Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conversations: Humanist and Preacher

QUESTION: Can people of differing faiths and no faith build a moral code for a mutual society despite their differing views on religion?

HUMANIST: First, we must define “morality.” For this discussion, let’s assume it generally means how one conducts himself in relation to others. Particularly since the topic under discussion is how people can build a moral code for a whole society despite differing points of view on such things as religion.

One of the oldest moral concepts and the foundational cornerstone of all good moral systems is “don’t do to other people what you would not want them to do to you.” That concept predates Christianity or even Judaism and is found in ancient literature of virtually all ancient societies. It is universal and ubiquitous. It comes to us naturally. You have heard it said (and probably said yourself) a thousand times: “How would you feel if I did that to you!” as a rebuke to someone’s bad behavior. Your Jesus also adopted it as an important foundational idea for his code. I would hope we can agree that this is a very good starting point for the building of a common moral code. And I would hope that we could also agree that this concept is innate or instinctual in the human race at large. Of course not every individual experiences this. There are sociopaths and psychopaths. But on the whole can we agree that this concept is innate and instinctual in the vast majority of human beings?

PREACHER: I would agree that this is a common ground and place to start. I would agree
that there is a sense in which it is "innate" in that I believe it is a
reflection of the image of God. However, it seems to me that even here we begin with a presupposition that we will have common ground in the sense that there will be agreement in what constitutes "good" and that what I feel or what others feel is actually "good." In this sense though there would be common ground I think it is limited by the human experience.

HUMANIST: Since the purpose of this discussion is to explore whether it is
possible for atheists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. to live in peace and form a society and a societal moral code without forcing any to adopt another’s position on matters of religion, I will not get off on a side discussion about where this innate sense comes from. Someday I will be happy to return to that issue. But for now, it is sufficient that we have a commonly agreed starting point for the building of our societal rules.

Now let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum and see if we can bracket the problem. Can we agree that we should never make a law that seeks solely to enforce a religious practice or belief on society at large? For example:

• We will not make a law that prohibits working on Saturday solely
because one group’s holy book says we should not work on that day.

• We will not make a law that prohibits drawing Mohamed solely
because another group’s holy book says we should not do so.

• We will not make a law that prohibits contraception solely
because one group insists that using it makes its god angry.

• We will not make a law prohibiting the eating of meat solely because one group’s religion says we might be eating grandpa or another group thinks all life is one.

• We will not make a law that requires prayer or attendance at
religious services solely because several group’s holy books say we should.

PREACHER: Sure, sounds good to me.

HUMANIST: Well the problem is bracketed. Next rule: Can we agree that we will not pass laws to protect sane, consenting adults from making informed decisions that affect only their own well being or safety, on the grounds that it is for their own good?

PREACHER: Sure providing that we could agree on the definition of "sane."

HUMANIST: Propose a definition.

PREACHER: Do I have a year? Lol. Sanity is the middle of a continuum, the definition of which depends upon whether we are going to take the risk to define it outside the creature, assuming that we have some sort of revelation or, whether we are going to take the risk of defining it strictly from a human perspective and hope that we have enough observable information to even come remotely close to the truth.

HUMANIST: Are you saying that only those who accept your view of “revelation” are “sane?”

What possible perspective can a human being start from other than the human
perspective? We are human. Can we perceive, consider or accept “revelation”
offered to us except from the human perspective? You seem dismissive of the
idea that “humans have enough observable information to even come remotely close to the truth” without revelation. But what other way do humans have to come even remotely close to making the right choice about which of the many claimed “revelations” is the truth?

PREACHER: And therein lies the problem. If there is one true revelation and all the rest false or if all or many have some bit of truth and they cannot be readily tested in scientific methodology and if this negates all revelation then all one is left with is human experience.

You seem to assume that human experience is enough to get to the "truth." You
also appear to assume in your statement: "your view of 'revelation'", that revelation originates from human perception. For me the definition of sanity does not deny human experience and what we can observe or learn from it, but it must also be informed by the Creator outside of human experience. The human perspective is infected and diseased by a sense of self-sovereignty and an allegiance to self apart from any Creator. At the root this is the definition of insanity. Separation from the Creator is insane. Thus the whole human race is born with some degree of insanity and it is only by the grace and revelation of the Creator that one can be restored to relationship and begin to come anywhere close to understanding what we were created and intended to be.

You want to deny all this or relegate it merely to a possibility that cannot be known and then start to define the human experience by the human experience. Do you believe that human experience alone without revelation can get to all the truth? Do you believe that human experience alone can deal with whatever truth that is perceived without misusing it or abusing it, leading to insanity.

I don't know how you can begin incorporate all this and still come out to common ground.

HUMANIST: Whoa! I made no statements. In particular I did not say that the fact that the various claims of revelation “cannot be readily tested in
scientific methodology… negates all revelation.” I am asking questions. And I don’t think you have answered them yet.

I fully understand your position that there is a supernatural, superintending being out there who created us and who has given us a revelation that we must accept if we are to live as he intended and obtain salvation. I fully understand that you are absolutely convinced that your view of which is the true revelation is absolutely correct and everyone else is wrong. And I fully understand that the Muslim and the Catholic and everyone else feel exactly the same way about their revelation claims.

Let us go back to the purpose and context of this discussion which is fast
getting lost. It is to try to find a way that persons with mutually exclusive revelation claims and those who accept no claims of revelation can live peacefully together and establish a system of governance that can set forth rules of GENERAL applicability that do not require anyone to abandon their position on revelation or accept or adopt someone else’s and leaves all free to live THEIR OWN lives according to the dictates of their favored revelation but not free to insist that everyone else does too or that the government endorses or encourages one revelation claim over another. We are not trying to establish “all truth” but just a system we can live together in while each of us pursues truth by whatever means or revelation he thinks appropriate.

I am, therefore, striving to avoid making any statements about the validity of your revelation claim or anyone else’s. I am trying to find common ground. And since the various positions on revelation are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive, the issue of the validity of revelation is not a place where we have any hope of finding common ground.

And the question you have not answered: Since we are humans, how can we approach any question – even the question of which if any revelation is truth – except from the human perspective? What other starting point is there for a human other than his human perspective?

PREACHER: If you are talking human perspective presently, then yes, we start from human perspective. So proceed toward common ground. So back to the original question: "Can we agree that we will not pass laws to protect sane, consenting adults from making informed decisions that affect only their the well being or safety on the grounds that it is for their own good?"

I answer yes.

HUMANIST: Can we agree that the money and power of government should not be used to favor any religious position?

PREACHER: Yes, with "favor" being the key word.

HUMANIST: Can you flesh out what makes you flag “favor” as the key word?

PREACHER: Because our constitution has indicated that there would be freedom of religion. Thus there is to be freedom of religion, not absence of religion. There is to be religion without any religion being favored. However the problem comes if we are to consider irreligion as having equal status as a "religion." Then how do you not favor one or the other - that is religion or irreligion?

HUMANIST: Ah, the neutrality problem -- the problem created by trying to equate neutrality on a proposition with merely another position on the issue.
The city council of Smithville is asked by an Islamic group to hang a crescent moon of Islam behind the city council desk as a sign of solidarity with and reverence for Allah. The Christians demand that the city hang a cross there to signal solidarity with and reverence for Jesus. The Jews demand a star of David to show the same for Yahweh. The atheists demand the hanging of a large decorative letter “A” to show support for their position. The irreligious request a large red circle with the word “religion” in the center and a red slash mark across the circle to show support for no religion. The city council decides to hang a sign that says: “CITY OF SMITHVILLE.”
Whose position on religion did they favor?

PREACHER: OK. It is not worth fighting over a symbol as you describe behind a city council desk. Let it say City of Smithville.

HUMANIST: Now a council member asks the mayor to begin each meeting with a prayer in the name of Jesus. Muslims respond with a request that each meeting begin with a prayer to Allah. Jews demand a Jewish prayer. The Wiccans demand an invocation to mother earth and Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. The irreligious and atheists demand a statement that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”
The Mayor starts the meetings with: “It now being 6:30, I call this meeting to order.”
Whose position on religion is he favoring?

PREACHER: None, however if someone wants to start with a prayer or a statement of religious belief, why not?

HUMANIST: Because I thought we already agreed that we would not use government to indicate favoritism for any religion. When the governing body makes it part of its official acts as a body to pray a sectarian prayer or issue a statement of religious belief, it is “making a law respecting the establishment of religion.” It is using government time, official government acts to say that one religion has favored status before this governing body. And I thought we had agreed we would not do that.
If someone wants to start official government meetings with the statement (which the audience is encouraged to intone in unison) “’The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion) Let us strive to not to be like him as we govern the affairs of this city.”
Why not?

PREACHER: There is no favoritism. Allow them all to make their prayer or statement. Come one come all.

HUMANIST: I am half inclined to think you meant that as a joke. Are you seriously suggesting that we spend 1 hour or more of every meeting called to discuss and set the city budget with religious and anti religious statements? What purpose would that serve? What does that have to do with setting the budget and governing the city?
Isn’t it much more reasonable to confine the business meetings of the city to the business of the city and do the religious statements, prayers, debates and proselytizing to other times and places?

PREACHER: No, I am not joking. For those who believe that you cannot separate one's faith or lack of faith from the way in which one governs, it is desirable to acknowledge the need for outside help to those who believe there is a God who is the author of government in the first place. And I believe that our forefathers never intended for religion to be absent from the very act of governing. They did open the door for any and all religions to have freedom of expression. Since we have become a pluralistic nation with regard to religion, it is probably now that we will either have to remove all expressions of religion from government or we will have to take the time to give place for all if indeed all insist on expressing their "faith" at the same meeting. If left alone in most places I believe that eventually all would not really demand the time and the meeting would move forward.
However, I suspect that there are and will be those who want to deny any expression of religion at the meetings on the basis of wasting time or tax-payer dollars. This, too me, flies in the face of what was intended by the forefathers and what has been practiced in general in America. It is the freedom that we have been given from the beginning and in my view there should be no law that either favors one religion over another or prohibits the expression of religion in the act of governing.
I would leave it up to the elected official to determine how to start the meetings. If he or she wants to take the time to for a prayer and there are others who want equal time to offer their statement or prayer - so be it. In fact I would like to know where our elected officials are coming from religiously.
Would you really want to prohibit any and all religious expression in government meetings? Why? Because it is a waste of time and money? Give me a break. After sitting in court rooms several times in the past several years and after trying to get in front of a City Board for the last four months and seeing how they operate without any respect for the time and money of their constituency and citizens, I say we need to take an hour of religious observance. I welcome it! Come one and all with your statements and prayers. This could be fun!

HUMANIST: Again, I want to make an effort to keep the train of thought on the original track and not get off on the several tangents offered by your e-mail.
Your suggestion to let the elected officials decide is in essence a suggestion that we repeal the first component of the First amendment’s religion clause. (“Congress [and via the fourteenth amendment local governments] shall make no law [engage in official acts] respecting the establishment of religion.”) Would it also be acceptable to repeal the second component (no prohibition on free exercise) and just let the elected officials decide how much and what type of religious exercise will be allowed within their jurisdiction?
Once again I fully understand that you believe that “it is desirable to acknowledge the need for outside help.” And I fully understand that the Muslim and the Catholic and the Witchdoctor and the Mormon also believe it is desirable to acknowledge the need for outside help from their god or gods. (In fact, it is legal for a governing body to make a general, non-sectarian “acknowledgement of “god” or “outside help.”) And, again, my suggestions are not demanding that any of you change that belief. I am only trying to find a way we can self govern despite those differences and I am suggesting that we do so by agreeing that sectarian acknowledgements of the need for outside help from particular gods take place at other times and places and not at the very time and place where are attempting to keep our religious differences from dividing us. All of you can hold rallies in your churches or in public places where the need for outside help is acknowledged. The city council members can attend those rallies and let their personal religious preferences be known. They can write letters to the editors, take out ads and run blogs and tweet about it to their hearts content.
I guess the key question I have then is:
When you have the freedom to preach as much as you want, witness as much as you want, write as much religious literature as you want, debate as much as you want with un believers or other religions; when you and the mayor, if she so chooses, can spend the entire three days before each meeting praying and fasting for “outside help” at the upcoming meeting , when you are free to express your faith ad nauseum ….
Why are you so opposed to carving out a neutral time and place where everyone can participate without highlighting our religious differences? Why do you insist that every public meeting involve firing up the disputes and underscoring our religious divisions? What is so terrible about a limited time and place where neutrality is the rule and practice?

PREACHER: Am I understanding you correctly, that you are seeking to separate religious expression from the act of governing? It seems to me that neutrality is equivalent with the position of "no religion." If so, then the irreligious groups get to impose their "religion" of no religion. How do we solve this? Allow the elected official to make the decision of whether there will statements and/or prayers. If all religious or irreligious views are allowed to be expressed in this, then I do not see the any violation of the first amendment. There is no establishment of any one religion, but freedom to express all. If the elected official wants to do nothing then start the meeting with the reading of the minutes. But if he wants to begin with prayer and then allow others the same freedom of expression - what is the problem. Why are we so afraid of religion in government? Separation of church and state in my understanding does not establish religion nor prohibit it in government.
Why are you so opposed to a statement of "faith" or a prayer being expressed in the process of governing? Why do you want to relegate its expression to a particular time and place rather than to be expressed in every aspect of life including the act of governing?
What I hear you saying is that you are not content with openness to all religious expression in government, rather you want no expression of religion in government which in my mind is a "religious" position being imposed on those of other persuasion. Maybe I am not hearing you right?

HUMANIST: I don’t think you answered my question.
I would like you to offer you an additional set of questions to highlight why treating neutrality as just another position that is being forced on the others is wrong.
A Jew, a Hindu, a catholic, a Muslim, a Nazarene and an atheist are on a city council. Each demands that the meetings begin with a sectarian prayer from their particular religion or, in the case of an atheist, a statement that religion is a delusion. After arguing awhile:
1. Scenario one: The Jew says: I have a suggestion, let’s not do any prayer or statement and start with the reading of the minutes. If they decide to do that is the Jewish point of view being forced on everyone?
2. Scenario two: The Muslim says: I have a suggestion, let’s not do any prayer or statement and start with the reading of the minutes. If they decide to do that is the Islamic point of view being forced on everyone?
3. Scenario one: The Nazarene says: I have a suggestion, let’s not do any prayer or statement and start with the reading of the minutes. If they decide to do that is the Nazarene point of view being forced on everyone?
Neutrality is not just another position on the issue. It is an agreement to take no position and can be advanced by anyone of the participants. The fact that I am suggesting it does not make it a “win” for my position on religion anymore than if the Jew is the one suggesting it makes it a “win” for the Jewish position. My position on religion is not neutral. I think that religion is false and often destructive and evil, but I, like the Jew or Muslim who proposes neutrality, am willing to set that position aside in order to create a limited forum where we agree to work on other issues and matters of mutual concern. Why do you insist that agreeing not to force any position on religion on anyone is forcing a position on religion on everyone?
Now to answer your question:
Why do you want to relegate its expression to a particular time and place rather than to be expressed in every aspect of life including the act of governing?
My question does not suggest faith expressions should be “relegated to a particular time and place.” It suggests the exact opposite. I pointed out that faith expression can be done in many and even most places. I was asking why we could not carve out a LIMITED area where we concentrated on other business rather than highlighting and fighting about our religious differences EVERYWHERE.
My question stands and has yet to be answered: What is so terrible about a limited time and place where neutrality is the rule and practice?

PREACHER: There is nothing terrible about neutrality until you make it the rule. I say let neutrality be one of the options and if all agree then do it. If there is desire for the chairman to have a prayer or a "moment of silence" then let all those who wish to participate do so. Let's not make any rule about how we start the meeting. Let's not limit the time for either prayer or neutrality. Let each group work it out without a rule. Why argue about what we are going to do and how we are going to start the meeting. Let the conscience of the chairperson guide how we start.

HUMANIST: The next time you go before the city council to ask for a permit for building your church, the city council comes out in traditional Muslim garb. The Mayor says that only those who acknowledge Allah and his prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) are truly fit to govern and, therefore, they are going to begin the meeting with prayer. They whip out their prayer rugs on the floor and ask the audience to join them. 90% of the audience throw down a prayer rug and then commences 5 minutes of chanting and prayer with them kneeling, bowing, etc. while you set there in your chair with people praying all around you. And when they are done, as they get up, you see some hostile looks coming your way as they realize you did not participate. Then they call your item of business and you stand up to ask for a permit to build a Christian church.
Is that really OK with you?
If they deny your permit, will you be able to accept it as an even handed decision instead of an indication of hostility to your religion because it is in opposition to theirs?

PREACHER: And you really think that you are going to stop the scenario you present with a law of neutrality? lol When we get to that point, it will not matter what your 'rule and practice" has been.

HUMANIST: You again sidestepped the question, but implied in your response is the answer that, no, it is not okay with you. Right?
But I am also mystified by your response. The scenario is obviously inconsistent with a law of neutrality, isn’t it? Isn’t it therefore obvious that following the law of neutrality would in fact stop that scenario? Only if the law of neutrality is violated or discarded can such scenario happen. Am I missing something?
Of course, if you mean that any law can be violated or overthrown if someone chooses to do so, then that is obvious as well. But how does pointing that out say anything about the desirability of striving for a law of neutrality to prevent that? Would you likewise scoff at laws against rape murder and theft because they obviously are not stopping those things from happening?
So am I right? Did your response imply that my scenario is not OK with you?



HUMANIST: If the government allows you to practice your religion but engages in no official acts endorsing it or any other religion, will the result be widespread rejection of Christianity and ensuing chaos? Or will Christianity transform lives and flourish in the culture without the endorsement of government?

PREACHER: It strikes me that perhaps the problem is that you see everything as either/or and in one dimension which I understand would be consistent with your worldview. However, what I described has three dimensions and all three assertions are accurate in my view in reference to their dimension. Unendorsed Christianity by the government will not bring rejection of Christianity - God has always had a people! But because government is ultimately people and because people are incurably religious there will always be some expression of religion even if in some cases militancy against religion. There will never be a vacuum of "neutrality" possible because religion represents a spiritual entity that is (you are right "un-provable" using your measurements) only discernible by the "spiritual senses" and it represents the reality that there is a war going on unseen in the spiritual realm which is never neutral. We have an Enemy who is never neutral but who would love to use "neutrality" to confuse the issue and to ultimately drive the outcome of political power. Yet even when this is going on and government is hostile to Christianity, where it is rejected it has historically flourished and grown underground but not in public politics in those countries. So I see three dimensions in which all the statements are true but not equal.
Of course if one does not accept one dimension as reality or if one cannot differentiate between the dimensions, then I understand the charge of elusiveness and I understand the confusion. Christianity will continue to see the transformation of lives in the likeness of Jesus Christ with or without the endorsement of government. But where possible, why should Christians allow the government to create a neutrality that will eventually tip in the direction of someone's religious believes or religious worldview. I think the premise of neutrality is flawed. If there is no ultimate agenda in neutrality except neutrality I think this position is naive. But there is an agenda with some who speak for neutrality.

HUMANIST: You obviously do not even marginally understand my “worldview,” if you think it is an either/or one. Accusing me of having an either/or world view could not possibly be further from the truth. In fact a major step in my trip out of Christianity was the realization that Christianity’s either/or view of the universe is a poor one. You are projecting big time. The reason you see neutrality as a flawed premise is because you are insisting on an either/or position that does not allow for middle ground.
The whole reason for neutrality is that the religion question is not either/or. There is Islam and its god and prophets. There is Judaism with its god and prophets and revelation. There are the Hindus and thousands of other religions all claiming to have the only revelation from the true god(s). Even within Christianity, there are hundreds of feuding factions claiming the others are false and heretical. And when you see that government endorsement of a religion is not either/or but would be selecting between thousands of competing religions and sects and denominations, neutrality on the issue makes sense. It is only if you take an either/or worldview that you can say that insisting on neutrality is just another way to attack your position. After all, as your leader said, “anyone who is not for me is against me.” Thus, anyone who is neutral is against him because they are not for him, in that “worldview.” All other religions and those with no religion can be conflated into a single monolith: not Christian. This conflates the many religious alternatives into two: My beliefs v. Not my beliefs. That is the quintessential either/or position( not to mention egocentric). And it is you who are pushing it not me.

You are right when you say that some people pushing for neutrality in government are actually hostile to your religion. But your either/or worldview causes you to conflate two issues; 1) neutrality of the playing field and 2) the intent to beat you in a fair exchange of ideas. For example, let’s say the game is football. But the home team refs allow the home team to have 20 men on the field while the opposition is only allowed 11. The visiting team protests and demands neutrality by the refs. But the home team coach protests: “They have an agenda beyond neutrality. They intend to beat us! And if we give up our advantage, they may proceed to pummel us. They are just using talk of neutrality and fairness to further their real agenda of beating us.”

The fact that we intend to beat you in a fair exchange of ideas in a neutral marketplace of ideas does not mean that neutrality is a flawed premise. Nor can it possibly be used as a weapon to beat you. Neutrality means you have as good a chance of winning the game as we do. Unless of course your ideas suck, then you can be expected to fear and resist neutrality and a fair field. Your fear of neutrality strongly suggests that you do not think your ideas can win in a fair exchange of ideas.

Bottom line: The only way you can say that there is no neutrality is if you have an either/or view. Only in an either/or world is neutrality seen as a flawed premise or non-existent. Because it must be either /or. No middle ground allowed. And you are the one who is insisting that we either endorse you are we are secretly attacking you using a false and non-existent concept of neutrality as a means of attacking you. You are the one pushing an either/or position that refuses to accept a third position of neutrality.

Your either/or worldview also makes you keep overlooking the fact that neutrality can be insisted upon by any “side.” Thus it is a position separate and apart from the debate itself. In my example above, the fathers of the players could come to the coach and insist that, even though they also want to win, they want to play fair and if fair play results in a loss, then so be it. They have no hostile agenda, they are on the same side as the coach as far as who they want to win but they also want fairness and neutrality in the refs. There are Christians who also support government neutrality. Are they not “real Christians” and duped by the Enemy?


1 comment:

  1. You write: "Then they call your item of business and you stand up to ask for a permit to build a Christian church.
    Is that really OK with you? If they deny your permit, will you be able to accept it as an even handed decision instead of an indication of hostility to your religion because it is in opposition to theirs? . . . So am I right? Did your response imply that my scenario is not OK with you?"

    Of course it is not what I would want. But I fail to see the difference between the scenario you suggest which is openly biased against a particular religion and a scenario in which a city council appears to be "neutral" toward religion but who privately use their power to oppose relgious entities from being approved. I would rather have them openly oppose than to oppose behind the cover of "neutrality." At least I would know what I am dealing with.