Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Reflections on the Challenges of the Future

The recent success, in California and several other parts of the United States, of a number of pieces of discriminatory legislation, of constitutional amendments that, by defining marriage as a bond existing between one man and one woman, deny access to the privileges of marriage to countless people, is not just disgraceful; such victories reveal the insular, mean-spirited attitudes of many people in this country. Though I am, of course, saddened by the sufferings of those immediately hurt by these spiteful new proclamations, I am actually scared by the reactionary currents that have been exposed within our culture by their passage. Such trends, after all, could lead to far, far more people being hurt than already have been.

There are, no doubt, strong secular movements in American society that are opposed to these trends, and many of these movements appear to be gaining strength from year to year. However, while I personally hope that secularism and reason will win, their victory is not assured. That's a reality we ought to face. In fact, we ought to do more than that. We need to think about what could happen if we were to lose. There is no universal law that ensures that society is heading in the direction we would like it to. I don't think that it can be denied that we are, right now, seeing a resurgence of religion, fanaticism, and savagery. This resurgence is something that we have to take into account. We have to admit its reality and its vitality. We have to grant that it could well be a danger to us not just today, but tomorrow as well. There is a real possibility that this spreading, but still relatively confined fire could, in the future, with the right fuel, explode into into a terrible conflagration. No one can proclaim with absolute certainty where current societal trends are taking us, and, if we admit that we are not assured success by Providence, we will have to concede that our enemies might just beat us. If they do, things could get very bad, and that's a possibility of which we have to be aware. Instead of ascending into the light of an age of reason, freedom, and human dignity, we could find ourselves falling into the chasm of superstition, ignorance, and oppression. The people moving us towards a new dark age do, after all, have reasons for holding the beliefs they do. Extrapolating future situations from those we see today is not, therefore, impossible.

If current trends do not simply vanish into nothingness, if they continue, as is probable, it is likely that we will see in the US increasing cultural influences from certain foreign nations (such as the ever greater impact Japanese culture is currently having on the US), increasing threats posed by certain other foreign civilizations (like the dangers, real and imagined, that Islam now presents), increasing ethnic diversity in the US itself (which will, by the middle of this century, no longer have a white majority), and an increasing prevalence of scientific understandings of (and correspondingly controlled interactions with) the universe (which are, barring a collapse of global civilization, virtually inevitable). Such things are, however, likely to frighten and anger many people, and these people, trembling with dread and wrath, could retreat (even further than some already have, and, perhaps, in greater numbers than we have yet seen) into the comforting blindness of superstition. Surrounded by a mechanistic world governed by rational laws, yet filled with iniquitous enemies, they could close their eyes, cover their ears, and run back shrieking to the gloomy cavern of irrationalism, to a small, anthropocentric universe ruled by a dire, hoary, all-seeing father-deity who, being susceptible to human feelings of love, hatred, jealousy, and anger, will be ready to banish to fiery hells those who threaten his congregations and to take the faithful, those who flatter him, into the safety of his presence. Overwhelmed by scary foreigners and their weird beliefs, these people could look back at an imaginary past when their ancestors were protected by inflexible traditions that, like blinders, kept them ignorant of the outside world. Of course, these people won't turn to real traditions (those who desire to turn back the clock never do). Instead, if this scenario comes true, what we'll see are new, shallow, fanatical religious movements, like the evangelical churches of today. There will be no real connection to the past. The past the followers of such hypothetical establishments will embrace will be a make-believe one, though it'll seem real to them. More importantly, it'll give them a comforting, hedged in universe, where bad people with their odd beliefs, unpleasant skin colors, and noxious behaviors won't be able to disturb them. Regrettably, one reason these individuals won't be able to disturb such fanatics is because the fanatics will be busy destroying their foes. When people accept beliefs like those I've described, they invariably go on to take away the freedoms of those who disagree with them, to liquidate those who are different, and to impose their hellish heaven on as much of the world as they can. The possibility is something to think about.

That said, I'm not making a prediction here, but I do think what I've described could come to pass. It's especially possible since so many liberals seem so complacent about or so afraid of religion. Liberal movements are, by no means, guaranteed to succeed. If we allow irrationalism to gain ground, it could. There is no law of history promising us victory. If we don't fight, we might just lose. In fact, the last election has shown that losing is a real possibility. That election showed us the reality of certain trends in the US. We ought to be aware of those trends.

Reflections on the Recent US Presidential Elections

I've recently been thinking quite a bit about the current political situation in the US. There are many things that have happened in this country that are wonderfully encouraging, that make me want to cry out with joy, but there are others that are terribly sad.

First of all, I was thrilled by Obama's success in areas of the Deep South. I had heard for some time that there was a chance that he could take both North Carolina and Virginia, but, honestly, I didn't believe it. It's amazing to think that Obama won both the home of Jesse Helms and the seat of the Confederacy (as well as of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University). I just wish Jesse and Jerry could have lived to see it. It's heartening that a moderate rather than an extreme reactionary won in such places.

Overall, this last election day was pretty impressive. Like I've mentioned before, I was very relieved that McCain was not elected. Had the man won, the consequences could have been catastrophic. McCain, undoubtedly, would have implemented extremely belligerent policies in the Middle East, policies that could have led to terrible levels of violence (both here and there). That's not the worst thing that could have happened, though. An even more troubling result of a McCain presidency would have been an almost certain shift in the balance of the Supreme Court. The courts have long been America's protection against dangerous populism (against the majority imposing itself upon any minority) and against ruthless politicians willing and able to create a powerful, intrusive government that doesn't need to heed the rights of its citizens. Considering how ready so many activist conservative judges are to efface substantial sections of the constitution if it suits their political agendas, the prospect of there being a majority of such persons on the nation's highest bench is horrifying. We could easily have seen large portions of the constitution explained away and effectively erased in an effort to build the authoritarian, paternalist state of which so many conservatives are enamored.

That said, I don't have high expectations of Obama (and have even lower expectations of Biden, who has, after all, served as one of the generals of the "War on Drugs," which is nothing but Prohibition reborn). I was hoping (I have to admit) that I would be wrong about Obama, that he'd surprise me, but so far my opinions of him have been universally confirmed. He already seems prepared to backtrack on some promises (like repealing Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy), and the way he's forming his cabinet is thoroughly discouraging. The extreme sort of vetting Obama appears to be engaging in is virtually guaranteed to weed out anyone who might risk doing something daring and to put in place a cabal of bland, ineffectual representatives of the establishment. It looks likely that all Obama and his lackeys are going to do is to give broken institutions facelifts, instead of tearing these down and replacing them with something that works. The system's going to get patched, so that it can hobble on; it's not going to be genuinely fixed. Ultimately, such an approach does more harm than it does good. Our nation's acting like a person with a thorn in his foot who decides to take an aspirin so that he can limp around instead of pulling the thing out and letting himself heal. Honestly, I want a Clement Attlee, not a Tony Blair. Sadly, Obama looks like he's going to be a Blair, a Clinton clone, not a real reformer. Still, he is better than was the alternative.

Obama's election, though it has saved us from the disaster of a McCain presidency, and though it could yet turn out to promote admirable policies, has, regrettably, been substantially undermined by other political events. The passage, in California and other states, of constitutional amendments that define marriage as being between one man and one woman is just shameful. Unfortunately, those people who were disappointed by the success of these measures and who hope to undo them are going to have to ready themselves for a long and difficult fight. They can certainly forget about any help from Obama. He's been clear in his support of keeping marriages restricted to traditional American models. The courts are unlikely to provide much help, either. If provisions in state constitutions could have allowed the extension of marriage to non-traditional couples (and potentially even to groups of more than two persons), then changes to those constitutions will, almost certainly, put an end to such rights. The religious institutions that have backed these amendments have been pretty clever in their tactics. Instead of pushing for laws that could have violated parts of state constitutions, and which would have been overturned as a result, they've changed the constitutions themselves. Now, these new amendments will be reflected in the laws. Discriminatory laws will not violate constitutional requirements. My suspicion is that we're going to see quite a few measures like these in years to come. I also suspect that a good many of them will be passed.

I hope I'm wrong, but I would be genuinely surprised if I were. America is still an extremely religious country, and moral injunctions contained in the Abrahamic scriptures are still taken seriously by many people. There can be little doubt that a substantial proportion of the American population understands marriage to be a sacred institution, to be some sort of magical bond created by a particularly irritable and narrow-minded deity. If gay activists in the US think that popular opinion supports their cause, they're mistaken. They have, as a result, a very difficult battle ahead of them. The best route before was, without a doubt, the courts, but Christian activists are cutting these off by changing the foundations of local laws through constitutional amendments.

All in all, the US is certainly heading in a better direction than it was before the elections of 2008, but these elections have shown that we still have a long way to go. Our society has quite a bit of growing up to do, and those of us who are interested in progress need to help it mature. Our freedoms, the quality of our lives, and so much more is dependent upon our actions, upon how we move our nation forward. We shouldn't settle for half measures. We should struggle for real progress, for actual change.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Burden of Religion

I am very happy that, by voting for Barack Obama instead of John McCain, a majority of the people of the United States have rejected the destructive policies of the Bush regime, which have done so much harm both to this country and to so many others. I am also happy that the people of the state of Washington have decided to grant themselves the right to doctor-assisted suicides, that the people of South Dakota, Colorado, and California have refused to deny women access to abortions, and that the people of Michigan have given permission for stem cell research to be conducted in their state. However, I am, at the same time, saddened to hear of the passage of a number of measures that clearly show that this nation has a long way to go yet in its maturing. I am talking about the success of Proposition 8 in California, which actually amends that state's constitution so as to ban all marriages other than those between one man and one woman, the success of a similar measure, Amendment 2, in Florida, and a third, Proposition 102, in Arizona, as well as a law, Initiative 1, passed in Arkansas that prohibits unmarried couples from adopting children.

All of these measures were promoted and funded by religious groups, including the Catholic and Mormon churches, both of which were especially prominent in the effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. Honestly, I think that it is safe to say that not one of these measures would have passed were it not for the influence of religion. Once again, religion is holding us back, teaching people to judge and condemn others, to hate those who are different, and to demand that others live their lives according to the standards of someone else. Religion, once again, has shown itself to be the great enemy of human dignity, of self-determination, and of all things decent.

I have no idea why so few people whose liberties are being stolen, who are being told that they are second class citizens, unworthy of the same privileges as others, seem so afraid of denouncing their real foe, religion. For that matter, I have no idea why any person who treasures his freedom, whether it is being immediately threatened or not, does not take issue with something that inspires so many people to devote their lives to taking the liberties of others away.

In fact, when I look at virtually any issue being debated today, I am confronted with the same reality. It is religion that brings people to the wrong side. Over and over and over again, religion is the font from which bigotries, cruelties, and distortions of truth pour.

The fact is that the holy books of many religious traditions (and I am specifically talking about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam here) provide their believers with moral injunctions. Unfortunately, the morals taught in these scriptures belong to another age, a primitive and brutal age, one in which outsiders were enemies, women were property, and violence was honorable. These values do not belong to our time, or, at the least, they should not.

The adherents of these religions do, however, bring such outdated codes to our age.

Granted, many Christians, Muslims, and Jews realize (on some level) that their scriptures are nonsense and do not follow the injunctions included in them. Nonetheless, there are those who are motivated by these outdated grotesqueries masquerading as morality. Just look at what is done by certain members of these religions, by those who take their traditions seriously.

Certain Christians, acting because they are Christians (that is, because they take what is said in their scriptures seriously), oppose giving equal rights to homosexuals; some even advocate criminalizing homosexual acts. Certain Muslims, acting because they are Muslims, call for the judicial killing of any person who would leave their religion. Certain Jews, because they are Jews, steal land from other people because, they claim, that land is theirs by some sacred right; some even murder these people from a distance with rockets and artillery.

The story repeats itself over and over again. Some Christians oppose allowing those dying in agony to avoid their suffering and to end their lives with dignity. Some Jews and Muslims insist upon killing animals in the most vicious manner, letting these poor beasts suffer as their throats are cut open and they are exsanguinated, just so that the creatures' flesh will somehow be infused with a magical purity. Some Christians oppose allowing women control over their own bodies, their own reproductive organs; some even murder doctors who perform abortions for those who dare to make decisions for themselves. Some Muslims wrap their women in tent-like burqas to keep them subordinated and burdened with shame; some even mutilate their daughters' genitalia to destroy the girls' sexuality. Some Christians call for legal or de-facto censorship of artistic and scholarly works they oppose; at the same time, they not only insist that their own opinions be heard (though no one is trying to censor them), but even demand that their views be given governmental support, that these be taught in schools or enshrined in public places. Some Muslims call for the murder of those who criticize their religion, whether in films, books, or cartoons; some even commit murder to silence such blasphemers. Some Christians oppose the teaching of basic scientific ideas, like evolution, thinking it better that we accept the fanciful speculations found in their hoary fairy tales, like the idea that the world is a mere six thousand years old (though, oddly, most of these persons seem to have given up on the biblical assertions that the sun moves around the Earth (Joshua 10: 12–13) and that there are slats in the sky through which the rains fall from heaven (Genesis 7:11)). Some Muslims blow up and slaughter innocent people (as they did in New York in 2001, in Madrid in 2004, and in London in 2005) in order that they might do harm to nations they believe are opposed to their religion. Some Christians say that those who do not believe as they do will be cast by their loving, omnibenevolent deity into the fires of hell for all eternity, so that this god, in his infinite mercy, can, with his saints, savor their agony. Some Muslims say the same. Even the Jews claim to be the Chosen People, to have a sanctity, a superiority, no other people possess, making them, I suppose, into some kind of master race. The list can go on and on.

There are those who will say that many of these ideas are not in the Bible or the Koran, and I will admit that this is true. Sadly, that admission means nothing. The Koran might not contain an injunction demanding female circumcision (it does not), but those who mutilate their daughters' genitals are doing so for religious reasons. It hardly matters if injunctions mandating such actions are written in a text accepted as sacred or are handed down orally as sacred commandments (those secular persons making a distinction between these two are, I might add, falling victim to the fundamentalists' claim that there is a single authoritative text whence we can derive our values). In either case, the religious person is accepting some commandment that reflects values which are coming from another time and which are being accepted as sacred. If people did not turn to outdated values to decide how to behave, if, instead, they were rational, secular persons who were not contaminated with religion, who could formulate sensible ethical codes, if, in other words, they had a chance to learn to respect other people, including even women, then they would never perform such horrible deeds. The only reason they do so is because of their religion (or, at the least, because of their having tacitly accepted certain religious doctrines). It is, then, religion or its lingering stains that cause such people to turn to these ancient customs and to accept them as being valid.

What is more, many, many of these hideous doctrines are found advocated in the holy books of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. There can be no denying, for example, that the Bible condemns homosexual acts, both in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:22) and the New (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Any Christian who says that, according to the Bible, such acts are immoral and will lead those who perform them to hell, is accurately representing what is actually stated in that book. Any person who denies that this is the case, isn't reading the Bible.

Perhaps some might say that a person has to take into account when the Bible was written and understand that not all its moral injunctions can be applied to the world today. Such a person is not, however, getting his morals from the Bible. He's getting them from elsewhere. If he does admit that a moral injunction included in the Bible is proper, he's not saying it's proper because it's in the Bible; it just happens that the Bible got one thing right (something that, he will have to grant, does not occur very often). On some level, though it is probably an unconscious one, these individuals are conceding that their holy books are nonsense, that they need to get their values from other sources. I just wish that they would openly admit that.

There are, in fact, many people who say that they belong to a given religion, and who believe that they do, but who completely ignore what is actually stated in their scriptures. I have known numerous Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are decent, kind, compassionate people who would never think of imposing their values on others, of taking away the rights of others. They are, however, decent people because they don't take their values from their scriptures. Such individuals cannot, therefore, be cited as counter-examples to my claims. The fact remains that when the ancient values, the ancient immoralities, found in the Bible and the Koran are accepted, they lead people to commit horrible crimes.

Deriving our values from distant, superstitious, ignorant ages condemns us to behave like the savage primitives of those ages. I, for one, have no desire to burn heretics, trample women under my feet, and brutalize anyone who disagrees with me. There are those who do, however, and they are very numerous and very powerful.

That is why those of us who believe in freedom, who believe in human dignity and happiness, need to stop being afraid to denounce religion for what it is, the single most malevolent force in the world today. As long as its influence remains, it will be a weight dragging us down into primitivism, ignorance, and cruelty. It is such a shame that so many people avoid confronting their real enemy. They make excuses. They claim, for example, that the Bible doesn't say the horrible things that fundamentalist Christians say it does or that the Bible has to be interpreted in some special way so that when it says one and one make two what it means is one and one make five.

Let's be honest with ourselves. Religion is our enemy. We have to fight it. We have to educate people. We need to show them that the Bible and the Koran are not rational texts. These books are riddled with factual errors and internal consistencies, and they are offensive to any rational system of ethics. If we do not speak up, those of us who value our freedoms are going to find ourselves continuously struggling against those slavers who are themselves enslaved to the superstitions of the past.

Moreover, we need to fight the pestilential influence of religion in positive ways. I am not saying that we should keep religious people from speaking, from advocating or practicing their beliefs. They have as much right to do so as do we, but so do neo-nazis, parapsychologists, and people who believe they've been abducted by space aliens. What we need to do is to try to destroy the dangerous privileges religious institutions often have and to create an educated, secular society.

Just look at the things at which the rational person can take aim. Religious organizations, which are some of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the world, are also some of the least accountable and most legally privileged. They don't even pay taxes on their vast income. Why should they have such advantages? Frankly, they shouldn't. Muslim women are often forced to veil themselves, even to shroud themselves in shapeless burqas, as though their being female were itself a shameful thing. How can we allow women to be treated this way? We ought to be embarrassed that we do. We can't stop people from dressing as they desire in private, but we can pass laws prohibiting the wearing of religious garb in public institutions, and we can demand certain standards if a person appears in public; we can, for instance, insist that an individual not hide his face. Because of the taboos of Jewish and Muslim dietary laws, countless animals are slaughtered in the cruelest of ways. I am shocked that we allow this. Were someone to perform such a killing for any reason other than his religion, criminal charges would be brought against him. A person should be free to practice his religion, but that does not give him the right to inflict pain upon others. Halal and Kosher abattoirs should be regulated just as all others are. State schools are for everyone, whatever the opinions of any given parent or child, and should be places where objective facts, not personal opinions, are taught. We have to keep real science in schools. If someone wants to think some deity cobbled the universe together six thousand years ago, he's free to do so, but his beliefs should not be inserted into a fact based curriculum. This list could go on and on and on. There are countless goals for which we have to strive if we are to live in a free and rational world, one in which the baleful influence of religion is given as little scope to harm others as is possible.

I will admit that those of us who value freedom and rationality have a difficult position to maintain. We insist that our enemy has a right to speak. We'll even fight or die to make sure he has that right. He, however, has no qualms about taking away our freedom to express our opinions. All he needs is one great victory, and we can lose in a terrible way. So let's fight. Let's make sure that when our enemies spew nonsense, people will recognize that they are spewing nonsense. Few pay attention to those who say the Earth is flat, because we recognize that that opinion is absurd (though we don't prevent anyone from holding it). Let's see if we can't show people how absurd religion is. Let's wage war against history's greatest source of cruelty, ignorance, and prejudice. Let's add Christianity and its sister religions to the world's list of nonsensical opinions along with Nazism, geocentrism, racism, and other such beliefs.

By Keith Allen