Friday, December 26, 2008

"Assualt" on Christmas? - Not Really

First things first: A very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my fellow bloggers! I hope it was special for everyone.

Which brings me to something I wanted to muse about momentarily. There seems to have been much news and commentary lately regarding a so-called "assault on Christmas." I read a news item referring to a woman being fired for saying "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays" to customers at her place of business. At first blush this seems an outrage. Five minutes with an employment or First Amendment attorney, however, and one might begin to see things differently.

Let me say from the outset that nothing about Christmas is worthy of assault. What to many religious people appears to be an assault on their faith is really a subtle shift in the cultural zeitgeist. By this I mean to suggest that the cultural dominance of Christianity in America is slowly and inexorably diminishing. The challenge may lie in convincing Christians that this is a good thing and in their best interest. The very preservation of Christianity in our culture depends not upon its dominance but rather on the recognition and preservation of other world views - religious and non-religious alike.

The truth is religious people, especially Christians, have had their way with American cultural influence for a very long time. But as our country evolves toward a more representative and inclusive brand of multi-cultural society, it is important that minority religions, as well as the religiously skeptical, be allowed the freedom to express their ideas without being made to feel inferior or less relevant and with the protections of pertinent law.

As Barack Obama said in 2006, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers." See Barack Obama On Religion and Politics. This concept is simply difficult for many Christians to accept; and espousing this kind of thinking does not constitute an assault on Christianity.

It makes perfect sense that nativity scenes be displayed on the lawns of churches and museums and not on the lawns of town halls. Adherence to the principle of church-state separation is critical to the protection of free religious expression. Government can not be seen as promoting or preferring one religion over another precisely because as guarantors of free expression such an imprimatur would subvert the very freedoms it seeks to guarantee.

Christmas will survive - even thrive - in a culture of religious plurality and government neutrality. Such is the way with things as special as Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Tree of Knowledge: A Fitting Symbol of Free Thought?

It's been said that getting atheists and free-thinkers to combine forces and form a cohesive political/social unit is like herding cats - not easy to do. I came across a terrific short film that was posted at The Friendly Atheist blog site. It is a film by Gregory Walsh in which he interviews several people while a Tree of Knowledge is planted at the Free Speech Zone in Philadelphia.

The Tree of Knowledge may be finding a new purpose as the symbol atheists and free thinkers have been searching for. On the plus side, free thinkers could use a powerful icon to symbolize their cause. It has the potential to do for free thinkers what the Menorah does for Jewish people and the nativity scene does for Christians - give them a symbol to rally around during the traditional American holiday season.

Such a move is not without controversy. Many religious people believe it would be distasteful to celebrate atheism at a time that has been traditionally recognized for celebrating the birth of Christ or the Hanukkah miracles. Atheists make the point that such a collusion has outlived its time claiming the holiday season should not be devoted to uniquely Christian or Jewish concerns. There is also the added pressure from church-state separation advocates to make certain public property doesn't promote or favor one religion over another. (In this broad sense, atheism is commonly construed to possess the benefits of a "religion.")

Personally, I like the idea of finding a sort of humanist trademark to identify our philosophical brand. I do have mixed feelings, however, about such a symbol being plucked from a widely recognized biblical source. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is, after all, the very thing God allegedly commanded Adam and Eve not to partake of (if you believe that sort of thing). It is not totally unreasonable to understand why some might find offense in this. Yet for the same reasons some might take offense, it may be a particularly appropriate symbol to use - atheists do in fact stand in direct opposition to core beliefs of the religious.

I am of the mind, however, that this need not be a problem. True diversity demands that in some ways we make allowances for one another. It does seems important that atheists be accommodated not for what they stand in opposition to - belief in god - but rather for that which they steadfastly support, e.g., the Affirmations of Humanism. Better to celebrate an affirmative ideal as opposed to a negativity.

There will no doubt always be those who vehemently oppose any normalization of atheism, free thought or humanism, but it seems clear that such normalizing would only serve to elevate the best of what our country stands for, and by the way, guarantees - freedom of expression. Not at all a bad ideal to celebrate.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Religious Indoctrination of Children: Parental Right - or Parental Wrong?

The question of whether parents have the right to instill in their children all manner of moral and religious dogma is no doubt a sensitive one for some. It interests me because I have felt for a long time that while many parents surely believe they are doing the right thing for their children by programming them with their own beliefs, they are in fact doing them a great disservice.

It was a good feeling to find out I was not alone in this thinking. Chapter nine of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is titled, Childhood Abuse and the Escape From Religion. Admittedly, Dawkins' brand of atheism can be acerbic at times, and labeling religious and moral indoctrination of the very young as "abuse" on a par with other serious kinds of physical and psychological abuse is a tough stand indeed. But, like Dawkins, I am persuaded this is not an unwarranted characterization.

Shortly after I began this blog several months ago, I wrote the following excerpts from a post titled, Nothing Short of Brainwashing:

"Besides being innately curious, the mind if a child is particularly malleable, thus susceptible to the impulses of those charged with their upbringing. And when those impulses are offered to satisfy the caregivers rather than the child, the results can be horrific. The late and very wise Dr. Benjamin Spock had one thing right for sure: young children should be raised as individuals and not be driven to conformity as subjects of ritual discipline. (Benjamin Spock, Wikipedia) This methodology clearly suggests that a child's uniqueness be allowed to flourish even at the expense of parents' preferences - or prejudices." And:

"The introduction of simple, easy-to-comprehend, life-affirming values should be all that parents are allowed to instill in their children. From these, a firm foundation for more complex and morally pertinent values can easily be constructed. In other words, the nonsense that is religious dogma has no authentic role in cultivating either the mind or morals of a young child. The differences between right and wrong are readily discerned by accessing more universally accepted paradigms and without anointing religious parents or educators as arbiters of truth and morality."

I have to admit I felt the preceding thoughts of mine validated after reading Dawkins' scathing characterization of parental indoctrination.

In the gripping ninth chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins cites theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey and his lecture, What Shall We Tell the Children?. In the lecture, Humphrey lays out his arguments as to why "[c]hildren . . . have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas - no matter who these other people are," and why, "[p]arents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith."

These are strong positions with the capacity to offend those of a different mind on the matter. But I'll throw my lot in with Dawkins and Humphrey on this score. (Granted my own perceptions may be coloured by not only the fact that my two parents were bent upon imposing their will on their children as regards religious matters, but also by the fact that one struggled with alcoholism and the other with even more serious mental illness. These factors no doubt added a dimension of offensiveness and abusiveness to the whole business of our religious programming.)

Humphrey makes clear the notion that educating young children in the ways of science is by far the best alternative to demanding conformity from them via religious instruction. He proposes that science education is uniquely suited to take the place of religious inculcation precisely because it is not dogmatic and does not dictate. Science is rather a participatory process where access to the tools and evidence necessary to avow verifiable worldly truths is available to anyone, even children. Humphrey's correct assertion is that teaching science is nothing at all like imposing personal ideology. On the contrary, it's about encouraging children to exercise their own powers of judgment and understanding to arrive at their own beliefs.

So valuable is the commodity of a child's attention, it drove one Jesuit master - as Humphrey reminds us - to proclaim, "If I have the teaching of children up to seven years of age or thereabouts, I care not who has them afterwards, they are mine for life."

Such is the methodology of compulsory religious education of the young. To so completely indoctrinate them in the ways of religion that their own capacity to question their audacious authority figures is eviscerated thus extending the reach of god-driven ideology one more generation. That is unless one is fortunate enough to command the wherewithal necessary to emancipate himself from its clutches - not an impossible task, but according to my experience, an ardently long and painful process.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Can Government Intervention and Conservative Economic Philosophy Be Reconciled?

In the wake of the federal government's acquiring a stake in some very large financial firms as a tactic to stem the present tide of economic meltdown, an unavoidable question arises: Can those who embrace the philosophy that government is not the solution it is the problem, continue to do so? In sticking to their ideological guns - as well as avowing the apparent wisdom of not allowing very large institutions to fail - many capitalists are acknowledging the need to have it both ways.

One thing that can be said to be as certain as the idea that free markets create wealth is that unfettered free markets create want and poverty. The products of free market capitalism have clearly shown that they are either not designed to provide for all, or that the distribution of whatever wealth is created needs realigning. As efficient as free markets are at creating wealth, they nonetheless have no proven answer for their unavoidable side effects, poverty and unemployment. It is not enough to suggest that these drawbacks are simply outweighed by the benefits. When the drawbacks are measured in terms of human suffering, it becomes incumbent upon purveyors of growth-at-all-cost philosophy to take into account its impact on society's economically marginalized and articulate solutions.

As the income gap between rich and poor grows ever wider worldwide - with the U.S. having the most unequal distribution of income (WorldWatch Institute, Rich-Poor Gap Widening) - the question arises as to whether large wealth-building economies have forsaken the moral high ground in promoting modern capitalism and its variations as the answer to pervasive poverty.

Does redistribution of wealth sound the death knell for innovation and growth? Some would argue that we can do without the kind of innovation and growth that builds into its very design the prospect of leaving out so many from its intended benefits.

Moreover, large companies are quick to accept government intervention when it inures to their benefit. Tax breaks and other favorable legislative accommodations actually do siphon dollars from the treasury at the outset. Revenues resulting from creating favorable market conditions do not totally make up for the largess of taxpayers. The enormity of wealth created calls for the kind of restitution that would help those who do not directly benefit from sustained growth and mitigate their suffering. Taxpayers should be considered more as de facto partners in business and reap a more proportionate benefit from the economic growth they helped create.

Redistribution may in fact result in moderating growth rates, but as is plainly evident, excessive growth creates as many problems as it solves.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Victoria's Secret? What's That All About?

My gradual awakening from the dead over the past several years has seen me embrace a certain political and social philosophy, and not at all to my surprise it is decidedly liberal. Despite all the pugnacious efforts by many conservative talking heads, most notably Rush Limbaugh, to demonize the word "liberal" itself, I have decided to embrace the label proudly. For all its ambivalent associations, the moniker is holding up nicely to the assaults of today's conservatively-oriented, rhetorical flame throwers.

Not surprisingly, I have taken to surrounding myself with a few sources of news and opinion—some in the form of magazine subscriptions—which tend to extol the virtues of liberalism and criticize conservatism, most notably The Nation (Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor & Publisher) and The Progressive (Mathew Rothschild, Editor).

Being in the age of mailing-list swapping by large companies seeking to expand their reach, many interesting things no doubt find their way into our mailboxes. To their credit, publications I subscribe to seem to be carefully selecting whom they send my name and address to. In recent months, I have been targeted by a host of liberal organizations for their support, among them Amnesty International, the ACLU, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Sierra Club just to name a few. But the other day something came to me from out of the blue: a Victoria's Secret catalog! Yes, my name—my address.

Now before anyone errantly concludes something my wife was tempted to conclude, I have not bought anything from Victoria's Secret, either online or at the mall, for anyone, not even the cute red-head at the convenience store. But I nonetheless had to endure the indignity of explaining how it was that this virtual naughty-nightie catalog would be sent to me. Then my imagination started running away with me. Could it be that Victoria's Secret is a liberal, political outpost masquerading as an underwear store? Did some obscure marketing research firm compile a study concluding that people who buy sexy lingerie at Victoria's Secret are predisposed to liberal or progressive ideology? Though this might explain The Nation selling my name and address to Victoria's Secret, it does sound a tad paranoid.

After giving this some thought, Ive concluded it's probably just a case of associative marketing gone wild. In the meantime, I think I will just go ahead and put this catalog where it belongs—in the recycle bin. Of course, I may just give it the once over before tossing it; it beats The Nation hands down in the picture department!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Religion Has a Role in Politics?

The Daily Times (Salsbury, Maryland) recently published an opinion piece entitled, "Religion Has Its Role In Politics." At first glance, the article appears to reasonably address the subtleties of the First Amendment as they relate to the free practice of religion. On closer inspection, however, it goes beyond the correct notion that politics and politicians are not required to leave the influence of their religion at the door in their service to the public and tries to make the case that religion has a distinct and definable role in the political arena. This contention is erroneous and misguided.

In stating that "religion's proper role in government is to act as a personal moral compass for both leaders and constituents," the implication is made that the kind of morality the rest of us need is rightly the exclusive domain of religion. Something quite different is much more accurate: The kind of morality religious politicians utilize for guiding their own public pronouncements and policy decisions are, of course, free to be based on their own religious beliefs, but the idea that religious morality is something to be held up for the rest of us to aspire to is patently absurd and oversteps the bounds of propriety. This is a naked attempt to promote a religious god as the ultimate source and final arbiter of all morality.

This article would have been palatable if it only stated that applying a sensible - and more universal - moral code to the deliberations of politicians and to one's daily life was something to aspire to and left it at that. But it went overboard by suggesting it is the "role" of religion to administer this morality to the masses via the machinery of politics.

Theft of the Spirit: The Scourge of Mental Illness

It is much easier to write about the virtues of a godless existence, the latest in the political scene, or a recently viewed movie, but the truth is my blog also serves as something of a personal journal from time to time. When I write about the personal, I see my challenge as doing it in such a way so as not to simply avoid making my readers feel uncomfortable but to pique their interest with introspection and good humor.

From time to time, I grapple with the sensitive subject of my personal experiences with mental illness. As someone who has had to manage his own affliction with mental illness for a number of years, I have cultivated a sensitivity to similar afflictions in others, most notably my aging mother.

I was recently moved to a sadness I had never known after a conversation with my mother in which her voice became possessed of a virulent hostility and sadistic sarcasm. When I told her I was not sensing any love in her words, she proceeded to make the unmistakable insinuation that the quality and nature of my love was inferior because it did not emanate from her god. This was an obscenity a healthy mind simply could not conjure. Like a master thief, the scourge of mental illness had stolen away her gentle spirit and loving nature.

So for now, I will continue to fend off repeated invocations of Reinhold Niebuhr's tiresome cliché, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . ." blah blah blah. What is sorely lacking here is courage - not the least of which, my own.

My Blogger friend Tara B. dug up this terrific quotation and posted it on her site: • The Worst Thing You Can Do • Reinhold Niebuhr has nothing on Theodore Roosevelt.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sarah Palin: Late to the 'Party'?


Not being in the business of predicting the future, I would never presume to suggest that Sarah Palin is deluded if she thinks God is going to open the door to the presidency for her to just "plow through." Alright, maybe I would presume precisely that. The much bigger question, however, is whether she represents a constituency among Republicans that possesses the wherewithal to continue to vie for the soul of the Party.

At the moment, the GOP seems fractured on the matter of Palin's potential, just as they seem fractured on which platform will accede to its ideological throne, the country club diehards or the Sam's club up-and-comers.

There are some who are convinced Palin's brand of conservatism is so out of touch (myself included) that if she were to run for president in four years she would announce Ann Coulter to be her Secretary of State, Rush Limbaugh her chief of staff, and Pastor John Hagee her National Security Advisor - assuming they all haven't imploded by then. And yet there are those who seem to believe she can put the circus that was her run at the vice presidency behind her and morph into a viable 2012 contender. The reality likely is that the only way a Palin candidacy could achieve viability is if she morphs into something she clearly is not at the moment: a moderate conservative who understands that for the Republican party to regain its luster it must diversify its political portfolio. At the moment, without an expansive ideological wardrobe makeover, Palin appears destined to go the way of the dinosaur. But talk of the next presidential election is a bit premature - one would think.

In selecting Palin as his running mate, John McCain appeared to appoint a younger more idealized version of himself. This may have been his fatal mistake. Instead of attempting to reclaim the conservative wing to push him across the finish line, McCain should have ventured toward the center. A Bobby Jindal (Governor of Louisiana) or Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota Governor) would, in hindsight, have probably been much better choices. Moreover, McCain ignored the latter part of the time-tested adage, "run to your wing to get the nomination; run to the center to win the general election."

Other than offering her a speaking role at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Miami last week, the RGA afforded no role for Palin in announcing their leadership slate for the coming year. Her address was widely panned even by Republican insiders as being laced with election rhetoric rehash going so far as to grant a sixteenth minute of fame to Joe the plumber mentioning him four times. Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capeheart stated simply, "She needs to stop."

Sarah Palin seems to want to enlist as a mercenary soldier in the culture wars. The problem is that the fighting is just about over and the only thing left to do is bring home the troops. In other words, grab what's left of your dignity and call it a day. The Republican Party is too sophisticated a machine not to understand that retooling must be next on its agenda. The question is: does Sarah Palin possess the wherewithal to realize this?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mistreated?: The Electoral Season Plight of American Muslims

Photo Caption: Elsheba Khan at the grave of her son, Army Corporal Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, who was killed serving in Iraq. The New Yorker.

Election '08 is in the history books, and the arm-chair analyses have begun in earnest. One observation gaining traction in the mainstream media at the moment reveals a seamier side of the American electorate.

It seems many Americans, especially some conservatives, have yet to eradicate the ugly prejudices ignited by the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Because some of the hijackers involved in the infamous deeds were determined to be Muslim extremists of Middle Eastern descent, a perverse extrapolation has been forged tainting the vast majority of honest, hard-working and law-abiding Muslims in America as undeserving of the kind of respect most of us citizens take for granted. NPR, OnPoint Radio, American Muslims and Election '08

First off, there were the continual attempts to suggest that president-elect Barack Obama was a Muslim. It happens to be incorrect. He is a Christian. But it was a long time before any public figure asked what should have been the obvious: So what if her were a Muslim? What is wrong with that? Colin Powell made the following remarks on "Meet the Press" in October:

"I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?. . .

". . .I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions."

Obama didn't exactly help matters along when answering claims that he was a Muslim. Rather than pointing out the subtle bigotry embedded in the false claims in the first place, he merely corrected for the record which faith he actually observed, and in so doing missed a golden opportunity to even further demonstrate one of the signatures of his political persona - tolerance.

At a John McCain town-hall meeting in Minnesota, a woman said she didn't trust Obama because "he's an Arab." In a slightly miscalculated response, McCain took the microphone from the woman and said, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues." There's plenty of room for misinterpreting these remarks when dissecting them and, in all likelihood, McCain surely did not intend to suggest that being an Arab and being a decent family man were mutually exclusive. But many people - including some Arabs - took offense and drew precisely that inference.

Another more ominous incident was the dissemination in roughly 70 American newspapers of the anti-Muslim propaganda film, Obsession. Funded by a group with remote ties to Israel, the film seeks to capitalize on post 9-11 hysteria and suggest that Islam is out to destroy the West.

These and other events served to stir up resentment among many Muslims because they felt they could not be themselves during the presidential campaign season. Vociferously aligning themselves with Obama might have provoked the very bigotry and discrimination they were so diligently trying to stamp out. Consequently, many Muslims cowered into passivity and silence.

As one panel member on the NPR broadcast pointed out, now that Barack Obama has been elected, maybe he can redress the mistreatment of Muslims during the election without fear of political recriminations.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Sicko": An Indictment Worthy of Airing

This review may not exactly be timely, but - better late than never.

Documentary film maker Michael Moore may have trouble hiding his biases and political prejudices, but he nonetheless has a way of making people sit up and take notice. In his 2007 release, Sicko, he adeptly tugs at the emotional strings of his viewers in order to make his point that something is very wrong with the American health care system.

Pointing out it's bad enough nearly 50 million Americans are without health care insurance of any kind, Moore goes on to expose what many people who do have health insurance have known for a long time: they have to fight routine denials of coverage they believed they were entitled to. Trotting out industry insiders-turned-whistleblowers, Moore makes plain the Achilles heel of the profit-driven scheme: that denying coverage is an integral aspect of the plan to achieve a favorable bottom line. During one interview, Moore listens as an HMO specialist reveals an incentive scheme in which bonuses are paid out to managers who deny the most in claims.

For contrasting effect, Moore takes a look at the health care systems of England, France, Cuba, and - for humorous emphasis - the medical wing of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station's detention center where al-Qaeda terror suspects, of course, receive free medical care.

Moore glosses over the real cost of universal health care in these countries, which is of course very high taxes. What becomes plain in Sicko, however, is that the people in these countries seem more than willing to live with the system they have erected and appear to have few complaints. In other words, the free delivery of comprehensive health care is made a priority.

In responding to critics' fears of "socialized" medicine, Moore points out that here in America we are already perfectly willing to socialize a few things we deem to be of sufficient priority like fire protection, police protection, primary education, etc. The inference to be drawn is clearly that Americans have yet to reach the point where health care is seen as the same kind of necessity - a nearly absolute one. Or maybe they have, but the profit-minded behemoths protecting the system presently in place are too well connected politically to allow the changes Americans seem to be wanting.

Sicko lays bare many of the fissures in the present American health care system. What it does not do - nor does it purport to - is offer details for an alternative plan. Moore simply puts on display the benefits of a free, universal system and ponders what Americans could achieve if they could muster the political will to abandon the dysfunctional status quo.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Search For A Secular Sign-Off

For a very long time now, it seems obligatory for whoever is president to conclude any major addresses with the expression, "God bless you, and God bless America." I may be deluded, but lately I get the feeling we may have turned a corner in the struggle to return to our secular roots in this country.

Believing president-elect Barack Obama to be a closet atheist (those bitter people clinging to their guns and religion was very revealing), I am actually holding out hope that he will one day venture into the bold arena of invoking secular aphorisms as a sign-off to some of his public speeches. Of course, he cannot abandon religious "good-byes" altogether after so ingeniously pandering to religious constituents during the election, but he could test drive a few secular salutations to gauge America's readiness to put "God Bless America" to rest. I thought I would trot out a few suggestions for some narrow focus grouping:

•"Later, dudes." --- No mention of God here, but not quite befitting the aura of the office.

•"Hasta luego!" --- The growing Hispanic demographic would no doubt love this one.

•"Stay Cool." --- 60s radical William Ayers and the rest of the aging hippie crowd would really dig this.

•"Kapla." --- From the Klingon Language Institute, this expression translates into "success" and is often uttered prior to battle. Trekkies would once again be considered part of the mainstream.

•"Keep on truckin'." --- This expression certainly has broad appeal, but it may be too closely associated with the disco era. For that reason alone, it might not fly.

•"Hey, Hey, Hey. Let's be careful out there." --- Who knows. Maybe Obama was a Hills Street Blues fan.

•"Ta-Ta, for now." --- Or for those times when he is texting his younger, digital generation supporters on his blackberry, TTFN, as it has come to be expressed.

•And finally, "Live long and prosper." --- If this expression weren't already taken by the Vulcans, it would be perfect. The only drawback is that the split-fingered hand gesture is so difficult to master. It also may be the only expression offered here not totally devoid of the dignity the office demands.

There you have it. A few suggestions for secularizing the sign-off of presidential speeches. With priceless options such as these ready to go, the days of "God bless America" are surely numbered.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Elizabeth Dole, Kay Hagan - and God

Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina was defeated by Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in her bid for a second term Tuesday night. The campaign took a bad turn when, at the eleventh hour, Dole ran an ad she believed would be a sure hit. In the ad she claimed Hagan secretly attended a fundraiser hosted by a Political Action Committee known as Godless Americans.

In North Carolina - and throughout much of the country - being associated with an atheist organization is considered harmful to your political health. Perhaps times are changing. Don't misunderstand. Ms. Hagan repudiated any notion that she might be a "godless" person by quickly and publicly avowing her faith in God and good standing as a Christian. What is noteworthy here is the fact that Senator Dole was roundly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for running the ad in the first place.

Why exactly did so many people find the ad offensive? Were they upset because the implications presented were untrue, i.e., Ms. Hagan does believe in God, or was it the notion that even if a candidate is godless, it should have no bearing on the election?

One can readily understand why Ms. Hagan would want to set the record straight, but would it have been too much to expect that she take the high road and publicly state that one's religious - or non-religious - beliefs are not pertinent in an election to public office?

Guilt by association has always been in bad taste, but rest assured we are a long way from a place where being godless makes no difference at all. Why else would Ms. Hagan move so decisively to correct the record? Precisely because she wanted there to be no misunderstanding with her constituents as to her religious faith, lest she be vilified as a non-believer.

It seems for the time being at least, especially in the Republican Party, God remains right up there with baseball, motherhood, and apple pie, while atheists remains right down there with the dregs of society.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Persistent Myth About Secular Humanism

Someone recently wrote to me that he didn't buy "all that secular humanist crap" I was finding myself interested in. Fair enough. But did this person venture into anything specific? As a matter of fact, he did. He wrote that secular humanists hold all philosophies and world views to be equally valid and that he disagreed strongly with this precept. The implication was clear: secular humanists possess no powers of discernment. I was surprised such an educated and intelligent person would resort to invoking so shallow a myth as to compel me to wonder what he really understood about humanism at all.

Still, this was not the first time I had heard this criticism of secular humanist philosophy. I consider myself a humanist, and in no way do I subscribe to the notion that all world views have substantially equivalent validity. People who hold this view of humanists are incorrectly extrapolating from the principle that no one world view explains everything that all world views are therefore equally valid. To be more precise about what humanism does in fact avow: all world views are fallible. That is to say they are subject to - in the secular sphere - critical and rational analysis. Opposing world views are no doubt possessed of varying degrees of enlightenment, which deems them, by definition, to be of varying degrees of value.

Something else this particular myth seems based upon is the notion that humanism is as rigidly dogmatic as any religion. While there are a number of stated principles humanists aspire to, it is much more accurate to characterize humanism as a method for reasoning and achieving understanding. It is not a compendium of dos and don'ts or intractable beliefs; it is a foundation for skeptical analysis and inquiry based upon rational examination. Secular humanists question the veracity of claims to possess knowledge about that which does not suffer rational examination well.

Much criticism of humanism comes from the religiously inclined because of its expressed resistance to explain the world in supernatural terms. To many, the very idea of not deferring to a specific deity in constructing its ideological platform is offensive. What we humanists can't understand is why this would offend anyone. We are not offended by the choice of others to believe in a god, but to quote from Paul Kurts' Affirmations of Humanism, A Statement of Principles: "We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence . . . and to look outside nature for salvation."

More often than not, criticism of secular humanists as undiscriminating purveyors of "anything-goes" intellectualism is a naked attempt to malign us, our intellects, and our principles. We, as much as anyone, welcome criticism so long as it is not offered as disparaging rhetoric.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Barack Obama - A 'Transformational' Figure?

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president recently, he referred to him as a "transformational figure." By lending support to Obama, the former General becomes the latest in a long line of well-respected national figures to throw their lot in with the young Senator from Illinois.

Of course anything can happen, but at the moment, with just a few days remaining until the election, Barack Obama appears to have made the personal transformation from long shot wunderkind and political rock star to full-fledged, viable candidate for Guardian of the Dream.

Barack Obama has plainly revealed to his detractors that he is possessed of the kind of political sensibilities and personal gravitas one would expect of a true leader. Even though many no doubt disagree with a number of his stated positions on important issues, the most pressing need this time around is for a person with the ability to inspire, to reclaim the respect of foreign governments, and to re-state America's moral authority among the community of nations. Mr. Obama possesses these credentials.

Challenges for the next president - whoever he is - will demand transformations of another kind. Division, fear, and alienation need transforming into unity, hope, and belonging; arrogance, unilateralism, and mistrust need transforming into humility, collaboration, and confidence. However austere the convictions of the next Commander-in-Chief, they must be expressed with a calm and reassuring demeanor, not the shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners-or-if-you-do-torture-them approach that has done this country so much disservice the last eight years.

Disabling extremist political elements in countries like Iran, North Korea or Pakistan will only be achieved by removing their primary basis for legitimacy: the aggressive and threatening posture of a misguided U.S. foreign policy. Each of these countries, Iran in particular, is populated by masses wanting to see improved relations with the United States. A departure from the outgoing administration's confrontational policies is plainly called for. Barack Obama understands this need.

Thus, my 20-year political love affair with Ralph Nader is coming to an end. It was a good run. As for the growing allure of the Green Party, I want to make certain we at least take a first step in the right direction with a sensitive liberal and promising pragmatist like Mr. Obama.

The closer this political season gets to its day of reckoning, the clearer the message becomes: Barack Obama is ready to lead - and poised to transform.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Quote From Thomas Fuller On Forgiveness

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661)
English Clergyman and Historian

"He that cannot forgive others
breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself;
for every man has need to be forgiven."
~ Thomas Fuller

A Few Thoughts:

Nothing demands as much, nor rewards so completely, as forgiveness. In its purest form, the act of forgiving requires the ego to suspend its need to prevail. A profound selflessness is at the core of the perfect offering of forgiveness.

Is it any wonder finding forgiveness is so often such a difficult thing to do? Our very pride must be supplanted by humility before an honest attempt at forgiving can even be made. But like most demanding commodities, the more we employ them, the easier they become to enlist.

Offering an apology is often the least threatening way of soliciting forgiveness. Lending apology and forgiveness so often invites reciprocation in kind. How often does it come to pass after saying to someone, "I'm sorry. It was all my fault," are we met with, "No. no. I'm the one who should be sorry. It was all my fault." The healing is instantaneous and comprehensive. The fleeting yet genuine intimacy that is achieved provides a nearly transcendent moment of mutual harmony.

As one who is in need of much forgiveness, I am taking the wise words of Thomas Fuller to heart and using them to challenge my more intransigent nature and become a more forgiving person.

If only sublimating one's pride weren't such a formidable task.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Brief 'Trek' Through the Abortion Debate

In one episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, the creative trustees of the Gene Roddenberry vision gently yet imaginatively tackle the issue of abortion. The tact it assumes is a sensitive if predictable one.

In The Child (Season 2, Episode 1) Counselor Deanna Troi has become pregnant but not the old fashioned way. An alien life force in the form of a glowing speck of light engages Deanna in a brief, futuristic kind of intimacy while she is asleep and suddenly she is nurturing a new life within. Owing to the inexplicable nature of her pregnant condition, Captain Picard calls for a conference of senior officers to consider the situation.

As he always does, the Captain carefully listens to the comments of each of his underlings. Worf, the Klingon security administrator, not surprisingly advocates strongly for termination of the pregnancy citing, as one might expect, the security concerns of the Enterprise and its crew. After everyone has had his say, Deanna makes the pronouncement, "Do what you must to protect the ship, but know this: I am having this baby." Acknowledging that the decision is ultimately hers to make, the Captain adjourns the gathering saying, "It would appear, then, that this meeting is over."

Thus, in one succinct exchange, a very enlightened solution appears to have been made. The principle of choice is upheld, and Deanna's decision adheres to what the Roddenberry vision demands: the near-absolute respect for all living creatures. The question is, which part of this scenario is meant to prevail, the principle of choice or the affirmation of life?

Not to be lost in this dilemma is another of this episode's wider considerations. Ian, the young alien offspring who wondrously attains mid-childhood age in only a few short days, is the mysterious source of radiation that is allowing a plasma plague to endanger the lives of those on board. When the young boy realizes this, he sacrifices his human self in order to save everyone on the Enterprise, then reverts to his original light-beam state and disappears.

Not surprisingly, the powerful ideal of affirming life whenever possible seems to be the overriding Roddenberry message, and yet he does not shrink from symbolically depicting the complex nature of the entire pro-choice/pro-life debate.

In a clever sort of duality, there is something for each side of the debate in this well-crafted morality play. Maybe it's precisely what Gene Roddenberry had in mind.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Quote from Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Austrian Psychiatrist and "Father" of Psychoanalysis

"When man is freed of religion,
he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life."
~ Sigmund Freud

A Few Thoughts:

•My own experience allows me a slight variation on this quote as a personal expression: Since being free of religion, I have lived a more normal and wholesome life.

•Freud's psychological explanation for God and religion is uncomplicated: Owing to feelings of helplessness and guilt, the need for security and forgiveness arises, so people invent for themselves an entity that will provide precisely those things. - Philosophy of Sigmund Freud - Religion As Wish Fulfillment - In short, religion is seen as "childish delusion," and atheism as "grown-up realism."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Understanding the Coulter Culture - Take 2

In his recent post, Hate Talk In America, the very enjoyable questionsaboutfaith reminds us just how resistant the malevolently repugnant Ann Coulter still is to the forces of civility and reason. By insidious design, she has most of us right where she wants us - talking about her. For Ms. Coulter there simply is no such thing as bad publicity. Indeed, she gets much more mileage out of her disagreeable critics than she does her own like-minded minions.

The utter irascibility Ann Coulter is famous for has made her wealthy beyond avarice. This despite having to endure more frequent questions about her extreme brand of conservatism, offensive methods, and intellectual integrity.

Apparently, we are still missing a big piece of the Ann Coulter puzzle. She often takes a stand contrary to that of her inquisitors out of a sense of compulsion. So averse is she to the prospect of appearing moderate or even nuanced in her positions, she will not hesitate to propose the incendiary just to maintain a sense of hostility. I'm no shrink, but this smacks of personality disorder.

In an earlier post, Understanding the Coulter Culture, I proposed that Ms. Coulter was little more than a showman obsessed by the need for controversy and self-promotion. These traits, while largely remaining her motivation, now seem more like symptoms of a subtle psychological disturbance rather than anything orderly or healthful.

That Ms. Coulter's mental equilibrium might be slightly askew offers some explanation for her preposterous utterances. But what are we to make of the masses who revel in her bombastic rhetoric? She appears to have become the David Koresh of the Coulter Cult providing sanctuary for the caustically conservative, politically impressionable, and ideologically irredeemable.

As for those who continually provide Ann Coulter the venues for her so-called political analysis, they should be the ones leading all of us to the next meeting of Enablers Anonymous. I'll even make the coffee. And one by one we can each give testimony as to why we are helpless against the addiction of facilitation when it comes to providing Ann Coulter with her own insatiable craving - an audience.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Could I Have Been Wrong All Along?

Will wonders ever cease? Recent events have necessitated something quite unpleasant: my contemplating the notion that I could - yes, actually could - be wrong about something! Not an easy thing for an arrogant, smug-mug like myself to swallow.

In truth, the question, "Could I have been wrong all along?" begs another maybe-not-so-simple question, that being: "About what, specifically?" In all candor, I am fully prepared to accede in some respects, but defend in others.

It seems I have not fully appreciated a few crude realities about certain aspects of life. One of them being that most people in their seventies and eighties come from a generation that persistently resorts to the practice of internalizing that which today's more enlightened perspective strongly suggests they not internalize - things like mental illness, abuse, the far-reaching effects of alcoholism, and sordid, emotional family dynamics to name just a few.

The internalizing of these phenomena predictably causes serious problems in maintaining relationships. Its effects are usually so profound the only wise course of action is the intervention of mental health professionals. But today's more aged generation is often mistrusting of this "new" way of coping, opting instead to keep it all bottled up and turn to things like God and religion - or worse.

It has been proposed to me that this is not only a viable solution, but the only solution many older people will consider. And for that reason, making an appeal to one that he or she "get help" becomes an act of futility, especially when the appeal is coming from someone whose worldview is diametrically opposed to that of the person so in need of help. The glaring lack of any foundation built upon trust - owing to these conflicting worldviews - virtually disqualifies that person from being the best candidate to even attempt such a thing. In fact, to my short-sighted amazement, it apparently can cause a lot of pain.

As I mentioned to the person who made me aware of this, I can buy this way of thinking so long as it is not packaged and sold as a sort of better informed or higher kind of reasoning. On the contrary, it represents a total capitulation to a solution that is far from ideal.

And what about the consequences? We can't forget those. The consequences of this internalizing option has serious drawbacks. Among them the continued absence of any intimacy and love being shared between this victim and her family. Whereas, the getting help option offers what may be the best hope for a life consisting of at least a smattering of love and happiness. My antagonists, here, seem perfectly willing to accept that my mother live on without these benefits. It is a very sad and imperfect choice, to say the least.

So, to the argument that I am not the one to be making these appeals to my mother, fine - point well taken. Why, then, don't any of the other principals try to make the case? For two reasons. First, none of them have cultivated any trust with her either. And second, they have convinced themselves that their option is by far the least objectionable of the two.

Is it possible that some lingering anger over perceptions of having been misparented are providing at least some of my motivation? Absolutely. To deny this would be dishonest. It is categorically untrue, however, that I am attempting to impose my personal belief system on my mother. Her revulsion toward my skeptical philosophy speaks much more to her intolerance than it does anything else.

It suddenly occurs to me that I am not really admitting to being wrong about very much here, am I? Well, fuck it! I tried. I can't help it - I'm just an imperious little bastard whose arrogance knows no bounds and whose impertinence is quickly approaching legendary status!

So much for this exercise in humility.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Quote from Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
Modern American Poet

"For all your days be prepared, and meet them ever alike.
When you are the anvil, bear - when you are the hammer, strike."
~ Edwin Markham

A Few Thoughts:

It seems I had heard the expression, "When you are the anvil, bear - when you are the hammer, strike." What I wasn't aware of was that it was part of a more complete and rhyming quotation. Nor was I aware it was attributable to Edwin Markham, who is also new to me.

There were a number of lawyers in my family, and my dad would tell me how they lived by this expression as a sort of dictum in their legal practice. It was the only context I was aware of for a long time. I can see how it would apply to life in general, but that second part has a surgical feel to it, sort of terse and impersonal.

Maybe it takes a certain personality to live by this piece of advice, and I'm not at all certain I have it.

I thought I'd start a new feature on my blog, presenting interesting quotes from time to time that may seem to have a broad appeal. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Unappealing, Uninspiring, Unenlightened

Like most journeys of self-discovery, mine began as a solitary endeavor. Long before I had ever heard of Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens and God Is Not Great, or Sam Harris and The End of Faith, I was well on my way toward repudiating my earlier life and inaugurating a wonderful new kind of day for celebration, the Feast of the Renunciation.

It was important to me that I formally recognize my emancipation from religious preoccupation. It was a day worth commemorating. The stultifying weight of superstition, dogma and nonsensical thoughts being lifted from my overburdened shoulders provided so much relief, quantifying its soothing effect on my emotional well-being is difficult to do.

It took as long as it did for me to begin this journey of liberation because I was virtually set upon by my religious handlers for so long, and because religious indoctrination as a child - when done with the perverse efficiency it usually is - has a way of enduring both time and challenge.

The simple act of freely expressing my thoughts here on a lonely blog has provided immeasurable comfort as well as an increasing sense of belonging as I continue to find other well-rounded, free-thinking bloggers. To my pleasant surprise, the few religious people who have seen fit to comment have been quite palatable. It is my very intention to engage people of faith to propose to them that we celebrate what it is we have in common: our humanity and, hopefully, our love of life. Sometimes it seems to work; other times I am gently pelted with reasons why it can't work.

Three basic qualities about my former life of relative religiosity come to mind when I consider how empty it had become: unappealing; uninspiring; and unenlightened.

  • First, it was unappealing to me because of its innumerable and incessant self-righteous affirmations, as well as its exclusionary tendencies. Dissent of any kind as to things substantive was not tolerated and left one with feelings of impertinence. Further, people who did not openly affirm their status as god-fearing creatures were not only socially alienated, but also told directly that their destinies were irredeemable. Very unappealing.

  • Second, it was uninspiring to me because for all its attestations of wonder and magnificence emanating from a so-called god, it paled in comparison to the awe-inspiring sensations I would experience when contemplating the transcendent splendor of nature itself. The process of man's discovering and understanding things previously held to be mysterious was amazing enough in and of itself. Attributing all knowledge and understanding to a higher power was taking something very precious away from us: our natural thirst to achieve for ourselves that which lends to us the very knowledge and understanding we seek.

  • And finally, it was unenlightened to me because propagating its core tenets was fueling so much hatred and disharmony in the world. We've got a couple of missing office towers in New York that speak to this very issue rather poignantly. Even moderate religious views were becoming more and more distasteful to me because, in practice, they unfailingly abdicated the ultimate responsibility of securing our own stations in life, as well as our destinies, to an entity other than ourselves. This is all to say nothing of just how unenlightened it plainly is to believe that morality is necessarily derived from a supernatural source. Further, any worldview that nominates religion as its guiding structure is simply ill-equipped to handle the challenges presented by a society based on diversity and pluralism.

Yes, it took a while, but I eventually found myself crafting an outlook on life that required three very different qualities. It had to be appealing, inspiring, and enlightened.

My old life was ever so close - yet ever so far away.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remembering a Religious Friend

Lives Lived Well and the Lessons That They Teach
The following was published in the New York Times, January 2, 2000:


PAUL T. LAFFIN was a product of a Hartford family renowned for its advocacy for the sick and distressed. His siblings included two nurses, a health care worker and a director of a group home.

Mr. Laffin worked for a time as a psychiatric technician at Hartford Hospital after graduating from Merrimack College. But a decade ago, he switched to something closer to his heart. He joined the staff of St. Elizabeth Center, a shelter for the homeless on Main Street, eventually becoming its associate director. He was known both for the zest he brought to the job and his nonjudgmental attitude toward the people who lived there.

''He cared about people,'' said Sister Patricia McKeon, executive director of Mercy Housing and Shelter Group, the parent organization for the shelter. ''He really cared, and he went the extra mile for them. They weren't just numbers.''

Mr. Laffin, 42, died on Sept. 20 (1999) on a street near the homeless shelter as a result of a random attack by a mentally ill man who had been hospitalized three times in psychiatric wards for threatening people.

Remembering Paul Laffin

It's been almost nine years since my childhood friend Paul Laffin met his much-lamented demise. Paul came from a very religious family, one which on the surface didn't appear to be burdened with much dysfunction - unlike my own religious family. His mother and father were virtual icons in the local Catholic church, involving themselves in a number of other-than-Sunday activities.

Paul and I began our obligatory Catholic education in the second grade at St. Peter's School, which was located right next door to the very place Paul would find himself employed many years later, the St. Elizabeth Shelter for the Homeless. In real distance, his journey only took him a few feet, but in a much more meaningful way, it took him right to the end of his life.

To be honest, Paul and I were little more than a couple of child-hooligans in the second grade. As an example, for no other reason than the fact that we were allowed to return to class twenty minutes later than everyone else, we often attended Mass at noon in the church next door. We did little else than trade baseball cards and shoot spitballs from the back pews, yet we were always greeted warmly upon our return to class because we were considered so devoted for attending Mass on such a regular basis. There's no other way to put it. We were engaged in naked, religious fraud, pure and simple.

Our propensity for hijinks usually extended right up until the closing prayer of the day. With Paul seated in the first desk by the window and I seated in the first desk by the door, we would often glare at each other from across the room in a duel-to-the-death staring contest during the recitation. One afternoon, I got the better of Paul when right after the opening few words of the Act of Contrition, our contest suddenly ended with Paul flailing his arms up in the air, keeling over at the waist, and bursting out loud in uncontrollable laughter. I can still recall the nun who led us in prayer that day pinching Paul by the tip of the ear, whisking him toward the door and saying to him, "You find something funny about the Act of Contrition, Mr. Laffin? Maybe you can go down to the Principal's office and tell him just what that would be." How I contained myself as Paul was ushered past me, his head tilted sideways, I'll never know.

Paul and I shared something else unusual. We each lost a sibling to suicide; I, an older brother named Stephen, and he, a younger sister named Mary. Mary had the face of an angel and a personality to match. That she would find herself so conflicted she would resort to self destruction defied all logic. It was plain that the demon of despair was an equal opportunity destroyer of lives. And as difficult as this is to admit, I often wondered whether the extremely religious environment she was brought up in had anything to do with her demise. It hurts to even suggest it, but I know what pressures can be brought to bear by religiously overzealous parents. (As I mentioned in my earlier post, Recalling a Brother's Suicide, I believe this very influence was a major factor in my brother Stephen's last desperate act.)

Paul was a very religious person, but in a private and casual sort of way. It was his humanity that was most evident at any given moment. Years ago, I would occasionally run into him at the corner pub where Paul liked to go after working his usual second shift as a psychiatric technician at Hartford Hospital. After listening to some of the stories he would tell me, I understood completely why he often needed to imbibe after work. "Those people are crazy!" Paul once said to me. "They're in a tough way aren't they, Paul?" I replied, attempting to dole out a little empathy for him and those whom he cared for. Paul's response, "No. Not the patients. The staff! They're crazy!" Conversations without laughter were not possible with Paul Laffin. His sense of humor was both infectious and relentless. Often just the look on his face was more than enough to get me started.

I'm certain Paul would have remained a friend to me if he were with us today despite my divergent path as regards religious faith. He certainly seemed to be the kind of person who understood that it is the quest for truth that is important, not any arrogantly self-assured notion that one person could be in total possession of it. Celebrating that which we had in common - our humanity - would have been more than enough to sustain our friendship.

We miss you, Paul. Thanks for that laugh in the second grade at St. Peter's, and thanks for all the wonderful work you did at St. Elizabeth's.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Egregiously" Aggrieved

The devil visited a lawyer's office and made him an offer. "I can arrange some things for you, " the devil said. "I'll increase your income five-fold. Your partners will love you; your clients will respect you; you'll have four months of vacation each year and live to be a hundred. All I require in return is that your wife's soul, your children's souls, and their children's souls rot in hell for eternity."The lawyer thought for a moment. "What's the catch?" he asked.

Lawyers. Why is it everybody hates them until they need one? Well, for a lot of reasons, but we won't go into them right now. My father was a lawyer; my uncle was a lawyer; I have a brother who is a lawyer; I even had an aunt who was a nun and had a law degree! They all had a few things in common. They were bright, articulate, of even temperament, and - they loved the word "egregious."

Once while playing golf with my lawyer brother, he missed a short birdie putt and proceeded to put the blame on me saying, "You know, I would have made that putt if you hadn't so egregiously stepped in my line." Somehow, the normally forgivable offense of stepping in your opponent's line was, by virtue of its being so egregious, elevated to the status of "crime against nature."

What is it about the word "egregious" that appeals to the literary arsenal of lawyers? For one thing, lawyers are in the business of advocacy, which is just a fancy way of saying that they have to argue for the positions of their clients whether they believe in them or not. And the word "egregious" comes in handy for just that purpose.

The dictionary ascribes definitions for the word "egregious" that include "conspicuously offensive," "flagrant" and "extraordinary in a bad way." Thus, this word is nearly perfect for the purpose of attacking the credibility of one's opponent, because it proposes that one's client is so severely aggrieved, believing the other side's point of view would defy reason. And what better way to colour an argument than to suggest an opponent's unreasonableness.

This devious trick also comes in very handy in ideological arguments. Looking back, I've noticed it is not beyond my own methods to employ this tactic - and this word. Its main function is simply to disgracefully beg my own point of view regardless of where the substance of my arguments lie. It reminds me of the following variation on a famous legal axiom: "If the law is on your side, argue the law; if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if neither the law nor the facts are on your side, stand up on the table and shout!" Sprinkling one's argument with the word "egregious" and its variations is usually nothing more than one's way of standing on the table and shouting. It is very useful for deflecting attention away from the weakness of one's point of view.

But don't ask me to give up using this word. It works like no other. And even though there are a million reasons not to aspire to being one, it makes me sound a little like a lawyer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go wash the dishes. They would have been done had my daughter not so egregiously dismissed my request to do them an hour ago!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Did It Make a Difference?

Today began like most other days. It saw me starting out, as usual, with a fresh coffee at Dunkin Donuts - one extra cream, no sugar. I traded the usual good-morning barbs with my boss and co-worker: "It's amazing you and I aren't sick of each other, Bob." "Speak for yourself, Bill," Bob shot back.

"Oh just great! You're still here, Cindy?" Her warm reply: "You just worry about yourself, Bill. And if you don't stop delivering flowers to the wrong address, Bob is going to let go of your ass!"

All was right with the world. I was resoundingly insulted and abused getting my day off to its familiar start. My first few deliveries came and went without a hitch, and before I knew it my 11:00 a.m. caffeine craving was surfacing right on schedule. But this day was about to take a turn for the unusual. As I neared the entrance to, where else - Dunkin Donuts, a man approached me - disheveled, unshaven, and obviously down on his luck.

"Buddy, can you please buy me a sandwich? Please? I'm havin' a tough time here." He was actually escorting me into the coffee shop when I stopped and said to him, "Look, they may not take too kindly to your accosting their customers in here, so just wait outside. I'll be right back." He gave me a funny look for a moment - as if he didn't know what the word "accosted" meant. But the look on his face revealed an emerging hope that the rest of my words must have given him, and he dutifully retreated to the street corner to wait and see if his desperate plea would bare any fruit.

In the few moments I had waiting to be attended to, I weighed my options. My decision was an easy one. Disregarding the risk of promoting panhandling, I thought the right thing to do was to buy this man a sandwich. Hunger is such an immediate need.

I saw my friend's plight as a direct consequence of the financial meltdown on Wall Street. It was having an effect on everyone, from the CEOs of Lehman Brothers and AIG having to so sadly forgo a few million dollars in bonuses, to hedge fund managers becoming apoplectic at the thought of not being able to bring a 30% return on some clients' portfolios; all the way down to Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public having to weigh not paying this month's mortgage because their heating bills for the winter are coming due; and finally down to my street-corner hobo friend needing something to eat - right away. Maybe this was what they meant by trickle-down economics.

It's possible my hungry associate gave up hope as I had to go looking for him when I came out of the coffee shop. He was meandering in the opposite direction so I picked up my pace and caught up to him to give him his small but important gift. His face lit up at the sight of my approaching carrying a take-out bag from the shop.

"You didn't! Oh thank you, buddy. Thank you so much."

Being the nut case that I am, I couldn't stop myself from offering a few words of advice: "Look, the Social Services office is just down the street. Go there and tell them you need some assistance. That's what they are there for. You're just going to get yourself in trouble if you stay out here panhandling like this."

You're not going to get me in trouble are you, sir?"

"No. no. Of course not. But, you know, some people might not be so kind," I said to him giving myself a virtual pat on the back.

I was left to ponder the value of my deed of generosity. Did it make a difference? I thought it did. It wasn't exactly your average $700 billion bailout, but for a precious moment, we eased a little suffering. And we satisfied not only a craving for food, but almost as importantly, a craving for intimacy. My friend gave me a firm hug before crossing the street to settle at a bench and make a feast of his sandwich.

Isn't it always the way? You set out to do something kind for someone and you end up being the recipient of an even greater act of kindness in return - from the very person you helped! For a fleeting moment, I saw myself as a panhandler, too, groping for a smattering of intimacy from my fellow man - and being willing to pay for it in the currency of a ham, egg, and cheese croissant.

My friend and I were there for one another in this encounter of reciprocity, and each of us came away with that which we hungered for: he, something to fill his stomach, and I, something to fill my spirit.

Such wonderful symbiosis!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Morality Natural?

In a scene from the movie Good Morning Vietnam [I stand corrected; it was the final episode of the TV show M.A.S.H.], a bus full of villagers stops by the roadside to avoid detection by enemy soldiers. Among the villagers are a woman and her crying infant. Fearing the loud crying will alert the soldiers to their presence and lead to their killing, the mother suffocates her child. The ensuing silence assuages the soldiers' concerns and they move on. The villagers on the bus are spared.

What does the decision by this fictional young mother to kill her own child have to say about moral dilemmas? Is the killing morally defensible?

One of the more petulant arguments from many people of religious faith is one which claims that without God there are no morals. Many skeptics, however, make the point that our morality is not only not derived from anything supernatural, but that its origins appear to be encoded in nature itself.

A recent Newsweek magazine article, Is Morality Natural? (Sept. 22, 2008 Issue), reports on studies which "suggest that nature provides a universal moral grammar, designed to generate fast, intuitive and universally held judgments of right and wrong."

When presented with various moral dilemmas, people of diverse backgrounds, including atheists and people of religious faith, remarkably respond in the same way. When asked why they made the decisions they did, most cannot articulate an answer with any conciseness, yet they are confident in their choices. These findings reveal what appears to be a moral intuition embedded into the natural fabric of our consciousness.

One of the main purposes of organized religion most certainly is that of administering what it believes to be this moral charter, an admirable undertaking. It is the origins of this morality that we skeptics doubt derive from a supernatural source. It makes the task of promoting morality by people of faith no less honorable, but this task is not unique to people of faith. We atheists are also keenly attuned to the need for achieving a better sense of right and wrong in our everyday lives. It is a shallow and indefensible myth that atheists, by virtue of their godlessness, are lacking in a moral code to live by.

That this sense of what is right and what is wrong may derive from a natural source - or Darwinian source, as some suggest - actually gives me comfort. It gives one reason to have faith in man's instinctual self.

Maybe we can't all agree on the origins of morality, but hopefully we can agree that whatever they are it is very important to seek out its meaning, seek out its purpose, and attend to its ideal.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Legacy of Pain, Part II

Some may be wondering why the title, "Legacy of Pain." Certainly, this does not refer to the loving legacy of my dearly departed brother Vinny. Of whose legacy am I speaking? Sadly, it is that of my parents. I nonetheless try very hard to achieve some understanding - not just assign blame - as I contemplate their roles as "guardians of the spirit" in raising their children.

Over time it has become abundantly clear that each of my parents was burdened with substantial mental and emotional maladies. Only this can explain the legacy of pain inflicted upon their children. The alternative is to condemn them as willful abusers, which I know in my heart would be unfair. The crude reality, however, is that abuse is quite rightly the appropriate depiction of so much of what we endured. And because they were each in their own way so very religious, I drew the understandably inescapable conclusion that God, religious faith and superstition in general were all very unhealthy ideals to aspire to. If this was where commitment to God leads one, I wanted no part of it.

My parents lives speak to a legacy of pain endured as well as imposed. My ongoing enlightenment regarding the issues of mental illness, mental health hygiene and emotional well-being has allowed me to achieve and extend forgiveness toward my parents for their misdeeds. The illnesses they themselves no doubt were afflicted with mitigate the moral culpability they own for their shortcomings.

The most profound repercussion of this legacy of pain has been the near incapacitation of its victims (we sons and daughters) with regard to accepting ourselves, accepting others, negotiating conflict and achieving intimacy in our lives. In a sad sort of irony, some of us have come to accept these limitations as the price of admission to the theater of life. But I want a refund. A full life is not without these qualities. Moreover, I would like to free myself from this burden of righteousness we siblings seem to share. Another useless gift from the emotional estate of our parents.

To be frank about it, I feel as though my siblings are laying a thousand dollars down on a near-sure thing: my mother never getting the help she needs and dying having never experienced the joy of giving or receiving love from her family the entire duration of her golden years. Whereas, I am placing two dollars down on a thousand-to-one long shot: she accepts her mental health as frail and gets the professional care she so desperately needs. I submit the payoff on my wager - here at the emotional racetrack of life - is infinitely more rewarding.

Like the unfortunate young victim who has been sexually assaulted but is too afraid to report the incident to police or seek the help of a therapist, some people cannot accept that a greater good is achieved when we are willing to pay the price for healing in the form of confronting, with a purpose, some of what transpired. It is the surest way to get beyond it. Avoiding this reality is downright unhealthy.

One thing I thought I might do to deal with my anger over this week's events was to see my therapist ahead of schedule. Fortunately, she found a time to work me in, and I was able to get centered and achieve some perspective. On the down side, I think I made the mistake of speaking from my anger in one or two phone conversations and emails with siblings prior to seeing my counselor. Specifically, I was quite unforgiving toward my sister for the way she handled things at Vinny's service. I am having much difficulty rationalizing her actions, and yet I still feel called to forgiveness. At the moment, I am an abject failure in this regard.

The big-picture view of these events speaks to the level of discrimination and intolerance still aimed at those of us who dare to reject generations of religiosity. We atheists remain quite marginalized in our societies as well as within our families. Though most people hesitate to express overt hostility with their words, their actions nonetheless reveal much about their true feelings. Ironically, had I spoken my words of tribute to Vinny at his service, those who were aware of my skepticism would have been disappointed had they been anticipating anything offensive, while those who were not would have noticed nothing but the love that inspired my words.

It hurts being possessed of so much ambivalence regarding my parents, but feelings have no right or wrong. They are valid because they exist. Our quest to understand them, however, is most certainly a noble endeavor.

Flawed though my own legacy will no doubt be, I can still think of nothing more important than passing on to my daughter the desire to succeed at this very quest for understanding. It has given me - purpose.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Legacy of Pain, Part I

It has been a turbulent few days - emotionally - since my brother, Vinny passed away. Not for any reasons having to do with Vinny - he and I have always been square - but as is so often the case, having to do with tensions among surviving family members. Ain't it always the way?

As I try to make sense of all that transpired, a few things reveal themselves to me. Some I am already painfully - or not so painfully - aware of; others have a newness or freshness about them; a few even provide further insight into my own state of being and continued need for introspection and support.

It is quite clear to me that the source of all the bruised feelings and burdened communiqués was simply - intolerance. The details can bog one down, so I will make every effort to be economical with my words in providing them.

A few of you were very kind to me when I revealed my brother's death here on Living Without God - A Life of Reason in my last post, Good Bye, Vinny. This post - or tribute - to Vinny was at the very center of the firestorm. When I shared it with a couple of siblings, they were equally kind and positive in their reactions. My sister so much so that she suggested I read it at the end of Vinny's funeral service when people are invited to say a few words in remembrance of the one lost. My response was quite agreeable and I thought it would be both a loving gesture as well as emotionally valuable experience.

Then came the hitch. My sister made what now appears to be a mistake in retrospect. She told my mother that I had written a very lovely tribute to Vinny and that I was going to read it at the end of the service. (It was to be a religious service - a Catholic one - to be precise.) As I have revealed in a few of my posts, I believe my mother to be seriously burdened with mental illness, much of it in the form of religious delusion; but I have been equally adamant in my belief that her condition would likely respond favorably to the attention of competent and caring mental health professionals.

Reading this tribute to Vinny did not sit well with my mother. It wasn't the message - she hadn't even read it - it was the messenger! Because I am self-professed in my atheism, my mother did not think it right that I speak at Vinny's service. Then she suggested the only way she would allow this to happen would be if she could speak after me. My mother either did not want the words of an avowed atheist to go unchallenged or to be spoken at all within the confines of a Catholic funeral service. Her response reeked of intolerance. I will say this: If celebrating kindness, compassion, love and triumph of the human spirit is a secular evil - then I plead guilty.

My sister felt, or claimed, that given my mother's fragile state, my words could possibly invite a tit-for-tat and inappropriately escalating response - sort of like the beginning of a nuclear war, I suppose. One of my brothers even wrote to me in an email that I should "not go out of my way to inflict this gratuitous hurt on someone who has already seen so much pain in her life." This brother, who did read Good Bye, Vinny, either honestly believed that not reading my gift was the sensible thing to do, or as I suspect, was merely kowtowing to my mother's perverse conditions because he is, as all of my siblings are, afraid to stand up to her. (Just last week my sister very proudly told me she recently stood up to my mother for the first time in her adult life. Sadly, my mother intimidates these people.)

My brothers and sisters believe my mother to be the virtual equivalent of a sociopath - beyond even the reach of medical professionals. I don't think they understand that geriatric psychiatry is a medical field unto itself or that religious delusion is a symptom of mental illness; or, if they do understand these things, they simply feel she can survive without intervention. Maybe she can. But what kind of life is just surviving? Appropriate care would open up the possibility of not just surviving - but thriving.

Cutting to the chase . . . Toward the end of the service, one of the two celebrants presiding invited anyone who wanted to say a few words about Vinny to do so. Believing my mother would be just fine, I left my seat and motioned toward the lectern to share my brief tribute. My sister, from just a few feet away, very loudly blurted out, "No, Billy, no. We're not doing that." Not believing my ears, I glanced toward the inviting priest and said, "I'm sorry. Were we invited to say a few words?" The priest calmly nodded in the affirmative. But again my sister loudly objected, "No. No. Nobody is speaking." You can't make this stuff up! (I convinced myself that maybe I didn't hear the priest say what I thought he said - he wasn't speaking very loudly - so I returned to my seat. Had I been certain we were, in fact, invited to speak I would have continued on and read my tribute.)

The priest seemed bewildered by what had just transpired in front of him. At least one other person, a cousin of mine, who also motioned to speak, retreated in mild disbelief. If we were allowed to share our feelings, I'm sure others no doubt would have been made to feel comfortable enough to share one or two remembrances of their own. A golden opportunity for a few intimate moments was lost - all because a sibling or two felt tiptoeing around my mother was the sensible thing to do.

My daughter was so upset at what she witnessed, she immediately left the service, went outside and began crying on the church steps. After the service a few people tried to console her telling her that "we all have to forgive [Grandma]. We know how sick she is."

Lost in all this is, of course, my brother Vinny. These unfortunate events took focus away from the real purpose of the gathering which was to celebrate his life. Being denied the opportunity to do this very thing left Jami, Alycia and I feeling mistreated. We had to move on, however - I had to move on. Only I wondered how I would do this and yet still do justice to all that my anger was telling me.

I'll soon share how I began this process in Legacy of Pain, Part II.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Good Bye, Vinny

He was never a normal child. Restricted by obesity and burdened with special emotional needs, the mental and physical deficits of his early life left him at the mercy of the unkind. Bullying, name-calling, and taunting all rained upon him mercilessly as he navigated his way from early childhood through adolescence and onto adulthood.

For a long time, he feared the mere shadow of his fellow man. He was not given to trust, lest he be assaulted by disappointment yet again. He was driven into emotional exile by some of the worst that humanity had to offer. He appeared defeated.

But something happened. A strength began to emerge. It came from within. Suddenly he found the ability to forgive, and the healing began. Slowly, humanity earned its way back into his trust and faith. A sibling here, a sibling there. A friend here, a friend there. And supported by the kind of affection only a mother knows how to give, he found his way back among the living - and the loving.

How does someone beset by so many challenges and possessed of so few conventional tools find the courage to love again? How does someone so weathered by malevolence end up the very picture of goodness?

My hunch is that the best of what humanity had to offer found its way into his heart. Kindness, compassion and love. Three qualities not given to defeat. And for that we are grateful.

Who was this man? He was my brother. His name was Vinny. He died today at the age of 56 after a long and courageous voyage through life. I know he loved me and the rest of his brothers and sisters because he told us he did every time he spoke to us. And because he taught me how, I was able to love him the way a brother should.

To my precious brother Vinny: Thank you, and . . . Good Bye.

Ping Pong Across the Connecticut River

Living near the Connecticut River means sometimes having to cross it to get where one has to go. It's a long, wide and beautiful, tidal river. Very picturesque. Every once in a while, I'll cross the river via the rustic Rocky Hill/Glastonbury ferry - said to be the oldest continuously operating ferry in the country - just to enjoy it more intimately.

Then again, there are those times when just thinking about having to cross that river one more time nearly drives me to the brink. Consider the following:

We live on the west side of the river. My job is on the east side of the river. Sometimes for work, I go back over the bridge to make deliveries on the west side. And because our daughter still doesn't have her license, I have to drive her to school which is back on the east side - and of course pick her up. Toss in one round trip caused by a momentary brain freeze and things start to get dicey.

Today I made 10 trips across this river. When I arrived home, Jami said to me, "Ten times! And you didn't just pull over and jump off the bridge? I'm so proud of you!"

Thank you, Jami. And that very idea did cross my mind by the way. But when I thought of how much I still had to live for - how many more priceless bridge-crossing years I still had ahead of me, I just couldn't do it.

Besides, the Putnam Bridge is a sentimental place for me. Each time I cross it, I am reminded of crossings past, most of them uneventful, some adventurous. Like the time I skidded out of control one wintry morning and bounced off the Jersey barriers like a tennis ball earning me that dreaded joy ride in the back of an ambulance; or the time a couple of my coins missed their mark at the toll gate and the state police pursued me like a felon; and how could I ever forget the time my tire went flat right in the middle of the span causing not only a mile-long backup, but also serious risk to life and limb as I hastily performed my matinée, tire-changing sideshow for the early rush-hour crowd.

Yes, I crossed the Connecticut River 10 times today, and I'm nearly sea sick because of it. Some days, just getting out of bed is the wrong thing to do.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Real Reason George Will Annoys Me

The social and political stripes so boldly emblazoned onto my persona are not something I have much success at hiding, so it should come as no surprise that it's something of a chore to commit to regularly reading conservative columnist George F. Will. As with most sources I might not politically identify with, I at least try to learn from him what I can.

So abrasive to my sensibilities do I find Mr. Will's most commonly held views, I often do not get past the initial sense of revulsion I experience when I first set eyes upon his photo atop each of his columns in Newsweek magazine. Given that I usually read periodicals from back to front, his back-page column in Newsweek always gets my reading of that publication off to a rocky start.

On those occasions when I'm able to put aside Mr. Will's political orientation, I'm usually glad I did. Besides having a soft spot for him because he did his undergraduate work at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the city I grew up in, I find him to be a virtual font of information as an observer of the political process. And when the situation calls for it, he will roundly criticize those of his own conservative ilk. He's also big on baseball. (His name has even been tossed around casually as a possible future Commissioner of Baseball.)

Those of you who read George Will regularly also know something else about his columns. They are usually spiced with uncommon words. It's one thing to be erudite or scholarly with one's vocabulary; it's quite another to be just plain annoying. If I don't have a dictionary readily at hand when I read Mr. Will, chances are a few things are going to go right over my head. Whether referring to Bill Clinton's preternatural neediness or Mike Huckabee's charlatanry, I find I need at the ready to make sure he doesn't lose me altogether.

I figure there are two ways to look at this phenomenon. Either my vocabulary is sorely in need of a booster shot, or Mr. Will is on the verge of being unnecessarily sesquipedalian. (See how it feels?)

So what's the real reason George Will gets under my skin? Is it simply the fact that no matter what the subject I already know that what I'll be getting is an unrelenting, conservative spin on the topic of the day, or is it the way he makes my vocabulary seem so jejune? Truthfully, it's a toss-up. But if I had to choose which one annoys me more, I'd have to say the vocabulary thing. I can tolerate someone's political analysis being predictably conservative, but looking down their nose at me and my vapid vocabulary is more than I can bear. It's so pestiferous.

Take that, George.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

There's No Crying - Or God - In Baseball

One of my favorite scenes in all of movies occurs in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. When one of the players on the all-women's baseball team starts to cry after being excoriated for a misplay on the field, Jimmy Dugan, the drunken, gruff and disheveled manager charmingly portrayed by Tom Hanks, looks at her and incredulously exhorts, "You're crying? Are you crying? There's no crying in baseball! (View the scene.)

The Hanks character's derision at the sight of tears on a baseball field is probably something most of us would also feel if we tried to imagine a dejected Derek Jeter sobbing uncontrollably after hitting into a double play costing his team a run at a critical moment. We understand baseball, and we understand crying; but we also understand that little voice inside our head that tells us the two don't mix very well.

Which brings to mind the idea that maybe something else should be left out of baseball as well. In September of 2001 - right after the infamous date of 9-11 to be more precise - the New York Yankees, in a proud display of patriotism, began having the song God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch of all its home games at The Stadium. Its unifying and healing effect on a hurting city was plainly evident. The Irish tenor Ronan Tynan delivered on repeated occasions his masterful rendition of this anthem which Kate Smith made so popular in her glory days. (Watch Ronan Tynan sing God Bless America at Yankee Stadium)

But seven years later, I'm left to wonder: Has this new tradition already outlived its usefulness? The appeal of God Bless America is one of nostalgia. It hearkens us to a time when the country was more a country of Christians than not, when God was right up there with baseball, motherhood and apple pie as signatures of that which we held dear, and many people don't want to see those days go away. The reality, however, is that our doctrine of religious freedom has evolved and matured. It now respects not only the multiplicity of religions practiced in America, but also respects - or at least should - the ranks of us not inclined toward religion at all.

Truthfully, my aim is in no way to see God removed from public life altogether, but more precisely to see religion removed from institutions of government. But the Yankees are not an institution of government, so why my trepidation?

This is a valid question. If the Steinbrenners (owners of the Yankees) want to have God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch, my hunch is that they have every right to do so. One leg I might have to stand on in favor of returning to Take Me Out To The Ball Game may lie in the fact that baseball does, in fact, enjoy a special social status in America, to say nothing of a special legal status (owing to its exemption from antitrust laws). Given that baseball is that unique institution in America whose appeal is so broad it permeates virtually every segment of society, in the course of its business it should refrain from identifying with any constituent that does not share its broad and inclusive philosophy.

Being a Yankee fan, I watch a lot of their games on television, and whenever the seventh-inning stretch of a home game comes around these days, I find myself suddenly in need of a comfort break. This is the same person, mind you, who couldn't tear himself away from this spectacle in the weeks immediately following 9-11. It was strange. I was comforted, not by the singing of God Bless America, but by witnessing the comfort it gave others. I was struck at just how uplifting and healing this song was to so many people, especially when the inspiring sight of a bald eagle flying through the stadium air was employed to even further incite the patriotism already swelling amidst the crowd.

It concerns me that those of us who do not believe in God might be considered less patriotic than those who do, which is, of course, a myth. We're only asking whether or not this one swatch from the fabric of our culture is best left outside such a universally appealing phenomenon as baseball.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the enormous impact God, faith and religion have had on our culture. But for the sake of their very own survival, it would be wise to refrain from ostentatious displays of God, faith and religion in certain cultural arenas.

In the meantime, we don't need to repeat the spectacle of Yankees manager Billy Martin going to pieces after being fired for the fourth time. It was not a pretty sight.

Some things are best left out of baseball.