Saturday, July 27, 2013

School-Sponsored Prayer: What's the Harm?

Last night I didn't feel like reading, especially not the geeky books I usually read. But there wasn't much else to do. So I watched a geeky video. It was an old Bill Moyers interview, from 1987, called God and the Constitution. Moyers talks to Dr. Martin Marty, a Christian and an expert on the religious views of the founders, and Leonard Levy, a Jewish constitutional scholar who edited The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. All three men are stunningly smart, and I urge everyone to watch it (you can stream it for 3 bucks on, or watch it for free if you have a library card and your local library has Access Video on Demand).

The part that struck me the most was Dr. Levy talking about school-sponsored prayer. (Not voluntary student prayer, which is protected by the First Amendent. I want to make clear nobody is saying kids shouldn't be allowed to pray on their own at school.) Levy offers one of the most powerful and personal arguments I've ever heard for keeping official prayers out of schools. It's more impressive if you watch the video, but here's the transcript:
Moyers: What about school prayer?  
Levy: I think that the state should not promote or sponsor religion.  
Moyers: But there are prayers and "prayers." You grew up in De Kalb, Illinois, right?  
Levy: I did.  
Moyers: 20 Years ago in De Kalb the court said the cookie prayer was unconstitutional.  
Levy: I forgot that it came out of De Kalb!  
Moyers: "We thank you for the flowers so sweet, we thank you for the food we eat, we thank you for the birds that sing we thank you, God, for everything." The court declared it unconstitutional even though the teacher took out the word "God".  
Levy: She did, but the court didn't quite declare it unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court won't agree to review a case, they allow the lower court decision to stand. If that's how you construe it--which is reasonable--yes, the court, in effect, upheld that.  
Moyers: Now, do you think the founding fathers would have thought that little verse an establishment of religion?  
Levy: I think not, but... to begin with, that's a prayer being said in the public school. The founding fathers had no position with respect to this because public schools as we know them did not exist. Prayers do not belong in public schools even though they are sterilized, as in the cookie prayer which is non-denominational, and doesn't even refer to God. I agree with you that religious liberty would not be imperiled if children said the cookie prayer in the public schools.  
Moyers: The teacher said she was only trying to instill a sense of wonder in the children--to make them appreciative of the world around them and of the divine being that made that world. She wasn't trying to persuade or to indoctrinate them.  
Levy: These cases are very complex. That's why the court divides so closely and so frequently. When you say that that teacher wanted to inspire children with a sense of wonderment and you referred to her talking about a supreme being, that is a religious statement. You and I may believe it but there are people who don't believe it. 
Moyers: You think the First Amendment protects atheists?  
Levy: Of course it does! The First Amendment protects religion and non-religion. There are people who are not theists who are in our public schools by the thousands. There are people who are not Christians or Jews or Muslims and they ought not be exposed to that cookie prayer which alludes to a divine being who allegedly created the world. You think so and I think so, but there are people who don't think so and they shouldn't be made to feel like outsiders, as if they don't belong, as if this is not their country. It's their country as much as it is ours. 
Moyers: If I remember correctly you refused to take part in prayers in De Kalb, Illinois, when you were a boy there--1935, 1936. What happened when you said "I can't participate in that prayer."  
Levy: What happened? Well, I was ostracized. No, more than that--I was persecuted. They beat me up regularly as I went home from school. Gangs of kids would jump out and beat the hell out of me and call me a "Jew bastard" and "Christ killer." I loved to play softball, and I was kept off the team. "No kikes on our team," was the motto which had, by the way, some sponsorship from the faculty. When religion is introduced directly into the public schools there is a price that may very well be paid by people who are different. There have often been times when persecution was visited upon children who wouldn't participate in the public school rituals of religion.
Powerful stuff. Of course, the thirties were a very different time, and I don't think that kind of thing would happen to Jewish kids these days. At least not as commonly and openly. But kids can be very cruel when they decide to single out another kid, mobbing them like a bunch of crows. And I can certainly imagine them abusing a Hindu or Sikh kid, or especially a Muslim or atheist kid, for declining to participate in Christian prayers. Even if they didn't (and most often they wouldn't), that kid would be put in a very, very uncomfortable situation. Now, some people will say that this doesn't apply in overwhelmingly Christian areas. But it does. I'm from a small, white, Protestant town smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, but there were a handful of Hindu and Muslim kids even there, and probably more than a handful of non-religious kids. The Hindu and Muslim kids were younger than me, and I don't know if they were ever harassed because of their religion. If so, I would think it was probably minor. But I might be wrong, and I'm pretty sure they would have had a tougher time if they had been put in the position of deciding whether or not to say prayers along with the Christian kids. That could have opened up a can of worms. So why open it? Leaving official prayer and other religious observances out of school keeps the problem from ever arising, or at least from arising because of school policy. And besides, Dr. Levy is right. It's their country, too.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Dog and the Hitchhiker: A Ghost Story

Last night I went to see a horror movie called the Conjuring. It wasn't the best I've ever seen, but it gave me a couple of literal shivers, so I guess it got the job done. It's one of those "Based on True Events" horror movies, in the tradition of The Amityville Horror. In fact, two of the main characters are Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life "demonologists" who also worked the case that The Amityville Horror was based on (rather loosely, it seems). In The Conjuring, the Warrens are nice, normal-seeming people, whose work just happens to require them to battle unclean spirits. Ed is a strapping, God-fearing, all-American kind of guy with a bit of a swagger, while Lorraine is unassuming and fearless. They're the heroes of the movie, which makes it clear they've fought their good fight in spite of all those skeptics who scoffed at them

Now, as anyone who reads the blog knows, I'm one of those skeptics. I figure there's no such thing as the supernatural, in either the religious or the New Age sense. Angels, demons, fairies, auras, and psychic phenomena all seem equally unreal to me. But I'm an open-minded skeptic, and I honestly don't think that's an oxymoron. If someone can give me hard evidence that I'm wrong, then I'll change my mind. Besides, I hate seeming like the wet blanket skeptic from some horror movie (especially since those guys usually get killed off rather horribly). Besides, I like a good ghost story as much as anyone else, and I've had a few odd experiences in my life too.

Have you ever felt like you had a premonition, or thought a coincidence was too unlikely to have happened by chance? I have. In my 41 years, I've had exactly three such experiences. The first was just silly. I was about 16, and my dad had me clearing brush on a lot he owned. I decided to walk to the motel in the next lot and get a Coke out of the machine, so I pulled the change out of my pocket--three quarters. I glanced at them there in my palm, and something possessed me to throw them all on the ground. They all came up heads, and they were all from 1967...pretty old quarters, even then. That's a pretty weird coincidence, for all kinds of reasons. What are the chances they would all be from the same year and come up heads? And what made me want to throw them on the ground? I never do that. Anyway, I looked at them, thought, "Wow, that's freaky", and went and spent them on my Coke. If they were lucky magic quarters, somebody else has them now. Maybe I should have waited for the beanstalk to sprout.

The second freaky coincidence happened on April 11, 2007. I was at my parents' house in Arkansas, and I woke up thinking about Kurt Vonnegut. That was odd, because I hadn't thought about him in years. He had been my absolute favorite author when I was in my late teens, but I was 35 in 2007. I was lying there thinking, "He's getting really old now. He surely won't live much longer." Then I got up and went downstairs, and my mom said, "Well I just heard on the radio that Kurt Vonnegut died." Later that day my sister, who was also visiting, looked at me and said, "So, Mom told me how you killed Kurt Vonnegut this morning."

That's two freaky, pseudo-psychic experiences in 40 years. They were pretty strange coincidences, but I honestly think they were just that--coincidences. Forty years is long enough for a few coincidences to happen just by chance. People do draw royal flushes every now and then, and that's explainable by statistics. Magic isn't necessary.

But let me tell you my ghost story. Or maybe it was just another dream, even though I was half-awake at the time. Whatever it was, for years afterward, my scalp would prickle every time I told the story. It was March 25, 1989, and I had turned 17 a few days before. That was the heyday of hair metal bands, and Cinderella was coming to Little Rock, which is 90 minutes south of my hometown. I wasn't a Cinderella fan myself, but my friend Dave was, and he made me a deal--if I drove, he would buy the tickets for both of us. That sounded good to me. Going to the big city without grownups was a big deal then, and David and I had a grand time.

We must have gone to eat after the concert, because it was around 2:00 AM when we finally headed home. By the time we got back to the foothills of the Ozarks, where the road gets curvy, Dave was asleep, and I was fighting to keep my eyes open. That's when saw a big, beautiful collie walking down the side of the road. We were nowhere near a town, or even a visible house. I wondered vaguely what it was doing out there, but I was too sleepy to think straight. So I kept on driving.

Then, after a couple more miles, I saw another, identical collie on the side of the road...just trotting along like the last one. That struck me as very odd, but once again, I was too sleepy to think about it much. So I kept on driving, curving down into a steep little valley toward the old Cadron Creek bridge.

Just as I started descending, I saw that collie again. There it was, on the side of the road, dead and decomposing.

That's when a little jolt of fear finally broke through the sleepiness. But I kept driving. Then, just as I hit that layer of cold air you find in those little valleys at night, I saw a hitchhiker. He was a couple hundred yards in front of me, and he just stepped out into the road like he didn't see my headlights. But he didn't seem to be getting closer to me, even though I was going pretty fast. As soon as I realized how strange that was--just before I crossed the bridge--the laws of physics kicked in again, and he was right in front of me. Looking across the hood of my car, right at me. And then he was gone.

I hit the gas and roared out of the valley, pulled over, and shook Dave until he woke up. "You've got to help me stay awake, man, I'm seeing things!" We drove a few more miles and stopped at an all-night convenience store. I got out and did jumping jacks to try to wake up, and then we headed on home.

The strange thing is, the whole thing startled me, but it didn't seem truly scary until the first time I told the story, and felt the hair on the back of my head stand up. But that stopped happening after a few years, and it just became a good spooky tale to tell. I still think I was just falling asleep at the wheel, and dreaming while I was half-awake. That's a much simpler explanation than ghostly hitchhikers, to say nothing of ghostly collie dogs.

But it's not like I know everything, and it's a weird old world, whether there's a supernatural or not. I hadn't thought much about that story for years, until today, when I was thinking about that movie last night. I was trying to find the real story it was supposedly based on, and ended up finding some creepy, sad articles about "exorcisms" performed by real clergymen. I was thinking about how different my naturalistic view is from someone who truly believes in demon possession. So much less scary. So I started thinking about my "paranormal" experiences, and decided it was finally time to write about them.

But then, as soon as I got home from work, I got a message on Facebook from my old friend Dave. He had attached a picture of his ticket from that concert, 24 years ago. "Remember this?" he said, "I kept the ticket stubs to every concert I ever went, what a crazy night!"

So, my third freaky "psychic" experience in 41 years was earlier today, just as I was getting ready to write this story for the first time. I don't know if it makes me or Dave seem like the psychic one, but it's pretty strange either way. In the three years or so that we've been friends on Facebook, how did he happen to send me a picture of that ticket today? If it's been roughly 1,000 days, that means the odds are 1/1,000. I know a few long shots like that are almost certain to happen in 41 years, statistically speaking. But who knows? It's still a weird old world.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Philosophy is Not Optional

Last night I picked up a book on philosophy written for undergrads. It's a good book, but certainly no late night page-turner. Nevertheless, one of the first lines jumped off the page and slapped me. It said:

Philosophy is not an optional experience in your life.

"Wow," I thought, "That's true." But what struck me about that statement isn't that it's not optional for me. I've never been able to resist pondering the big mysteries in life. What's striking is that it's not optional for anybody. Nobody can go through life without facing some of life's big questions and deciding how they're going to answer them. Consider the idea of economic justice: the question of who deserves what in society. How you vote depends on how you answer that philosophical question. Is it right to tax wealthier people to give poorer people a bigger slice of the pie? Why or why not? To what extent do the wealthy deserve their wealth? Does it matter whether they inherited it or earned it by being smart and hardworking? If it does, to what extent do people deserve credit for being smart? If some people are simply born smarter, do they deserve to be wealthier based on an accident of birth? Why or why not?

These are all tough questions, which is why people still argue about them. And they're just some of the philosophical questions we can't avoid, either individually or as a society. On the individual level, suppose a friend asks what you think about his new, expensive car. You think it might be the ugliest thing on four wheels. Should you be honest, or should you tread lightly on his ego and say it's great, since he can't return it anyway? That's a philosophical issue, but a fairly trivial one. Most of us will have to face far bigger ones someday. For example, we may have to decide whether a dying family member should be taken off life support. That's not idle dorm room philosophy. How you decide that particular philosophical issue is literally a matter of life and death. Even if you believe the right answer is provided by religion, and can be looked up in the Bible, you still have to weigh philosophical issues. How do you decide which interpretation of the Bible is correct, or example? If different Christian denominations have different answers, how do you decide which one is right? If a non-Christian asks you why he should accept what the Bible says, how do you respond? It won't do any good to say, "Because the Bible says so." You need to provide independent reasons. In other words, you're back to philosophy.

Actually, though, maybe it's not philosophy that's not optional. What's really not optional is facing big philosophical questions and making decisions about them. Actually engaging in philosophy--in hard thinking about those questions--might be optional, because some people make decisions without thinking. They may never question their intuitions, or just automatically apply rules from the ideology, culture, or religion they grew up with. We can't avoid facing life's big questions, but we can avoid really thinking about them, if that's what we really want to do. But most people, I hope, don't really want to do that. Most people like to think they can back up their opinions with solid reasons for believing them.

But oftentimes, they can't. They think what they think because they grew up thinking it, or because their friends or family think that way, or because they just feel in their guts that one answer is right. Those clearly aren't adequate reasons, because they can all lead to false beliefs. Some people "just know in their guts" that men are superior to women. Their guts are wrong. Young Vikings grew up believing that Thor caused thunderstorms. They grew up mistaken. Their dear old Viking mamas and daddies were wrong.

This means that if we want to be able to back up our opinions with real reasoning, not just appeals to authority, tradition, or gut feelings, that's when philosophy isn't optional. That's why people need to learn a little about philosophy, because philosophers really have clarified some of these questions. To take a currently contentious example, many people who oppose gay marriage do so based on two arguments 1. God says it's wrong, as shown in certain Bible verses 2. It's not natural (it goes against the laws of nature or God's plan). The first is the Divine Command theory of ethics, and the second is a Natural Law theory. But here's the thing--philosophers have discovered serious logical problems with both of those theories, which have caused most to abandon them. The Divine Command theory runs into the Euthyphro Dilemma, and Natural Law arguments run into many objections, one of which is: Who says what's natural is good? Many male mammals kill babies of their species who aren't theirs. Does that mean infanticide is right?

The fact that philosophers have mostly rejected Divine Command and Natural Law theories of ethics doesn't mean those theories are wrong, but it does mean it's worth taking a critical look at both of them. If you want to defend either one adequately, you need to know what the objections are. They may not be convincing to you, but they certainly aren't trivial. Some of those philosophers were pretty smart people, after all, and some of the big questions they've wrestled with are questions we can't avoid. It might be possible to avoid thinking about those questions--to avoid doing philosophy, in other words--but it certainly isn't wise. If we want to be able to say our beliefs about some of life's most crucial questions are based on solid reasoning, then philosophy just isn't optional.


The Voyage of Discovery: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy / William Lawhead

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cartoon Thinking

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes I think the public's intellectual sophistication in the past few decades has been inversely proportional to the sophistication of its video games. Video games have become high-resolution, near-photorealistic affairs, while the thoughts you see expressed online have regressed to the level of Pong--black and white, unsophisticated, and not very impressive. 

I know this is probably an illusion. I doubt people are really less mentally sophisticated than they were 30 years ago, though they might be more polarized and have shorter attention spans. It's mostly just that people's thoughts are now on display, so we can see them in a way we never could before. And it's not a pretty sight. 

The rudeness, the fear and loathing, and the lack of logic can be pretty discouraging. But what I want to focus on here is something a little different: the lack of complexity and nuance. I've started calling it cartoon thinking. People take complex, multidimensional realities and simultaneously simplify and exaggerate them, turning them into a caricature of the real thing. They do this with individuals (Obama wants to destroy America), with groups (Tea Partiers are all racists), with ideologies (If it's not capitalism, it's socialism), and with ethics and loyalty (You're either with us or you're with the terrorists). This kind of low-resolution thinking won't cut it. It's like trying to watch high-definition movies on a 1992 Apple Macintosh. It won't give you a clear enough picture, because reality is complicated.

People, for example, are complicated. Barring a few true psychopaths, pure heroes and pure villains mostly just exist in fiction. Very few people are all one or all the other, and lots of people are both at different times in their lives, or in different areas of their lives. As much as I admire some things about Thomas Jefferson, for example, the man owned slaves, and even fathered children with one of them. Was he a towering historical figure with a phenomenal intellect, or a slave-owning bigot who thought women and blacks were inferior beings? He was all those things. People are multi-faceted, and just won't fit in a nutshell. Walt Whitman's description of himself fits most people, to some extent: "I am large. I contain multitudes." Granted, Joe Sixpack down the street may not be as large and multitudinous as Jefferson or Whitman, but he's still more complex than he seems.

Categories are complex things, too. We talk about groups of things or people as though they were all alike and had hard and fast boundaries, but many of them don't. You hear people say things like, "Men are more prone to violence than women". Well, that's certainly true on average, but a more accurate way of thinking about it is to imagine two bell curves. If we plotted the propensity for violence from left to right, then the curve for women will be to the left of the curve for men. They may not be exactly bell-shaped, but one thing is certain--the two curves overlap. Even if men are more violence-prone on average than women, some women are far more violent than the average man, and some men less violence-prone than the average woman. Most men, thank goodness, are not nearly as violent as Bonnie Parker or Lizzy Borden. This is why it's wrong--both ethically and logically--to judge a single individual in a group by statistical characteristics of that group as a whole.

Categories very often have fuzzy boundaries, too. It's silly to try to decide definitively if the Chevy El Camino was a car or a truck. It was a little of both. For that matter, some people with odd numbers of sex chromosomes are not exactly male or female. They're somewhere in the middle, or possibly even their own category. It's not always either/or.

Ideologies and economic systems also have fuzzy boundaries, though people seem to forget it. In the last few years, it's becoe common to hear people talk as though capitalism and socialism were on opposite sides of a canyon, with nothing but a gaping abyss in between. Any deviation from pure free market capitalism gets called socialism these days, as though if you're farther left than Milton Friedman you must see eye-to-eye with Lenin. But that's ridiculous. There are all kinds of shades of grey between pure capitalism and pure socialism, and no country on earth is all one or all the other. It's not like an on/off switch; it's more like a continuous dial (and the correct setting is somewhere in between, in my opinion). 

To speak accurately about individuals, groups, categories, and ideologies, then, we can't make sweeping generalizations of the sort that fit on bumper stickers (well...generally speaking). Reality is complicated, so our thoughts need to be complicated enough to do it justice. Take patriotism, for example. The other day in an online discussion, I mentioned how I didn't care for the practice of requiring children to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I maintained that people give it too much weight, as though it were a founding document like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. It isn't. It was written by a Christian socialist in 1892 as part of a campaign by a children's magazine to sell a bunch of flags to schools. "Under God" wasn't added until the height of the red scare in 1954 (though it does come from the Gettysburg Address--Lincoln seems to have inserted it on the fly in his speech). I'm not at all sure that people like James Madison or Thomas Jefferson would have approved of affirming our freedoms by requiring kids to stand up and recite a pledge in unison. That is a little contradictory, after all.

The response to this was, "So we should throw out patriotism too, since it's all a joke!?!?!?" (Don't even get me started on the excessive punctuation.) Apparently her reasoning was, "He has problems with the Pledge of Allegiance, therefore he thinks we should get rid of patriotism". Which is wrong. She was engaging in cartoon thinking, assuming that my views are more extreme and less nuanced than they actually are. The fact is, I couldn't describe my view of patriotism in less than a couple of pages, because it's pretty complex. I might even have to use compound sentences, like, "Yes, we should support our troops and respect their bravery and sacrifice, but we should also question the necessity of something as horrible as war." Of course I love my country and want what's best for it. I have the deepest admiration for most of the principles in our actual founding documents, and would fight to defend my country if it necessary. But I also know patriotism can become a kind of violent, exclusive nationalism, and that sort of thing has caused a lot of terrible things. I also know that questioning people's patriotism is a popular method of enforcing conformity and suppressing dissent. Patriotism has often been, as Samuel Johnson said, "The last refuge of a scoundrel". 

I could go on describing all the nuances of my idea of patriotism, but I'll spare you. The point is that it's very complicated, because the realities surrounding patriotism are very complicated. Lots of people will disagree with me, thinking patriotism ought to be simple. "I'm a patriot, no ifs, ands or buts about it". Well, sorry, but those ifs ands and buts are necessary. Of course, I understand why people shy away from more subtle, less decisive thinking. They think that if we get too caught up describing every nuance, or weighing every pro and con, we'll get bogged down and lose our clear vision of right and wrong, or our ability to stop thinking and take action. That is a legitimate concern. It happens, and sometimes you do have to stop thinking and say, "No, I have to draw my line here". But the flip side of that (you knew there would be a flip side in an essay like this, right?) is that people draw those lines too quickly, thinking that the task of understanding what's true and right is easier than it really is. We shouldn't fall into an endless cycle of hand-wringing, but at the same time, we also shouldn't succumb to mindless knee-jerking and cartoon thinking. Life is too complicated for that.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Right Good Beating

Earlier today I rode my bicycle up to a four-way stop, let a car cross, and then started to pedal again. But then the truck behind that car roared through the intersection and cut me off. It stopped in front of me, and the guy inside leered at me, like, "What are you going to do about it, bike man?"

Now, I'm not a very aggressive guy. Far below average, I'd say. But I'm a guy for all that, and prone to guy-like thinking. So I did a Walter Mitty as he drove away, mentally dragging him out of that truck and whuppin' his butt (I'm from Arkansas, so that's how I talk when I get mad. Even in my head).

Actually, maybe such fantasies are just human nature, and aren't limited to guys. Humans seem to have an innate sense of justice that says there are few things sweeter than seeing a bullying fool get their comeuppance. No less a philosopher than Immanuel Kant approved of this instinct. In his Critique of Practical Reason--not exactly a chest-thumping sort of book--he says:
When someone who delights in annoying and vexing peace-loving folk receives
at last a right good beating, it is certainly an ill, but everyone approves of it and
considers it as good in itself, even if nothing further results from it. 
Kant brought this up to emphasize his belief that justice requires punishing wrongdoers. He was arguing against the purely utilitarian idea that punishing those who hurt people just adds one evil on top of another, and is therefore a bad thing. Utilitarians might think punishment is still a necessary evil, but only for discouraging criminal acts, or removing criminals from society. They don't see retribution as a good reason for punishment. Kant was no utilitarian. He was all for retribution, and was a firm believer in the death penalty. But his reasoning was a little counter-intuitive. One of his fundamental maxims was that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means, because they are rational beings who can make ethical choices. When somebody wrongs another person, then, we should treat him as a rational person and conclude that he's made his choice about how people in general should be treated. Then we should treat him accordingly--just the way he treated the people he wronged. In other words, by punishing people for doing wrong, we are actually respecting them as rational, autonomous beings, and treating them according to the ethical maxims they've followed themselves.

Which is all very interesting (well, to some people), but the ethics of punishment isn't exactly what I want to think about here. What I'm more interested is the ethics of self-help justice--of whether someone who is in the right is justified in using force against someone who isn't. If some bully has been making everyone's life miserable, and some normally-nice person finally thrashes him, has justice been served? Is this what should have happened? Seeing it happen fills most people's hearts with gladness, so it's clear our instincts say it's right. But are our instincts correct in this case, or is this more like our instinct to eat bacon and donuts every morning--powerful, but not a good general rule?

Whatever Kant may have thought about the justice of bully-beating, one thing is clear: he wasn't going to be administering those beatings himself. Immanual Kant was barely five feet tall. He was almost the Platonic form of a 98-pound weakling. Unless he was a trained ninja, if he had tried to beat up that bully, he would have gotten pounded within an inch of his brainy little life.

And that's one reason I'm leery of the instinct that says giving bullies a "right good beating" is the right thing to do. There's no guarantee that the person in the right is the one who will win the fight (poetic, no?). In fact, most bullies spend a lot of time thinking about fighting, if not actually practicing it. Less aggressive people usually don't. Knowledge and practice lead to skill, whether that skill is good or bad. I learned that lesson once at a party, when I got into a playful fencing match with foam swords. My opponent was a woman who had done some fencing in college, and, well...she trounced me. If by some strange twist of fate I ever get in a real sword fight with her, I hope she uses her left hand.

The point is that if the bully's been in more fights, or if he's just bigger, stronger, faster, or tougher, he's probably going to win the fight. That doesn't match our sense of cosmic justice, but when has that sense ever been realistic? I like to imagine I could have beat up the guy in the truck, but there's no guarantee. I'm pretty strong for my size, but I don't know the first thing about fighting. He may be a boxing champ for all I know. In fact, if I had tried to start something with him, he might have just pulled out a gun and shot me. I live in trigger-happy state in a trigger-happy country, so that's not a bit far-fetched.

Of course, all this establishes is that it's a bad idea for people to attack bullies unless they absolutely have to. That doesn't tell us whether it would be a good thing in principle. If you knew that you would win, would you be justified in beating up someone who had hurt many other innocent people? My gut tells me yes, but I think my head tells me no. Might just doesn't make right. There's no necessary correlation between who's right and who's more powerful. I like to think about it this way: Imagine a huge man walking up to you and saying, "Two plus two is five, and if you say different, I'm gonna stomp you". You primly tell him that two plus two is actually four, and then spend the next few days in the hospital. It may not be much consolation, but here's the thing: he didn't prove his point by beating you up. Two plus two isn't five, no matter whose butt you kick to prove otherwise.

Even if he was right and you were wrong, and he beat you up to show he was right, that still wouldn't prove anything. What it comes down to is that there's absolutely no connection between who can win a fight and what is actually right or true. These are completely independent things. It's strange that this isn't obvious to us, but we evolved in a world where conflicts were often settled by force, so in this case, our instincts don't match logic.

If might and right are unconnected, then do we want to say that those in the right can legitimately prove it by a show of force? I don't think so. While I want to think I would have been justified in smacking that guy in the truck around a little, I don't think it's true. For one thing, of course, it would be a disproportionate response--he was being a phenomenal jerk, but he didn't hit me. But the deeper reason is that might doesn't make right, even when you're in the right. Force may be justified if you're defending yourself or someone else--it's certainly justified to stop a bully from hurting someone, by force if that's what it takes. But the force itself has nothing to do with what's right. Force is at best a necessary evil, one that's just as available to bad people as good people--more available, in fact, because they don't feel the need to restrain themselves. Force may be necessary to prevent wrongs, but it can never show who's right. It can only show who's stronger, and that's not the same thing at all.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What's Really Shocking

It's 6:00 in the morning. I don't go to work until 9 most days, so I'm not usually up this early. But I couldn't sleep well. The thing is, I saw people expressing opinions yesterday that are weighing on my mind. First, I saw a picture of a sign in front of a pizza joint in my home state of Arkansas. It said "Leviticus 20:13. Why don't we listen?" Now, here's what that verse actually says.
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."
Well, that seems clear enough. This pizza place, called Heavenly Pizza Pies, seems to be calling for the killing of gay people, or at least gay men.* When there was an outcry, they took the sign down and claimed they were saying no such thing. Maybe they didn't mean it that way. I don't know. Here's the response that they posted on Facebook:
We as a company don't support same sex marriage, but we still care for everyone and would do anything to help. We posted a Bold Verse out of God's word, something that as a nation we have forgotten. As a nation we have taken God out of schools, we have taken prayer out of school and the work place, and now we take another one of God's law and throw it away. We will stand bold in honoring God's word in and out of the work place. If you were upset with this verse, remember its God's word, we will all stand before him in judgement.
What are we to make of people posting a sign like that? Honestly, I doubt they really want to see gay people killed, but you never know with some people. One thing we can conclude with confidence is that they're being extremely selective about which parts of Leviticus to take seriously. I mean, this is a pizza place--I'm pretty sure they put sausage, pepperoni, and ham on their pizzas, and all those things are made from pork. Leviticus 11:7-8 clearly says pigs are unclean and not to be eaten. Their carcasses aren't even to be touched, which, it has been often pointed out, would seem to rule out playing football with an actual pigskin.

When questioned, people say such dietary restrictions are part of the Old Covenant, and that the New Covenant makes them unnecessary. But those same people point to the verses about homosexuality in Leviticus and say they still hold. Why? What are their criteria for deciding which parts of the Bible are still valid and which are no longer applicable? I ask this question all the time, because I would really like to know, but I never get a clear answer. Usually I get no answer at all, even though I think I usually succeed in asking nicely. Apparently the question is gauche.

Seeing the picture of this sign in my home state disturbed me enough, though I can't say it surprised me. But what continued to disturb me were other things I saw people saying on the same topic, or in response to it. One woman, in a thread unrelated to the pizza joint sign, also mentioned the parts of the Old Testament that talk about killing gays. She wasn't exactly stating her approval, but she was mentioning it in support of her contention that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. In a thread about the sign, a guy told me that homosexuality is clearly wrong according to the Bible, and cited Genesis 2:18, where God decides to create women:
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.
This guy was apparently thinking of a different translation, and used the word "worker" instead of helper. Yes, worker. So, here's someone defending the idea that homosexuality is bad, by citing a verse saying women were created almost as an afterthought, to be "workers" for men. I'll admit, I found this kind of upsetting. What made it worse is that he seemed to be a decent guy, who honestly seemed to be trying to do what is right, based on his religion (he thought the pizza place sign was a bad thing, for example).

So I pointed out that he's deciding to how to judge one fraction of the human race (homosexuals), based on his interpretation of a text that says half the human race were created as helpers for the other half. Deciding how to treat that large a percentage of humankind is a pretty serious step to take, morally speaking. And he's doing it based on Genesis, the same book that tells us a snake talked, that people lived hundreds of years, and that Noah got two of every species on earth onto a boat (did he go to the Andes to get llamas? What about plants?).

Anyway, I asked to consider the possibility that the Bible is a book written by members of an ancient tribe living in a violent, sexist, superstitious time. Yes, it does say homosexuality is wrong, that homosexuals should be killed (along with suspected witches and children who curse their parents), and it also says that women were created to be "helpers". And when it does, it's wrong. And when people base their behavior toward women, gays, and others based on a literal interpretation of those verses, they are wrong, and perpetuate the unbelievable injustice that's characterized most of human history--millions of lives lost and wasted, for thousands of years, based on parts of the Bible that are mostly myth or myth-based ritual.

This suggestion was apparently out of bounds. Though I tried hard to be civil, I was the bad guy for saying such things. The man I was debating got mad, and a woman chimed in to say she felt sorry for me and would pray for me. Neither of them seemed at all shocked by Bible verses talking about killing gays, or describing women as "helpers" by design, even though one of them was a woman. Yet they were shocked by me saying those passages should be rejected as the writings of an ancient people who believed the earth was flat.

What kind of world are we living in when a large percentage of people still look at Iron Age documents about killing people, or treating women as second class citizens (because of a story involving their creation from a man's rib) and they aren't shocked by them? Not only are they not shocked, but they believe them and live their lives by them. What they do find shocking is someone questioning those verses. That strikes me as very, very twisted, especially since many of them really are trying to do the right thing. It's just that they're basing their judgement of what's right on very questionable, hard to interpret sources.

Please don't get me wrong. This may be a screed, but it's not an anti-Christian screed--many of the people I admire most are Christians. It's a screed against discrimination based on Biblical literalism. Taking these writings as straightforward guides to behavior is very, very hurtful. The guy I was debating claimed that the Bible verse about killing gays should be interpreted to mean they would be suffer "eternal death" (Hell) not earthly death. That's also hurtful, but I also think he's wrong about the interpretation. I think that verse means exactly what it says, and that it's surely caused untold numbers of violent deaths. Who knows how many people were stoned to death because of that verse, or others like it? It says what it says, and it's wrong.

Obviously, I have a big problem with this kind of fundamentalism. But I have a far bigger problem when its practitioners try to write their Old Testament views of morality into law. If people want to believe these things, that's their right. I think they're wrong and hurtful beliefs, but I'm not going to try to force them to change. That's not the kind of country we live in. But I am going to keep telling them they don't get to force that view of morality on me or anyone else. They were allowed to do so for millennia, and that needs to end. Soon.

Does that mean laws should never enforce moral codes of any kind? Certainly not. Justice Antonin Scalia once asked, if he shouldn't say homosexuality should be illegal, whether he could still say murder should be illegal. Of course he should! Murder clearly hurts people, and you don't need to appeal to any religious text or supernatural entity to see that. Murder, rape, theft, perjury, and dozens of other things are clearly hurtful for obvious, real-world reasons, and should of course be illegal. But ideas about what is wrong based on religion or the supernatural are very debatable, and therefore shouldn't be written into law, especially if not everyone in the country subscribes to that religion. If you want to follow additional moral rules, based on religion and beyond the proper scope of law, that's your prerogative. But I don't see why you should be able to force anyone else to. If you want to tell gays they don't get to have the same right--to love and marry another adult--that you have, you need to realize that you are denying them something most people consider an essential part of a happy life. You'd better have ironclad proof that homosexuality is wrong and damaging, and for reasons that don't appeal to the supernatural. I've never seen any such proof.

And if you want to go on thinking that homosexuality is bad, or that women are "helpers", then that's your right. If you want to quote Bible verses saying homosexuals should be killed, I guess that's your right too, as much as it makes my lip curl to hear it. But please, please ask yourself this: Which is more shocking? People questioning Bible verses that promote such ideas, or the verses themselves?


* I hate that I feel like I need to mention this, but since I'm 41 and single, people will wonder, and that will distract from the point I'm trying to make. I'm straight. I'm not the bravest guy, but I like to think that if I were gay I would have had the guts to come out years ago. This issue is important to me because I have a lot of gay friends I love, and I hate seeing injustice, especially when it's justified with such dubious reasoning.