Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Religion, Elections, and Education

As regulars know, I'm not big on religion.

Being a former Navy officer, I tend to avoid religious discussions if at all possible. Basic wardroom etiquette dictates no discussion of the job, politics, and religion at the dinner table. Now obviously I've completely disregarded the first two topics here at Stonekettle Station, but I try to avoid discussing religion as much as possible for a couple of reasons. One, I have little interest in attracting the pro-religion folks or the anti-religion folks and the ensuing pitched crap-flinging in the comments section that most posts of that nature generate. And two, because I know that a number of readers are deeply religious and I have no desire whatsoever to give unnecessary offense. As long as religious people respect my lack of faith, I'll respect their beliefs and I try to avoid deliberate attacks on anybody's belief system.

I don't have anything in particular against religious people, providing that they don't try to impose their beliefs on me or mine and providing that those belief systems respect others and do no particular harm to society at large. Particular harm being defined according to the following ideal: I believe in freedom of religion, but I also believe strongly in freedom from religion. I also believe that when your religion impacts me or mine - and by extension my nation's security and well being - you've made your beliefs my business. Example, I consider Alzheimer's Disease horrifying. Others have a mortal fear of heights, snakes, or death. Not me. But I fear disintegration of my mind, I do. If stem cell research will lead to a cure or prevention, then I want all I can get. If fetuses are to die, naturally or otherwise, and the parents are willing to donate their bodies to science, then I don't see where your religion has a right to say a damned thing about it and I don't see this as any different from donating your dead child's heart or liver to save another. If a cure is found, and your religion doesn't hold with it - then don't take it, don't donate your child's life to it, but don't tell me I have to spend the last years of my life as a mindless drooling zombie for your God. If he doesn't want me to fight, he shouldn't have created Alzheimer's in the first damned place.

I think it can be demonstrated that religion has done a hell of a lot of good in the world. I think it can be demonstrated that religion has done a hell of a lot of evil in the world as well. Whether religion has produced more good or more evil depends very much on your perspective - and your religion.

I think that religion and faith fill a basic deep-seated need for many people. I think that religion gives the devout strength in a frightening world, makes them part of something larger than themselves, and gives them comfort in the cold and lonely night. Many people do not look upon the unknown with awe or wonder or a burning desire to go find out what's over the next hill. For many people, the universe is a vast and terrifying place. These people need structure, guidance, answers- and religion provides that. Understand, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong, or weak minded, or defective about this, only that some people (a majority maybe) seem to be wired this way - whether by design or by selection of survival characteristics through evolution.

For others, such as myself, the universe is a puzzle. A place of mysteries to be solved, strange folk yet to be met, things to be learned, questions to be asked and asked yet again, and a place without boundary or limit. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine - and we like it that way.

But, we all want answers, and for some, religion provides those answers. For others religion simply does not.

For many people the world is like the lost generation ship Vanguard in Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. Set in motion long ago by powerful and unknowable forces, sharply defined, with given rules and dangers, there's a fixed beginning and a fixed end as foretold. But for others, well, we're the ones looking in amazement at the stars outside the windows of the Captain's Veranda and realizing that the universe is far vaster than we were led to believe. Others look out those same windows and see only points of light.

Where I think religion too often jumps the shark is when instead of providing answers and a source of comfort, it becomes a straightjacket. Despite protestations to the divine contrary, religion is ultimately a human endeavor - and like all things human it is prone to corruption and abuse. And far too often religions become little more than a source of control and power for a select few human beings over many, and this is true of tiny cults such as the Westboro Baptist Church all the way up to ancient religions with millions of adherents such as Islam or the Catholic Church. Large organizations are inherently conservative, this is nearly inevitable given time and human nature, and religion is often the most conservative of human social constructs. Religion is often about providing definitive answers regarding fundamental questions such as where do we come from, what is our purpose, where are we going. As such, religion is often about maintaining the status quo. Anything that questions those answers is very, very often seen as a threat to the religion's power and status and control, and while the average adherent may not perceive it that way, those in the pulpit most certainly do.

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power often blinds those in power, deliberately so in many cases. And power is too often an end in and of itself, instead of a means to an end. Those in power tend to want to stay in power, and when power is vested in something as fundamental as how people perceive the world, the tendency to see anything that challenges that perception as a threat is all to common.

A priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Greenville [South Carolina] has told parishioners that those who voted for Barack Obama placed themselves under divine judgment because of his stance on abortion and should not receive Holy Communion until they've done penance.

The priest, Rev Jay Scott Newman speaking to the The Greenville News last week, said that according to Catholic Church doctrine he cannot refuse Holy Communion to anyone based on their political choices. However, in a letter posted on St. Mary's website, Newman wrote that "voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil." While I support the Reverend Newman's, and by extension the Catholic Church's, right to freedom of speech, belief and expression, I have a major issue with essentially telling Catholics that they have political free will, but if they vote democrat their souls will be damned to hell for all eternity - unless they do penance and thereby give up their inalienable American right to privacy by confessing their choice of candidate to the priest. I don't believe in the soul, but a heck of a lot of people do - and the threat is a very, very real one to them. I also have a major problem with the Catholic Church calling the President Elect of the United States "intrinsically evil." And it is the Church, not just one bullheaded priest - because the Vatican has yet to refute Newman's declaration. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because it comes right down to a foreign religious power telling people how to vote in an American election - and if they don't vote the way the Church wants, there will be severe consequences for them personally, forever. This is no different than a traffic cop telling a driver he can refuse to take the breath-O-lizer. The driver could, technically, but there will be very, very unpleasant consequences as a result. The implied threat is this, if you know what's good for you, you'll do as I say. Or else. Free will is an illusion in both cases.

Additionally, I find it a particular hypocrisy that Newman does not acknowledge conservative support for torture, rendition, extraordinary means, war and etcetera - or liberal support for feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, healing the sick and etcetera - which is an intrinsic element of the Christian faith and which the Catholic Church itself acknowledged in its own Faithful Citizenship document last year. Newman appears to be a single issue priest - and this more than anything indicates that his goal is power and the status quo - and the maintaining and preservation of the same. This is a dangerous precedent, and one very much at odds with concept of separation of church and state.

Then there is this (tip of the hat to Les over at Stupid Evil Bastard):

The Rt Rev Patrick O'Donoghue, the Bishop of Lancaster [UK], has claimed that graduates are spreading scepticism and sowing dissent. Instead of following the Church's teaching they are "hedonistic", "selfish" and "egocentric", he said.

Well, I won't argue the hedonistic, selfish, or egocentric part of that statement, but I would point out that these traits are not in any way confined to only the educated. In fact, if Church history is any indicator, the traits of hedonism, selfishness, and egocentricity are very much part of those educated strictly within the Catholic belief system. I don't want this post to run off into a bash-fest of the Church and pedophile priests and the abuses of the clergy, but those things go a long, long way towards kicking the foundation right out from under the Bishop's statement. Mainstream education or religious (of any kind) education seem to have very little to do with selfishness, hedonism, or ego.

Overall, the gist of Reverend O'Donoghue's message is "the development of mass education on a scale unprecedented in human history - resulting in economic growth, scientific and technological advances, and the cultural and social enrichment of billions of people's lives. However, every human endeavor has a dark side, due to original sin and concupiscence [strong sexual desire]. In the case of education, we can see its distortion through the widespread dissemination of radical skepticism, positivism, utilitarianism and relativism. Taken together, these intellectual trends have resulted in a fragmented society that marginalizes God, with many people mistakenly thinking they can live happy and productive lives without him."

In other words: secular education is evil.

But the simple truth of the matter is that many people do live happy and productive lives without God or the trapping of religion - and this bothers the good bishop to no end.

And education does lead to tough, tough questions regarding the fundamental articles of faith: where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Questions the Church is increasingly ill prepared to answer. Science and education are increasingly at odds with the traditional religious answers in ways that simply cannot be denied for a large number of faithful. Increasingly, many that have a deep seated need to know are finding that the church simply can't provide satisfying answers in this age of knowledge. And so they are leaving.

The church has two options, adapt or die.

In other words, it must evolve.

And so must all religions. People and societies change. Specialization leads to stagnation. Stagnation leads to death and extinction. Far from rejecting education, the church should embrace it and push the limits of knowledge.

People will find a way to fulfil their fundamental needs and find answers to fundamental questions - and if the church can't, or won't, provide those things, then it really serves no purpose.

Does it?


  1. The religion I was taught as a child posited a God who was entirely capable of creating a world in which Evolution would be the rule. What could be more elegant and ingenious. It taught that learning as much as possible about as many things as possible did honor to that God. It taught that there is almost certainly other life somewhere in the Universe...it would be an insult to God to imagine his ability to create so limited in scope.

    I still don't know if God exists or not and I don't honestly think it's a terribly important question in my life. I most certainly don't believe in the closed-minded God of many faiths...the one who withholds heaven from the majority of Earth's population...because if only one religion has got it right, the rest all have it wrong.

    I don't see the least contradiction here either. If there is a God, and we were created in his image, it's our ability and need to create that is most Godly. And to create, you need to learn.

  2. You may find this ironic, but I don't exactly have a problem with Newman's statement (or O'Donoghue's for that matter).

    That's not to say I agree with either of them--I'm an educated atheist who voted for Obama, after all. But Newman has a right to say what he'd like and his parishioners have a right to believe it (or, preferably, not to).

    What he doesn't have is the right to make his beliefs the law. Which maybe creates a perverse scenario insofar as he's trying to do so by controlling how his flock votes. Hopefully, he'll fail to be persuasive--otherwise, all we can do is fight the good fight and hope that Reason wins (a challenge, under the circumstances, but there you are).

    Newman has a right to call Obama evil and to say those who vote for him are evil. Should his parishioners have a problem with that, they have a right to go to a different church. If there's not an alternative church for them, they have a right to form their own. Every single member of Newman's flock has the right to pull a Martin Luther, should they choose, and to publish their own list of 95 Theses, starting with "I'll vote for who the Hell I want!"

    And, conversely, Newman's flock has a right to sacrifice their right to privacy to the Confessional--and indeed must do so if they insist on practicing the tenets of their faith. To say that they are losing their right to privacy when they voluntarily perform a ritual that involves admitting to things they think God might be mad at them for doesn't quite wash: most religions don't require confession and some members of the one that does are lapsed and/or unobservant.

    And if Newman's flock is persuaded, well--so be it.

    The smartest thing I heard recently was a Catholic scholar commenting on NPR, saying that the Catholic Church should step away from trying to address abortion through the legislatures and courts--ultimately a losing battle for the Church--and focus on persuasion. And of course Catholics have a right to try to persuade anybody they want that a fetus has a soul and that nobody ought to have an abortion regardless of legality. Newman's statement is an uneasy hybrid--he's advocating a political act because of it's presumed legislative and judicial consequences, but he's not introducing a bill in the state house, so there's at least that much.

    One last thing to add: I don't know who Newman could have voted for, since the Catholic Church is at least consistent--the anti-choice candidate was the one in favor of everything else the Church has taken a stand against (as you allude to). While I disagree with the Catholics about a number of things including abortion, I do respect that they apply the same sanctity of life arguments to capital punishment, torture, poverty, hunger, and war; it's markedly better, in my opinion, than the buffet-line position of many (by no means all) conservative Protestants in the U.S., who seem to think it's perfectly okay to kill people if they're grown-ups and/or foreigners.

    There's probably more I can add, but maybe it's prudent not to. Also, it's dinnertime here. Thank you for the provocative entry.

  3. First, I think Nathan and I may have the same God. ;)

    Second, the Catholic Church described in those articles is not the Catholic Church I grew up in.

    The Catholic Church of my childhood apologized for Galileo, supported evolution, and emphasized caring for the already born. Especially the later.

    My mother (who I discovered a few years ago is actually pro-choice) volunteered during my childhood at Birthright--an organization that assists pregnant women by providing things like maternity clothes, infant clothes, or even just someone to talk to.

    The nun who taught my 7th grade religion class started an organization to take donated items and provide them at no cost to those in need. (I believe she may also have been pro-choice.)

    I have had the misfortune to experience churches described in those articles, but they were in the minority. And I cannot imagine any of the priests I knew growing up doing and saying such things such as that.

    What I do see, however, is that jackasses like this become the voice of The Catholic Church, while those that I knew growing up went about doing good work and not making a fuss about themselves.

  4. Eric, I agree with you philosophically.

    But in practicality, most religious people and Catholics in particular that I know personally don't see themselves as having a real choice. I've known more than one, ok two, Catholics that fell in love with non-Catholics, one jewish, one agnostic. Both of these people wanted to be married in the church - but the catholic church would not marry them if their proposed spouses didn't convert. Neither would. They were then faced with a choice, marry in another church or in court. Neither's faith would allow that, and by default they decided to not get married and both relationships dissolved. Their choice, of course, but for them it really was no choice. And it's the same here, vote the way the church says or risk divine condemnation - and as I said in the post, for many this threat is very, very real and really leaves people with no choice at all. Vote as the church says, or leave. And many just can't do that.

    Supposedly the path to salvation is a personal one. In the case of Newman, he's taken that choice away from his flock and assumed it for himself - this is the height of pride, another sin unless I'm mistaken. If he had said, these are the things your faith advocates, the sanctity of human life, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and etc - choose to cast your vote for the person you feel best supports our beliefs, I have no problem with it. But when he says that Obama is evil, and that voting for Obama "constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil," I have a problem. "Material cooperation" means something very specific in church doctrine and is about the worst condemnation there is - those of devout faith hear this from Newman, and they really have no choice at all, to vote other than as dictated from the pulpit constitutes giving your soul to Satan. While this may seem silly to non-religious folks, it is deadly serious to many Catholics.

    The education thing, well, I have an issue with the ultimate and long term repercussions of that too - but specifically I have a problem with the faulty logic and intrinsic hypocrisy of O'Donoghue's statement - to wit, education and knowledge lead directly to sin, religious education and limited knowledge lead to virtue. Obviously wrong. Obviously not supported by the facts. Easily proved false. But because he's a Bishop, many will believe that he is correct and reject education and knowledge and blame those things for the evil in the world. It's happening here is the US with fundies, look at the neocon epitaph of Elitism as applied to the educated, and the widespread rejection of science and knowledge by fundamentalist Christians when it conflicts, even slightly, with their belief system. Look at the hash its made of our education system. And yet upon examination, religious education has produced very little of the science, technology, and knowledge these very same people enjoy on a daily basis.

    I have a major problem with this type of message when it leads to the selection of leaders, law makers, and judges who seek to limit my choices - re: my comment regarding stem cell research in the post.

  5. Re. marriage, that's very strange.

    My uncle is Lutheran, and has remained devoutly so throughout his marriage to my Catholic aunt.

    I *believe* my mother did not convert until after she was married. But I don't remember for sure, seeing as how I wasn't around then. :)

    Michael is non-Catholic, and we were married in the Catholic church.

    My very Catholic cousin has finally gotten engaged to his Jewish girlfriend. Religion has always been an issue for them, but they decided that they love each other and they're going to make it work.

    I'm very sorry your friends could not find priests who were willing to work with them.

  6. I think it depends on the dioceses. But I'm certainly no expert. There's enough Catholics around here to straighten me out on it though, David Kletcha and Vince, if I remember right.

    And to be fair, I do know a number of Catholics who where married in the Church to non-Catholics - different diocese - why it wasn't issue for them, or for you for that matter, again I don't know.

  7. I always thought the church would marry them as long as they committed to raising their children in the Catholic Church.

  8. Nathan,

    That's the way things have worked to the best of my knowledge. Marry whoever you want, as long as you're making more Catholics.

    And I thought Judaism had similar regulations. Which is why my cousin and his now fiancee have had such a difficult time.

  9. Nathan, my understanding in both cases was that neither potential spouse was a baptized Christian and therefor required specially permission from the Bishop, who refused to give it.

  10. special permission, not specially permission. I don't even know what that is. Sheesh.

    Something to do with seven sacred sacraments or something. Only reason I know about it, is that one was a friend, the other worked for me, both attended a church in California - and both were very upset and confided in me for no reason that I can fathom.

  11. Jim, to be clear: I don't agree with their messages at all. I think what I was trying to get at was the sentiment attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (The "you" in this instance being the Catholics priests in question, of course, and not you, Jim.) I think it's fair to expose the sentiments of these bums to ridicule, but I won't go so far as to say they shouldn't say these things just because I wish they'd say something else. They're entitled to their (asinine) positions.

  12. No worries, Eric, I understood what you said.

    And I agree with it, specifically this part: They're entitled to their positions.

    I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I said in the post I support the Reverend Newman's, and by extension the Catholic Church's, right to freedom of speech, belief and expression.

    BUT, to be clear the Priest isn't saying that this is his opinion. He's saying that this is the church's position and, by direct inference, God's opinion. BIG difference. And since the Church hasn't directly refuted it - Catholics are left with the accusation that Obama is in league with manifest evil. Which makes it a mortal sin to cooperate with him in any way, and in fact it is the moral duty of Newman and his congregation to oppose the future duly elected president of the United States at every turn. This type of proclamation poses a major moral and ethical dilemma for the faithful who believe that their priest is indeed the ordained voice of God on Earth.

    Newman needs to be clear that his admonishment is his opinion, and solely his opinion.

  13. It may cause the faithful to face a moral and ethical dilemma, but that's life.

    It's not a priest's duty to make everything convenient for the flock. It's the priest's duty to tell the flock what God wants. If the flock has a command from God--whether it's "don't steal," "don't covet," or "don't vote for Democrats"--then the flock has the choice of obeying or questioning their faith in either God or God's apparent mouthpiece. If that's difficult, well it ought to be.

    Suppose for the sake of argument that Newman is right all the way down the line: there is a God, this God is the God of the Bible, Jesus is Messiah, the Catholic Church is the direct continuity of Jesus' ministry as given to Peter, the Church does speak for God, God does command that abortion be outlawed, that God does see support for choice as a mortal sin... what else, then, is Newman supposed to do? Say it's merely his "opinion" that maybe his flock should vote for somebody other than Obama? Tell them it's a sin but it's not really a big deal? Not pass along God's wants as he's commanded to do? Apologize for making members of his ministry feel bad?

    And what is the follower to do? What he has to. If he is going to persist in believing that the things I set out last paragraph are true--that there is a God and this is His Church, etc.--then he is going to have to accept the consequences of that belief. He'll have to accept he's going to Hell.

    Now, obviously I don't believe Newman or anyone who's obedient to him should win, but that's because (a) I don't believe with the first part of the premise (that there is a God) and so anything that follows from that premise is false (e.g. the Church can't speak for what doesn't exist) and (b) I'm part of a pluralistic society that disagrees with various parts of the prior paragraph, whether it's those who think there's a God but Jesus wasn't Messiah, or those who believe in different Gods, or those who believe in all of it up to the parts about the history and role of Roman Catholicism. I hope Newman's view loses because I think he's factually wrong, not because I think he's morally wrong--morally speaking, I think his position logically follows from it's premises and he probably has a derivative moral duty to act accordingly.

    Belief is sometimes frightening and uncomfortable and inconvenient. There are times I'm frightened of non-existence or that I wish the universe had some kind of intelligent rationale behind it (I also sometimes wish for a million dollars, or a musical career, or even something as mundane as a zero-balance on my credit cards and a paid-off car). I don't believe there's no God because it comforts me, I believe there's no God because I think it's true. For a Catholic to believe his creed is true and then be upset when his creed conflicts with his actions and to therefore wish his creed remained the same, only silent is intellectually, theologically and above-all morally craven. He can alter his beliefs in what is true, or he can change his behaviors to accomodate what he believes is true, but he can't and shouldn't have it both ways.

    Finally: I will oppose Newman's views on their facts and premises in my speech and my votes, but his morals will have to be between him, his Church, and their God. Ditto for Newman's parishioners. Newman and his flock shall do what they must--as will I.

  14. Eric, you and I are going to have to sit down and have a beer sometime. Seriously. You're making my brain hurt - you know, in a good way, as usual.

    Let me think about it for a bit.

  15. I'm late to the party - been so damn busy.

    I'm a lapsed Catholic - I just no longer agree with many of their tenets. However, there usually isn't a problem with a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic in the church. However, there are radical priests, right-wing instead of 60's left-wing, and they often don't like following the "liberal" rules. Hell, there's a schismatic section that ordains it's own priests and is pissed due to the changes of Vatican II (which liberalized the church on many issues) and believe it's evil not to say the mass in latin.

    As for abortion, I'm morally opposed to it under most circumstances, but I believ persuasion, better support for mothers, and easier adoption will do more to change the landscape than laws. And there was a time when a fetus wasn't considered a person by the Church until it had "quickened" - about 10 days after conception, if I remember correctly. I'm doing the radio show and am too lazy to look it up.

    That's my two cents.

    And I think a beer with Eric would be fun. Especially if you and John were there as well. I'd though out a topic, start the tape, and watch and listen in glee. Why the tape? For later enjoyment, of course.

  16. Well, hell, I'm up for a beer with everyone even if all we talk about is how awesome the inventor of the push-up bra was (or half of us do, anyway). It's just a question of getting us in one place. In the meantime, I'm happy to clink virtual beers with the whole gang, y'know?

  17. Humph. Maybe the half that wants to talk about push-up bras should wear them first... :-)

  18. Wish I weren't late to the party (so late, in fact, that I'm picking up beer bottles)...

    I understand where you're coming from Eric, and agree with the free speech part of it. I believe the problem is that someone with extreme influence over others is knowingly exorting others to do what is legally wrong. He is inciting treason by equating the current administration with evil that must be actively fought. If he told someone to assassinate the president and they did/tried, and were caught, would he be legally at risk? Is it the same as those movie situations where someone (or someone they love) is threatened with certain death if they do not comply? (Oooh, I'm sending this idea to Law and Order!)

    This is something that ought to be addressed by the Vatican.

    Here's an out though:
    Knowing that there are more liberal veins of Catholicism, could the truly distressed go to a different dioscese for guidence?


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