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.