Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Religion, privacy and democracy

A guest post from Shlomoh Sherman (and very good it is too):

Religion, privacy, and democracy
By Shlomoh Sherman
May 8, 2008

Several disquieting stories have come to my attention recently; they all concern academia. I found out a long time ago that academia is about the worst set of professions that you can get into. It attracts the worst types, and the decent ones who find their way into the professions usually wind up getting eaten by the sociopathic sharks.

Several friends of mine who are teachers have found themselves being harassed and forced to resign for no other reason than that the administrator took a personal dislike to them. There is the story of a young female teacher who went on a vacation to a resort where the parents of one of her students also were vacationing that year. The parents noticed that the teacher was wearing a bikini and a belly button ring. Upon her return to work, she was notified that she was fired for wearing a bikini and belly button ring on her vacation, something which the school administrators felt was unbecoming behavior for their staff.

There is also the story of a teacher and her husband who recently appeared on the HOWARD STERN SHOW. Someone at the school must be a Stern listener because several days later she was fired for appearing on the Stern Show. By the way, in case you are wondering, neither she nor her husband did anything on the show that could be considered improper behavior.

You would think that Americans, or anyone for that matter, are entitled to their privacy. Don't we claim privacy as our "God given" right? For the moment, we can forget that God does not give us ANY rights; He gives us rules, or so they say. But He especially does not give us the right to privacy! We HAVE no privacy in front of God. He watches our every move like some celestial Peeping Tom. He spies on us. He snoops. He sticks His enormous nose into our [private] business. Well, if snooping is good enough for the Overseer in the sky, it's good enough for His worshippers. And don't His clerics tell us that it is good to confess? What is it that we need to confess? What I do in private is none of your business. But is that so? The fact is that "privacy" is a relatively new concept. It did not exist in the pre-modern world. Both in the ancient world and the medieval world, the idea of the "private individual" was unthinkable. The individual person was only thought of as a member of a group, - either a family, a church, a community, a town. No person was ALLOWED to be an isolate. There was no such thing as individual responsibility except to the group to which one belonged. There were even societies in our primitive past in which an individual's crime was seen as the crime of his group. If someone killed a person belonging to another family, for example, he and his entire family might be put to death.

Although we like to think that we live in a modern society, especially in America, the fact is that most Americans have carried the pre-modern past into the present. The pre-modern past existing in the present always seems to express itself in religious communities, especially in those communities which are known as Biblical communities, namely Jews and Christians. But these communities and their beliefs and standards have a major impact on the national community as a whole. In this century so far, the impact has been greater than the impact of the secular humanist community - because the majority of Americans identify themselves as "Christian", and it is from their ranks that many of our elected officials come to office. It is from their ranks that many of our lawmakers get into power. It is then that America finds itself at the mercy of the pre-modern mindset.

Our social and empirical scientists have discovered a lot during the past 200 years. Much of what they have learned has benefited society in no small measure. And yet, in this unhappy century, their gains and achievements are being minimized by the INTRUSIVE mentality of those who wish to return us to an earlier, unhappier time. The pre-modern mentality seeks to undo the work of the creators of democracy.
In a democracy, we are supposed to have a right both to our privacy and to our opinions. Neither of these rights was given to us by God. They were given to us by Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and their comrades, men who were able to see the oppressiveness of communities where there was a lack of rights, communities in which mindless, illogical, mean-spirited rules deprived individuals of privacy and freedom.
The men who made our country wanted us to live in a place where you and I are ENTITLED to think for ourselves. Hence they created a nation free of gods and clerics, so they believed.

However if you look at the philosophical state of our country today, you can see the betrayal of the Founders' dream. The overwhelming majority of Americans actually believe that the United States is, or should be, run as a theocracy. They may not use that word but it comes down to the same thing. Example: It is constitutionally illegal to require a "religion" test to anyone seeking political office. Yet the case de facto, if not de jure, is that anyone declaring him/herself an agnostic, atheist, secularist, or humanist will not be elected to public office in most places, and certainly not to the high federal offices such as president. The whole issue of personal belief ought to be a private affair. If I run for office, what I believe or disbelieve is none of your business, and I ought to be allowed my so-called "god-given" right to privacy in matters of personal conviction. However, because the majority of my fellow Americans are addicted to the premises of the so-called "great monotheistic religions", I have to put up with the public's scrutiny, or to be blunt, snooping into my head. Amazingly, even the Press sees nothing wrong with this. In most of Europe and the civilized modern Western world, this invasion of privacy would be an outrage!

It's bad enough that the average citizen has this attitude. It's worse when our lawmakers have it. Several years ago, in a town in Texas, the police broke into the home of a homosexual, without a warrant, and arrested him and the other man with whom he was having sex, on the charge of sodomy.

The idea that there are even laws on our books against certain sexual acts committed by consenting adults in the PRIVACY of their own homes is bad enough. What's worse is that the laws of states such as Texas allow the breaking into your home and mine to actually arrest and try citizens who are not harming anyone or causing any trouble.

Our religious culture causes people to be wrapped up and emotionally involved in the private pleasure of their neighbors. It's absolutely Orwellian. Our century betrays the fact that we have never quite gotten away from the Puritanism of the days of Salem. Four hundred years ago, people in Salem were not allowed to think for themselves. Their private thoughts and acts were unquestionably public domain. Many in this century feel they ought still be public domain. More and more, our country is intruding into our private lives and diminishing what privacy we think should be ours.

I can understand, in the age of terrorism against the West, that cameras are now everywhere. I can even understand the government tapping telephones in order to catch criminals. I understand that after 9/11, I have to give up some of YOUR civil rights so that I will be safer. What I don't understand is that the majority of Americans sanction ideas that are similar to those of the Taliban. I understand that in certain countries there is government scrutiny into every aspect of life. But this is America, not Afghanistan. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are our promises. Dude, where is my Liberty? I know that I don't have the liberty to steal from you. But at least, give me the liberty to express my beliefs and live my life as I see fit so long as I don't hurt anyone.

Don't fire me from my job just because I wear a belly button ring on my vacation, or appear on a radio show that you don't happen to like or whose philosophy is not about mom's apple pie or Jesus' benevolence.

Democracy, as understood by any intelligent, philosophically minded American, implies a degree of privacy. Yet an amazing percentage of Americans who
consider themselves the MOST American, believe that they and their government have the right to impose their standards of belief on you and thereby deprive you of what you think and do in private, and that belief is motivated by pre-modern ideas of group guilt and group snooping, behaviors condoned and approved of by a deity. What I don't get is how these people reconcile their inappropriate moralistic behavior and attitudes with their belief in the democracy of America.

I've thought about this for many decades and I have come to some conclusions. Americans who claim to believe that America is great because of its freedom and democracy and yet, at the same time, say that they believe that our American society ought to be forcefully run by Biblical imperatives, are hypocrites, knowingly or not. Religion, especially Biblical religion, expressed as Christianity and Judaism, is incompatible with real democracy.

Biblical religion militates against free expression. It opposes what we think and do in private, mainly because it opposes our private pleasures. It posits that people are sinful by nature and that they are "born in sin". Anyone born in sin is a slave, not a free person, and he who is born in sin does not deserve freedom or pleasure; at least he should be closely watched! If need be, what little freedom and privacy he has left should be taken away from him.

Believing Christians and Jews who say they are for democracy are hypocrites. Jews are somewhat less hypocritical than Christians. Fundamentalist Jews will tell you that the TORAH is a fascistic document. Some ultra-Orthodox individual actually once used that expression with me. As far as I am concerned, if you are less of a hypocrite than someone else, you are still a hypocrite. And in my book, religious hypocrites are the worst kind because they believe themselves to be morally superior to me.

I confess, I do have my faults. But among them are not the desire to snoop on someone else's bedroom activities, nor the desire to prevent people most in need of condoms from having access to them, nor the desire to tell a female how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, nor the desire to have Harry Potter removed from the public library, nor the desire to engage in the prevention of scientific and medical research which might benefit mankind, nor the desire to tell you how to live your life philosophically, nor the desire to kill diversity of opinion in my country.
What is the supreme proof that fundamentalist Biblical religion is antithetical to our democracy? The answer is the belief in the Messiah. One cannot call himself a Christian if he does not believe in the coming of the Christ, nor can one call himself an Orthodox Jew if he denies that God will one day raise up a Messiah for the People of Israel.

About 16 years ago, when the Internet was still new, I participated in an Internet discussion group on Religion. A Christian lady wrote to me and said that she understood what would happen when Christ came back: "[He] shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain." What an incredibly wonderful vision. What the lady wanted to know is what do Jews believe will happen when the Jewish messiah comes at last. Unfortunately I do not have the original response that I sent her. But I can repeat the basic answer I gave to her.

I said: "Regarding the messiah that our religion has taught us, when he comes, a new age will be initiated on earth. Israel will be gathered to the Promised Land and the third Temple will be rebuilt. Nations will not go to war any longer since all people will love their neighbors as they love themselves. Whatever sinful nature man may possess, that is, his YETSER HARA, will be subdued. There will be no crime, no sickness, no hunger, and no poverty. All people will speak and think with one accord. "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." What an incredibly wonderful vision. However, I do not believe that there is any such thing as a free lunch, not even in messianic times.

Here is the side of the coin that the wonderful folks who wrote the Bible left out.
When the Messiah shows up [either the Jewish or the Christian One], the first thing to go will be the Constitution of the United States which "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution." The document which came into being as a result of the shedding of American blood will be shredded. Remember, this is the document which ensures that people can come to this country if and when their own countries deny them freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. It guarantees them the right to privacy which the Bible somehow overlooked. It gives them the right to wear a belly button ring and to appear on the Howard Stern Show unmolested.

But remember one important thing. The Messiah is a king; he is the ultimate king. He is the king of kings. As such, he requires no constitution to govern. He IS the constitution. The articles of his divine constitution are WHATEVER HE SAYS, and you had better "observe to do according to the Divine Law; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left hand". So we won't need no STEENKING Constitution. In your home, you will not have the privacy to be on YOUR Internet, watch YOUR videos, read YOUR books, practice YOUR sex, and think YOUR thoughts. He is the Messiah; they will be HIS Internet, video, book, sex, thoughts. If he says that Howard Stern and belly button rings are out, they are out, no matter what YOU think. In fact, don't think! The Messiah will do your thinking for you. All you'll have to do is live your life as though you were on Aldous Huxley's dream-inducing drug, Soma. Only it will be called Dwelling in the Presence of the Lord, or some such meaningless phrase. Enjoy! To paraphrase Henny Youngman, "Take my MESHIACH, please!" I'll take my freedom and privacy, and whatever pleasure I enjoy that hurts no one.

Here's the rub. Americans fought and died long ago in order to get rid of a king, in order that WE would not have to live under the tyranny of a king.

Paul, the prophet of the Christians, told his followers to be good little servants and follow the DICTATES of the king. And the king often dictated that his followers be food for lions. When his followers became kings themselves, they made those who thought for themselves food for flames.

Like any sensible person, I too want what a messiah is supposed to bring. I want to see an end to war, and end to crime, to sickness, to want. But I am not willing to sell my soul for those things. I believe we can be our own messiah. If we wish to end war then we will have to heavily persuade those who fly airplanes into buildings to stop doing it. If we wish to end crime, we will have to get to the point where we can weed out the sociopaths among us. If we wish to end sickness, we will have to allow our scientists to proceed with work that can lead to "miracle" cures. And lastly, if we truly want to put an end to want, we will need to stop being greedy, and those of us who own over 90 percent of the wealth and resources will need to start loving their neighbors with fewer resources, and allow them at least the basic necessities of life.

Once we stop worrying about what others are thinking and doing in private; once we allow other people liberty and the pursuit of their own vision of happiness, we won't have to worry about them intruding on our liberty and happiness. In order to do that, we will have to subordinate allegiance to kings and clerics, towards working for the greatest good for ourselves. Before the modern era, many nations existed which believed they were "under God". They were no more under any deity than our nation is. Any nation which professes itself better than other nations because it is more under God, expresses the height of arrogance "for after all these things do the Gentiles seek".

Some may find comfort in their churches. That is their business and their constitutionally given right. But they will not find ultimate answers for our problems in the pews. Thomas Paine, a great American patriot, once said, "My mind is my own church." We should follow his sound example.

"A notable event was the recent emergence from the non-theistic closet of a public official, Congressman Pete Stark of Fremont, California, announced that he did not believe in a supreme being. Will other public officials do likewise?
It will be fascinating to see if Dawkins can make significant inroads on the American religious scene. Recently, there has been an outpouring of books by prominent authors aggressively challenging the dominant role of religion in American life. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Richard Joyce, Lee Silver, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens. Is change in the air?"

By Irwin Tessman
Skeptical Inquirer Magazine
January - February, 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Spot the difference

Further discussion has arisen from the synchroblog on interreligious dialogue.

I guess to me the differences between the different styles of communication are as follows:

Interfaith dialogue: Hello, I am a Pagan. I honour both the masculine and feminine Divine, and a multiplicity of deities immanent in the world. I would be interested to hear about your religion.

Evangelism: Hi, I'm a Pagan, and I'm here to tell you that the Goddess really loves you and is yearning to connect with you. She can make your life so much more meaningful.

Proselytising: Hi, I'm a Pagan, and I'm here to tell you that if you don't honour my specific vision of the Divine, the consequences will be disastrous (both cosmically and personally).

(Last 2 styles of communication unlikely to be heard from Pagans, though you might get Baha'i-style "all religions are one" type statements from a few Pagans, or "Jesus was a Pagan really". No. He wasn't. Really.)