Friday, May 22, 2009

The Rights of the Child

On February 16, 1995 Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. To date only Somalia and the United States have failed to ratify this Convention.

One of the more controversial stipulations of this international treaty is expressed in Article 14 Part 1 which says "States . . . shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." This provision has no doubt been one of the main sticking points for conservative members of the US Senate who are charged with ratifying the CRC. Citing inconsistencies with the Constitution, balking Senators appear on the surface to have reason to reject the accord. Impinging on its sovereignty is after all something our country takes very seriously. Nonetheless, it is an embarrassment that the United States is virtually alone in its rejection of this Convention.

Parental rights groups claim the CRC would usurp their responsibilities and disavow many of their rights, among them the right to bring up children in the religion of their choice. Granting children redress for being forced into a life of superstition and dogma holds the threat of denying religious institutions an advantage they have long possessed. What better way to swell the ranks of your church with obedient soldiers than to indoctrinate them as children before they can grant their informed consent? In addition, the crude practice of squelching a child's natural tendency toward independence of thought is central to this fallacious process.

The very first issue of FREE INQUIRY (Winter 1980-81) published the following from the Secular Humanist Declaration:
We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent. Although children should learn about the history of religious moral practices, the young minds should not be indoctrinated in a faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves...
So deeply rooted into the fabric of our culture is the practice of inculcating children in the religious ways of their guardians, it is considered entirely normal and acceptable to do so. As long as children are denied the rights enumerated in the CRC, religious ideology will maintain its stranglehold on the minds of the very young, a stranglehold many are only too happy to perpetuate.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Deft Maneuvering - Or Bait and Switch?

Only a few months into his presidential tenure, Barack Obama is already managing to confound most political observers. But what are the qualities frustrating them most? Is the new president being independent, vexatious, or simply traitorous to those who got him elected?

President Obama's inconsistencies are exasperating both liberals and conservatives alike. On the one hand, he seems unwilling to take full advantage of what's been afforded him, i.e., majorities in both congressional houses, an exorbitant reservoir of political capital, and a minority clearly on the run. On the other hand, his caution may be very sapient. The last Democratic president to overreach was rewarded with a furious political backlash. Does 1994 ring a bell? Newt Gingrich? The Contract With America? The Republican resurgence?

The latest 180-degree turnaround by Mr. Obama involves his decision to fight the release of photographs allegedly depicting abuse of detainees. This decision seems to fly in the face of campaign promises that an Obama presidency would operate with transparency. Is president Obama deferring to pressure from the military, or is he surreptitiously contriving the circumstances under which he can appear to be placating conservatives knowing full well these photos are likely to be ordered released anyway? If so, the more deserving tag for the president may be "smooth operator."

Should the president be tiptoeing around Republicans, or is he wasting a mandate to roll right over them? Perhaps the trick he is trying to pull off is rolling over them but without actually appearing to do so. He could - and should - claim that he is bound by both U.S. and international law to investigate accusations of torture. While this would not sit well with Republicans, it should provide enough political cover to disarm many of his detractors.

As for the impending Supreme Court vacancy, a more predictable choice seems more predictable. Surely Mr. Obama will attempt to seat a liberal justice whose jurisprudence recognizes the evolving nature of the Constitution. A modicum of judicial activism is not only wise, it is essential. History is replete with stories of things once legal yet misguided being given the proverbial boot by a modest but enlightened measure of judicial activism.

With contradictory pronouncements emanating from the White House regularly, it's difficult to say precisely where the president's lead will take us on any given issue. And the game of mollifying the opposition can be taken to extreme, in which case the president's true leadership abilities will rightly be called into question.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Science vs. Religion: Is This Even Necessary?

Though it was a valiant effort, converting the greater part of civilization to atheism was probably too much to hope for. Judging by the predictable responses of so many among the god-fearing masses, it is clear the words of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) held little sway with those predisposed to religiosity.

Some who claim to be immune to the influences of either intellectual camp - religious or rational - make the argument that because religion, theology and philosophy are not the domain of the scientific endeavor, the forces of reason are therefore ill-equipped to make judgments about man's origin and purpose. The truth is the rational sphere is no less impotent than the religious sphere when it comes to answering life's most compelling questions.

The assertion that rationalism is just as much a faith as religion because all inquiry presupposes certain truths about that which it is attempting to reveal misses the point. (NY Times Blog Think Again, Stanley Fish) To the extent rationalism presupposes anything, it presupposes only antecedent truths which the very processes of the scientific method have already affirmed. Yes, rationalists do possess a certain kind of faith, a faith which tells them a stone dropped from a tall building will fall to earth. Rationalists are right to question any faith which claims there is an explanation founded in reason for a human being arising from the dead and bodily ascending into a euphoric netherworld a few days later. What rationalists object to is not someone having religious faith, but rather claiming a rational explanation for those tenets of their faith which defy such explanations.

The perpetual clash between science and religion reveals the lengths to which many will go to claim reason as their ally. It is as though reason were the holy grail of intellectual commodities, and whoever absconds with its persuasive prowess will somehow command the intellectual high ground. Reason is so valued a commodity, some will go so far as to propose the inane to fetch its prize. (Fides et Ratio: Making Sense of the Senseless)

Could it be as simple as accepting the notion that science and religion are unique and independent domains as Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria suggests? Gould's proposal does seem to provide an honorable retreat for the warring ideologues in this debate. The implacability on both sides, however, tells us many think this is a war that can be won, Gould's efforts to disarm the combatants notwithstanding.

Instead of hyper-educated principals trying to convince each other of the enlightened premise of their arguments, perhaps what we need are more humble notables demonstrating the plausibility of a working, and yes loving, co-existence between those who have religious faith and those who do not. Can't we all just get along?