The Republic of T.

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Remainders: Eternal Questions

I don’t do these kinds of posts often. Usually, I just leave stuff floating around my my RSS reader until I can figure out a way to put them into some kind of context. But there’s so many religion-related items in there today, that I decided to put them all in a “remainders” post. But this time in the form of questions.

Like this one.

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This man wants to be a priest. Come time for communion, are you willing to kneel in front of him, open your mouth, close your eyes and receive the host? Actually, I’ve always thought he was kinda handsome. That’d almost be enough to get me back into church. Almost.

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But seriously, what inspired this post was a series of questions bouncing between science blogs today. It started when Chad over at Uncertain Principles asked:

Are there reasons for being an atheist that don’t easily reduce to “Religion is stupid”?

Should there be?

Which prompted Steinn at Dynamics of Cats to pose:

Do we assume that there is a God and that she has some attributes, until evidence to the contrary is presented?

Or, do we assume that there is no such thing as a God, until some evidence to the effect is presented?

Chad later followed up with:

Are there reasons for being religious that don’t easily reduce to “God said so”?

What are they?

Meanwhile, Athiests Wager ask simply “Who needs God?”, and works in a football analogy that would never have occurred to me (because I don’t watch football).

In American football, the most thankless job is that of the field goal kicker. The kicker is a specialized position that may play only a very few downs per game. They do not advance the ball or defend the field. They come in only when their specialized skill is required. They do not make or break tackles and they rarely even break a sweat during the course of a game. Since they do not take the physical punishment that virtually every other position doles out on its players, they are often underappreciated by their teammates and the fans. If a kicker makes a field goal, they are not celebrated and are thought to be just doing their job. If the kicker misses – then they are a worthless bum who should be fired. It’s a very difficult position to be in. The Believers have somehow turned God into the opposite of a field goal kicker. If they pray and they’re prayers are answered then they give credit to God. If they pray and the prayers are not answered, then they convince themselves that God had other plans for them.

This is actually a question I attempted to answer a while back.

Rather than asking “Do we need religion?” it might provoke a more thoughtful discussion to ask “Does everyone need religion?” Theories about whether humans are hardwired for religion notwithstanding, the clear answer to this question is no, not everyone needs religion. Some people get along without it very well, and most of the trouble they run in to comes from people who insist that everyone does need religion.

That gets to the second unasked and unanswered question. Does everyone need the same religion? The answer is different depending on whom you ask. For religions that claim exclusive ownership of truth, as well as right and wrong, and declare conversion and evangelism as key duties of their followers, the answer is yes. Everyone must be converted.

…So perhaps the question isn’t “Do we need religion?”, but rather “What do some people need religion for? What do they intend to do with it?”

Steinn, however, comes up with one more question. (Which is kind of an extension of my question “Does everyone need the same religion?”.)

Ah, but which God?

And there is one of the many rubs. One Dawkins nailed well.

Auðhumla? Óðinn? Athena? Mithras? Flying Spaghetti Monster?

God seems to be a bit of a contradiction. (Hm, I suppose that is a least consistent with the omnipotency bit, eh?)

One could retreat to the God of Spinoza, but, honestly, that was a total copout and Spinoza knew it.

So, which to choose?

Or is there no choice.

Steinn, Steinn, Steinn. You forgot Zeus.

But seriously, does everyone get to choose? Or do some get no choice? Becky at Preemptive Karma links to an article about some kids in Kentucky’s state-funded Baptist Children’s home were forced into Christian practices and discouraged from practicing their own faiths.

Children in a state-funded Baptist social-services program claimed in dozens of exit interviews that they were forced into Christian or specifically Baptist practices or were discouraged from practicing their own religion, according to court records.

The interviews came to light as part of a lawsuit filed by a fired employee and four other taxpayers who are challenging state funding for Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.

Representatives of the state and Baptist Homes say that the agency’s policy is not to proselytize and that violations, if any, are rare.

…Several of the complaints came from children who said they were Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses or atheists.

“They tried to more (or) less force me to become a Christian,” said a child who had stayed at the Baptist Youth Ranch in Elizabethtown. “I just felt I was being pressured into giving up my religion.”

…The reports include comments from children who said that they were forced to participate in Bible readings, prayer times or Baptist services or that they weren’t allowed to practice their own faith.

A child who is a Jehovah’s Witness reported not being allowed to practice that religion at Genesis Home in Mayfield.

A Pentecostal child at the same home told of not being allowed to practice that faith.

And a child at the Glen Dale Children’s Home in Glendale reported being “not allowed to choose when or when not to attend a religious service.” The child told of having “to do ‘some type of Bible study during that time or get consequences,’ ” the interviewer wrote.

Whether the Glen Dale staff member was referring to eternal or more temporal consequences is an unanswered question. Becky, however, has a preemptive answer to a question some Christians may ask.

I know a lot of Christian people who would wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, a little church never hurt anybody, right? Back in the olden days, it was just expected that good people went to church.

…So true. Churches get into social service as a means of fulfilling the “great commission” to take the gospel to the whole world. Those in need are receptive to the message and, in the minds of most good Christian people, are also most in need of the comfort of forgiveness and a loving Savior. Their public service efforts really are inextricably linked to proselytizing, and that really is how it ought to be. That is the entire problem with the Faith Based Initiative program.

Whether you view government funding of faith based social service programs as cover for government sponsored religion or see it as an act of slapping duct tape over the mouths of Christians, either way it still is wrong. And people who are driven by a belief that God wants them to spread the Good News just cannot help themselves. Nor should they be expected to – after all, the sharing and debating of ideas and beliefs about how we got here and where we are going is one of the most fascinating discussions we can have as human beings. We just shouldn’t have government sticking its nose into the middle of the debate and skewing it through the power of its incredibly huge purse.

Like I asked before, should the state fund religious organizations to do social services given the propensity to proselytize to a captive audience? The story above is reminiscent of a similar stories from Texas of kids forced into religious activities.

Those constitutional problems sharpen when young people are the intended beneficiaries of these transformational ministries. In recent years, several judges have concluded that children and teenagers, like prisoners, have too few options and too little power to make the voluntary choices the Supreme Court requires when public money flows to programs involving religious instruction or indoctrination.

That was the conclusion last year of a federal judge in Michigan, in a case filed by Teen Ranch, a nonprofit Christian facility that provides residential care for troubled or abused children ages 11 to 17.

In 2003, state officials imposed a moratorium on placements of children there, primarily because of its intensively religious programming. Lawyers for the ranch went to court to challenge that moratorium.

“Teen Ranch acknowledges that it is overtly and unapologetically a Christian facility with a Christian worldview that hopes to touch and improve the lives of the youth served by encouraging their conversion to faith in Christ, or assisting them in deepening their pre-existing Christian faith,” observed a United States District judge, Robert Holmes Bell, in a decision released in September 2005.

Although youngsters in state custody could not choose where to be placed, they could refuse to go to the ranch if they objected to its religious character. As a result, the ranch’s lawyers argued, the state money was constitutionally permissible.

The state contended that the children in its care were “too young, vulnerable and traumatized” to make genuine choices. The ranch disputed that and added that the children had case workers and other adults to guide them. Judge Bell rejected Teen Ranch’s arguments. “Regardless of whether state wards are particularly vulnerable, they are children,” he wrote.

The ranch in Michigan has discontinued operations pending the outcome of its appeal, said Mitchell E. Koster, who was its chief operating officer. “We are confident that our argument will win,” Mr. Koster said. “It’s just a question of at what level.”

In another case early last year, a federal judge struck down a federal grant in 2003 to MentorKids USA, a ministry based in Phoenix, to provide mentors for the children of prisoners. In a case filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., the judge noted that the exclusively Christian mentors had to regularly assess whether the young people in their care seemed “to be progressing in relationship with God.” In a program newsletter offered as evidence, its director said, “Our goal is to see every young adult choose Christ.”

There’s choosing and then there’s choosing, I guess. As a taxpayer and a non-believer, though, I apparently don’t have a choice about paying other people to proselytize for their faiths, even though in an overwhelmingly Christian nation there are inherent problems with mingling church and state.

Leaving aside whether or not Bush is more of a “dry drunk” than a recovering alcoholic, and whether he wanted votes at least as much as he wanted souls (if not more) it’s clear that he and the “peer-review panelist” wear the same blinders Kuo wears and miss the same point he comes close to reaching in the book, but ultimately doesn’t get either: that the government should not be in the business of “saving souls” or helping people to “know Jesus,” nor should it pay anyone else to do so.

The inherent danger in that is evidenced in the kind of discrimination Kuo writes about, that was an ingrained part of the thinking of the most ardent supporters of the initiative. Combined with the lack of oversight (which perhaps has its origin in what Kuo describes as evangelical Christians willingness to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt even with it seemed to ignore or short change their issues) creates situations like the one I noted before, where an organization like the Salvation Army gets nearly all of its budget from the government, and then uses it to purge Jews and homosexuals from its staff; Jewish and homosexual taxpayers, that is, whose taxes now supply the organization’s budget. (Not to mention Buddhist, Muslim, and non-religious taxpayers who would probably also be out of a job, courtesy of their tax dollars.)

It’s a danger only enhanced by the Bush administration’s efforts to weaken rules that were intended to protect the separation of church and state. The danger becomes even more apparent when you consider that the “soul-saving” mission is combined with belief that it’s an it is an “‘error‘ to judge federally-funded social service programs by the effectiveness of the services they provide, instead of judging them by religious ‘long-term ends’,” because it creates an atmosphere where effectiveness doesn’t matter in a situation where lives are literally at stake.

But as a non-believer or non-theist, it may be that my concerns don’t count for much.

Take the president’s proclamation on the National Day of Prayer.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 3, 2007, as a National Day of Prayer. I ask the citizens of our Nation to give thanks, each according to his or her own faith, for the freedoms and blessings we have received and for God’s continued guidance, comfort, and protection. I invite all Americans to join in observing this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

That prompted Kip to ask if atheists or non-religious folks count at all.

He also links to an Americans United update which suggests that in the hearts and minds of the organizers non-Christian people of faith may not count either.

Far from being a day to bring people of various faiths together, the National Day of Prayer has been hijacked by intolerant Religious Right groups who seek an officially “Christian nation,” says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The National Day of Prayer (NDP) takes place tomorrow. By federal law, the commemoration occurs on the first Thursday of every May.

Most events around the country are coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right leader James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family. The task force instructs its volunteers to allow only conservative Christians to speak, and its events are often laden with “Christian nation” rhetoric.

…An application for prayer coordinator volunteers on the NDP Task Force Web site claims that its events are “Judeo-Christian” but then goes on to require that applicants sign a statement affirming belief in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection.

The application also requires coordinators to “ensure a strong, consistent Christian message throughout the nation” and “commit that NDP activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians….”

So, you’ll pardon me if I don’t participate in the National Day of Prayer, but as Alan Dershowitz noted the Bush administration started excluding non-Christians and non-religious Americans from day one.

The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, who he declared to be “our savior.” Invoking “the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ” and “the Holy Spirit,” Billy Graham’s son, the man selected by President George W. Bush to bless his presidency, excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists from his blessing by his particularistic and parochial language.

The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that George W. Bush’s America is a Christian nation, and that non-Christians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: “This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray.”

Must we? Must the non-religious minority defer to the religious majority? Radical Atheist points to a Guardian column that suggests an answer; one that makes me chuckle as a gay man who recalls being by religious people that my sexual orientation is “a choice” while they remain oblivious to the reality that — while it’s likely that sexual orientation is influenced by some mix of biology and environment — their religious beliefs are undeniably a choice, and as such should probably be no more qualify them for “special rights” than they say my orientation should give me the right to the same.

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule.

It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so.

It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world’s many religions.

And as this last point implies, it is time to demand and apply a right for the rest of us to non-interference by religious persons and organisations – a right to be free of proselytisation and the efforts of self-selected minority groups to impose their own choice of morality and practice on those who do not share their outlook.

Is it time yet?

Or, to borrow a religious reference, “How long, Lord? How long?”

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