistic character of the perpetrator.

What would the world be like if children were spared their elders' superstitious ignorance and brainwashing done in the name of a supernatural being or beings? Yet how can such relief ever happen when in most countries it's unlikely that there will ever be a generation of parents (and perhaps one is all that it would take) who are willing to break the chain and not hand down or inflict such warped nonsense on their offspring in the name of religious tradition? In this regard there's not much that America can do about the rest of the world, but in the U.S. , a small step in that direction would be publicizing and confronting faith-based child abuse wherever or whenever it's known to occur and never allowing religion to be used as a legal justification for such behavior, especially by parents or other guardians.

But do atheists have a better track record in raising and disciplining their children because they don't resort to punishments and fear-mongering in the name of a likely non-existent supreme being? If so they need to become more vocal and present these child-rearing methods as superior to that of traditional theist parental practices of control via threats of divine retribution. In fact, there should also be extensive scientific studies as to which group has a better success rate in bringing up their children to become socially responsible and emotionally healthy adults.

However, the results or at least strong indications may already be in on this one: Supposedly atheists make up only a small percentage of the U.S. prison population. And as indicated in my Feb. 28, 2009 post in this blog site, Corruption And Religion: Not Such Strange Bedfellows, enlightenment and good conduct by their citizens are salient features of secular cultures such as Finland, Denmark, and New Zealand. As might be expected, such countries also have strong social safety nets and public programs that benefit their children, who as a result grow up to be productive citizens of those societies. It is this virtuous cycle as practiced by these countries in nurturing children and directly or indirectly minimizing their exposure to religious abuse that may serve as a beacon to the rest of the world.

But as so many other countries throughout the world are still shackled by the interrelated evils of governmental corruption, private greed, and religious zealotry, most children face a lifetime not just of material deprivation but of irrationalism as well.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Five Reasons Not to be Impressed by Religious People

When prominent American Jews get arrested or are have found to have committed dishonest deeds (think Bernard Madoff), the first reaction of law-abiding members of the Jewish community is "what will the goyim (gentiles) think of us?" This reaction is a defense mechanism that has been instilled in us almost to the genetic level as a result of centuries of persecution.

But when I read about the five Orthodox rabbis in New Jersey who were recently charged with alleged money laundering and other crimes, and who were arrested along with corrupt public officials with whom they were doing business, my feelings ranged from indignation, to amusement and sense of vindication for my hypothesis that public corruption and religious officials often mix (See my Feb. 28, 2009 post "Corruption And Religion: Not Such Strange Bedfellows".)

Orthodox rabbis? and five of them at that? And according to the news story, there may still be more in Brooklyn who are involved? Sheesh, didn't these guys have to pass some kind of ethics test to graduate from the yeshiva? (Orthodox yeshivas do teach that stuff, don't they?) But then if you have an inherent sense of right and wrong wrong as do most humanistic Jews and other atheists, you don't need an ethics course. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when was the last time that you heard of a Humanistic or a Reform rabbi being charged with nefarious deeds of this nature or caught up in such a scandal?

So to my fellow Jews who might feel a sense of shame over what these rabbis did, consider this: If they don't care about their behavior and have no sense of personal responsibility, whose problem is that? Certainly not yours.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

An Open Letter to Senator Max Baucus

Senator Baucus,

If you're so afraid of a government sponsored health plan, why don't you give up the one that you have as a senator? Why shouldn't all Americans have the kind of insurance that you and all the other federal employees enjoy?

One reason that my wife and I left the country is that we couldn't afford U.S. health care insurance premiums after I retired (I'm too young for Medicare).

Employer sponsored health plans are a joke. What about those who are unemployed or work for a company that doesn't provide that benefit? Employees who work for companies that do have insurance often become trapped in "job lock" because private insurance premiums are prohibitive. I know. I've been there.

If private health care is so much better than a government sponsored plan, then why can't the two be allowed to compete and let the people decide? Isn't that the American way?

Get real, Senator.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

In Search of a New American Revolution

As Americans celebrate Independence Day, we must ask ourselves whether we are free as long as our society is shackled by theistic religious beliefs.

It cannot be overemphasized that the founding fathers of our country were primarily deists if not outright atheists. The American Constitution makes no reference to a supreme being. And the separation of church and state is enshrined in the First Amendment, which shows the importance that the creators of this wonderful document placed on that concept. Thus it is outrageous for religious fundamentalists to insist that America is a "Christian nation" and who accordingly want to turn the government into a theocracy. In the last 25 years or so, science and reason have been subjected to attack by Christian zealots to the point that as the result of political pressure from the creationist movement many public school districts in the U.S. have become reluctant to teach the theory of evolution, a well-researched principle for which there is overwhelming evidence and which is the cornerstone for not just for biology but for other sciences as well. This failure in education may well result in a generation of Americans who are ignorant in the origin and history of human life.

Until America achieves a secular society on par with countries such as Denmark and New Zealand, we will remain a nation with First-World trappings but with a Third-World mentality steeped in narrow-mindedness and superstition.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Faith By the Numbers

One thing that has troubled me for a long time is the phenomenon of "faith by the numbers". Why did it take the Holocaust for many Jews to finally question God's existence? During the 1800's alone, thousands of our people were slaughtered in the pogroms in Russia. Yet in the face of this destruction, for most Jews both in Russia and elsewhere during that time it was business as usual as far belief in God and failure to stand up to such persecution.

So why is 6 million deaths a magic number in terms of questioning God? Where was Jewish doubt about God's existence before that time regarding the circumstances and events that served as a precedent and led up to this horror? Why did so many Christians through the centuries blindly believe the blood libel and other myths to justify killing Jews?

And in more recent history where was collective Jewish indignation against the mass murder of other people such as the Cambodians and the Tutsis? Were they any less worthy of our compassion just because they were not Jews ?

The D-day invasion 65 yeas ago was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis and ultimately the deliverance of the death camp victims. When will reason invade the mind of humanity and liberate us all from baseless faith and the tyranny of blind obedience to a non-existent God?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blogsite Title Tune-up

I have changed the title of this blogsite from "Towards a Rational America" to "Towards a Rational America and An Enlightened Judaism". This expansion was made in order for the name to more accurately reflect the scope of my posts—past, present, and future.

When I began this blog last year, President Bush was still in power and wreaking havoc on America. Many of the issues concerning the then socio-economic-political scene in our country at that time, about which I wrote (or ranted about, depending on your point of view) are being addressed by the Obama Administration. This is not to say the crisis is over; the economy is still in shambles and the unemployment rate is over 8%. But President Obama is moving forward on such important issues as health care, workers rights, and restoring science to its rightful place in education and government decisions, such as the policy on stem cell research. Perhaps these steps are the beginning of a movement towards an enlightened America.

But I want to make it clear that as a concerned American Jew, I also want to see Judaism in the U.S. reverse its right wing drift and become more progressive and enlightened as well. One way to do this is to eliminate an unprovable supreme being from the picture, as for example the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) has done. Very importantly, in an enlightened Judaism, the Orthodox wing would not be so arrogant as to proclaim itself the sole authority vs. other Jewish schools of thought, or if it did, it would be vigorously challenged by the other branches for such chutzpah. The problem is that many if not most non-Orthodox Jews have an inferiority complex about their own practice of Judaism. So they look up to the Orthodox as the authentic, true Jews who should be given as much leeway as they want to decide who and who is not a legitimate Jew.

But this kind of liberation is easier said than done when for example the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva University President Norman Lamm told the Jerusalem Post that it's time to say Kaddish (prayer for the dead) over the more moderate Conservative and Reform concepts of Judaism due the their shrinking numbers (when in fact the latter branch is actually growing). He further said that Reform Judaism "is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture". I would counter that as the result of his arrogance, Lamm doesn't even get the picture.
Finally, for a rational America to become a reality, the key is secularization. In such a political and social framework, the individual may choose to accept or reject the notion of a supreme being as he or she sees fit. However, no sectarian group would have the power to dictate its belief to others regarding a deity or to demand special privileges from the government. In my opinion, this would be a truly just society for non-believers and believers alike and would bring the non-establishment clause of First Amendment of the Constitution to full fruition.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Irrationality of Prayer—Pascal's Wager Revisited

Over the past several months, I've experienced a myriad of health problems, which have required various treatments, surgery, endoscopic examinations one of which was invasive , medications, and a trip to the emergency room. Despite a number of scares that the symptoms were indicative of a serious illness, the results turned out favorably. But needless to say, the experience was very stressful.

Yet during this period, not once did I consider prayer as an option, either as a form of consolation or a plea for healing from a (likely non-existent) supernatural being. What is, is. This is not fatalism. Whatever the facts of the matter are, they can't be denied by wishing them away. The outcome of my recovery depended on my doctor's skill and my body's ability to respond to treatment. There is no proof that a supernatural force was involved in the determining the outcome of my condition. This should not be construed as bragging on my part regarding my commitment to the principles of unbelief when the chips were down. It was just exercising common sense.

In the tradition of Pascal's wager, let's say for the sake of argument that there is a supreme being to whom prayers can be directed. If this supreme being/ God is all powerful and omniscient (which by the way may be considered a contradiction in terms), then (s)he has already decided the future of the universe, including of course every one's destiny. Therefore, prayer is just a futile waste of time.

If God has not yet predetermined the future and arbitrarily decides on people's welfare based upon their beseeching him/her for help, then in effect (s)he is a sadist, just by dangling the prospect of granting a supplicant's wish. This all powerful Almighty's message comes down to this: "If you grovel and beg, maybe I'll grant your prayer, but then again maybe I won't, so go ahead and debase yourself. I'll just sit here and watch." That response to the petitioner and the relationship that it implies between God and man flies in the face of humanity's self respect.

That's why if you reflect on that passage "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Praise be the name of the Lord", you can see what a humiliation that is and the violence it does to the dignity of mankind and our ability to reason and create. If there is a "sky daddy" who has that kind of power, then why should man bother to make an effort at self-improvement or at bettering the world? Why bother, period? In the end, man is powerless, and what will be, will be. That is fatalism, and given these conditions, an understandable perspective.

Atheism and nontheism on the other hand simplify life. There's no outside force to reckon with, no otherworldly crutch to lean on whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is up to us to strive as best we can and take initiative and responsibility to help ourselves and each other. A fully developed human being does a good deed for its own sake and not for the ulterior motive for scoring points with a deity in order to "go to heaven". At the end our lives, the only immortality is a good name by which we will be remembered based on whatever contribution that we made to the world. In that sense, virtue (as in virtuous living) is truly its own reward.

We cannot control the random events that happen to us during the course of our lives such as illness or other misfortunes, but we can control our responses to them. By not wasting time and energy chasing after a phantom "sky daddy" to lean on or to solve our problems, we can be more clear-headed and achieve a more realistic relationship with the world around us.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Another Smear Campaign Against Atheists

In today's Atheist Revolution blog, there was a report about a Baptist pastor who posed as an atheist and left hateful commentaries on the site Unreasonable Faith. The content of these posts which appeared to be written by a non-believer were intended to make atheists look like monsters, reinforcing the negative image that unbelivers already have in the eyes of the rest of society. Talk about bearing false witness against one's neighbor!

The pastor's disinformation campaign is reminiscent of "The Protocols of The Elders of Zion", a forgery written by the Russian Secret Police during the czarist era in order to falsely depict the Jewish people as fomenting an international conspiracy to take over the world. This tract became a worldwide best seller that is popular among anti-Semites even today.

The point is that all it takes is a well placed, well timed attack to do severe damage against a cause or a people that results in long-lasting or permanent damage. Fortunately this time the perp was a bit player and was busted early on, but what about next time?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Corruption And Religion: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Did you ever notice that the most corrupt countries in the world are the also the ones whose populations are the most "devout"? The Philippines and Latin America where the Catholic Church wields tremendous power are perfect examples of this phenomenon. I have a hypothesis that there is a positive correlation between religion and corruption in almost any given society. It seems that the greater the degree of religiosity in a country, the more dishonesty in its government.

In the U.S., during the Bush and Reagan Administrations which were controlled by Republican Conservatives and were marked by an emphasis on Christian religious values, the amount of corruption and dishonesty in the executive branch went through the roof.

In the matter of controlling crime, conservative Republicans are strong advocates of law and order. Yet according to The God Delusion (p229) by Richard Dawkins in which he quotes Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation", the crime rate in the American (Republican /Christian conservative) "red" states is greater than the Democrat /Liberal) "blue" states. George Bush's "red" home state of Texas where he served as governor is blessed with three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S.

But such sleaze and hypocrisy aren't confined to Christian-majority nations. Israel, where the Orthodox Jewish establishment has disproportionate clout to its numbers, also has that problem. As I understand the Orthodox religious parties are among the most corrupt of all the political organizations there. Conservative rabbis have called for the dissolution or privatization of the government supported Chief Rabbinate of Israel due to corruption and favoritism in that office.

Muslim countries, which are controlled or influenced by Sharia (Islamic law), also have a high rate of corruption in government. And as for the excuse that poverty causes corruption, keep in mind that Saudi Arabia for example is a wealthy country. What's their excuse?

If anything, corruption causes poverty. In countries such as the Philippines where the wealth is concentrated in the oligarchic hands of a few wealthy and publicly pious families, so is ownership of the government and control of the treasury which has become their own piggy bank to do with as they wish. This financial abuse in turn diverts economic resources from the rest of the people. (Speaking of public piety, President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo of the Philippines has the distinct (dis)honor of having a higher perception of corruption than all her predecessors in that office. One of my favorite news photos is that of President Arroyo with her hands sanctimoniously clasped in prayer.)

On the other hand secularly oriented nations such as Finland and Denmark have a low rate of government corruption. True, there may be individual officials in these countries who are dishonest, but there is not the endemic systemic rot that is found in religion-based countries where dealings with government and law enforcement officials at almost all levels involve grease money to the point that corruption and concurrent human rights abuse have become a way of life and an integral part of the culture (or as referred to in the Philippines "guns, goons, and gold".)

One possible explanation for this phenomenon in Catholic countries is the popular belief that such sins can be absolved through the act of Confession, wherein the penitent in effect washes his / her hands through absolution, leaving him or her free to repeat the cycle of repentance and recidivism ad infinitum, ad nauseum. In Judaism, there is no such ecclesiastical escape hatch for immoral behavior. So I'm puzzled as to how an Orthodox Jewish official in Israel (or anywhere) can square indulging in corrupt practices on one hand with a belief in God and the tenets of the Torah on the other. Perhaps one answer is compartmentalization, but I don't find that to be a fully satisfactory explanation.

But don't take word about the tendency towards corruption in religion-centered societies vs. honest conduct in government in secular countries. Let's look at the numbers as furnished by Transparency International. This organization ranked 180 countries in their 2008 CPI (Corruption Perception Index) Three countries with the best scores were the secular nations Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden (all tied for first place). The U.S. scored 18th; Israel: 33rd; Mexico: 72nd; Saudi Arabia: 80th; Philippines: 141st.

Interestingly, Russia and some of the former Soviet block countries scored poorly in the CPI. An apologist for traditional religion might say that during the decades of the Communist regime, these were atheist led countries. So doesn't that show that religion has no connection to corruption? Not really. These countries have a history of religious authoritarianism in their cultures. So, for example, in Russia, which was Eastern Orthodox dominated for hundreds of years, the Bolshevik Revolution simply replaced the Church with the State as a focus of worship. In other words, Communism became the new national religion. But even then, the power and influence of the Orthodox Church never completely disappeared, and this institution is making a comeback in that country. The same is true for Roman Catholicism in Poland. And Romania is a total basket case. According to the article "Secular Humanism Comes to Romania" in the Augst / September issue of the magazine "Free Inquiry", this country is dominated by the Romanian Orthodox Church; yet it has the highest corruption level of all the European Union countries.

So why are people in progressive states less inclined to believe in a supreme being or at least less inclined to have religion run their lives ? Perhaps the national character of these countries has matured to the point that they have outgrown the childish dependence on a sky daddy (plus a clergy) who dispenses favors through prayer and material wealth as a sign of grace. Consequently, these countries seems to exhibit a more rational and humanistic spirit and a concern for the welfare of the collective (nationalized health care for example) and for the world itself, inasmuch as a decrease in narcissism and greed result in a reduction in destructiveness against oneself and others, hence a better human rights record. It's interesting that in enlightened countries such as Denmark and Holland, Muslims have sought and received asylum from inter-tribal persecution in their native countries. Many of these refugees have shown their gratitude by verbally attacking and even murdering those in the host countries who dare to criticize or question the refugees' customs that are incompatible with religious and cultural diversity. This destructiveness is similar to a child's temper tantrum. Well, no surprise there. Such behavior in adults is the logical outcome of any fanatical religious indoctrination that preaches supremacy of its followers over other groups.

In countries where religion rules, there seems to be a tendency towards greed and narcissism and a total indifference to the common good. The perspective in the Philippines for example is (and these are the words of that a Filipino actually used to describe his feelings to me: "My family first and the hell with everybody else". Crime here is rampant not just among the poor. It seems to be even just as bad or worse among members of the middle and upper middle classes. Yet, since appearance is important, they flock to weekly Mass. In the U.S. especially during the Reagan/Bush era as previously noted the culture was permeated by a "greed is good" mentality. This theme is also the hallmark of many American televangelists.

With the international financial meltdown, the chickens have come home to roost for the free-market economic order that celebrated this avaricious approach to living. But in the current crisis there is a now an opportunity for enlightened thinkers, philanthropists, educators, writers, et al in America and the rest of the world to step up to the plate and insist on inclusion in rebuilding the system. This includes increased funding for education with an emphasis on rationality and critical thinking. The media needs to do its part in encouraging its readers to carefully analyze its coverage of current events, especially news about religion. Atheist and Humanist organizations need to become more agressive in advocating the cause of nonbelievers who are persecuted for their convictions. Above all, free thinkers everywhere must fight the anti-intellectual conditions and moral hypocrisy that foster the ignorance and denial that breed religious the twin evils of zealotry and corruption—and in turn, the ties that bind them.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Confronting A Sleazy Strategy

Why are American religious fundamentalists so sneaky about trying to use public policy to impose their beliefs on others? It seems that if they can't advance their political agenda through the front door, they attempt to do so under the radar.

When the courts ruled that creationism is a religious doctrine and has no place in public school biology classes, the religious right repackaged this biblical myth under the name "intelligent design" as a "scientific alternative" to the theory of evolution. But to paraphrase the expression here in the Philippines, it was just the same old dog with a new collar. Whom did the fundies think that they were fooling? Certainly not the scientific community nor for that matter the judiciary who eventually shot down this ruse as well.

More recently, there's the "moment of silence" (Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act) that a legislator managed to have introduced into that state's public schools. The law offered students a choice of personal reflection or silent worship, so that supposedly the latter was not compulsory. However, this was really enforced prayer in disguise, notwithstanding that state sponsored prayer in schools was banned years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. Proof of the stealth intention of this lawmaker is the language of the act, which required teachers to indirectly encourage pupils to use this time to pray.

Such tactics on the part of these right wing religionists are not only politically deceitful and underhanded but intellectually dishonest. Aren't followers of traditional religion supposed to set an example in the practice of ethics?

Fortunately, a federal judge ruled the Illinois law as an unconstitutional breach of church and separation, but the matter isn't finished if the State Attorney General decides to appeal this decision.

Contrast these devious methods of "God-squads" in promoting their interests with the open and direct approach that atheists and other secularists use to advance their cause. Perhaps this is because the legal filings in the interest of non-sectarianism are usually reactive in nature, i.e. in response to an abrogation of religious neutrality in a law or other decree. In other words, when non-believers protest against "prayer in public schools" for example, we do not object to students quietly praying on their own as individuals. Our complaint is against mandatory or sponsored prayer led by teachers or other school officials who as authority figures are directly or indirectly coercing all students to participate.

If American religious extremists think that they can get away with trying to violate the rights of non-believers without being detected, they are as misguided in this notion as they are in the belief that their dogma entitles them to legal special privileges. Based on the signals given in President Obama's inaugural address, there is hope that unlike in the days of the Bush administration, these zealots will no longer be able to ride roughshod either overtly or covertly over advocates of freedom of religion—and freedom from religion.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pastor Warren: The Best Reason for a Prayer-Free Inauguration

Even though I stand by my position that the election of Barack Obama as America's first African-American President represents a breakthrough from which atheists also may one day benefit, (see my Nov. 9 post "A Step Forward For American Atheists?") I am disappointed that he chose Pastor Rick Warren, a homophobic Christian fundamentalist preacher, to deliver the invocation at Obama's inauguration. Perhaps this is Obama's attempt to "atone" to his critics for his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright whose anti-American rhetoric upset many people and which Hillary Clinton for example described as "hate speech". Yet isn't this likewise an appropriate designation for Warren's comparison of gay marriage to incest?

It turns out that besides Warren's intolerance towards certain groups, there is another issue: the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that in his prayer he will invoke Jesus' name which would be in keeping with his religious convictions. If he does this, it will upset a lot of non-Christians (myself included). For one thing, making such an entreaty at this event would symbolically imply endorsement of Christianity as the national religion.

However, would it be rational to expect a fundie like Warren to pass up the chance at such an occasion to "strut his stuff" and NOT to call upon Jesus at such an occasion? After all, wouldn't one expect an atheist who is just as true to his /her principles to omit deistic references in delivering an invocation address?

But even if Warren were replaced with another more moderate speaker who would be willing to seek a more neutral blessing from some universal divine being, in the final analysis no matter there is really no such thing as a non-denominational prayer anyway. What deity would be the object of such a prayer, "To whom it may concern"? Prayer by its very nature implies an appeal to a "higher power" and as such is a religious act. Therefore, its inclusion at such an event as an American presidential inauguration violates the spirit (no pun intended) of the Constitutional separation of Church and State.

If ever there were an opportunity to show that America can truly become a nonsectarian society, elimination of the Presidential Inaugural prayer would be a great symbolic step in that direction.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Fixed Income Myth

When I worked as a bill collector, a common excuse among senior citizens for their inability to make their payments is that they were having a hard time due to being on a "fixed income", usually social security. At the time I didn't understand the significance of that phrase, but I suspected it was a bogus alibi.

Now that my wife and I are retired and are the ones collecting social security (which is about 90% of our total income) it turns out that I was right. First of all, we both just received an annual 5.8% COLA increase to our benefit's effective this month. Secondly, as a percentage that number is greater than what I sometimes received when I was employed. Finally, social security is a guaranteed income, unlike wages which of course terminate when your job ends.

I recall once reading a complaint in a newspaper from an elderly woman on social security who said that she was hard up and her favorite restaurant—where she goes for breakfast every morning—didn't offer senior citizen discounts. Goes for breakfast every morning? If she's so damn poor, why is she spending money on dining out daily? And where is it written that senior disocunts are a right?

When I was working, my wife and I were lucky if we went out to a restaurant once a week. Now that we're no longer employed, and our income has been reduced accordingly, we have to be even more careful than before with our expenses. Just because we're older doesn't give us license to behave irrresponsibly or demand special treatment.

In short, the only thing that's "fixed" in receiving this type of income is the rigid outlook and misplaced entitlement attitude of some of its recipients.