Friday, April 28, 2006

Dear Rabbi: Mankind Doesn't Need God to be Moral

On April 27, posted the following column, "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists," by Rabbi Marc Gellman of television's "God Squad." It contains a number of distortions and inaccuracies about those who choose to live a secular lifestyle and follow a humanistic view of the universe, rather than a deistic one. The following is my response to Rabbi Gellman's unfounded attack on secularism. The original column can be found at:

One of the first things one learns in elementary logic is that starting with a false assumption causes all conclusions that follow to be incorrect. This is precisely the trap into which Rabbi Marc Gellman tumbles when he begins with the assumption that all atheists are angry. The fact is that, while some nonbelievers may be angry, as a group atheists are far less rageful than those self-righteous believers who murder homosexuals or bomb abortion clinics, confident that they are doing God's work.

Rabbi Gellman makes personal reference to "the kind of patient sympathy often shown to me by Christians who can't quite understand why the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection has not reached me." If he has been the recipient of only "patient sympathy" from evangelical Christians, then he should count himself very fortunate indeed. Too many others who did not accept the Gospel have faced hateful persecution for centuries. Perhaps Rabbi Gellman needs a refresher course on the Inquisition?

I must also confess that I shook my head in disbelief when I read Rabbi Gellman's words, "All religions must teach a overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us. Some religious leaders obviously betray the teachings of the faith they claim to represent, but their sacred scriptures remain a critique of them..." Is it not a central tenet of all major religions that their followers alone are chosen by God for salvation, and that those of other faiths are blasphemers who will face eternal damnation? Is this not the height of arrogance, as well as a carte blanche invitation to oppress nonbelievers? As for the "sacred scriptures" critiquing those leaders who "betray" their teachings, does not Leviticus legitimize the persecution of homosexuals? Does not the Quran direct Muslims to "slay the Infidel?" Most holy scripture is so murky and self-contradictory that both those who preach tolerance and those who thunder about eternal damnation can rightfully claim to be its true heirs.

With his false assumptions about atheism, Rabbi Gellman asks "whether my atheist brothers and sisters really believe that their lives are better, richer and more hopeful by clinging to Camus's existential despair: 'The purpose of life is that it ends.'" The fact is that those like myself who follow the principles of Secular Humanism are not busy clinging to existential despair; we believe that the purpose of life is not to prepare oneself for eternal salvation in an afterlife whose very existence is unlikely, but to do as much good for humanity in this life (the only one we get, as far as anyone knows) as one can, while enriching oneself morally, culturally, and scientifically . Notice that I did not add "spritually" to the list of life's enrichments. We humanists manage to live moral, fulfilling lives without the need for a supernatural being to direct us. Amazing! In the end, it is not religion that stops us from doing "what we want to when we want to do it," as Rabbi Gellman asserts; it is respect for one's fellow human beings that does.

The irony inherent in Rabbi Gellman's final paragraph clearly escapes its author. He praises James Watson, an avowed atheist, for his attitudes and ethics. I have met Dr. Watson, and he has very little that is positive to say about organized religion. Yet Rabbi Gellman, confronted with the reality of modern atheism in the brilliant Nobel laureate, still clings to his prejudices about secularism. He will likely persist in mistakenly thinking of us humanists as "angry;" we prefer to regard ourselves as enlightened.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Playing at War

The latest in the never-ending series of scandals to "rock" the Bush White House (I put "rock" in quotes because the Republican majority in Congress is still busy running interference for the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld cabal) is the recent, forceful demand from six - count 'em - six retired generals for Rumsfeld to be fired. Even the right-wing ranters like Limbaugh, Hannity, and O'Reilly can't claim that this is just another bunch of "leftist whack jobs" attacking the president and his cabinet. No, these are career military men, people who know what's it like to lead men and women into battle, and to watch some of them die. All the greatest military leaders in American history - from William Tecumseh Sherman to Dwight David Eisenhower - also preached against going to war unless absolutely necessary...and the reason is simple: they had witnessed the horrors of war first-hand.

And that, dear friends, is the difference between decorated generals and the craven cowards who unfortunately "lead" our nation right now: they spent much of their early lives avoiding military service. Cheney got no fewer than five deferments during Vietnam, because, as he shamelessly explained, "I had other priorities." Of course, we've all heard about Dubya's year of being AWOL after he landed a plum stateside assignment with the Texas Air National Guard. In fact, none of the war-eager neocons - not Wolfowitz, or Richard Perle, or the execrable Rumsfeld - ever spent a single day in combat.

What our so-called "leaders" really are, are little boys playing at war with their GI Joe dolls, making explosion noises with their mouths as toy jeeps are upended by make-believe bombs, and plastic bodies are dismembered by imaginary grenades. Except that the war in Iraq - the private little war that Bush and the neocons desperately wanted, no matter how many times that sniveling little dimwit from Crawford openly lies to Helen Thomas - is real, and the men and women being maimed and killed every day for the sake of vanity and megalomania are flesh and blood.

Rumsfeld's defense against being called "incompetent" and "arrogant" (which also describes the entire Bush administration) by six career generals is that there are "hundreds" of high-ranking active duty officers who support him. Considering that anyone in command who dared question Rummie was quickly demoted and reassigned, it's not surprising that there is no one left on active duty who would still dare challenge him. Even Colin Powell - a man whom I once respected - sold out and presented what he knew to be a pack of lies to the United Nations to protect his career (which he ultimately lost, nevertheless). In an administration that values blind loyalty over competence, Rumsfeld will continue to stumble and fumble with Bush's "full support"...and young Americans will continue to suffer and die for nothing.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On Religion, Republicans, and Respect

I am certainly not the first would-be pundit to address this topic - but can there be anything more ridiculous than Christians in this country complaining that they are the victims of persecution? Poor American Christians, forced to ride in the back of the bus, passed over for promotions, barred from exclusive country clubs...all because they're not Moslem, or Jewish, or any of the other minority faiths in this country whose holy days have been made into legal holidays, while Christmas is utterly ignored!

The fact is that, just like the power-mad Republicans who weren't satisfied with winning a simple majority, but wanted to control everything, the most militant Christian elements in this country aren't satisfied with their dominance of American culture - they want it all! For starters, they want America to acknowledge itself as a "Christian nation," Jeffersonian church-state separation be damned! And they want the Bible (which they call the "literal word of God" without bothering to explain how that can be true of a book that has been translated countless times) to take precedence over secular law.

The most glaring example of the ruthless, greedy Republican is, of course, Tom DeLay, who is finally being forced to step down...and, like the man said, it's good riddance to bad rubbish. Interestingly, Tom DeLay has been the darling of the so-called "religious right," and has missed no opportunity to remind his allies that he is doing "God's work." Talk about your unholy alliances! Exactly which obscenely wealthy, poor-worker-exploiting, environment-despoiling corporation would Jesus have owned stock in?

It's not that difficult to understand why the same people who can't stop quoting the Bible (while not having a clue about charity, mercy, or any of those other supposedly "Christian" values) also support Bush and the Republicans. Both modern Republicans and that old-time fire-and-brimstone Christianity share the same technique, appealing to man's most basic emotion...fear. Bear with me here: the Bible-thumpers want you to believe that if you transgress - such as by tolerating same-sex couples - you'll writhe in eternal agony. Toe the line, however, and eternal bliss is yours. (Sound a bit like the 72 virgins awaiting those Islamists who fight the Christian infidel? Hmmm....)

Wait, it goes further: if you don't buy the Judeo-Christian concept of an omnipotent deity who made you in His image (and have you looked in a mirror lately, Porky?), and promises you immortality in heaven, then you have to accept the Finality of It All; this is it, guys and gals, and your eternal reward is to be worm food for the ages. The point is that most folks find the idea that there isn't anything after this life simply terrifying; it's much more comforting to believe that you'll meet all your dead relatives on the other side...although, I don't know about your family, but my relatives weren't that much fun to be around when they were alive!

If the Heavenly Father is taking care of all of us, then you don't have to decide for yourself whether homosexuals might be that way because of their neurochemistry, or whether a ball of undifferentiated cells could really be considered a human being - it's all been decided for you. It creates an extended childlike state: when your parents were infallible, you didn't have to think for yourself; now God is infallible, so you still don't have to think for yourself. Similarly, if you cling to the delusion that the president of the United States must always be right - because America is always right - then you don't have to trouble yourself with deciding the morality of invading a sovereign nation that did not attack or threaten us, murdering 35,000 of its citizens, and losing 2,500 young Americans in the process. It has to be right because the president, who told us he was doing God's work, said it was the right thing to do! (Excuse me, I have to go puke.)

The Republican brand of Christianity brooks no dissent; anyone who questions the Gospel is a "blasphemer." (And there they go sounding like those pesky "Islamic fundamentalists" again!) The irony is that the most extreme branches of American Christendom are still Protestant sects. Now look at the root of that word: "Protestant" comes from the word "protest." The largest branch of Christianity exists because people were questioning and dissenting from the Catholic Church! But, just like the Puritans who came to the New World seeking religious freedom, and then denied it to everyone else, the right-wing Christians want freedom of religion...for themselves, and the rest of us can go to you-know-where.

Of course, it was convenient for the Republicans to ally themselves with the Catholic Church over issues like institutionalized homophobia, and oxymoronic condemnation of both abortion and contraception. Funny how they played down the "alliance" when the late Pope John Paul II declared the invasion of Iraq "immoral." Then we had the spectacle of American bishops - who are supposed to consider their pontiff infallible - refusing communion to John Kerry (the war hero who wasn't responsible for lying us into an immoral war) because of his stance on women's reproductive rights. Don't get me started...

A recent newspaper editorial challenged the notion that all religions are deserving of respect simply because they call themselves religions. What more proof of the folly of this notion do we need than the "church" of Scientology, which is nothing more than a dangerous cult based on the ravings of a distinctly untalented science fiction writer? The editorial goes on to suggest that religions must earn our respect by demonstrating their genuine benefits to humanity. Most Americans would question the value of a religion that murders people over a handful of newspaper cartoons. The key point is this: the more a particular faith seeks to persecute those who do not follow it, the less it deserves our respect. By these criteria, the Republican brand of Christianity wouldn't pass muster either. Similarly, the occupant of the White House shouldn't get automatic respect (beyond the title of his office) unless he earns it. And there is no doubt that, as a consequence of his actions while in office, George W. Bush deserves nothing but our contempt.