Events in Indiana this week have created an emotional national debate about religion and freedom. Conservative Christians claim that they should have the right to not offer services for gay weddings, on religious grounds. Others argue that not serving gays is an act of discrimination that violates American values. After all, opposition to interracial marriage and equal rights for blacks were also couched in religious terms.
Homosexuality is not a choice but a genetic predisposition according to both the American Medical Association and the American Psychology Association. This means it is like being black – a part of who a person is, not a choice they have made. More importantly there is a fundamental contradiction in the approach from the religious right.
Homosexuality is mentioned as a sin three times in the Bible. Unlike adultery, theft, and covetousness, for example, it isn’t mentioned in the ten commandments. In fact, most sins are talked about far more often than homosexuality. In the Old Testament it’s in Leviticus, right there along side admonitions against eating shell fish or touching women who are having their period. That part of the Bible also gives rules on how to treat slaves, and other clearly anachronistic laws!
Jesus does not mention homosexuality at all. When Jesus talks about sin it’s usually in the context of forgiveness, and he warns his followers “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Paul brings it up in Corinthians and Timothy, two letters where he lumps homosexuality with a number of other things — covetousness, drunkedness, trickery, etc. — as unrighteous behaviors. Even that is a bit unclear since the Greek word being translated could mean masturbation, pedophilia or something more vague.
So if there were a hierarchy of sins, homosexuality isn’t high up on what the Bible worries about. But there is no hierarchy of sins. Christians universally agree that everyone is a sinner. Therefore, singling out homosexuality as a special sin is anti-Christian. A real Christian business owner recognizes every customer as a sinner, with each sin is of equal distaste to God. Jesus didn’t turn people away because they were sinners, after all. The only time he got mad was when the capitalists of his day were using the temple for business!
So clearly this is not really about religion, but bigotry.
Still, if we expected religions to actually live up to their teachings, we’d have quite a peaceful world. Muhammad says don’t fight against people who do not want to fight, and that war should only be to defend the community as a last resort. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are decidedly un-Islamic. And how many people have been butchered in the name of Jesus?
So maybe that logical argument – that this is bigotry, not Christianity at work – sets the bar too high. Maybe we need to accept that people are going to use religion to justify hate and bigotry. Disappointing but, OK, that’s our world. How much leeway should we give religious freedom if we set the bar lower?
I think we can agree that groups like ISIS who commit human rights atrocities can’t claim religious freedom. The acts they engage in are crimes in and of themselves. No one can hide behind freedom of religion to justify a crime.
But what about acts in the public sphere – you know, like a pizzeria catering a gay wedding.
Libertarians might argue that any business should be able to buy or sell to whomever it wants. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it can and in history has led to segregation and second class treatment for whole groups of citizens – those who went and saw the movie Selma this year know that!
Within the church itself, religious freedom usually trumps. No clergy should be forced by the government to conduct a gay wedding. Some liberal churches may require their clergy to do so, but that’s within the religion. And if a church believes interracial marriage is wrong, well, they can refuse to conduct one of those too.
However restaurants, shops and other businesses that serve the general public do not have such leeway. If you limit your customers with a rule – say, coat and tie required, it has to apply to everyone equally. You can also choose to refuse service on rational grounds – someone has disrupted a business in the past, counts cards against the rules, etc. But you can’t choose to limit service against a group that suffers discrimination – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. There is some leeway for private clubs that aren’t completely open to the public, but even there it’s problematic.
Seen this way, the argument that this is some kind of “liberal fascism” makes no sense. It’s just applying a principle that has been law for decades. Just as it took until the 60’s for America to truly recognize the necessity of treating blacks as equal, it took until the early 21st Century to recognize the same about gays.
Perhaps the best argument for the religious right is a cultural one – religion is a defense of tradition; traditionally homosexuality has been seen as a perversion. But the culture is changing. Due to both science and evolved thinking we now consider that old view to be false – much like the view that said women shouldn’t vote, or blacks should be slaves. When culture changes, religion has to give way – at least in the public realm. Privately they can still argue for tradition. That’s unlikely to succeed, ultimately most religions will adapt.
I’ve been thinking about modern physics.
Reality consists of quantum fields. That’s it – just fields. These fields can vibrate. Those vibrations are perceived by us as particles: numerous vibrating fields create what we perceive as solid reality. Apparently those particles don’t really exist, they just are there when we observe them – it’s how our minds perceive the vibrations. If reality is not being observed in some way, it doesn’t exist. The fields may still be vibrating, but the “stuff” we understand to be reality is the result of our perceptual framework.
A paradox: if there are only fields, which sometimes can vibrate, and if our material bodies are a manifestation of these vibrating fields, why do we have consciousness? Why do we perceive these fields as “matter,” and are able to act within them as if there were a solid real world out there? And what about the symmetries that make all this possible?
Five possibilities come to mind:
1. This is all one really elaborate virtual reality game, and when we die we’ll find ourselves in the real world, suddenly realizing we’ve just been playing. Sort of a cool idea, but when you think of the pain endured by those experiencing rape, genocide and intense poverty, it seems a rather harsh game. But maybe our “real” selves want to experience that, at least sometimes.
2. A wild accident of nature. No meaning, somehow within this system of fields it’s possible for entities to emerge that can perceive it as a reality. This seems unrealistic to me, but it’s possible.
3. Some kind of God created this, and we’re the product of its imagination, living based on that God’s whims, laws and dictates. That seems even less realistic than 2, but again, it’s possible.
4. An entity (God, for lack of a better term) exists and wants to experience interaction and challenges. So it creates this realm and then is able to experience a variety of things stemming from its imagination. This is different from 1 in that we’d all be aspects of this God, experiencing this field-based vibrational reality from different perspectives. This view has some appeal, and harkens back to Platonist and especially neo-Platonist philosophies (e.g., Plotinus). Or, as Bishop Berkeley suggested, we’re just part of God’s dream.
5. There is something about consciousness that gives us the ability to perceive a world in this series of vibrating fields. That would mean that this world is not an accident, but was meant for us to be able to perceive reality. This option differs from the rest in that it doesn’t posit this as a product of a God (even if we are aspects of that God), a game or an accident.
Why does this matter? It’s easy to get caught up in the every day routines – the problems, the ambitions and concerns that drive us. Taking care of our kids, earning money, dealing with others, etc. But somehow that feels a bit empty – is that all there is? And why is it? Is there something more? And if we just live going through the motions, as dramatic and sometimes distressing as they are, are we just sleep walking? Are we going through life hypnotized, thinking this is REALITY, when really it’s a kind of illusion?
And if there is something more, is there something to gain by trying to understand it, probing with our minds, meditations and philosophy? Can studying world religions provide a hint? And if we can get a sense of a kind of deeper meaning, one that transcends this particular brief dance in space-time, will that actually pay dividends? Will it make this life more meaningful, can we have more control over the reality we experience?
That’s it for today. Just questions.
If you read some of the extremist literature about the UN, it’s alarming. The UN is out to get our guns with the Small Arms Treaty! Absurd. The UN wants to stop us from spanking our children with the Rights of the Child Treaty! Hardly. Though if you spank your kids, you’re really doing some bad parenting. Some even claim net neutrality is a doorway for UN control of the internet. And now – a UN Security Council resolution will bind the US to an agreement with Iran, circumvent Congress and sacrifice US sovereignty! And least so claim the latest UN-0-phobes.
Bottom line: The UN can do nothing to hurt the US. Nada. Zilch. In fact, the UN has proven itself very useful to the US given our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power. We often use the UN to support US foreign policy. The most dramatic examples are the Korean war and the 1991 Iraq war.
So why the irrational fear? Part of it comes from a kind of animosity towards anything cosmopolitan among the tea party crowd, and a fear of losing American sovereignty. The truth is that globalization has already weakened sovereignty by creating deep interdependence. But that’s not the UN’s fault.
Not approving the Small Arms Treaty means its harder to stop the use of children in war zones. AK 47s are $6 a piece, that treaty is a fundamental tool in stopping atrocities in the third world. No one is going to use it against the US or American gun laws. That’s not possible. The Rights of the Child treaty has been approved by every country except the US and Saudi Arabia. UN soldiers aren’t going to round up people who spank their kids.
The only body that can approve enforcement of international law is the Security Council, and the US has veto power. The UN by definition cannot hurt the US.
So why the paranoia about Iran? Well, the Republicans just got a majority in both Houses but yet they can’t box in the President. They’re feeling a tad impotent, and resent the fact that he is using his executive powers deftly. Rather than admit that this is how split government works, they have come to believe that he’s “lawless” or ignoring the Congress and the Constitution. And of course, some of it is just to rile up the base. They know the UN doesn’t have the kind of power to somehow undermine the US – but fear that it does can be a powerful and emotional motivator!
The claim: President Obama seeks an executive agreement with Iran to get Iran to agree not to have a nuclear weapons program. An executive agreement – a common foreign policy tool – only binds the President during his term, and it does not need to pass Congress. A treaty would require ratification by 2/3 of the Senate, and that’s not going to happen. But if the US votes approval of a Security Council resolution calling for the removal of sanctions, then it is legally binding and voila, Congress has been bypassed.
Except that’s not how it works.
First, even if it all played out that way, the US Constitution and Supreme Court are clear that this would not be binding on the US. And even if it were, the only body who could enforce that agreement is the UN Security Council, and the US can block any Security Council action. But that’s irrelevant – if the US votes yes on a Security Council resolution requiring Congressional action and Congress does not act, then the US can’t follow what the resolution requires. That’s the way the law works. It will not be binding on the United States, just as an executive agreement cannot prevent Congress from acting as they will, and is not binding on the next President.
As always, the anti-UN paranoia is irrational…and very strange.
In Silver Spring Maryland a couple were found to be negligent parents because they let their children, aged 10 and 6, play in a park alone and walk home. In Silver Spring leaving anyone under 18 unsupervised is neglect.
OK, “under 18″ is simply insane. What happened to the idea of kids being able to go out and explore, have fun with friends, go on bike rides, hike in the woods…without some adult or supervisor tagging along? But I’m not going to focus on the law now, but the culture – the idea that people would consider a couple negligent for letting their kids play in public without supervision.
People put such an emphasis on “being safe” that they go way overboard. Whenever someone says to me “safety is our main concern” or “my job as a parent is to keep my kids safe” I feel like screaming. No! Safety is important but has to be balanced with factors such as learning, exploring and enjoying the world. After all if safety were really the most important thing we’d ban cars – accidents kill nearly 40,000 people a year!
Recently I read an article by an American mom living in Germany who was surprised by the way Germans take care of their children. As she put it:
All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?
“Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.
Kids know how to handle themselves, and the odds of someone getting seriously hurt on a playground are certainly less than in a typical car ride. She also noticed that they didn’t push young children to read, allowed kids run errands and be on their own. What is “normal” parenting for them (and for my parents when I was a child) is now considered a radical form of “free range parenting” here.
In Silver Spring, Maryland, it’s illegal.
My children are 11 and 9, and my view of parenting is definitely along the “free range” side. I trust them to go out and play and explore on their own, usually with neighborhood kids. At the local mountain they each ski on their own. If they’re bored in summer I tell them: “go take a bike ride, explore.” Kids develop self-esteem, autonomy and confidence not by having everyone win a trophy, but by allowing kids to work as much out as possible on their own.
The same goes for “protecting” kids from videos, songs, movies and other things that are meant for adults. Kids can handle more than we give them credit for, and as long as a parent can explain things they don’t understand and give guidance on behavior (e.g., explain why using swear words in public isn’t a good idea), they’ll be fine. My nine year old has learned the lyrics of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” by heart (he sings along every time it comes on the radio) – and his questions about the meaning of the lyrics have been real teaching moments.
Yes, there are limits, and the limits change as they grow older. And as kids explore the parents have to be cognizant of their children’s activites: ready to answer questions, provide guidance, listen and explain. If I lived somewhere less safe, I’m sure I’d change how I construct those limits. But overall, I don’t think we do children any favors by treating childhood as some “protected” time of their lives where they are shielded from the supposed dangers of the real world. Too much of that and kids will not be able handle the real world, and will fear it!
Luckily rural Maine isn’t suburban Maryland, and if my kids go play at the park and walk home, no one will call the police and I certainly won’t be seen as negligent. But the problem we’re creating is cultural – if we raise a generation that thinks it’s their birthright to be “protected” and “safe,” they’ll not really learn how to live. When confronted with reality they’ll be more likely to escape, either into safe routines that give order to their lives but prevent true living, or something worse like drugs and alcohol. That is as dangerous as anything parents are protecting them from!
(This blog entry is a bit different – I’m in an introspective mood today)
We live in a world. Everything about our existence says that every effect has a cause, everything has a beginning, and you can’t get something from nothing.
So why does a world exist? Why is there something and not nothing?
It seems that there should be no world, no existence. The existence of a world requires a contradiction. Somehow something came from nothing. If you posit a beginning or a cause from something else, you just push back the problem. If one says “God created the world,” then the question becomes “why is there a God rather than no God?”
If one posits the big bang as creating space-time, the current popular theory, then what came before the Big Bang?
Therein lies a hint of an answer. If the big bang marks the creation point of space-time then whatever “caused” the big bang or “came before” it must be outside space-time. Yet we are fundamentally unable to even imagine a world that is not predicated on space-time. Our minds can only think in terms of a progression of events, one thing causing another, with time marching only forward, the present ceasing to exist as it continually becomes the past.
Our minds think of material cause and effect. That limitation is the main reason we cannot answer the question why is there something and not nothing. In our space-time frame of reference this is a paradox, a contradiction. Existence should not exist.
Contradictions are funny things. Aristotle says that two sides of a contradiction cannot both be true. A house cannot be both white and not white. But it’s not so clear cut. Reality isn’t the same as our linguistic symbolic representations of reality. We can create statements that contradict each other, but those statements may be poor reflections of reality. The fact light is both a particle and a wave — a contradictory state of affairs that is nonetheless apparently true — doesn’t really violate a law of contradictions. Our language constructs a contradiction because it imprecisely describes reality. We don’t really understand the nature of light – either the photons or the waves.
Thus it is very possible for two contradictory statements to be true.
So the contradiction behind the notion that a world exists is really a paradox. There may be an explanation, but it is outside our ability to comprehend – it is outside of space/time.
Is this an argument for the existence of God? Well, some conceptions of God claim that God is incomprehensible, and certainly whatever is outside space/time is by definition incomprehensible for us beings trapped in this space-time universe. However particular God-stories (various world religions) are of little help. If the concept of God is broadened to mean whatever force can explain the existence of this space-time universe and its attributes, then we have a form of Deism. But we know nothing about this God.
More convincingly is an argument in favor of some kind of non-material or “spiritual” aspect of existence. Since existence itself rests on the necessity of both sides of a contradiction being true, it’s clear that the material world itself is limited in scope. Any meaning or purpose this world has cannot be determined by looking at science or the material attributes of this world. That will give us knowledge on how we experience the functioning of this world, but not any meaning.
Of course, it’s possible the world is meaningless – that whatever created space-time was a kind of accident, and as soon as this universe runs its course it will collapse on itself and space-time will be “forgotten.” Yet that seems a dubious proposition to hold on purely pragmatic grounds. If the universe is meaningless and yet we search for meaning, we haven’t lost anything – in fact, we can create our own meaning for the brief dance we have on this planet. If there is a deeper meaning, then searching for it may connect us at least intuitively with a better understanding of why we have physical lives, and how we should best handle this experience.
Moreover, psychologically it’s very easy for us to become “hypnotized” by the world in which we find ourselves. Hypnosis operates on suggestions, and our world hurls suggestions at us all day, coming from our culture, media, friends, etc. We can lose ourselves in the routine doing what we think must be done, taking time for a distraction now and then, but not really making our lives something we consciously shape, reflect upon, and experience as truly meaningful.
To me, that would be boring – sort of like going through life half asleep.
So why is there something and not nothing? I don’t know. But contemplating the question gives me a stronger sense that I should reflect on what my experience here means, and look inside myself as well as out into the world.
Rudy Giuliani’s absurd claim that “Obama doesn’t love America” underscores a weird but real meme that runs through the right wing media. Obama is somehow different, strange, “influenced by communism” (another Giuliani tidbit, that really shows his age!), or “raised differently.”
Despite his successful career culminating in being elected twice to the Presidency, some want to claim “he’s never worked” (huh?), or that he’s a horrible leader (though one who has managed to reshape American foreign policy, pass major legislation, and use his executive powers in a really effective manner). Now one expects the opposition to dislike the President — the left certainly skewered Bush — but the rants against Obama are over the top. They are irrational and even bizarre.
Part of it is generational. To some – especially older white males (my demographic so I’m not knocking the whole group) – Obama is just, well, strange. His name is Barack Hussein Obama. He was born in an interracial marriage back when those were even less accepted than gay marriage is now. His dad was from Africa, and his mom worked abroad and had a very progressive world view. Living abroad allowed him to expand his horizons at a young age.
To me, that’s positive – he grew learning how to adjust to other cultures and be open minded. I think a President should understand that the US perspective is not the only one, that makes him a better diplomat on the world stage. Yet Giuliani said “he didn’t grow up the same,” meaning that to Rudy, Obama’s unique upbringing somehow makes him foreign. He isn’t like past Presidents.
Obama personifies the cultural and demographic changes taking place in the US, as the country shifts away from the kind of Cold War America people like Giuliani grew up in. God and country is being replaced by social media and diversity. This transformation evokes fear in some who think America is being “lost” to some strange new way of thinking. Rather than admit that cultural change is real and inevitable, they focus on Obama as the culprit and even traitor to the American ideal. Get rid of Obama, and things will get back to “normal.”
But that is wishful thinking on the part of the reactionary right. The cultural transformation has a momentum all its own and will continue no matter who is elected President. This isn’t a threat to American values – Obama believes in freedom and democracy as much as Giuliani – but a sign that the US has to adapt to a world in transition.
If anything, Obama has strengthened the US image abroad. When President Bush tried to get the UN to approve his plans to invade Iraq, he was countered by an alliance of Germany, Russia and France – an unheard of audacious opposition to US policy! As the Iraq war went south, it became clear to the world that the US capacity to project military power to achieve political outcomes was weak, and the American public rebelled against the effort. Then in 2008 an economic collapse brought forth the worst crisis since the great depression. Obama inherited a country divided by war, weak on the world stage, with an economy in free fall.
The economy has turned around, and record deficits have been cut dramatically. While the world remains dangerous, the US is no longer involved in the wars Obama inherited, and new US military action is done in conjunction with other regional powers. Obama understands that if the US goes in and tries to take center stage the push back will be immense, as it was in Iraq. After all, ISIS began to form in the chaos the Iraq war created.
In short, President Obama is transitioning US foreign policy from being the leader of the West in the Cold War, to being able to partner with other states in a new multi-polar world with multiple threats. It’s the right strategy. On the domestic front, despite obstruction from Congress, the US is building a sustainable economy for a new era, with production finally going up. Much work still has to be done, but the US has turned the corner from the catastrophe of 2008.
President Obama will be remembered as one of America’s great Presidents. He is not letting the vitriol from the right get to him. He is a leader, he knows that he has to focus on what is right rather than appease the pundits.
After all, the irrational extremes of Obamaphobia would not exist if he were not effective. He would not have handily won two elections if Americans really thought him strange and different. He represents the new silent majority, people looking to the future rather than the past. The angry minority may rant and rave, but it’s a sign of their impotence in the face of a profound cultural transformation.
In 2008 the global economic crisis unmasked the structural weakness of the economies of southern Europe. Greece was by far in the worst shape. In 2010 the EU brokered a bailout deal for Greece, predicated on the country embracing a very painful austerity program. In 2012 Syriza campaigned against the cuts and urged Greeks to chart a course not dictated by the EU. Greek voters, skittish about loosening ties with Europe, said no, and Syriza won just 78 out of 300 seats. Three years of painful recession later and the Greeks have had enough – Syriza won 149 seats, just short of an absolute majority. The left wing party joined in a coalition with ANEL, a small right wing conservative party to form a government.
Greece has a debt of about $500 billion, 180% of it’s GDP. 60% of that debt is owed to the Eurozone, so a default would have serious, though not disastrous implications. Very little of that debt is held by Greece. After the election Greece’s 10 year treasury bond yield skyrocketed to over 10%, meaning rising the debt would be prohibitively costly.
Syriza’s leader, new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, vows to keep this campaign promises, all of which violate the conditions of the bailout. These include increasing the minimum wage, cutting property taxes, increasing pensions, rehiring fired public sector workers, and giving free electricity to those “suffering the most.” Since he doesn’t want more debt, the only way to do that is to print money – but Greece is in the Eurozone and monetary policy is controlled by the European Central Bank (ECB). So what next?
One might wonder if Tsipras is out of touch with reality, wanting to increase spending to get out of debt. But he makes a good point that austerity simply increased the scope and depth of the recession. The ‘bailout’ benefited Eurozone banks more than the Greek people. He believes his policies would stimulate the economy so that Greece will be able to pay back its debts and show itself to be solvent.
Unfortunately the Greek economy was built on sand – debt and public sector employment hid the fact the Greek economy is structurally flawed. Just ending austerity won’t change that, nor alter the dynamics that created the crisis in the first place.
Last week Tsipras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis visited European leaders to try to assure them that they weren’t going to rush out of the Eurozone, and to convince them to support a bridge loan to fund the government through September. On Sunday Tsipras said that the Euro was a “fragile house of cards” and if the Greek cards were pulled it would collapse. On Wednesday Eurozone finance ministers are meeting to discuss what to do next.
Tsipras is playing a game of chicken – pushing the EU to accept his policies and offer help in exchange for Greece holding on to the Euro. More importantly, if he were to leave the debt owned by Eurozone banks would become toxic, threatening a banking crisis.
Still, the threat to the Euro is much smaller than it was back in 2010, or even during the election of 2012. At that point high bond yields threatened a number of countries, especially Spain and Italy. Today Italy’s bond yield is 1.76%, while Spain’s is 1.38%. Those are below the US yield of 1.94%! This suggests the fears of contagion no longer exist and Greece is being treated as an isolated case. With 19 countries now using the Euro – Lithuania joined last month – it could withstand a Greek departure.
But the Prime Minister does not want to leave the Eurozone, and therein lies the rub. Greeks know that leaving the Eurozone would put them on a path towards increased isolation and continual crisis. He’s betting he can arrange a bridge loan through August, and that while Greek debt is high, the Greek economy is small. The cost to the EU member states would not be prohibitive.
While some European leaders are sounding cautiously optimistic about making a deal with Tsipras, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is having none of it. While not dismissing anything out of hand, she says it’s up to Greece to come up with a plan. Tsipras has said he’s working on further reforms designed to mollify EU critics, but it’s unlikely he’ll convince Merkel, who fears this will simply enable Greece to go back to its old ways.
1. Those predicting the end of the Euro will be disappointed. Countries are politically committed to monetary union as the best way to assure economic stability. Businesses and banks – the people who really run the show – are almost unanimously in favor of it. Now that Italy and Spain are no longer seen as “the next to go” if Greece leaves, the Euro is not in existential danger.
2. Tsipras and EU leaders, particularly German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande, will engage in tough negotiations, but are likely to reach a deal. It’s in their interest. The EU leaders do not want their banks to suffer due to the Greek debt they hold, nor do they want instability associated with the first departure from the Eurozone. Prime Minister Tsipras knows that the Greek economy would be severe crisis if he actually tried to go back to the drachma, perhaps worse than the last few years of recession.
3. The agreement might work. Merkel needs to be firm on the need of Greece not just to stimulate their economy, but to restructure it. Greece needs to develop a productive and sustainable economy. They do not have one now. Tsipras has to recognize that reality..
The telling point is that nobody involved wants Greece to leave the Eurozone. It is in their interest to maintain it, even strengthen it. It is in the EU’s interest to have Greece develop a sustainable, productive economy. The bailout and austerity program didn’t work – even though the Greek voters gave it a chance back in 2012. With some creative thinking, it may be that contrary to expectations, the victory of Syriza may end up being good for the EU.