Friday, February 27, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage: Simply Semantics?

Is it possible all the fuss over same-sex marriage is essentially about semantics, or is it the inevitable result of the entanglement of church and state as University of Wisconsin student Kevin J. Mack points out in his recent op-ed piece in The Daily Cardinal titled Separate Church, State in Same-Sex Marriages?

One definition ascribes to the term "semantics" is the study of linguistic development by classifying and examining changes in meaning and form. The meaning and form of the term "marriage" appears destined to undergo some changes despite ongoing attempts to codify its traditional definition with controversial legislation.

Mack suggests that church and state are hopelessly intertwined over the issue of marriage, and if they weren't, much of the disputation would dissolve. His solution is for the state to remove itself from the marriage business, and instead simply "recognize" couples - and confer appropriate legal rights upon them - according to its own criteria. Churches would, of course, be allowed to continue marrying whomever they want under whatever criteria they choose to impose.

Maybe the real dilemma is over 'ownership' of the construct of marriage itself. Churches seem to want control over who decides what a marriage is. Some applications of the term, however, are strictly secular - or civil - in nature. When we submit our tax returns to the IRS, the filing status "married filing jointly" refers to a legal status not a religious status - a status conferred upon us by the state. It would seem that if churches have complete control over who is married, the IRS may have to come up with a whole new set of filing status labels. Civil union filing jointly perhaps? Only for these purposes, the term "civil union" would necessarily apply to those considered married by churches as well.

Religious marriages are recognized by the state because they have met certain state-imposed criteria. If churches want to restrict recognition of religious marriage to that of a man and a woman, they are, of course, free to do so. It would be unreasonable, however, to attempt to deny states the right to perform strictly secular or civil marriages of same-sex couples.

While the definition of marriage that prevails would likely prove symbolic, it would be a capitulation to religious interests if marriage were to be legally defined as a union between a man and a woman, thus allowing them to define not just marriage, but whether or not we are an ideological melting pot. This would no doubt be a victory for the forces of intolerance and discrimination.

Perhaps Kevin Mack is correct: church and state need to be cleansed of the influence each has in the affairs of the other regarding marriage. Without this disentanglement, it may all indeed be just a matter of semantics.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Don't Do It, Billy!

Tonight I was tempted - tempted to do something I have told myself a thousand times I would never do: walk up to perfect strangers and leave them with a home-made booklet espousing all the wonderful benefits of a life without God. What made me even entertain the idea of doing something so selfish and disrespectful? As some may guess, the idea was not an original one.

I was sitting at a table in a coffee shop reading through a booklet I made consisting of all my blog entries posted here on Living Without God - A Life of Reason (a couple of people expressed an interest in having such a booklet so they could peruse it at their leisure) when several people walked into the shop and sat down at a table nearby. At first I noticed one of them had what looked like a smudge of some kind on his forehead. I wondered if this person had any idea his face and forehead were in need of a good cleansing. A moment later, I noticed the same smudge marks on the foreheads of the other three people as well. Then - the light bulb went on over my head. It had to be that Catholic rite of Ash Wednesday. (Apparently I was making some progress toward vacating my mind of all those old religious rituals.)

For a moment I was experiencing what had to be the same feeling those annoying bible thumpers have right before they pounce on their unsuspecting prey and inflict their religious inanities on them all because they want to save their lost souls. Then suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I glanced over and saw a little demon - pitch fork, horns and all - looking up at me and urgently muttering, "Go ahead. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Throw that booklet on the table and tell them to have a nice read!"

I rubbed my eyes to cleanse them of the apparent apparition, but to no avail. That little devil just kept looking at me and tempting me in that special way only a real demon knows how to. Then, a moment later, another tap. This time on my other shoulder. I looked down and noticed a little angel - wings, halo and all - looking up at me and urgently muttering, "Don't do it, Billy. You know better than that. Two wrongs don't make a right."

I rubbed my eyes again, but the visions persisted. For several minutes these minions of my imagination took turns attempting to seize my will. In a trance, I got up, booklet clasped firmly in hand, and began making my way toward The Table of the Ash Heads. Just as I was about to invite myself into their sanctuary and point them toward the light, I suddenly emerged from my deep daze and instead offered a polite greeting to my caffeine cohorts before ambling toward the exit knowing in my heart I had just done the right thing.

I guess I'm just not an evangelical atheist after all. As strongly as I feel about my views, I was determined never to stoop to the level of the thumpers. As for the next time one of them approaches me, when I begin to contemplate my evil responses, I hope that little voice will be there to say, "Whatever you're thinking, don't do it, Billy."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A God Concept I Can Work With

A recent visitor to my blog who goes by the user name Budha left a comment that was actually more of an invitation to view his site and engage in what he hoped would be a substantive discussion about "God concepts." Being curious, I checked out his site and his three latest posts having to do with this enticing subject.

There were a number of comments from thoughtful contributors suggesting various definitions of "God." Some were rather ethereal and defended the popular concept of God as the omnipotent and omniscient presence so many of us were brought up to believe was true. Others were clearly skeptical and mindfully critical of traditional God concepts.

(As a rule, I resist the urge to take part in "commentary wars" on blog sites, but the tone of most of the discourse on this site was very civil. Though many no doubt held strongly to their views, the discussion avoided deteriorating into mindless flaming, which is a prerequisite for my participation.)

But did I have anything of value to contribute? What, in fact, was my understanding of the concept of God? After some initial trepidation, I decided to accept the challenge of quantifying this idea in my mind and leaving a brief comment.

What were the essential components of my understanding of "god?" My nearly life-long process of attempting to construct a concept that both reflected my true feelings on the matter and offered a meaningful convention for others led me to submit (and properly credit) something that was actually not my own original idea. The most meaningful explanation I have come across for so many people's insistence upon God's reality comes from none other than Sigmund Freud.

Freud essentially posited the following: "...owing to feelings of helplessness and guilt, the need for security and forgiveness arises, so man creates for himself an entity that can provide precisely these things." In other words, "religion is seen as childish delusion and atheism as grown up realism." (Sigmund Freud: Religion as Wish Fulfillment) God, therefore, is rightly understood to be a construct of the imagination, and its creation is artfully explained as a 'necessity' arising out of psychological considerations.

I closed my comment to Budha's God Concepts, Part 3 with the following: "So where do I turn in times of need? To my fellow man. If I've developed a 'faith' in anything, it is in our ability as human beings to provide the love, solace and comfort we so often need from one another."

Thank you, Sigmund Freud, for a God concept I can work with.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Religious Delusion: Faith In the Extreme?

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I really am a tenth-grade dropout. The views expressed in the following essay should be taken in this light. For a professional introduction to "delusions" see Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders: Delusions.

It is widely understood by mental health professionals that religious delusion is a common symptom experienced by many people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses. This observation, however, requires a certain convention be adopted for the purpose of defining just what religious delusion is.

Broadly speaking, a delusion is a persistent false belief in something despite contravening evidence or reason. Under this working definition, is it fair to describe those who have religious faith as delusional? For the most part, it would seem not. Practically speaking, it seems whether or not a belief rises to the level of delusion can be gauged by its relationship to behavioral anomalies. If someone says God commanded him to commit murder, it would be understood that religious delusion is at work, not because God's existence can be disproved, but rather because the belief in God's existence resulted in antisocial behavior. Delusion is not necessarily dependent upon the false premise of any particular belief, but rather on its propensity to negatively impact behavior.

But what about other more subtle manifestations of questionable belief? It may not be considered delusional for someone who believes in God to tell those who do not they will go to hell, but if this belief is so deep-seated it interferes with relating to people in general, the label of "delusional" could surely apply. Given that achieving and maintaining stable, loving relationships is one measure of positive mental health, the absence of such relationships in the life of someone possessed of extreme religious faith suggests a delusional aspect to such beliefs.

Another symptom commonly associated with religious delusion is obsession. The religiously obsessed see all things through the narrow prism of their own religious faith. Such thinking is unhealthful because it is dismissive of those who employ any of life's other prisms of discernment, thus complicating the building of relationships based upon more universal concepts or even trust. In addition, the religiously obsessed often endure profound stress at the thought - or experience - of having their religious beliefs questioned.

Among other reasons, one could be said to be suffering from religious delusion if:
  • the beliefs in question impede one's ability to cultivate and maintain meaningful relationships, or;
  • they are the direct motivation for overt acts of antisocial behavior.

Finally, it is important to remember that those experiencing delusions of any kind are, by definition, grappling with mental illness, and as such are deserving of compassion and understanding, not ridicule or contempt.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abortion: Failure of the Human Condition?

Few things invite the polarity of mindset the subject of abortion does. For many, a certain moral absolutism bespeaks the adamant perspective that abortion is an evil stain on the fabric of humanity deserving of nothing but condemnation. For others, the value of personal choice appears to supersede the value of life itself.

One telling aspect of this debate seems to be that many of those who defend a woman's right to choose also allow that it is their aim to reduce the need for abortions altogether. Does this position expose a chink in the armor of pro-choice constituents? If abortions truly occurred in a vacuum of morality, why then any aversion to it at all? As a candidate for president, Hillary Clinton said she hoped for the day when abortions were "safe, legal and rare." (Emphasis added.) Why the need for abortions to be rare if not for some underlying moral imperative disavowing their utility?

The absolutist approach, while appearing to flow from the moral high ground, is nonetheless dysfunctional. Once a context is assigned, the absolute defense of life at any and all costs simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Many of the same people have no compunction when judging some to be deserving of capital punishment. Some lives are apparently not worthy of defending.

For the time being, however, the genie is out of the bottle, the tooth paste is out of the tube, and the tail is wagging the dog. These tiresome clichès notwithstanding, the prudent course of action would seem to be to allow safe and legal abortions while at the same time cooperating in ways to reduce the primary impetus for abortions: unwanted pregnancies.

But this is where cooperation becomes elusive. Choices which allow for the healthy engagement of sexual activity while preventing pregnancy at the same time are non-starters for so many conservatives. Like it or not, "abstinence only" is utterly dysfunctional insofar as it disregards the basic human need for intimacy. The purpose of sex is not only to procreate, but also to achieve this very intimacy by sharing the urge to satisfy both the physical and emotional needs of one's self and one's partner. While an even greater sense of intimacy can arguably be achieved when impregnation is possible or even likely, it nonetheless holds that the intimacy achieved when pregnancy is not possible is more than sufficient to justify its role in fostering a meaningful and healthy lifestyle.

One of the best ways to help get beyond the political impasse in the abortion dilemma is for all concerned to unambiguously avow that improving the quality of life for everyone is one way to promote the sanctity of life in general. Perhaps the practical solution lies not in making abortions illegal, but rather in making them unnecessary.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dick Cheney: The Righteousness Resumes

The vacuous essence of Barry Goldwater's haunting words from his 1964 Republican nomination acceptance speech notwithstanding, not only is extremism in the defense of liberty a vice, but immoderation in the pursuit of justice is equally bereft of mindfulness. One need look no further than the execrable practices of the man in charge of the recently departed administration, Dick Cheney, and his puppet president, George W. Bush, to attest to these potent political truths.

One irony of the Bush-Cheney legacy may turn out to be the fact that their approach to the nation's post 9/11 security concerns was replete with impetuous expressions of bravado which yielded precisely the opposite reactions they were designed to elicit. The more confrontational and threatening the approach to Iran, the more intransigent and defiant Iran's posture became. The more the administration abused detainees, the more reason the detainees' ideological compatriots had to inflict abuses of their own. The more misguided the aggression in Afghanistan, the more resurgent, resentful and oppressive the Taliban became. In short, the Bush-Cheney solution has merely emboldened those it was intended to disarm.

In an interview with Politico, the former vice-president staunchly defended the measures taken after the attacks of 9/11, while at the same time questioning the wisdom of the new administration's less aggressive stance:

If it hadn’t been for what we did — with respect to the terrorist surveillance program, or enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees, the Patriot Act, and so forth — then we would have been attacked again,” he said. “Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the U.S. . .

. . . I think there are some who probably actually believe that if we just go talk nice to these folks, everything’s going to be okay. . .

. . . They may be able, in some cases, to make progress diplomatically that we weren’t. But, on the other hand, I think they’re likely to find — just as we did — that lots of times the diplomacy doesn’t work. Or diplomacy doesn’t work without there being an implied threat of something more serious if it fails.

More than anything else, waging wars of dubious necessity, spying on its own citizens and torturing prisoners, etc., all reveal an ignorance of the more subtle demands of leadership as well as a failure of the imagination on a grand scale. Whatever sympathy the civilized world had for Americans immediately following 9/11, it is now painfully clear this reservoir of good will has been all but depleted. The perverse efficiency with which America's moral standing in the world was eviscerated in the ensuing seven years is nothing short of astonishing.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are no doubt relying upon history to provide a more sympathetic assessment of their official deeds than their present-day detractors, but the likelihood of such an agreeable verdict - for the moment - appears remote.