Saturday, March 31, 2012

Evangelical Eludes Explanation

When you hear the term “evangelical”, you probably get a meaning based on stereotypes associated with the term as it’s invoked in political discourse. The problem that arises from our conceptions of evangelical being derived from politics is that they don’t speak as genuinely as from a religious perspective. I don’t hold this position, and wouldn’t probably even if I was a Christian of any flavor. The Barna Group, which I’ve referenced a few times, is a Christian group that has their own very specific definition that relates to Gallup poll definitions. Gallup’s has three qualifications: 1) Are you “born-again” 2) Do you encourage others to believe in Jesus and 3) Do you believe the Bible is the “Word of God”? Barna, on the other hand, has 9 points that they have derived based on statements from evangelical organizations, including: having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, saying their religious faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Gallup’s alternative method of discerning evangelical demographics was to ask based on whether one considers oneself an evangelical, regardless of agreed upon definitions within Christianity. To be fair, there is no explicit definition of an evangelical in Christianity to begin with. There is a fivefold ministry in some Christian circles, that lists apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists, but these are more roles that a person can take on in the church, though most of the time, if not entirely, this is by God’s decree and plan for one’s life. You can’t just choose to be a prophet or apostle, you have to be called to it. The vague nature of what an evangelical is and the fact that it has only been used to refer to a specific type of Protestant Christianity for about 200 years means that it has had time to develop in many ways, the most obvious of which is the political angle used to characterize certain Christian voters in their positions on social issues and methods of motivating people to vote. As little as I believe in the truth or validity of Christian beliefs or using them to make political decisions, it still intrigues me as a student of religion and compels me to understand and speculate about what might be a third way to understand evangelicals alongside the political and theological ideas already historically developed.

With political evangelicalism, one seems to get an idea of campaigns utilizing evangelical’s social connections through church networks in order to galvanize the voters into action. To say evangelical voters are influenced by their faith is probably not inaccurate, but not to the extent a fundamentalist voter might be. There is a sort of spectrum of Christians, fundamentalism being on the far extreme of one end, liberalism on the other extreme and evangelicalism in the center. Fundamentalism differs from evangelicalism in being more polemic, attacking their opponents, while liberalism differs in that it welcomes its opponents into a dialogue, ecumenical in nature almost. Evangelicalism does not try to demonize its opponents, but it does not fundamentally find anything more than incidental agreement with them, still attempting to convert them. With politics, it seems that evangelicals and fundamentalists overlap uncomfortably in their activism against such things like gay marriage and abortion as the worst social ills in the world and also against their religious convictions and consciences. This is why the older notion of evangelicalism is less familiar to people in general, since politics is more immediate and appealing to us, as it affects the entire country, not merely the area of concern to believers that theological squabbles tend to be. People care more about those things rooted in money and social progress than when they speak of piety and devotion. Perhaps it’s an association with monastics and such, people who take religion more seriously in affirming sacred vows, but if you believe something is relevant to eternity, I would think you should be a bit more concerned about whether you’re right about it or not. I think Pascal put it best in saying we are prone to distract ourselves with various temporary things in order to avoid the responsibility that is pertinent to the eternal. I’m trying to look at this from a more general Christian perspective and according to a survey by the Pew Forum, people want less religious discourse in politics and for good reason. With all this association of religious politicians, religion can get a bad reputation for being too forceful. Evangelicals in particular probably don’t want the label they hold dear used for people that more often than not, reflect fundamentalist ideals in mudslinging opponents and otherwise denigrating detractors on the basis of not being “Christian” enough. People might be justified to try to return to evangelicalism’s roots.

There are four major aspects of religious evangelicalism 1)The need for personal conversion (or being "born again"); 2) A high regard for biblical authority; 3) An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ; and 4) Actively expressing and sharing the gospel. The fourth is what aligns well with political activism and spreading a message through a form of proselytism. The other three are much more religious and based in the traditional movement. Of course, they’re still a bit vague. Being born-again seems to imply some sort of conversion experience, not unlike what one hears about and sees in Pentecostal churches, for example. Biblical authority tends to be divided into two camps: infallibility and inerrancy. The former are more reasonable than the latter, saying the bible is infallible; that is, it will not fail in spiritual matters. This is not to say it might not be wrong as human knowledge increases elsewhere, which is said to be fundamentally irrelevant to matters of salvation. Inerrantists, on the other hand, have a much steeper curve and say the bible is correct in all things, probably taking a cue from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in part, which says scripture is good in all things, though it specifies that it’s good for righteousness, which is pertinent to salvation, not to education about science or the like. Some claim infallibility is actually the more extreme claim, saying the bible cannot err as opposed to claiming it simply has no errors. The major understanding of infallibility appears to be the former idea, that the Bible will not be false on manners of faith and practice. Regardless, the authority of the bible is of such priority that people regard it as something for moral guidance, which is where much of the opposition to various perceived social ills arises from. If it conflicts with the Bible, then it should be opposed.  The relation of Jesus Christ and salvation is also a very contentious issue within Christianity, divided into several camps, the most prominent of which are four variations on substitutionary atonement. The general idea is that Jesus was a sacrifice, a substitute for human sin. The reasons behind the need for this vary in two major areas. The first is Jesus serving as a release of humanity from either Satan’s alleged grasp on humanity because of the Fall being caused by it in snake form or just humanity having original sin for other reasons. The second is Jesus as a sacrifice for one of two reasons, either specifically being punished for humanity’s sins or Jesus’ death serving as restitution to humanity through a sacrifice of a fusion of God and human. If nothing else, Jesus’ death, according to evangelicals, is not to be regarded as anything less than the only mode for salvation, taking the cue from John 14:6, where Jesus says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light and no one comes to the Father but through me,” That claim of uniqueness is definitely reflective with missionary work and speaking to people who have never heard the good news, which is where the term evangelical and evangelism originate from. Eu, meaning good in Greek and angelos, meaning messenger, combine together and Anglicize to replace the u with a v.  As academic and boring as this seems, the importance cannot be overstated. These two vastly different, yet somewhat related, ideas of what an evangelical is still have a strong effect on both political and religious discourse. Once we start to make these distinctions, we can be clearer about what we mean and even find better ways to express those concepts without creating extra qualifications for each.

I was going to suggest a third way to look at it, but it’s more an analysis of the etymology, which I admittedly already did at least partly. There might be a better distinction between evangelical as a quality and evangelist as a title one takes on. The former is simply evangelical in anything, religious or otherwise, so we can apply it to politics as much as missionary work. Evangelists are those spreading a specifically religious message of Jesus Christ and all that. Suffice to say, a simpler idea of what constitutes an evangelical Christian would be actively trying to convert people through proselytizing. But this might not be the best overall method, even if there are moments in the Gospels where Jesus tells his disciples to go from town to town. It is also said in Matthew 7 that you will know true Christians by their fruits, how they behave and what they teach. Perhaps it’s too simplistic to judge a Christian by behavior, but if you are basing your behavior on what is generally and correctly understood to be Jesus’ teachings, you could conceivably influence people to see it as better. I can see good ideas in Jesus’ words as communicated by his disciples, but not so much that I see a need to emulate him for the purposes of saving my soul, which I’ve really never thought we had, even when exposed to imagery in cartoons from a young age in one form or another that suggests such a thing. If evangelicals want people to take them seriously as a religious group and not a political demographic, it would require either a change of their name or an emphasis on what separates them from the political pundits that make such a big storm about politics on a religious basis instead of also considering political philosophy as a basis for their policies and platforms. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Equitable Environmentalism

“The Lorax,” by Doctor Seuss, is a less appreciated work by the author more known for “Cat in the Hat” and the like. But the message in this book about protecting the environment is not so preachy that it doesn’t acknowledge the value of commerce and capitalism in the form of the “antagonist” character, the Once-ler. Even the energy crises we experienced as early as the 70s were foreseen in a sense by the children’s book that speaks about over harvesting fictional trees for a fictional product. Unlike the recent film adaptation, which was preceded by commercials advertising products like cars and waffles associated with the short furry orange main character, the book is simple in its message and doesn’t complicate things with a stock corporate shark antagonist to put the Once-ler in a median position, which isn’t necessary when you consider the whole of the book has the Once-ler speaking in hindsight about his mistake. The message of the book remains important even today with potential new issues, like the limited stock of oil we have, including those veins we haven’t found or harvested yet. In the context of the book, it spoke about our need to be considerate about the environment and taking care not to abuse our relationship with it. If we are expected in any perspective, religious or otherwise, to be stewards of the earth, then it behooves us to not take it for granted and be conscious of our effects upon it. This is not limited to corporate investments that involve nature directly with deforestation or potential pollution through new methods of obtaining coal or oil. The influence of introducing new species into ecosystems unfamiliar with them is also a problem we’ve experienced with kudzu, for just one example. But no one should try to present “The Lorax” as a gloom and doom sort of environmentalism where we are condemned for even trying to utilize nature in new and novel ways that can benefit the human race, as well as all living things in one way or another. There’s research into plants from the Amazon rainforest that could potentially aid in discovering cures for diseases. Environmental consciousness and consideration are not incompatible with industry and development in a free market capitalist system such as ours.

First off, we should talk about the Lorax himself. In the book, he speaks to the Once-ler about how his progressive industrialization and over harvesting of the Truffula trees, from which he makes a Thneed, an all purpose item developed from the tufts of the tree, is a potential problem. At first, it’s harmless enough, but as his family comes in to help him make bigger factories to mass produce the Thneeds, smog makes it difficult for birds in the area to fly and sludge in the water makes it hard on the fish. And cutting down so many trees creates a food shortage of sorts for the local wildlife. Each of these members of the ecosystem is progressively guided out of the area to a new place somewhere else by the Lorax. Eventually, every Truffula tree has been cut down and the Lorax leaves, despondent and disappointed at the rampant greed that came about from the Once-ler’s desire to increase profits. He literally pulls himself by the proverbial seat of his pants and floating into the sky, never to be seen again. There is a stone left behind with a single word carved into it, “unless”, which I’ll talk about soon. At first glance, this does strike people as a bit too preachy in trying to save the trees and the environment. But the Lorax is merely doing what comes naturally to him, being a sort of manifestation of nature given a voice. Nature admittedly doesn’t always consider human ambitions and even those that are moderated by a conscientious effort to preserve and sustain the greatness of the trees, the sky and the water. There is a strong retort by the Once-ler that I’ll speak about post haste, but I don’t want to seem as if I’m picking sides here. Both perspectives are valid here, but both perspectives can only be so in moderation of each other. The Lorax as depicted in the movie, from what I understand, is a bit more forceful and even tries to put the Once-ler in the middle of a lake to sabotage any further attempts to cut down the Truffula. In this sense, the Lorax is out of character from what he was in the book. He didn’t directly intervene, he merely advises the Once-ler to think about what he’s doing.  To become a vigilante environmentalist is to play into the stereotype and send the wrong message to people who might otherwise understand.

The Once-ler represents capitalism and industry in one form or another and thus is portrayed in an initially negative light. He wants to help people at first and, in spite of the Lorax’s skepticism that his product will be popular, it is. This drives him to expand his horizons and make more of them than before. Of course, this sort of practice starts to affect the ecosystem and the animals in it, but the Once-ler doesn’t care, or at the very least, is focusing on profits over process. He does argue in the book that he has a right to start a business and advance his capital as well, but this is not so simple when the business involves the use of resources that are renewable in a limited capacity. Trees don’t renew themselves so quickly, especially with human technology that can cut them down much faster than they can recover. If he exercised some restraint and harvested the trees in a sustainable manner, which he tries to do in the recent film, it might not have been difficult to maintain coexistence with the Lorax. But either through pressure from his family, as in the film, or general desire for more gains in relation to his entrepreneurial goals, the Once-ler ignores the call for self control and continues to expand the business. Eventually, every tree has been cut down and the business collapses, the factory left empty and the Once-ler without any resources. The Lorax leaves and the Once-ler secludes himself at the top of a tower where he contemplates the error of his ways. And he tells the child that asked him about the Lorax and the Truffula trees that the significance of the word carved into the stone left by the Lorax, “unless” relates to the child and their responsibility to take the last Truffula seed, plant it, and keep it safe. As said in the book, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not,”

The book’s call for responsibility and vigilance for any potential risk we might pose in our almost natural tendency towards excess that could threaten nature’s balance is something still very important today, especially as our capacity for destruction has grown. In just over 50 years since “The Lorax” was published, we’ve seen and investigated what we observed and have found that there is some blame we should take in our craving for more than we need and how that affects the only planet we have any chance of surviving on with things as they are in space travel. I don’t want to sound like that stereotypical environmentalist who wants us to sacrifice all the progress we’ve made to save the planet. Earth Day affected me in my desire to be good to the planet, as did Arbor Day, which I’m guilty of not seriously practicing in planting a tree, but the sentiments behind these special days and those that are taught in school even today, I imagine, still remain with me and my desire to both advance humanity and not sacrifice our bond to nature that we still share, separated as we tend to be from it especially these days. We can still develop technology, stimulate our global economy and also preserve the beauty of nature at the same time. The only explicit conflict that would exist is a belief that this world is going to be remade after some sort of end times. If you believe that, why even bother saving the world, since God will just fix everything after the fact? There’s no evidence and no reason to think that our planet and this world is anything more than finite, and that should be motivation enough to keep it from plummeting into disaster any further. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Billboards Brusquely Bashed Or Blocked

In the past two weeks, two atheist groups, American Atheists and the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, have put up three billboards, one of which seems to be fine, another which has been moved to a nearby area because of a refusal to allow it to be put up by a local Jew, and the last which was vandalized not 24 hours after it had been displayed. Already my mind returns to the American Atheists’ patriotic signs which were run in a small segment of thestates they had planned to spread their message last July . While that went somewhat better than this recent series of outreaches to Jews and Muslims along with protests against legislation of 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania, the opposition to it is not so different, though the defaced billboard was a bit more charged with emotion than the one reaching out to many Jews who hold the culture as important, but internally reject the spiritual side of it. Each one of these billboards should be talked about in some detail to explain the circumstances and why atheists should continue to fight back against prejudice that still remains acceptable in this day and age.

The message and image that held the most controversy was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the first in a prepared series of signs that protested the House of Representatives in the state signing a bill that would declare 2012 the “Year of the Bible”. The sign has a picture of a black person in what I can only assume is some ancient device to keep them in bondage. At the top of the billboard is a quote from the bible, specifically Colossians 3:22 “Slaves obey your masters,” Technically this isn’t what the entire verse says. A quick check of a few online bibles yields this as the full text, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord,” The point seems the same; obey your masters all the time and do it because you love God. Apologists for the verse say that Paul, the author of the particular book of the Bible, was talking to a particular group and was not referring to slavery as we understand it today, but something more involved with military conquest. And of course, there is the argument that true Christianity wouldn’t advocate slavery, even though we have historical evidence that devout Christian slave-owners used this verse, among others, to justify their practice for centuries in America. But this is irrelevant and fallacious to the point the verse is establishing: if you are a slave, don’t seek liberation in the physical world, but wait to be liberated by God as you are obedient to it. This is a message of passivity, in contrast to what developed later on in America with black slaves in relation to the Bible. They saw it as a message of liberation and this even inspired people like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to work towards freeing slaves and advocacy of abolishing slavery in this country. But the billboard also had this included to make the point clear about what the message was: “This lesson in Bronze age ethics brought to you by the Year of the Bible and the House of Representatives” Part of what probably inspired people’s indignation at the sign was that it had three parts to it, two of which were easily recognizable and legible even when driving. The third part, the last I mentioned, might have been neglected by many passerby in favor of the image or the quotation of the Bible they most likely hold in high regard. Some people even went so far as to call the billboard a hate crime, which is so painfully ignorant it almost induces a headache. Most of what made this billboard such a controversy is because it was set up in a black neighborhood and, predictably, most of the populace in the area reacted negatively and made this about racial persecution instead of what the billboard was supposed to be about: racism in a supposed holy text. Even if the image was toned down in some way, people might object that the verse wasn’t complete or that the message was still racist, not even realizing that the creators of the sign opposed racism as much as those who reacted with immediate anger at something that admittedly struck them at their core in a sense. But this should not motivate people to commit property damage to make their point. As a local constitutional scholar observed, they could’ve funded a billboard of their own for a month, which is how long the Pennsylvania billboard was supposed to last. This act is just another example of how hypersensitive an issue race still is in our culture, even nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. People will immediately leap to irrational conclusions after incomplete observations of a situation like this and perpetrate the stereotype that black people are always looking for insults to their character, which is partly a stereotype of Jewish people as well, ironically.

The second billboard to have an issue involving it, though not nearly as serious as the first, was in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. American Atheist president David Silverman was there to see it erected, but it didn’t. The cause? The Orthodox Jewish landlord refused, which was admittedly his right. But was it justified? I don’t think so. But coincidentally, the billboard was moved to an area with even more visibility and still relatively near the Jewish demographic the sign is directed towards. The sign in question has the word “God” in Hebrew as well as the phrase “You know it’s a myth…and you have a choice” in both English and Hebrew. At the very least, the Muslim community, including an imam in the area, had no problem with the sign in their area, with the same words and message in Arabic. This would no doubt surprise many alarmists about Muslims trying to infiltrate America in some insidious way. Overall, the development is a sign that atheists are making some headway in being respected by parts of the religious community.

But there is something to be said about one billboard being vandalized and another one subtly protested and then ironically making itself more well known. If people would just ignore atheists, then they wouldn’t get such good publicity, so in a sense, even negative attention is welcome if only to get the activism noticed and recognized by the public at large. So in the grand scheme of things, American Atheists and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers got the message across, even if many found it offensive, which is inevitable no matter how simple the message is. Even if you simply try to communicate that atheists believe murder is bad, someone will spin it in a way that makes them seem better or makes atheists seem bad by comparison, such as associating us with Joseph Stalin, as if we’re the same as a power mad dictator. The plan is still to do at least 8 to 24 more billboards, likely in other areas in the coming months, protesting the Year of the Bible. If people realized that the Bible is not such a perfect text at all then maybe they’d realize how wasteful it is to declare this year special and give it the ignominious mark of being associated with such a book of twisted morality as the Bible. Not to mention, shouldn’t you want to keep your holy text sacred and not denigrate it by using it as a political tool? Two strikes against this on both sides, methinks it should be supported by both sides too. Until next time, Namaste and aloha

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Catholics, Contraception and Conscience

I will preface by saying I know this isn’t solely a Catholic issue, but it has been Catholics who have made this a big issue over time. They are, from what I understand, still the single largest Christian demographic in the country, though I wonder how much of it is exaggerating statistics by considering even lapsed or apostate Catholics along with the ones who actually go to mass and confession regularly on the records? Contraception is not an issue that is opposed on ethical grounds by merely Catholics, though they do take it to a “logical” conclusion that it should not be done according to their very strict notion of what sexuality is ordained for by “God”. There are no doubt many Protestants who oppose teaching contraception use in school because it supposedly encourages promiscuity, but they have no fundamental opposition to the use of it in contexts such as marriage. Catholicism, however, has a very narrow permission for the use of birth control, specifically oral birth control, such as the use for medical reasons, like irregular periods or amenorrhea, where periods don’t come when you should be having them or dysmenorrhea, where periods cause pain that interferes with daily life.  The issue of whether insurance providers should be mandated to provide birth control is an issue that gets into whether contraception is considered basic medical care, which is an issue of insurance agents splitting hairs and thus not entirely an issue of government overstepping its bounds in terms of first amendment rights of free religious exercise so much as private entities taking too much liberty with the independence they have.

What is at issue in my mind is that one’s individual freedom of conscience should not be overridden by a group’s supposed freedom of conscience. Like public schools and prayer, individual students have the right to pray, but the school does not, especially since it constitutes government entanglement with religion. A college funded by the government in part has no real say in terms of denying coverage, but even private institutions are crossing a bit of a line in declaring that individuals who are in need of birth control for various health reasons or even just to stay safe in having intercourse cannot have it because the school opposes it on religious grounds.  It’s not as if they probably don’t have at least a partial justification for limiting insurance support for birth control through their own provider. This necessitates bringing up the free market economy of insurance coverage that can make your head spin, no doubt. You can get coverage from an insurer who will pay for your birth control under their plan and the problem is solved. As long as the school, such as a Catholic one, is not forcing people to get their healthcare insurance, then things are good. Sandra Fluke, insulted as an individual by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, might be overstepping boundaries of individual rights by asking a school to provide birth control through their healthcare plan to everyone. It’s one thing to bring up her examples of women, some of which are Catholic, who’ve had severe reproductive health problems and could’ve solved them through birth control paid for by the school for medical reasons, but the government paying for contraception as a whole might be construed as encouraging open sex, even if it’s safe sex. The distinction between this and the school teaching contraception is that the school is in an educational context, whereas the government just paying through healthcare for safe sex is a bit more grand of a scale than telling students that they should be safe with sex when they may not know better otherwise. Grown adults should be expected to pay for birth control if they can manage it and be responsible without the support of the government. Impoverished groups might be under consideration to get coverage by the government in a similar way as people are in terms of other problems resulting from their poverty that the government can aid with in some way.

The crux of the issue still lies with the fault of people thinking a school can make declarations based on religious ideas instead of leaving that to the parents and individual students. Private educational systems can place reasonable limits upon people as they have certain individual expectations based on their school ideals, but denying coverage through their healthcare plan to all people because of a religious objection is patently absurd, on the level of denying people an abortion if it will save the woman’s life, which happened with a nun from Arizona who was excommunicated from the Church for approving of an abortion for a woman who was having partial heart failure and, if she had continued the pregnancy, would likely have died. For the Catholic Church, known for advocating a more consistent pro life position in terms of opposing the death penalty, aiding the impoverished and otherwise preserving life as much as possible overall, to oppose an abortion that would save a person’s life, admittedly at the expense of what they consider to be an innocent life, seems quite unconscionable. The principle appears consistent at first, but if some isolated incident conflicts with what are generally accepted ideas of “protecting life”, they will apparently allow two lives to be taken away by their God instead of sacrificing one to allow the quality of the other’s life to be improved and continue. The incident in the Southwest involved an 11 week old fetus, not even remotely viable outside the womb. If it had been viable, aborting it could’ve easily been decried as against the Catholic Church’s ideal of maintaining life throughout its span, but not so in this particular circumstance. It’s the inconsistency of the Church’s position in terms of many things, including IVF, which I spoke about in “Family Planningand Fertility Procedures”  that creates the issue here. No one is contesting that Catholics can refuse to get an insurance provider who allows contraception to be covered, but it’s a bit pointless to refuse something if it’s otherwise affordable healthcare. You don’t have to get the contraception, so it’s a vicarious objection to the mere presence of an insurance company paying for birth control if you yourself do not use it. A lot of this is splitting hairs in terms of how much one’s religious objections should matter in terms of what is a national matter of healthcare and thus affects people of no religion or faith as much as it does those of faith, and even those who believe are divided about this issue. Strict opposition to birth control is only common in Catholicism, from what I understand, whereas virtually all Protestant groups have no real issue with people using it, though they might be particular about using it in marriage instead of “fornicating” as it were. The technicality is still there in terms of stigmatizing premarital sex, but using birth control is not considered a sin perse in Protestant theology so much as they would consider it sinful to have sex before marriage, which is ridiculous for reasons I could talk about in the future.

Let’s assume for a moment that birth control falls under basic care, though there is obviously a counter argument against this; that elective birth control, used in a context of sex outside of marriage in many cases, is not the same thing as essential birth control, used for medical reasons that are incidentally preventing pregnancy, but also maintaining reproductive health. But if birth control is a basic health right on the same level as regular vaccinations against diseases that we have covered by insurance, then the government has no real secular argument as to why they shouldn’t do so. Since birth control in the form of condoms prevents STDs to a great extent, it is not outside of reason to suggest that it is a form of basic healthcare, along with the birth control pill, used for many reasons beyond preventing pregnancy, which in itself is not something we should take lightly on the level of a common cold that we’ll just “get over”. Some women are biologically unsuitable for pregnancy and would have severe complications by even carrying the child. I know these are isolated incidents, but without knowing specifics of every person, why not lean on the side of safety and prevention instead of taking unnecessary risks with women, as if they are expendable because they could die from pregnancy or birth, but they also could bring a new life into the world? That is a disgusting perspective on women, who are much more than their reproductive potential or even their child rearing potential apart from having biological children of their own. If women are truly to be treated as equals sexually, they should be permitted to have control over their own reproduction, so as not to be bound by what amounts to a patriarchal system that restrains them by a notion that they cannot be expected to have sex without the possibility of having a child. That antiquated idea should be tossed out along with any sort of notion that women cannot do virtually all jobs that men can do, as long as they are qualified by skills and education. We do not need to handle women like they are glass, treat them as equals and they will show what is under the surface of what we perceive them to be, independent, capable and responsible. Until next time, Namaste and aloha

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Blasphemy Is Not A Legal Matter

Last year in a Halloween parade in Pennsylvania, Ernest Perce V, the director of the state’s American Atheists chapter, dressed as a zombie prophet Mohammed and was assaulted by a Muslim man who thought it was against the law in America to insult Mohammed; or any religion for that matter, since he admitted he would’ve done the same thing had Jesus been depicted as the undead. Last month, Judge Mark Martin dismissed the case on two grounds. The first was that there was reasonable doubt, which is questionable considering he conveniently denied the use of video evidence Perce brought forth. Perhaps because he had posted it on Youtube it was considered inadmissible; I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like a loophole that shouldn’t exist. The second reason is far more heinous and an unjust abuse of power. The attack was implied to have been provoked because, apparently, Ernest Perce brought it on himself by insulting Talaag Elbayomy’s religion. I wonder if this would’ve gotten such a free pass in terms of unlawful behavior based on ignorance of the law if a Christian did the same thing? That’s highly unlikely, though it’s not outside of possibility for someone to claim a similar insult to a person’s identity even though it’s protected by Supreme Court precedent set in various contexts, including a decision a year or so ago involving Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest at funerals, however lowbrow and despicable their message may be. Blasphemy should not be regarded as outside of first amendment rights anymore than flag burning should, which, according to Texas v. Johnson, falls under the right to free speech.

Part of the problem is the judge’s apparent favoritism towards a foreigner who, while ignorant of laws regarding blasphemy’s legality under the constitution, is somehow still sympathetic because of the judge’s previous experience of the Muslim people for many years in the Middle East in military service. This is immaterial to whether the man broke a law. The dismissal of video evidence on a technicality doomed the case, since the attacker seemed to have waffled on his initial testimony versus what he claims he did under oath. According to the officer who took both their accounts on the night of the assault, Elbayomy admitted he tried to rip off Perce’s sign and put his hands on him. But then he claimed in court that he did not. The problem of potential perjury and the judge throwing out the officer’s testimony aside, the excuse Talaag gives in the audio Ernest Perce has posted on Youtube under the username eperce, is that he was very emotionally agitated. This is not even close to an acceptable excuse for committing a crime. The culpability may go down in some way, because he may not have been in a state of mind where he could realize he was doing something wrong, even by Muslim standards, from what I understand. Even threatening someone with violence could be said to constitute a morally questionable act if we’re going with the idea Jesus put forth that even calling someone a fool is akin to murder in your heart, let alone even making physical contact that had the intent to harm a person. And trying to say that the person brought it on themselves by offending your religious sensibilities is ridiculous.

The law does not protect you from being offended and it certainly doesn’t protect religion from being criticized, satirized and otherwise poked fun at. To say we can protect the rights of Christian fundamentalists to say gay people, along with any American soldier or person who even remotely agrees with gay rights or the like, is going to hell and also protect the supposed right of a Muslim man to attack someone because they insult any prophet, not only Mohammed, but Jesus as well as others, is unconscionable. Speech is protected to a greater extent because it doesn’t automatically equate to any potential violation of rights. Physical actions tend much more towards violence or other abuses of force by law enforcement officials.  There cannot be a distinction of attacks motivated by secular fervor and those coming from religious devotion of some form or another, especially if one is excused on the grounds that the person attacked provoked the assailant in some sense and thus is more culpable than the attacker. The palpable and troubling comparison to rape victims cannot be avoided. We have started to grow away from blaming the woman or man for being sexually assaulted because they were being suggestive in some sense and actually persecute those who committed the horrific acts against people to satisfy some disturbed sense of pleasure.

But religion still occupies such a protected space in society that criticizing it continues to bring forth cries of oppression from the majority of people in this country. How am I oppressing you when I am not remotely in power even in terms of my vote compared to your groups’? Hundreds of Christians can vote against something I vote for and the democratic system doesn’t automatically protect me because so many people take majority rule at face value and ignore any sort of provisions for the minority to not have their rights violated. You can easily collectively ignore my blasphemy and impiety towards whatever deity you worship. I could ignore your misguided and mistaken ideas about atheists, however common and viral they tend to be, because I value the exchange of ideas in society, even if they’re patently idiotic as ones that many espouse about atheists. That’s what makes America especially unique: we protect people’s right to be offensive as long as they are not directly infringing on the rights of other people. If I poke fun at Jesus, would you really be offended? There are plenty of things I could do that might raise your ire, but none of them would be grounds to attack me in any way or claim that you have been offended at your core, no matter how serious you take Jesus. Perhaps many Christians can take offensive and satirical depictions of Jesus less seriously because it’s been happening for decades in one form or another, at least since the 60s or so, if I had to guess. Muslims have not experienced such offense to their religion and maybe they should start being exposed to it more and more. Of course there are those that call for the deaths of people who do it, but to cower before their threats of violence, like I said in “South Park and Muslim Censorship”, is to give them more power than they deserve. Censorship is not justifiable in virtually any situation except when it becomes demonstrably damaging to children, which isn’t so with telling them about gay people as legislators in Tennessee are suggesting with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which is still being pushed in spite of the likely delay. And censoring irreligious, nay anti religious speech, creates more issues, especially in terms of exposing people to perspectives that they disagree with, but can nonetheless tolerate to the limits we’ve established already about free speech.

The worst part of this is that the judge is not even Muslim, which might’ve opened up a can of worms itself. Martin claims to be a Lutheran, though the audio from the trial actually suggests the contrary; Martin affirms that he is a Muslim. Though I wonder, if he is a Lutheran, why he would take up a cause of supporting a religion that, if he looked into it even slightly more than superficially, does not regard Christianity or Judaism as equals and claims in the end days that even the trees will betray them to Muslims if they do not submit to their rule (though this particularly seems to be concerned with Jews from what I remember, especially “bad” ones). Jesus is, ironically, one of those who will overthrow the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist, Dajjal.  The point is, Mark Martin’s partiality to a Muslim based on religious sincerity is irrelevant. He even suggests Muslims take their religion more seriously than Christians. The main reason for this is that Islam has not had any sort of serious reformation as Christianity did with Luther, severing the authority of tradition and legalism, focusing instead on the scriptures as well as affirming belief and the believer as the focus, not a priestly medium between the devout and God.  Just because Muslims take religion more seriously, just as there are fundamentalist Christians of a similar ilk in America, does not grant them any right to flout the law that prevents them from assaulting people because they blaspheme something sacred to them. Even such a thing as burning the Koran, which was done even after Pastor Terry Jones promised he wouldn’t, which I spoke about in “Bible Based Book Burning Backfires”, is not illegal, but offensive to a particular group at best. In a sense, I support Terry Jones’ burning of a holy book, though his justification was equally irrational compared to the beliefs in the text he condemned so strongly. When a Christian judge tries to gain favor with Muslims in protecting them because he somehow “understands” them after being in their country in a military context, the claims that Sharia law is being protected are not completely off. Furthermore, the judge did not have to insult Perce’s intelligence as he did, calling him a “doofus”, which places him at the maturity of a 12 year old instead of a grown adult. Overall, this was a poor decision and a misuse of judicial power by someone who places the limits of first amendment rights far too narrowly and trying to be politically correct in a world that cannot and should not be so. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.