A Whole New Level of Silly in the “War On Christmas”

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I surely don’t have to tell you that every year, beginning around the middle of September, two things start appearing like clockwork: Christmas decorations at your local Wal-Mart, and the media’s idiotic narrative about a supposed “war on Christmas” — evidently because the decorations didn’t come out in July. We’ve covered this topic before, but it seems that every year, somebody adds a whole new level of lunacy to it.  Shortly after the election of the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant, he did the one thing he does well — rouse the rabble — by vowing to force everyone to “start saying Merry Christmas again”. Whereupon Fox “News” gleefully declared that the war had been won. Now, they’re yammering about it as strongly as ever. Turns out he’s full of hot air and they’re full of crap. Who knew?

This year, the Bubblegum Crucifix Award for tackiest commentary in the name of religion goes to Dennis Prager, grand overlord of PragerU(niverse) for trying to provide an intellectual and factual justification for the whiny and petty reaction to this galactic nothing. (It’s an old video, but I’ve just now stumbled upon it.) His solution to the silly contrived “controversy” is simple: just say “Merry Christmas”. It will keep entitled white Christians happy, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it? If you just bow down to them on this one little thing, they surely won’t make any other demands, eh?

What his argument boils down to is that Christmas should be seated at the head of the holiday table because it has been in the past. But that’s never a valid justification for anything. In the past, we had slavery, smallpox and black-and-white vacuum tube televisions. He begins on a very ominous note:

The change from wishing fellow Americans “Merry Christmas” to wishing them “Happy Holidays” is a very significant development.

Significant? In what way? And what kind of “change” are you talking about? Many people have always said “Happy Holidays” instead of, or in addition to, “Merry Christmas”. And civilization hasn’t collapsed yet.

But the “Happy Holidays” advocates want it both ways. They dismiss opponents as hysterical; but at the same time, in addition to replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” they have relentlessly pushed to replace “Christmas vacation” with “winter vacation” and “Christmas party” with “Holiday Party.”

So, then, which is it? Is all this elimination of the word “Christmas” important or not?

It’s hard to see how he could miss the point by a wider margin no matter how hard he tried. Somehow he sees a conflict (“wanting it both ways”) in being (a) gracious toward everyone, and at the same time (b) realizing that it will have no negative impact on anyone. Striving for a level of respect for all beliefs and traditions — and saying “Happy Holidays” — in no way “replaces” Christmas or Christmas traditions. Holiday cheer is not a zero sum game, in which using one expression diminishes another. And people who react as if it did are indeed being hysterical. And quite often manipulative.

He goes on to recount the apocalyptic horrors that have resulted from this drive to “replace” Christmas.

In place of the universal “Merry Christmas” of my youth, in recent decades I have been wished “Happy Holidays” by every waiter and waitress in every restaurant I have dined; by everyone who welcomes me at any business; by my flight attendants and pilots; and by just about everyone else.

We feel your pain, man. How dare they be so congenial to him in an idiom unauthorized by the Christmas gestapo? And these shameless tormentors aren’t done with him yet.

When I respond, “Thank you. Merry Christmas!” I often sense that I have actually created some tension. Many of those I wish “Merry Christmas” are probably relieved to hear someone who feels free to utter the “C” word, but all the sensitivity training they’ve had to undergo creates cognitive dissonance.

Not that he’s paranoid or anything, but he just knows that every ear in the house is trained on him so they can catch him using the dreaded “C word”, and report him to the PC police so he can be interned in a sensitivity training reeducation camp in a Berkeley warehouse.

The opponents of “Merry Christmas” and other uses of the word “Christmas” know exactly what they’re doing. They’re disingenuous when they dismiss defenders of “Merry Christmas” as fabricating some “War on Christmas.”

He’s determined to have a war, dammit, and he’s going to even if nobody’s fighting back. If you fail to say “Merry Christmas” on cue like a trained seal, then you’re obviously an “opponent” of the expression.

Of course it’s a war on Christmas, or, more precisely, a war on the religious nature of America. The left in America, like the left in Europe, wants to create a thoroughly secular society. Not a secular government – which is a desirable goal, and which, in any event, has always been the case in America – but a secular society.

Note that Prager has an obsession, which has surfaced at many other times, with trying to save America from becoming “Europeanized”, whatever the hell that means. (Does it mean caring about people more than money and electing halfway sane functional adults as leaders? Europeanize us, please.) And he doesn’t seem to realize that precisely because America has a secular government (which even he acknowledges is desirable), it cannot have a religious society by design — it has been, in the past, a Christian nation by default.

Most people do not realize that the left believes in secularism as fervently as religious Jews and Christians believe in the Bible.

This is a very common tactic among sanctimonious demagogues — declaring that secularism and skepticism require just as much fanatical faith as religious zealotry. Some of them even tried to have “secular humanism” officially declared a religion so it would be subjected to the principle of separation of church and state! But spin and revisionism notwithstanding, secularism does not have a dogma, and secularists do not try to force everyone else to live by some secularist creed.

Note also that he repeatedly identifies the effort to “replace” Christmas as a preoccupation of “the left” — like many others of his mindset, his motto is that, whatever happens that he doesn’t like, blame them librulz first. But while it’s certainly true that them librulz tend to be much more tolerant and inclusive than non-librulz (despite all the spin and revisionism to the contrary), they by no means have a corner on the market. Many advocates of more inclusive greetings like “Happy Holidays” are non-librulz; some are even conservative Christians.

That’s why “Merry Christmas” bothers secular activists.

Okay, let’s see a show of hands. How many people are bothered by someone saying “Merry Christmas”? We’ll wait.

It’s a blatant reminder of just how religious America is – and always has been.

By default, yes. But there are two other things it’s always been: an evolving society and a cultural melting pot. And like it or not, the U.S. is ever so gradually evolving into a society in which people of all cultures and backgrounds are respected equally.  Incidentally, stressing America’s religious heritage is really a red herring. Precisely because American society was dominated by Christians, Christmas was shunned for many generations and even banned by law. Many of our forebears regarded celebration of the occasion as downright vulgar. Puritans knew how to wage a real war on Christmas. By the way, if you want to keep the Christianity in Christmas, then ditch the tree, the mistletoe, the holly, Santa Claus, yule logs, caroling, candles, fruitcake, gift giving and decorations in general. All have pagan origins (yes, even Santa Claus, despite his conflation with a Christian saint) and thus are far more un-Christian than “Happy Holidays”.

So, here’s a prediction: Activists on the left will eventually seek to remove Christmas as a national holiday.

Don’t worry, there will be condom machines in the Vatican before that ever happens. For one thing, Christmas is not a national holiday, but a federal holiday (and only since 1870, so it wasn’t exactly part of the Founders’ plans). There is a slight difference, but that’s a very minor thing, all else considered. The real point is, what would happen if activists on “the left”, or whatever direction they come from, did indeed, by some real Christmas miracle, get the federal holiday status of Christmas revoked? Well, what would happen is that Americans would go on celebrating Christmas just as they do now. There would still be parties (whatever you call them), trees,  presents, big meals with the family and football games. The difference is that the bills for it all would get delivered.

By not wishing me a Merry Christmas, you are not being inclusive. You are excluding me from one of my nation’s national holidays.

Dennis, I don’t even know you. Do you believe that by not hiring a private detective to track down your phone number so I can call you and extend Christmas greetings in the manner you demand, I’m slighting you? Then why should it be any worse for the people who do encounter you? Suppose you’re jostling among millions of strangers in Times Square in December and none of them speaks to you? Would you take it personally and say that they are all “excluding” you? Now suppose that one of them does acknowledge you with a smile and a hearty “Happy Holidays”. Is that individual, by your reckoning, being more cruel and abrasive than all the others? Evidently so. Now suppose one of them comes up to you, grabs you by the throat and yells in your face, “Christmas sucks, asshole!” He’s using the “C word” just like you wanted. So is he being more inclusive, more in the holiday (oops, Christmas) spirit than the other person?

Prager just can’t seem to get his head around the simple fact that holiday is a general class of things that includes Christmas. Thus, when you wish someone “Happy Holidays”, you’re also wishing them “Merry (a synonym for happy) Christmas”, unless you specifically state otherwise. To argue that the former is not more inclusive than the latter is like arguing that fruit is not more inclusive than banana. But that’s exactly what he does.

It borders on the misanthropic, not to mention the mean-spirited, to want to deny nearly all of your fellow citizens the joy of having Christmas parties or being wished a “Merry Christmas.” The vast majority of Americans who celebrate Christmas, and who treat non-Christians so well, deserve better.

Seriously, how twisted and disgusting do you have to be to interpret a sincere and cordial expression of good will as an insult and a threat?

Dennis, read my lips: NOBODY. IS. TRYING.TO. STOP. YOU. FROM. SAYING. CHRISTMAS. If people have a “holiday party”, it’s because they’ve chosen it of their own free will. (This was supposed to be a free country, remember?) By the same token, you’re free to call it a Christmas party, and/or think of it as a Christmas party, or just stay away and throw your own damn party.

So, please say “Merry Christmas” and “Christmas party” and “Christmas vacation.” If you don’t, you’re not “inclusive.” You’re hurtful.

Hurtful??? Careful, Dennis — your fans may start calling you a snowflake. He doesn’t offer a clue, of course, about exactly how failing to say “Christmas” is hurtful. It just is because it just is.

Okay, I have a little question for Dennis Prager and others like him. I would really like an answer. Take your time and think it over — you can even wait and get back to me when the next War On Christmas starts right after Easter, if you’d like. Here’s the question: what exactly would you have me do? I’m one of those nefarious infidels who prefer “Happy Holidays”. It has a nice, alliterative ring to it. It sounds fresher and more sincere than “Merry Christmas”, which has been beaten into the ground. As a distinctly secular person, I’m not obsessed with the “true meaning” of the occasion. I respect Christmas, along with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, Lohri,  Makar Sankranti, Pancha Ganapati, Yalda, Krampusnacht, etc., etc. So should I just sweep aside my own preferences, my own values, my own identity, in order to please you?

Well, let me tell you something. I’m actually willing to accede, to an extent. I’ve been known to say “Merry Christmas” to people I know to be Christmas-crazed. (I’m more likely to say something a little less hackneyed like “Have a great Christmas”, but at least I get in the “C word”. ) So if that’s what blows up your skirt, I’ll be glad to wish you a Merry Christmas. I have just one little favor to ask in return. If I say “Merry Christmas” to you, will you say “Happy Holidays” to me? After all, the reason for the season is supposedly the birth of a Galilean guru who once said , “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. (He wouldn’t have used King James English, but that’s the gist of it.) And shouldn’t loving your neighbor include being willing to return a teensy little favor? And if you insist on framing holiday cheer as a gladiatorial undertaking, then our wishes will cancel each other out. But wait a minute. Hmmm…. couldn’t we achieve the same effect if we each just used the greeting of his or her own choice? Just a thought.

Here’s a modest proposal. Rather than constantly seeking out signs of warfare, why don’t we try walking in each other’s shoes, and see where that leads us. If someone says “Merry Christmas” to you, respond in kind. If someone says “Happy Holidays” to you, respond in kind. If you speak first, say what you feel is most appropriate. How difficult could that possibly be? How warlike? How hurtful?

“Why Does God Allow Suffering?” Still No Answer After All These Years

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Like the proverbial ghost of a murder victim hanging around and crying out to be mollified, the question of why God would allow humans to suffer as they do is one that has haunted theologians and religious philosophers for millennia. Nobody ever has been able to provide a satisfactory answer; some seem to believe they have done so, but all they have done is provide some very faulty reasoning — usually red herrings or circular logic invoking biblical passages. But a satisfactory answer is demanded if we are going to allow the possibility of a deity at all.

Why? Because one of the primary attributes of a supreme being is benevolence. God, we are told, is good. But suffering, by definition, is bad; thus a benevolent deity would not allow it unless He had a benevolent reason. This assumes that such a being would be (a) aware of the suffering and (b) able to stop or prevent it.   And indeed the other major attributes of divinity include omniscience and omnipotence. (Which are in fact inseparable — omnipotence would include the power of being omniscient, and omniscience would include the knowledge of how to be omnipotent.)

Parenthetically, the very concept of omnipotence is inherently self-contradictory. If God can do anything, can He will Himself out of existence? Can He do so in such a manner that He never will have existed in the first place? Can He create an object so heavy that even He can’t lift it? If there is even one such task He can’t perform, then He is not omnipotent. And yet, if there is even one such task He can perform, he also is not omnipotent.

I suppose one might respond that God’s omnipotence includes the ability to resolve such apparent paradoxes, but that really reeks of moving the goalposts. It’s one thing to assume that a supreme being would have the means to actualize the things that we perceive to be true or plausible; it’s quite another to assume that such a being would have the means to obviate what we perceive to be false or contradictory. And if we grant Him an exemption from being required to have the potential for acts that are self-negating, then we are saying it’s okay if He can’t do certain things that we mere mortals can do — e.g., commit suicide.

But for now, let’s treat such complications the way religionists usually do: let’s ignore them. What we cannot ignore, however, is the unavoidable conclusion that if we grant the existence of an omnipotent/ omniscient God, then it isn’t merely a matter of allowing suffering, but of causing it. An omnipotent/ omniscient God would be a creator of all things, including suffering and evil — and their more immediate agents (Satan, etc.).

Some people have tried to skirt around this by suggesting that after He created the universe, God adopted a hands-off policy and just let things unfold on their own.  Doesn’t make any difference; if He set things in motion knowing how every little thing was going to turn out, it’s effectually no different from personally bombing every airport and gassing every holocaust victim.

So why would a benevolent God cause/ allow suffering? The answers that have always been presented fall essentially into one of 6 categories, each of which is quite faulty.

The Job Response

Written around 2500 years ago, the beautifully poetical Book Of Job tells a story in which God and Satan essentially indulge in a bet about what will happen if God’s faithful servant Job is subjected to extreme suffering.  Some people have interpreted this as an experiment on God’s part to learn for himself what effect suffering will produce. But this is absurd on the face of it; an omniscient being would never have any reason to experiment.

Of course, there is another explanation for Job’s torments…

The Nietzsche Response

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked,”that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. And many religionists have adopted a similar attitude to rationalize the existence of suffering. In doing so, they (and perhaps Nietzsche as well) are conflating suffering with adversity.

It’s true that our muscles (physical and otherwise) grow stronger with resistance, and it’s human nature to enjoy challenge and its conquest. But suffering is not merely adversity. It’s pain, torment, agony. Very often, it consists of challenges that cannot be overcome, but merely endured as they get worse and worse. And there are at least 5 problems with pegging suffering as a stepping stone to personal growth.

1. It’s a post facto conclusion

Yes, there are times when we prevail over suffering, and we feel the stronger for it. But to conclude that this must be the reason the suffering exists is to put the cart before the horse. Particularly since…

2. It doesn’t always work.

Suffering doesn’t always leave us stronger.  Very often, it leaves us quite broken. And yes, Mr. Nietzsche, it often leaves us very dead.

3. It’s inequitably distributed.

We all know people who already are perfectly strong and of sound moral character, and yet have had to endure horrible ordeals. Yet we also know, or at least are familiar with, individuals who are irresponsible, shady and downright evil who lead charmed lives, are born rich, scarcely ever endure a day of pain, and even are elected president. If God had designed suffering as a tool for fortification, surely there would be considerably more justice and reason to it.

4. Opportunity is often denied.

There are many, many people who endure horrible suffering in their lives, but have no chance to reap any benefit from it. Many children, for instance, are the victims of terrible violence, disease or calamity. They feel the pain, but they do not have the potential to develop any more strongly because of that — particularly if they die in infancy.

5. It’s all unnecessary.

Even if none of these objections held true, it still would be quite unnecessary for an omnipotent and omniscient God to subject His subjects to torture. Because anything that possibly can be achieved by suffering can also be achieved by other means — indeed by any of an infinite number of other means — just as effectively — indeed even more effectively. After all, He supposedly can do anything, right?  So clearly, He inflicts suffering on us only because He wants us to suffer. And this is hardly the hallmark of benevolence. In other words, it appears that God is either omnipotent/ omniscient, or else He is benevolent — but He can’t be all of “thee above”.

The half-full glass response

Whether or not we derive any other benefit, say some religionists, suffering at least affords us the chance to appreciate our blessings (assuming we actually have any). But the same 5 objections apply to this premise. Above all, God certainly could install in us an innate appreciation for our blessings that wouldn’t require any agony to acquire.

The Black and White Response

Even if you don’t need suffering to appreciate your blessings better, maybe it will at least enable you to tell the difference, eh? So some would argue. But it’s an incredibly silly example of begging the question. If suffering didn’t even exist, why on earth would you need to tell the difference?

The Karmic Response

This one comes from Eastern religious traditions, which have a much broader concept of God than does Christianity. The basic idea is that if you lose an eye, for example, it’s payback for your having cost someone else an eye in a past life. Okay, but that still doesn’t explain why the potential for you to have cost someone else an eye existed in the first place.

The Man Behind the Curtain Response

If all else fails, the religionist is likely to respond that God inflicts suffering just because He does, and it’s not our place to question why; it’s our lot merely to trust that there must be a reason for it, even if there evidently isn’t.

But if God indeed created us, then He created our minds, with their insatiable curiosity. We want to know where we came from, where we’re going, how the universe ticks. How do we benefit in this regard by simply stacking one layer of mystery on top of another? How does it help to say that God created the universe if we don’t know what God is or where He came from? How does it help to say that God wants us to suffer if we have no understanding of the reason?

Of course, Official Explanation is only one of God’s intended functions, but it’s a very, very major one. Another is Succor in Time of Need (although that’s a very problematic proposition too, as we shall see in a future discussion) and in that capacity, His inscrutability actually might be regarded as an asset; in other words, one might believe that it takes an unfathomable being to solve unfathomable problems.

But even that role is secondary to His supposed role as Creator and therefore Official Explanation. And regarding that role, and given the presence of suffering, our (admittedly limited) reason must conclude that one of the following must be true: (a) God does not exist at all; (b) His powers are limited; or (c) He is inexcusably cruel. None of which is a possibility that religionists particularly want to consider.

 

 

 

The Myth of a “Christian Nation”

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It’s one of those things that people just know because they just know: the United States was founded by and for Christians, and all others should go promptly to hell, do not pass Go. Period, no questions asked. Few beliefs are more enduring — it’s been with us for a couple of centuries or so. Few beliefs are more widespread — anywhere from roughly a third to roughly half of Americans believe it. Few beliefs are more harmful — it can lead to the legitimization of brutal oppression and persecution (remember witch hunts?), and to government policies that plunder the environment and engage in reckless foreign policy inspired  by biblical “prophecy”. And as we’ve seen all too well, it helps unscrupulous demagogues manipulate the public with affectations of piety.

Yet the irony is that few beliefs are more easily discredited.

Actually, it’s correct in a sense to say that the U.S. is, or has been, a Christian nation. It has been so by default but not by design.  Which is to say that traditionally, Christians have far outnumbered everyone else in the country’s population, and therefore have been able to get away imposing their will on everyone else and injecting their beliefs into the legislative and legal processes. This has resulted in such practices as forced school prayer, inserting “God” into the Pledge Of Allegiance, using a Bible in official oaths, and establishing ministers as officiators at weddings.

But these things are not, as the government has finally, finally, finally begun figuring out, particularly American. (They are also not particularly Christian, but that’s another story.) First, though, let’s look at the justifications people often cite for buying into the Christian Nation myth.

1. The national motto

Yes, the official national motto is “In God we trust”. But God doesn’t necessarily mean a Christian God, or even necessarily a religious God. (As we’ve discussed before, there are many concepts of just what God means). More important, a national motto has no regulatory power; it’s essentially just ornamental, like the national seal. The latter incorporates the likeness of an eagle, but that doesn’t mean we are required to own, or even like, that particular bird.

By the way, this phrase did not become the official national motto until 1956, at the behest of President Eisenhower, who also had “God” inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance. The constitutionality of both is highly suspect. In any case, the motto of the Great Seal of the United States, which dates back to 1782, is E pluribus unum. And the spirit of plurality and unity embodied in that phrase is quite incompatible with the theocratic implications of the later motto.

2. The Founding Fathers prayed.

Yes, they did. They also wrote with goose quills, wore powdered wigs, owned slaves and got bled when they were sick. That doesn’t mean they intended it to be incumbent upon us to do any of the above.  Furthermore, prayer is not a specifically Christian exercise, nor is it necessarily even a religious exercise.

3. The Founding Fathers were Christians.

Even if this claim were perfectly true, it would not mean that they wanted to impose their own religious convictions on all posterity. But it’s not perfectly true. Many, if not most of the founders, were immersed to some extent in Deism, a popular rationalist movement in the Eighteenth Century that was connected to Christian tradition but not strictly a form of Christianity, and indeed not strictly a religion at all. Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, dabbled in Deism and called himself a Unitarian; his religious views were so unorthodox that he often was considered an atheist.

4. The Treaty of Paris

This agreement, signed by King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the American states in 1783, formally ended the Revolutionary War. It begins with the phrase

In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity.

Aha! Surely we have here an explicit Christian reference in an official document. Apparently so. But what we do not have is a declaration that the “most holy trinity” shall be a guiding force for future generations. In fact, there is no declaration at all (more about that shortly). Furthermore, the United States Of America as we know it did not officially exist yet. It would still be 6 years before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

5. Allusions in the founding documents

The Declaration of Independence contains a few indirect references to a deity of some sort: “Nature’s God”, “Providence”, “Creator” and “Supreme Judge”. None of these is by any means an explicit invocation of Christianity.  Indeed, these references sound almost more fitting to pantheism than to Christianity. The Constitution itself contains no such allusions. However, Christian apologists have seized upon the manner of stating the date as being “in the year of our Lord” as conclusive proof that the Founders wanted all future generations to bow down before Christian dogma.

I surely don’t have to tell you that such a phrase was an arbitrary convention for framing dates. In fact, that convention (begun in a long-past era when Christianity really did rule the world with an iron fist) has carried over into modern times even among staunch atheists. Until very recently, it was standard (and still is among many people) to specify dates as being either BC or AD.

It was also customary at the time to speak in formal, stilted, sometimes bombastic prose. Such superlatives as invoking a deity were a part of this convention, and didn’t always signal sacred sentiments. Even today, all of us take our leave by saying “goodbye” which was contracted from “God be with ye”, and we think nothing of it. Look at the opening of the Declaration Of Independence. Exactly what purpose does the phrase “in the course of human events” serve? To distinguish human events from equine or porcine events to avoid confusion? It’s mere padding, but it has a ring to it. So does “Supreme Judge”.

Another holdover from this heritage is the habit of designating Sunday as a day of rest. Thus, Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution specifies:

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a law, in like Manner as if he had signed it.

Apologists in desperation have latched onto this as “proof” that the U.S. is a Christian nation. But this clause does not mention “the Sabbath” or any other religious connection. It just recognizes that government workers, like anyone else, need a little time off.

Note that none of these references (with the exception of the newly minted national motto) is a complete statement. All are merely words and phrases. They may mention a “Creator”, but they do not declare that the “Creator” shall be recognized as the supreme authority of the land. Let’s look at some passages that are complete sentences and actual declarations of policy. They are not nearly as friendly toward the theocratic position.

1. Jefferson’s wall

Thomas Jefferson’s famous utterance about the “wall of separation between church and state” also does not carry any regulatory sway, as it appeared in private correspondence rather than an official document. But it does provide a key insight into the position of the founders, particularly the one who had such a strong hand in founding the new nation.

2. Article 6, Section 3

After the first few U.S. presidents, every one has been a Christian. As have a nearly unanimous majority of other elected officials, national, state and local. Some people think that should be a requirement — in at least one presidential debate, the moderator asked the candidates point blank if they were Christians. But that’s not quite the way the Constitution spells it out. Article 6, Section 3 clearly states:

…but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

So how do you propose having an official Christian nation if its official governing document officially prohibits requiring official officials to be officially Christian? The article also states that the Constitution (not the Bible or any other religious authority) “shall be the supreme Law of the Land”.

3. The First Amendment

Even more specific is the opening of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

This section of the amendment is famous for enshrining the right to freedom of religion; but before it gets around to doing that, it first notes that true freedom of religion must necessarily encompass freedom from religion. Religionists often focus on the second part, but totally bury the first part. Sometimes they even maintain that the wording of the phrase (“respecting”) could be construed to mean that Congress can’t pass laws prohibiting the establishment of a religion. But since the wording definitely does designate that Congress can’t pass laws that do establish a religion, such an interpretation is automatically rendered null and void.

Another manner of tap dancing around this amendment is the old “what they really meant” tack. What they really meant, the religionists argue, is that no Christian denomination should be favored over another. That may have been the concern that provided the original impetus for the amendment, but the Framers of the Constitution soon saw that the issue was much broader than that. They certainly knew the difference between “religion” and “sect”, and it was the former, and not the latter, that they mentioned in the amendment.

4. The Treaty Of Tripoli

Even though this one’s a bit problematic , it’s still worth including in the mix. Article 11 of this treaty explicitly states:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…

Here the objectors have said that Christian government is not the same thing as Christian nation. Quite so. That’s why we have drawn the distinction between default and design. A Christian nation by design would necessarily have a Christian government.

Another objection is that the original treaty was in Arabic and did not include the above passage. Even so, this is the version that the U.S. Senate read and signed off on. This was in 1797, after the Constitution was adopted. And it was passed unanimously by the Senate. Evidently, the statement that the U.S. government was not founded on Christianity was, at the time, quite uncontroversial.

But now, there are many people who know better. They just know because they just know. And they just know that if you fail to acknowledge the infallibility of what they just know, then you are being very un-American, and are persecuting and oppressing Christians.

The “War On Christmas” in 4 Minutes

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I regret that I didn’t discover it until Christmas Day, but Jesse Dollemore has a nifty little video that addresses the silly “War On Christmas” narrative that surfaces every year around November.

Dollemore shows a clip of Donald Trump proclaiming to an adoring throng that “we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” (Does that mean he’s going to issue an imperial proclamation that everyone must say it?) And clips of the talking heads at Fox “News” reacting in a manner that (honest to Pete) brings to mind teenage girls screaming over The Beatles.

They declare that their War On Christmas has been won now that Trump is elected, and because of him people are starting to say “Merry Christmas” again (as if they’d been prohibited from doing so up until now), and even ask “When was the last time you heard a politician say” the taboo magic phrase.

Then, after presenting a few actual facts on the matter, Dollemore serves up a clip of President Obama wishing Americans a Merry Christmas 16 times — and Michelle Obama twice.

When was the last time you heard a politician say “Merry Christmas”? Depends on how much you’ve been paying attention.

 

The Standardized Red Herrings of Homophobia

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If you have gay-hating friends or relatives (and who doesn’t) or if you’ve been exposed to the mindless prattling of media cesspools like Fox “News” (and if there’s any way to avoid it, please let us know), then it’s almost certain that at some time or other (and probably more than once) you’ve heard something very similar to this:

I’m sickandtired of gays ramming their lifestyle down my throat. They’re a small minority, and they’ve chosen to be the way they are. They shouldn’t have any special rights.

This is a very standardized comment, as if those using it had learned it at some kind of special school or seminar. It consists of four separate red herrings, which may be used separately or in combination. Let’s look at each of them.

1. Ramming down my throat

Gay haters are invariably a bit vague about exactly how homosexuality is being rammed down their throats. They can’t seem to cite a single instance of someone trying to force them to marry or even sleep with a person of the same sex. What they really seem to mean by gays ramming their lifestyle down their throats is gays existing in their direction.

But suppose gays indeed were interested in ramming their “lifestyle” down people’s throats. What kind of behavior might that entail? We don’t have to search very far to answer that. There happens to be a superb illustration in the conduct of the very people who so often persecute and malign gays.

Christians have a long history of ramming down throats. Sometimes quite literally — one of the many delightful medieval treatments for “heresy” was to pour hot lead down the heretic’s throat. There, that’ll teach ’em the proper way to love God. (Heresy, by the way, wasn’t unbelief; it was belief in a slightly unapproved fashion.) But things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they? Well, sure. We have laws now against barbaric tortures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that religious fanatics are any nicer. And it certainly doesn’t mean that religion no longer has the world — or the nation — in its grip.

Church membership, or other religious affiliation, is still the default mode, and religion is often presumed to be a yardstick for morality. Ministers perform weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage.  The official (and probably unconstitutional) motto of The United States is “In God We Trust”, which glares at us from our currency every time we make a financial transaction. Officials are sworn into office on a Bible. Witnesses in court place their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth “so help you God”.

The words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance, which school children are compelled to parrot every day. Christian activists tirelessly spread the blatant lie that prayer was banned from public schools, and work overtime to turn voluntary school prayer back into mandatory school prayer — which we had when I was in school not so very long ago. Religious crusaders stick the so-called Ten Commandments under people’s noses, including on government property when they can get away with it. They also vigorously (and successfully) campaign to get fundamentalist dogma inserted into science textbooks.

Christianity is promoted on billboards, on window signs, in TV spots, in Internet advertising. Proselytizers preach on TV or in the streets in an effort to convert people to the one true faith — namely their own. Sometimes they even go from door to door soul-hunting. There are entire TV networks — quite a few of them — devoted to devotion.

Prayer is injected into as many public and private events as humanly possible. When was the last time you heard of someone asking if anyone objected before praying at the dinner table? When have you ever heard of parents asking their children if they really want to go to church? Children are dragged along because it is supposed to be “good for them”, whether they have any beliefs of their own, or even understand what religion is all about. They are baptized into their parents’ religion as infants.

But enough about religion. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Christian culture provides a textbook model of what throat-ramming really looks like. The question is, what exactly about gay culture is any any way, shape or form comparable to any of the above?

The only possible answer is that, just as Christians have churches to assemble in, gays have certain bars. But it’s a very weak parallel. Gay bartenders don’t aggressively recruit new drinkers, telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t come in and have a stiff belt. And they don’t ring their damn chimes at odd hours when people are trying to sleep.

2. They’re a small minority

Roughly 3 percent of the American population is either gay or bi. That’s certainly a minority, but’s it’s by no means the smallest of minorities. It’s about 6 times the number of American adults who are legally blind, for instance. So if numbers were really what mattered, then gays should be treated with 6 times as much respect as the blind.

But it isn’t really about numbers. It’s about the fact that the wielders of this red herring are confusing (deliberately?) majority rule with majority tyranny.

I happen to be part of a 10-percent minority myself: I’m left-handed. That has resulted in more forms of awkwardness than most right-handers would ever think about. Not only are most baseball gloves, guitars and books designed for right-hand dominance, but so are most pianos, scissors, can openers, and even — no fooling — kitchen knives.  No problem. I understand perfectly that in a world dominated by right-handers, most things are going to be designed for their convenience. I even realize that there is a good reason why in the game of baseball southpaws are totally barred from four positions. I’m okay with it now and I was okay with it even as a kid when I had to contend with right-handed school desks and pencil sharpeners.

What I was not okay with then and am still not okay with now is the way I was relentlessly coerced and badgered into trying to be “normal”. There is a big difference between the majority determining what the norm is and the majority trying to compel everyone to conform to it. The line between the two is not the least bit fine.

3. They chose to be the way they are

This is an all-too-common form of Christian arrogance: the presumption that cherry picking an out-of-context biblical passage that seems to support your prejudices makes you an instant expert, more knowledgeable on a particular topic than people who have studied it professionally for years –even in highly technical fields like biology, climate science and evolution.

Experts say homosexuality is NOT a choice, based on extensive biological and psychological research — though we might have come to that conclusion a lot sooner if more people had been willing to just ask gays themselves. Just about any of them will tell you that they didn’t choose it, and quite a few will tell you that they would have chosen otherwise if they could have. But of course the gay-bashers know better. They know the gays are lying. They know that they absolutely wanted to be rejected by their families, marginalized by society and harassed and beaten, sometimes to death.

Aside from being drastically wrong, the “choice” belief is drastically irrelevant. In a sense, saying that gays choose to be “the way they are” is simply saying the same thing that gays themselves say: they do choose whether or not to acknowledge their predilection, but that doesn’t mean they deliberately created it.

But does it really matter? Suppose it were true that homosexuality is chosen with as much utter volition as deciding what kind of car to drive or what flavor ice cream to eat. Whether you realize it or not, there are factors beyond your control, and probably even beyond your comprehension, that cause you to prefer a red Chevrolet to a black Ford, or strawberry to chocolate. And even if that were not the case, should people who drive red Chevrolets and eat strawberry ice cream have to live in the closet?

4. Special rights

What special rights exactly have they asked for? Do you hear gays demand to be exempt from traffic fines, or be allowed to shop half price at any store, or be allowed to vote twice, or to be bowed down to every Thursday morning?

What they want is to be able to marry whom they choose — like anyone else. They want to enjoy the full legal benefits of such unions — like anyone else. They want to be able to partake of the services of government agencies and private businesses without discrimination — like anyone else. They want to be able to live openly wherever they choose without fear — like anyone else. It is the gay-haters who are special, not the gays themselves.

When I was a child, some adults suggested that I used my left hand in order to stand out and gain attention; in reality, what I wanted was just the opposite. That’s true of most gays as well. They may attend a Pride parade to combat the years of stigma thrust upon them, but at the end of the day they want to be thought of as friends and neighbors rather than oddballs and outcasts.

It’s quite interesting — and more than a little amusing — that at the same time they’ve been insisting that homosexuality is a choice, the gay haters have also tried (successfully) to portray it as a disease, a mental disorder. Is that supposed to mean that people consciously choose their mental illnesses?  But recent research (not to mention an overwhelming weight of anecdotal evidence) strongly suggests that it is in fact homophobia and not homosexuality that is connected to mental dysfunction.

A popular quote on the topic, falsely attributed to actor Morgan Freeman, is a bit more blunt:

I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.

That’s true enough in some cases, but not always. Not all homophobes — and there is indeed a fear factor at work — are candidates for the Westboro Baptist Church. Many are, despite their virulent homophobia and perhaps other forms of bigotry, otherwise decent folks who would make good friends and neighbors to gays and transgenders, as long as they don’t know those people are gays and transgender.

But they are still folks who fall prey to ridiculous knee-jerk soundbites odiferously loaded with red herrings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transgenders and Restrooms: Myths, Ironies and Insanities

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Every now and then — and with increasing frequency these days, it seems — Americans totally lose their minds and make a towering Mount Everest out of the tiniest of molehills. At the moment, the nutcake cause du jour is spreading panic about transgender-friendly restrooms.

A firestorm erupted in the media –and social media — after an announcement from Target stores that it would make its restrooms accessible to transgender persons. This was by no means a radical shift in direction; it was just a reaffirmation of the same policy that Target, and many other retail chains, have followed for years without incident.

But all of a sudden, reactionaries proclaimed that the sky was falling. Facebook exploded with comments like this:

For those unaware: Target will be allowing men in the girls’ restrooms of its stores, and will also allow women in the boys restrooms of its stores — all to support queerism and confusion.

This utterance of righteous indignation was posted by two Ohio men who later were arrested because for the past  year they’d been protecting a girl in their family from “queerism and confusion” by keeping her chained up in the basement. Which is something I’m pretty sure the CEO of Target has never done.

Meanwhile, a man in Illinois was arrested for causing a disturbance when he showed up at a Target store to protest the chain’s supposed lack of family values and its supposed endangerment of children. Two days later, he was arrested again when his wife reported him for being violent toward her and their 8-year-old son. And so on.

Many have made the declaration that Target was caving in to pressure from LGBT activist groups (nope) and even from President Obama (double nope). The president did later issue a letter to school districts nationwide reminding them that discriminatory practices are as unconstitutional in the bathroom as they are elsewhere. This shouldn’t have come as a great shock; it’s sort of included in his job description.

Yet many proclaimed that he was trying to be a dictator, “shredding the constitution”. Evangelist James Dobson flew into a frothy-mouthed, holier-than-thou fury, which he justified by citing (I kid you not) his own mortification as a child when he wandered into the girls’ restroom by mistake:

Who is it that is warping our children? It is Barack Obama, one of the worst presidents in American history, and it is time we stood up and said so!…Obama, acting like a king, is wielding dictatorial powers never envisioned in the law. He is determined to change the way males and females relate to one another, and worse, how children perceive themselves…The president has already maneuvered the courts to undermine a 5,000-year-old definition of marriage, after experiencing his infamous epiphany. Now he is determined to change Western civilization forever. He becomes more reckless and defiant as his second term comes to an end. Never has an American president been so absorbed with the use and abuse of power…The bottom line is that [“feminists and LGBT activists”] want to destroy human sexuality and take with it the foundation of the family. That is their goal, and they have a president in office who is willing to use his executive authority to force this nonsense on us all.

Don’t mince words, James; how do you really feel about the president? Yep, Obama must be the worst president ever if he defends the rights of people you hate. As refreshing as it may be to hear a fundamentalist demagogue rally to the defense of “human sexuality”, Dobson’s  unhinged rant is as irresponsible as it is delusional. Sure Obama wants to destroy the American family; after all, he’s never had one of his own, has he?

While it’s unfortunately not surprising that this issue has been so intensely politicized and polarized — isn’t there an ironclad rule that Americans have to politicize and polarize every frigging little thing to the nth degree?– the reactionaries have gone overboard even by their usual standards. They’ve also been exceptionally errant in assigning blame.

Here’s a popular little Internet meme of the day:

James Woods

 

Aside from the straw man about “men peeing in the ladies’ room” and the absurd implication that a person can fight for only one cause at a time (in fact, people who fight terrorism, starvation and disease are likely to fight social injustice as well), the venerable Mr. Woods misses a crucial little detail: it is by no means Democrats alone, or even primarily, who have pushed this issue center stage.

President Obama, like Target, was responding to drives by the legislatures of several states to pass laws that discriminate in a constitutionally questionable fashion. Foremost among them is North Carolina, which succeeded in enacting such a bill. The legislature of North Carolina is 62 percent Republican. Furthermore, of the 9 states in which such laws have been proposed, the GOP dominates the legislatures in 8. It is they if anyone who are obsessed with regulating who can use what bathroom, and ignoring other pressing issues in the process. (And incidentally, Dobson above seems to be unaware that the Supreme Court decision “redefining” marriage was passed down by a court dominated by right-wingers who defy Obama at every turn.)

Of course, you might counter that North Carolina was (over)reacting to an ordinance passed by the city of Charlotte. But use of restroom facilities within city limits is a perfectly appropriate matter for municipal governments to concern themselves with. The state, however, imposed a heavy-handed edict over restrooms throughout all cities and towns in the state –a law that ultimately can be enforced only by requiring people to show their birth certificates before they can go take a whizz. Did we mention that the GOP prides itself on being the party of “limited government”?

The Dobson/ Woods mentality holds that you are born either male or female and that’s that. Even if that were perfectly true, it wouldn’t begin to account for the malicious campaign of hatred, misinformation, and defamation being waged against transgenders. But it’s not perfectly true.

Some individuals are born with one of a variety of genital anomalies that prevent them from being easily classified as either male or female. So how do they fit into a Dobsonian black-and-white universe? Which bathroom should they use? Should they just cross their legs and wait for their state to deliver a ruling? And if external and internal physiological gender can be so muddled, why is it so hard to accept that psychological gender can too?

The James Dobsons of the world would have you believe that transgenderism is a very recent development, a contemporary subversive plot concocted by the Evil Obama and the rest of them librulz to destroy the family, destroy American society, convert everyone to Islam and leave Americans powerless against an impending invasion by the lizard people from outer space. In fact, there is nothing at all new about transgenders.

Better duck! Here comes a history lesson…

The first sex reassignment surgeries were performed in Europe in the early 1930s. Which is a rather short time ago in the grand scheme of world history. But long before modern surgical advances made such a process possible, there were individuals who made the decision to live as a gender other than the one they had been assigned in early life. This extends back into ancient history. Some Native American tribes, before the arrival of white settlers, recognized transgender or third gender members. Hundreds of female-born persons secretly fought in the Civil War  passing as men, and at least a couple of them continued living as men after the war was over — there were probably many others that have not been documented.

In short,  transgenders have lived among us for ages — probably from the very beginning. In some cases, they have even (shudder) used the same facilities as the rest of us. There is little if any evidence that they have caused problems; at least the family unit and civilization have still survived. But now, because they can live in somewhat less secrecy than previously, we’re supposed to believe that suddenly they’re going to turn violent. We’re supposed to believe that, because James Dobson is as morally confused as an adult as he was directionally confused as a kid, individuals who have struggled long and hard to establish identities as women are suddenly going to develop an interest in molesting little girls in public restrooms.

Sorry, but it just hasn’t happened. What has happened is that transgenders themselves have been the victims of harassment and violence. What has happened is that yahoos have attacked individuals they wrongly suspected of being transgender. What has happened is that transgenders have been falsely blamed for invasive bathroom incidents, even if they do not involve transgenders, children, or transgender-friendly bathrooms. What has happened is that “Christian” agitators have dressed in drag so they could sneak into women’s restrooms. Hey guys, if that’s really how you get your jollies, you don’t need Target’s permission.

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It’s especially ironic and hypocritical that so much of the fear and loathing directed toward transgenders should come from the religious culture. Not just because Christianity (so it is rumored) was intended to be a path of love and compassion rather than bigotry and hate. Nothing new there; Christians (or “Christians”) have been spitting in the face of their own avowed values for centuries. But what makes the pious protestations of concern for the safety of children especially jaw-dropping is that children are more likely to be molested in a church setting than in a public restroom. Far, far, far more likely. Infinitely more likely.

Quick, how many known cases have there been of children being molested by transgenders in a public restroom? Answer: a grand total of zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. And how many known cases have there been (Are you paying attention, Mr. Dobson?) of children being molested by church leaders? Thousands upon thousands. And those are just the known cases, which are surely just the tip of the iceberg; experts agree that this phenomenon is vastly underreported. Nor is it just a matter of Catholic priests abusing choirboys. Churches of all flavors provide a perfect haven for predators, giving them a goody-goody persona and ready access to many vulnerable young lives they can ruin forever, children who look up to them with respect, trust and loyalty.

Meanwhile, many of their fellow congregants (and in some cases the predators themselves) are scrambling to cherry pick biblical passages they can brandish in support of their prejudices and their declaration that because President Obama defends constitutional protections for all citizens, America has surely turned its back on God.

Fueled by this ironic, hypocritical, bigoted Bible-thumping zealotry, state governments are wasting time and resources that could be wasted more entertainingly elsewhere. Even worse, they’re wasting time and resources in pursuit of a problem that doesn’t even exist. Insanity indeed, Mr. Woods.

By all means, let’s protect our children. Which might mean, among other things, that it’s not a good idea to send them unescorted into a public restroom of any kind. But hysteria and scapegoating benefit no one. And when it comes to laws regulating bathroom usage, it would make much more sense to check church affiliation at the privy door than to check birth certificates.

 

 

Creationism, Design and the Watchmaker Fallacy

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In 1802, British theologian William Paley imagined himself finding a watch on the ground while he was out for a stroll. That imaginary timepiece, though there was nothing intrinsically valuable or distinctive about it, ended up being probably the most celebrated and notorious ticker in the history of theology and philosophy. Because Paley conjured it up to make a point about what he perceived as the inescapable origin of the universe:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

It’s hard to believe that an educated and intelligent individual like Paley would ever even fall for, much less contrive, such a silly and self-refuting argument. But it has shown the kind of staying power that all bad ideas have. Even today, it’s often summoned out of its crypt to defend creationism — which its promoters now believe they can sneak under the radar disguised as “intelligent design”.

The “argument from design” has been making the rounds for centuries. (Robert Frost put a sinister and ironic twist on it in his sonnet titled “Design”.) Basically, the argument from design is the belief that the universe is so complex and intricate that it could not have developed without being guided by a supreme power. This seems derived from the premise that a supreme being would be able to design a universe more complex and intricate than any universe that could develop by “chance” (if you want to think of it in those terms).

The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being, then by definition it would be able to perform feats that nothing else can — including “chance”. But even if we grant this to be true, it does not follow that the particular universe we live in would require a designer. We simply have no way of confirming that assumption.

A related argument practiced by creationists is first causeThe reasoning is that since everything in the universe has a cause, then we can trace all the causes back to a First Cause, i.e., God. But the very notion is a self-contradiction: on the one hand, everything has a cause, and yet on the other hand, there is something that presumably doesn’t. The concept of a first cause also posits a naively and drastically oversimplified model of how the universe functions — a linear construct in which A causes B and B causes C and so on. But the real universe does not operate in a straight line; it operates in an unfathomably complex web of mutual influence. To single out a “first cause” is not only impossible but pointless.

The problem with the claim that “God created the universe” isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s downright meaningless. As we mentioned before, “God” is term subject to a broad range of definition. And how exactly would the universe be “created”, anyway? Many people insist that the universe could not have just developed out of nothing, so it must have been created, somehow, out of… well, nothing. By a Creator who came from… well, nothing.

The creationist/ design/ first cause argument falls prey to a fallacy known as infinite regress; which is to say that if the existence of the universe proves the existence of a creator, then the existence of a creator must prove the existence of a creator of the creator, and so on and on and on. The decision to cut off the chain after the second link, as creationists do, is purely arbitrary.

As for Paley’s notorious watch metaphor, it’s a classic false equivalence. He is juxtaposing a thing that we know to be created with a thing that we don’t know to be created and concluding that because it’s possible to find characteristics they have in common, then both must be created. What he’s overlooking is that their differences are much more significant than their similarities — a problem he even stumped his own toe on by comparing the watch to a rock.

The essential property that is intended to make the analogy work is the property of irreducibility. Remove one of the tiny gears (each of which was specially crafted for a specific, identifiable purpose) from a watch and you significantly impair or terminate its functioning. That certainly is a strong indication that the watch was designed and manufactured rather than “just happened”.

The universe, however, is quite another matter. On every level from the most microcosmic to the most macrocosmic, the universe is in an unending state of flux, with elements constantly growing old, dying out, being replaced, or just being lost altogether. People lose teeth, hair and organs and life goes on. Indeed, not only do we have wisdom teeth, tonsils and appendices removed, but these organs appear to be useless at best. Countless entire species have become extinct. Stars go nova, obliterating everything in the neighborhood.

While each of these events might make a difference at some level, the universe takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Can the same be said for Paley’s watch?

Ultimately, if you choose to believe in creationism, you must do so on the basis of faith alone. There is no line of reasoning that will make it more logical than any alternative(s). This need not be a problem as long as you keep religion in its proper sphere of cognition. It is when we try to substitute dogma for science that we run into problems of cosmic proportions.

It may be okay to say that “God created the universe”, particularly since nobody will even know what that means. But that does not mean it’s okay to teach kids that the earth is 6000 years old. It isn’t, and it isn’t.