Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Obama - Closet Atheist?

No, these aren't fanatical, fringe, right-wing ravings. The speculation that Obama is actually an atheist has been primarily popularized by commentators on the left, such as Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens. Most political commentators won't venture into such highly theoretical realms, but I've heard the sentiments echoed many times by normal, everyday leftist types. Their reasoning being that someone as apparently intelligent as Obama couldn't possibly believe such irrational hogwash. Which is, of course, nonsense itself, but the rest of their case does make some sense.

The hypothetical motive that they propose is fairly obvious; atheist politicians in America are still taboo, to say nothing of an atheist president. Anyone with high political ambitions must profess faith of some sort in order to have any chance at being elected. And--perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not--Obama found Christianity late in life right around the time he was beginning his political career in Chicago.

If Obama is a religious person he tends to keep his convictions private, as he virtually never invokes the name of God (much less Jesus) except when concluding a speech with "God bless America", or when promoting religious relativism. The leftist atheist speculates that this is due less to his faith being a private matter than to his faith not existing at all. Further, if he was in fact sitting in the pews listening to the likes of Jeremiah Wright he didn't to seem to be very attentive as during his campaign he quickly denounced Wright's typical, standard-issue rhetoric, despite the fact he had been hearing it every Sunday for many years. Supposedly. Additionally, Obama is pro-choice and his political ideology in general could be described as secular progressivism--these are positions that shouldn't be easily reconcilable with his faith. All of these facts form the foundation for the conspiracy theory that Obama is actually a closeted atheist.

As conspiracies go this one is more coherent than the vast majority of them. It isn't too outlandish and doesn't require any bizarre assumptions. It doesn't have any gaps in logic, as far as I can see. It doesn't leave any significant pieces of information ignored or unaccounted for. It pinpoints a precise motive. However, the alternative explanation--that he is in fact a Christian, but a liberal or 'private' one, who, as a liberal that takes the 'wall of separation' between church and state seriously (much more seriously than he should), feels he shouldn't mix his personal faith with his public, secular duties--is at least equally as likely. The thing that's interesting to note is that even if the alternative explanation is true it still isn't a flattering portrayal of the man. If he's not an undercover atheist then he's a man who misunderstands the doctrines of his faith and the principles of the Constitution in equal measure.

Christians are not called to a personal, private life of devotion. We are called to love humanity and to spread the good news of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection for the sins of the world. Now that's obviously more difficult to do than it sounds, and I certainly fail on this count as often as any Christian, but I don't think I'm holding Obama to any unreasonably high standard here. I'm not suggesting he should use his position as public servant to evangelize, but if he were merely to speak aloud the name of the Creator--his Lord and Savior--occasionally, then that would satiate me and quiet the rumblings of the conspiratorial atheists. But he remains conspicuously silent.

If we are to chalk his silence up to his unwillingness to breach the inviolable 'wall of separation', then he is merely ignorant of the countries founding principles and what the first amendment actually says and means. Or perhaps he feels that it's one of his professional duties to translate his specific, personal religious convictions into broader, universally applicable morals. Which is an understandable inclination, but this leads one to wonder where his primary allegiances lie; With God? With the American people? With his constituency?

So, while we can't say anything conclusively, all of the possibilities are fairly grim:
  • Our president is a man who has no faith but cynically professes it for his own political ambition.
  • Our president is a Christian who believes that his pieties can and should be kept private, despite every indication to the contrary contained in scripture.
  • Our president believes there exists a 'wall of separation' between church and state that prevents, or at least strongly discourages, public expressions of faith by public officials, again despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It doesn't look as if there is any refuge for Obama on this count. Either the conspiracy theorists are right, or--almost just as bad--they're wrong. While the evidence that Obama is an atheist is sparse and speculative, the evidence that he is religiously confused or disingenuous is quite strong.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson and The Worst Argument Against Design Ever

I saw a Youtube clip recently of the astrophysicist and atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson arguing against the notion that the efficiency and intricacy of the design in the universe that we observe must be attributable to a divine creator. There are many ways that opponents of the design argument attempt to respond, but this one was new to me. Tyson pointed out that human beings eat, drink and speak all using a single hole in their head. How much more efficient would it be if we had been blessed with two holes, one for gestation and one for communication. Imagine! If only Neil deGrasse Tyson were the creator of the universe, what a wonderful world this would be.

Eating and talking at the same time, without any interruption of the constant inane chatter that fills our lives. Seriously, what a lovely thought! The creator of this universe must have been smoking something when he decided it would be a good idea to make us occasionally stuff our yap-traps with sustenance. Did he not realize that we only have a limited time on this Earth, and that if we waste a great deal of it chewing, swallowing, maybe even thinking in silence, then we'll be unable to fulfill our purpose for this life which certainly must be to maximize our number-of-words-per-lifetime ratio? How shortsighted and foolish of him! No, an omnipotent being couldn't make so obvious and egregious an error, so I'm forced to conclude that no such being exists. My reasoning is exquisite, wouldn't you agree?

I believe that I have surpassed my mockery quota for the day. Suffice it to say that this argument is not only asinine, but is so in such a self-satisfied, unreflective, and arrogant manner as to be quite loathsome. Hopefully my abusive mockery made plain the ways in which the argument is utterly nonsensical, but if not, allow me to elucidate.

Tyson's argument assumes that humans are designed in a suboptimal way because our design prevents us from being able to speak incessantly. Undoubtedly Tyson also believes that the fact that the human body requires 8 hours of sleep a day is an epic tragedy--after all that's one-third of his life that is doomed to wordlessness. I know of very few humans who would admit without shame that they believe that their own words are so precious that they should never meet an occasion where they are forced into silence. Indeed there's many a fine proverb, from both East and West, that speaks of the wisdom and virtue to be found in silence. Listening, meditating, thinking, praying and, yes, eating. Not only is our value as humans not measured in the number of words we are able to utter, but there's some good reason to believe that a human's wisdom is often inversely proportional to the number of words they produce. As much as that pains me--a wordy person--to admit. If we are going to speculate as to the wisdom and efficiency of the creation then, if anything, this observation by Tyson bespeaks a profoundly thoughtful and efficient design plan of the creator. God may in fact have devised the human body in such a way--with a single hole for the dual purposes of gestation and speech--specifically to give the world some respite from the incessant, inane jabber of the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Who, in between meals, still managed to find the time to use his tragically limited number of words to formulate this preposterous argument.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Evangelical Secularism and The First Amendment

According to the "wall of separation" between church and state which is implicitly extant in the first amendment of the Constitution--or so say the imaginative hermeneutics of our courts--espousing one's own religious convictions while in the employ of the state is strictly forbidden. After all, if a single individual who is employed by the state expresses a particular religious view is that not equivalent to "Congress passing a law respecting an establishment of religion"? I think we can all see clearly that this is precisely what the founding fathers meant to protect against.

I'm being facetious, of course. There is no such "wall of separation" in the Constitution--just as there is no "right to privacy" guaranteeing abortion on demand--and not even the most convoluted, inventive interpretive lens can get you there. Only a brazen act of willful defiance of the text combined with some creative fiction could ever reach such a conclusion. At least such an initial act is required to get where we are today, though presently you also have so many years of legal precedents--based on that initial fiction--which serve to fortify it.

And, OK, perhaps stating any religious opinion isn't strictly forbidden, but suffice to say that, for instance, a Christian professor at a public university has to tread very carefully when it comes to speaking some of his most strongly held religious views, whereas an ardent, zealous, evangelically secular professor need not fret in the least.

If the establishment clause is taken to mean that individuals employed by the government are not to make any religious declarations whatsoever while carrying out their official secular duties as educators, should this not also extend to pronouncements of irreligion? Should not this imagined "wall of separation", if we are going to acknowledge and respect it, also mean that preachings of unbelief be similarly forbidden? If the "wall" is hard, fast, and sturdy should it not drown out all the external chattering of belief and unbelief alike?

Yet you'd be hard pressed to find any examples of professors at public universities being chastised for extolling the virtues of secularism or denouncing the evils of religion. While instances of professors being scolded, or even fired, for "preaching" or for "spewing hate speech" are (or at least were) quite numerous, and are on a rapid decline only because everyone knows the score.

Evangelical secularism is rampant and unchecked in our public institutions, thanks largely to a few malignant acts of judicial malpractice, and their perpetuation. It should go without saying, but the role of justices in our system is to adjudicate. For the Supreme Court this often entails entering pretty murky waters where vague and imprecise language abounds, to be sure. Nevertheless, while vague language can often have multiple possible meanings, depending on the perspective and the chosen interpretive framework of the reader, this does not mean that it can have any meaning.

If we are to assume a default, neutral position in our roles as public educators, why is it recklessly assumed that a secular stance is a good default? The neutral position on the question of religion is not secularism; secularism is one extreme on the spectrum of ideas concerning the subject of religion. Our institutions themselves are secular, yes, but not the people who populate them. And that is the distinction that needs to be drawn; individuals working for the state are still individuals, not the state itself, and they have no constitutional obligation to feign neutrality on matters of religion--should they arise--or to keep their pieties private. There are plenty nefarious cultural and social influences which serve to bolster the nasty idea that religion should be a strictly private matter, we don't need official U.S. law worsening the matter.

Alas, of course, there is not much practical to be done on this count. It's not as if there were a single existing law I could point to that I would like to repeal. There are decades of legal precedents that need to be wiped clean, or amendments to the Constitution that need to be passed to counteract them in order to undo the damage. Neither of those remedies constitutes a small task in the least. Though, in the former case, if the wails of despair from the left over Citizens United are to be taken seriously, perhaps this isn't as difficult as I imagine it to be.

But there's an alternative, less radical solution, which I have hinted at. Namely: we keep our scandalous and false reading of the Constitution much the same as it has been to date, only we apply similar restraints on those proclamations of irreligion and unbelief as we do to religious opinions. Atheism is a strictly religious idea (or non-idea); it's the idea that all religions are false, and thus there is a wall of separation between atheism and the American secular state, as counterintuitive as this may seem. This is only a 'solution' in that it remedies an existent inequity; it doesn't address the initial judicial malpractice. It only makes consistent the application of that 'interpretation' of the Constitution which we have chosen to adopt. That's a start, anyway.

I don't mean to insinuate that the vast majority of professors at public universities are consciously going out of their way to spread atheistic, secularist doctrine. Certainly the vast majority of physics, mathematics and English professors throughout the country carry out their jobs without often having the cause or opportunity to share whatever their personal convictions on these subjects happen to be. In the liberal arts and humanities departments, however, you're sure to see a steep incline in this type of thing, though often in subtle forms, or in the guise of 'simply relaying facts'. And then some smaller percentage of the time you'll find the more egregious, overt manifestations of the kind of thing that I'm objecting to. How prevalent it happens to be is besides the point though; if a "wall of separation" exists, then it exists between the state and all religious positions, including anti-religious sentiments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Armond White Writes for 'First Things'?

Armond White is notorious--at least in film geek circles--for praising universally panned schlock--such as Norbit or G.I. Joe--while giving scathing reviews to comparatively sophisticated, intelligent entertainments. If a film has a 99% or a 1% on the Rottentomatoes Tomatometer his is probably amongst the lonely reviews found in that very narrow band of dissenters. His reviews are often well-written and interesting, if unconvincing, and clearly willfully provocative. And it often seems like the review is just a pretense to garner himself attention, and a chance to speak on some tangentially related subject.

This month's issue of First Things, which is an explicitly Judeo-Christian publication which focuses on religion and public life, features a negative review of Disney's Tangled by none other than Armond White himself. In the review he focuses on the way that the modernized version of Rapunzel removes all elements of faith and transcendence from the original Brother's Grimm fairytale. At first I found myself somewhat perplexed by this. I've read many of his reviews before and none gave me any inkling that he was a particularly pious fellow. But then it hit me. What does Armond White do? He's a professional contrarian and provocateur; and there could hardly be anything more provocative and controversial in the world of Hollywood than writing, in the pages of a religious journal, about it's overt secularization and how it is a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Freedom and Virtue

The United States is notorious for prizing its freedoms, and for extolling the virtues of freedom globally. And rightly so, in my mind, because the alternative to political freedom is tyranny, and tyranny leaves much to be desired in terms of a just political system. There are some dangers associated with granting mere freedom--in the sense of unrestrained voluntarism--the elevated status of virtue, and our culture largely reflects the consequences of this elevation.

Freedom as a political goal is indeed a righteous goal, if only because the alternative is intolerable. This political form of freedom is achieved largely by restricting and dispersing the power of the state, through a system of checks and balances, so that people's rights and freedoms are retained. The problems arise when, as a society, consciously or subconciously, we begin to attribute value to our rights and our ability to choose. While obtaining and preserving basic fundamental freedoms is a noble political goal, that does not mean any decision we freely make is a noble decision. This should be obvious, but as a culture we have absolutely conflated the good of freedom from tyranny with the 'good' of the freedom to make poor choices (which is no good at all).

So where freedom is at stake there are two entities to consider: the individual and the potential restrictive or coercive agency, most commonly in the form of the state or a despot. It is good to prevent the potential usurper of freedom from doing its usurping. That doesn't mean that the actions of the individual, in the absence of this illegitimate coercion, are necessarily worthy or virtuous actions. Only that they should be permitted. This is the sense in which political freedom is a 'good' thing, though not a good thing.

David B. Hart has written about this subject at length (most memorably in his essay 'Christ and Nothing'), and I tend to mostly agree with him. He asserts that the modern, American model of freedom--the one that I've been describing--is not the classical, Christian model of freedom. The latter having more to do with the freedom of human beings to choose to align themselves with the greater good, the absolute good, the good of God. As opposed to the freedom to follow our own spontaneous desires to any end, including wicked ends. I would only add that, while this is an important distinction to make for individuals and for our culture, on a the level of law the latter form of freedom must be preserved at the political level. This is to make what I feel to be a necessary distinction between political and personal realms.

Compared to a centralized government controlling the economy, the free market is good. Compared to government censorship, the freedom of speech is good. Compared to absolute power, a dispersal of powers is good. Etcetera. Which is not to say that any of these things are good in any absolute or moral sense--any of the these freedoms can be abused--only that they are superior to the alternatives. They are neutralities where their negation would constitute coercion and tyranny. We tend to think of the negation of an evil, in this case coercion and tyranny, as necessarily good, and the prevention of tyranny is in fact good, but what is left in its wake is not necessarily good, it's merely a blank space within which to operate.

And it is precisely at this point where we as a society confuse the context of an action for the action itself, conferring virtue to any action taken within the sphere. Apparently concluding that because freedom is precious and difficult to achieve that therefore anything we choose to do with it is similarly precious. This clearly mistaken notion is at the heart of our cultural malaise and vacuousness. It is this confusion that has spawned our banal consumer culture. The negative consequences have numerous manifestations.

Although tyranny is evil, freedom is not virtue. It is what we do with freedom that has the capacity--and only the capacity--to be virtue.