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June 10, 2011

At Least We Try To Stay Civil About It
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 04:15 PM * 462 comments

Yesterday, in Maine:

Argument over religion led to man’s death in Bangor, witness says

Just when you thought the Thirty Years’ War was over.

We start with a 9-1-1 hangup call. Police respond and find a man in a driveway, dead, with apparent head injuries. A witness appears:

“I was visiting someone,” the witness said. “These two were talking about religion. One believed in God. The other one didn’t. They were provoking each other all night and it just escalated into [the person who lived in the apartment] strangling the guy. He couldn’t breathe. I told him to stop but he wouldn’t.”
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t tell us which of them was the one who believed in God.
“I walked outside and called the cops,” the witness said. “When I came around to the back of the building, the body was being dragged over near the Dumpster. I think someone threw him out the window but I didn’t see that.”
Defenestration is traditional in cases like this.
The victim’s death was considered “suspicious,” [Bangor police Sgt. Paul Kenison] said.
The Bangor Daily News (linked above, the source of the quotes) has video.
The witness who spoke to the BDN described Thursday’s events as “traumatizing.”

“I had to call the cops but I wish that it hadn’t escalated to the point that it got to,” he said. “There was no need of it.”

Amen.
Comments on At Least We Try To Stay Civil About It:
#2 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 04:49 PM:

pnh @1, that about covers it. Too bad the story Jim is reporting isn't from The Onion too. Seems like it should be.

Thanks for the link - I hadn't seen that one before.

#3 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 05:01 PM:

Fortunately, the story doesn’t tell us which of them was the one who believed in God.

FTFY

#4 ::: rgh ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 05:23 PM:

Meanwhile in another Bangor:
Surely even when undead the inhabitants of Bangor would be too polite to eat one another?
http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/06/10/council-preparations-for-zombie-attack/

#5 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 06:27 PM:

For a moment I thought it was about Bangor, Northern Ireland. Or at least north Wales.

#6 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 07:36 PM:

Time for Emo again.


#7 ::: DaveKuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 08:42 PM:

Well, at least one of them now knows if there is or isn't a god.

#8 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 08:48 PM:

Well, now, the guy who lost the argument (by being murdered) now knows which of them was right (or not, if there's no afterlife). Wouldn't the murderer have been better off to commit suicide so he would get the answer first? More polite, too.

This is a specific case of the general rule, "Eat the pretzel first".

#9 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 11:13 PM:

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t tell us which of them was the one who believed in God.

More unfortunately, there are people who will not know how to react to this story until they learn which of them it was.

#10 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 11:36 PM:

More unfortunately, there are people who will not know how to react to this story until they learn which of them it was.

That's why I "corrected" it to "fortunately."

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2011, 11:47 PM:

I'm sorry, but I don't see how sloppy reporting improves the story.

#12 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 05:20 AM:

I'm going to stick my neck out here and say I'm pretty sure it will turn out that the atheist is the murder victim here.

(There's a track record of this sort of thing happening, unfortunately. A certain subset of believers find the absence of belief so threatening to their sense of self-definition that they'll commit acts of violence to make the cognitive dissonance go away. Whereas the sort of atheists who bother discussing their beliefs with religionists are usually ex-religionists themselves, have already made a change of belief, and therefore mentally assign a cost to such belief changes that is well below the threshold for violence.)

#13 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 07:01 AM:

You're probably right, Charlie. Which, if it turns out to be the case, the guy loses more points for being Unclear on the Concept.

I'm pretty sure that when the final report is written the words "alcohol was involved" will appear somewhere in it.

#14 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 08:14 AM:

James 11: My point is that if it matters which was which, ur doin it rong. It's the same cautionary tale either way, but NOT reporting which was which keeps it from being a story either side can point to to say that that the other is evil.

#15 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 08:55 AM:

The autopsy is over, but the police still aren't releasing the name or the cause of death.

Xopher, #14, I disagree. The only thing that differentiates this story from a thousand other sordid tales is the reported motive.

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 09:41 AM:

I'm with Charlie on this.

#17 ::: IreneD ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 10:39 AM:

If there was a bet on who was the killer, I'd side with Charlie (#12) too.

And word on Jim's guess (#13) about the probability of alcohol being said to be involved in the final report, too. Or possibly what will emerge is that the two guys had some sort of ongoing other feud, maybe even over something that is not very important in the grand scheme of things but still can produce a lot of aggravation. Neighborhood disputes that start about noisy kids or straying dogs and stuff like that can sometimes escalate to the violent stage, even when religion is not involved.

#18 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 11:18 AM:

My betting nickel is with Charlie, but I also agree with what Xopher is saying. If knowing who was the killer and who was the victim changes your attitude about the murder, something is wrong.

I also agree with IreneD that there's got to be more to it than this. Alcohol is a good bet, as is previous tension in the relationship. And our overall cultural attitudes about violence certainly don't help.

#19 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 12:42 PM:

IreneD@17: Or possibly what will emerge is that the two guys had some sort of ongoing other feud, maybe even over something that is not very important in the grand scheme of things but still can produce a lot of aggravation.

Indeed. On a different day, with the same people, it might have been an argument over something else entirely, such as the Red Sox vs. the Yankees. (Which is a religious argument of a different sort, I suppose.) Or about the proper way to eat potato chips -- we had that one in New Hampshire some years back, during a particularly bad cabin fever season.

#20 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 03:27 PM:

I'd put money on Charlie's guess, and on Jim's alcohol diagnosis too. Here in Portland we get several murders a year motivated by arguments over sports, girl friends, or small debts, usually on the sidewalk in front of taverns.

#21 ::: Naomi Parkhurst ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 04:00 PM:

I once saw two library patrons nearly come to blows over the pronunciation of "conscience" even though I had just looked it up for them in the dictionary. The sudden presence of a sharp-eyed security guard was much appreciated.

#22 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 04:00 PM:

I'm a little hesitant to agree with folks that, in effect, only a really intolerant person would change their reaction to the article on the basis of who the victim was.

It is, without doubt, a terrible crime either way, and deserves to be punished. I am not arguing that in the slightest.

But I think that the trend in certain religious circles, toward violent hyperbole bordering on incitement, is a real, serious, societal problem. To the extent that this is another example of unbalanced people being swayed by that sort of - in my opinion, irresponsible - rhetoric, I think that needs to be part of the discussion. I'm not aware of similar rhetoric being used to a similar extent on the atheist side of the discussion. If it were, I'd support identical contextual criticism, but to the best of my knowledge, it simply isn't the case.

The two scenarios seem to me to be different, in some very relevant ways.

#23 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 05:41 PM:

Thinking about KayTei's comment above:

IANA mental health worker, and I proceed to this comment with caution, but it seems to me that certain personality types are drawn to certain religious groups (and to political groups, to sports activities or leagues, and so on) precisely because the language and social practices of these groups provide a place to focus and sometimes to act out rage, suspicion, frustration, resentment, and so on that actually arises from some other place in their lives.

And I also wonder what else these two people might have had a dispute about.

#24 ::: edward oleander ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2011, 08:55 PM:

@Lizzy - On a "local" level (within a given society), I think you're correct. Many of my addicted patients who have had long sober periods have replaced the "harmful" addiction with one that is healthier (or at least socially acceptable). I might add, IMO, that before you get to that level, cultural influences place certain limits on what choices are available to any particular personality type (i.e Being a Muslim in America right now can be difficult, as was being a Communist in the 1950's, or a person of colour in golf). Within those limits, an addictive personality will seek something to focus on which replaces their substance or behavior.

I also add my voice to those who think alcohol will be revealed as a major participant in the outcome.

#25 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 12:56 AM:

I'm betting on both: alcohol was involved AND they already had a beef with one another. I live in an urban neighborhood and that is the cause of a lot of grief.*

* doing anything with drugs, gangs, being related to people who do that crap, etc. are also a major cause of grief.....

Our only issues are occasional petty theft and bullshit like idiots coming to the door to ask for money because they were evicted.... from section 8 apartments.

#26 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 12:56 AM:

I'm betting on both: alcohol was involved AND they already had a beef with one another. I live in an urban neighborhood and that is the cause of a lot of grief.*

* doing anything with drugs, gangs, being related to people who do that crap, etc. are also a major cause of grief.....

Our only issues are occasional petty theft and bullshit like idiots coming to the door to ask for money because they were evicted.... from section 8 apartments.

#27 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 12:57 AM:

I'm betting on both: alcohol was involved AND they already had a beef with one another. I live in an urban neighborhood and that is the cause of a lot of grief.*

* doing anything with drugs, gangs, being related to people who do that crap, etc. are also a major cause of grief.....

Our only issues are occasional petty theft and bullshit like idiots coming to the door to ask for money because they were evicted.... from section 8 apartments.

#28 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 01:58 AM:

Personally, I'd be more disappointed in an atheist murderer than a theist. (I'm betting Charlie's right, or that it was really a drunken fight over an existing grudge and the argument was just the spark, not the fuel.)

There are many breeds of theist who believe they have excellent reasons to kill for their faith. Most of them need to re-read Patrick's Onion article, but for some it doesn't apply.*

But if you killed someone because there's no god... What else are you gonna kill over? No unicorns? No more Romanovs? Will I get stabbed if I thought there was milk in the fridge but actually I'd forgotten to buy it?

*Hell, there's even a subset of killing-for-my-faith that I admire: Sikhs are commanded to be armed at all times in order to fight injustice. I think that's a hardassed thing to say, as a religious leader: Don't just refuse to do wrong, don't just argue against it. Take this knife, now you have no excuses, no "I couldn't stop it anyway so I went along."

#29 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 09:38 AM:

edward oleander @ #24: "The only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania," is a saying I have heard quoted from some medical man. --William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (etext--worth reading)

nthing the "this argument could have been about anything"; we had our fourth murder of the year here Friday; couple of guys arguing (subject unspecified), one stabbed the other in the neck and chest. Year before last, a local man killed his 6-year-old grandson over a slice of watermelon. He also shot his wife, who was shielding their other grandson, and she later died as well.

#30 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 10:38 AM:

It occurs to me that these may be summer-heat casualties of a different sort.

#31 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 01:52 PM:

"it might have been an argument over something else entirely, such as the Red Sox vs. the Yankees."

There's a recent case here in California where a Giants fan was viciously beaten after a game by some Dodgers fans—I think there's been one arrest so far but there's still at least one perp still at large. That was another WTF? moment—it's freaking baseball.

#32 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 02:29 PM:

David Harmon @30: Murders do tend to go up in the summer. I've heard it's because the heat drives more people outside, where they have more chance to get in arguments with each other. I personally suspect tempers are also shorter. (I know when our air conditioning broke last summer in the middle of a long streak of triple-digit heat, my husband and I got irritated with each other much more easily. Those were just minor pet-peeve things, not real anger, but still.) Add people drinking more cold beer. Suddenly more arguments flare up. And arguments that would have ended with shouting or maybe a punch in the nose, end instead with someone dead.

#33 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 07:27 PM:

B. Durbin, #31: Sports are, unfortunately, another area where that sort of thing happens often enough to be notable. ISTR at least one documented case in which a member of a college team (football, I think) shot the bird at a group of fans of the losing team, and they beat him up. It may be "just a game", but it's also bragging rights for a lot of people, and egos that are seriously enmeshed with the team's win-lose record. And with sports, there's always a good chance that money is also involved.

#34 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 08:06 PM:

Caroline @ #32, "August Heat" is a classic short story of murder in summer, and it's online. It was written by William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) in 1910.

#35 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 08:58 PM:

I've always loved that story.

#36 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 09:59 PM:

B. Durbin, it's collected in an anthology called "The Haunted Looking Glass," which is where I first ran across it.

At Halloween in 2009 I went on a search to find all the stories collected therein and discovered that all but one was online. I put links to them up on my blog here.

#37 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2011, 10:36 PM:

B. Durbin @ 31: "That was another WTF? moment—it's freaking baseball."

I know right? Real fans save their violence for football. Or futbol.

#38 ::: Jim ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 12:44 AM:

There are certain not-small groups of Christians who believe, at reflex level, that atheists are on a conscious mission from Satan to steal their salvation. Yes, literally. If you hold such a the totally-unreasonable premise, it's not unreasonable to kill them: after all, they're threatening you with eternal death, you're just killing somebody who's already damned.

I am unaware of a reciprocal belief on the part of atheists, for any subset of inverted values.

#39 ::: etv13 ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:33 AM:

Caroline @32, Linkmaster @34: "On these hot days is the mad blood stirring." From a play set, as near as I can tell, in August.

#40 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:27 AM:

Jim #38: How is said salvation to be stolen?

#41 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:33 AM:

Jim @ 38... atheists are on a conscious mission from Satan to steal their salvation

I'm on a mission from Santa myself.

#42 ::: Kate Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 08:40 AM:

Linkmeister @34: Thanks for the link to "August Heat"! I hadn't thought of that story in years but I reread it just now and it's chilling. I think I first read it in middle school, but I don't remember what book it was in.

#43 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 09:14 AM:

KayTei @22

I think that the trend in certain religious circles, toward violent hyperbole bordering on incitement, is a real, serious, societal problem.... I'm not aware of similar rhetoric being used to a similar extent on the atheist side of the discussion.

I think that this is a common mistake. The atheist side of the discussion dominates the courts; it dominates the school system; it dominates policy-effecting thinking about a whole array of issues. The religious side is overwhelmingly trying to preserve rights that were generally available to them 50 years ago, and are much diminished today (and that look likely to be under continuing pressure).

When you have two sides, one the establishment and one the embattled non-establishment, the violent rhetoric is always on the non-establishment side; the rhetoric of the abolitionists was generally much more violent than that of the slaveholders. "Who can get what they want from the existing power structure?" is always a key question.

#44 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 09:39 AM:

SamChevre, 43: Public religiosity* of a particularly restrictive Christian variety is much more prevalent than it was when I was younger. If it's making *me* uncomfortable, I can only imagine how painful it is for atheists and theists who are not Christian. The fact that there were only two Jewish kids in my high school did not make it okay for football games to begin with a prayer to Jesus. Is that the kind of "rights" you're talking about? If so, I'm sorry to tell you that it's actually "privilege," and speaking as a member of the dominant class I'm GLAD it's going away.

*yes, I do mean "religiosity."

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 09:42 AM:

Sam Chevre @ 43... The atheist side of the discussion dominates the courts

I guess someone was bound to bring up that canard.

#46 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 09:57 AM:

SamChevre @43 I am continually baffled by the perception among Christians in this country (a significant majority of the population) that they are somehow being persecuted by various and often tiny minority groups. There are still states that have laws on their books making it illegal for atheists to run for public office. Admittedly, they wouldn't hold up to constitutional challenge, but when you couple that with studies showing that atheists are among the least trusted groups in America (link) it points up how very hard it is for atheists to end up in positions of power and starts to become a quite ludicrous proposition. The overwhelming number of court cases brought by atheists aren't aimed at imposing atheism on anybody. They are aimed at preventing having religion imposed upon the atheists in question.

How does one get the sense of being persecuted out of someone else saying in essence "please don't make me pray to your god"?

#47 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:00 AM:

And looking at it for the 4th time (after hitting post, of course), I realize that first sentence is overly broad. I should have said "among a subset of Christians" because it's certainly not universal. Mea culpa.

#48 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:43 AM:

Sam Chevre at 43: Please identify one or more "right" that was available to people of faith 50 years ago and is no longer available, or is diminished. It would also be helpful if you could also identify the source of that particular right -- remembering that in a pluralistic, secular society, canon law, Halakhah, and the holy scriptures of multiple religions do not count as legitimate sources.

#49 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:44 AM:

On second thought -- maybe you shouldn't. I don't think I have the energy for that discussion this morning.

#50 ::: --E ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:50 AM:

Sam Chevre @43 I know of no cases in the USA where a Christian was prevented from practicing any aspect of their Christianity on their own recognizance, as long as it was peaceable and not otherwise illegal (e.g., abusing ones children in the name of god does not get a pass). If you have evidence of such, please offer it.

The USA is roughly 75% Christian. The non-Christian 25% generally would prefer if the Christians didn't get to dictate what happens at public, secular events.

#51 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:56 AM:

SamChevre@43: the rhetoric of the abolitionists was generally much more violent than that of the slaveholders

And that's just scratching the surface of how much atheism is like slavery.

Serge@47: Are you trying to get his goat?

#52 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:58 AM:

Adrian Smith @ 53... Are you trying to get his goat?

Of course not. That behavior is for kids.

#53 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 11:10 AM:

Serge@54: Of course not. That behavior is for kids.

Nevertheless I fear he will not be easily cowed.

#54 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 11:20 AM:

Sam Chevre @ 43

How to say this simply? For me, the dialogue is not between "Christians" and "Atheists." It is between "a specific subset of Christians who believe that their religious beliefs are more important and valid than those of the people around them," and "a wide range of people, from a variety of backgrounds and religious faiths, including Christians, who believe that preventing the imposition of a single religion on those who choose other paths is critical to democratic process."

Of course, discussion is also critical to democratic dialogue, so I'm fine with this being one of those topics that's in an ongoing state of tension and growth...

#55 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 11:47 AM:

I'm popping in on my (very short) lunch break[1], in the middle of a more-than-usually-busy day at work; I'll try to respond more thoughtfully later.

Just to squash one line of argument which I really do not want to go down: I've been thinking rather a lot recently (for obvious reasons, given date and location) about the rhetoric and actions leading up to the Civil War/War between the States, and those leading up to and being part of the Civil Rights Movement/Second Reconstruction; I am not trying and do not intend to get into any "which side of this debate is like which side of that debate" in any terms other than rhetoric.

1) It's a good food day; I'm having neither weeds not cans for lunch.

#56 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 11:58 AM:

43: you seem to be contradicting yourself there; first you say that it's a mistake to say there's a lot of violent religious rhetoric out there, then you say Christians are an embattled non-establishment minority, then you say that the minority is normally where you find the violent rhetoric!

#57 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 11:58 AM:

I think SamChevre has an important point, but I'd change the word "rights" to something more morally neutral, like "powers." If you go from "all public meetings will, by default, make a prayer to my God in the language of my religion" to "public meetings will not, by default, make any prayer at all," my religion is in some sense losing power or influence or something.

I think we usually notice the direction and rate of change, rather than the current state of society. We especially notice it when groups we identify with are on the losing end of that. And I think this explains a lot of how Christians, whites, social conservatives, etc., often feel that they're being oppressed--they're losing stuff that they used to have. This may very well represent morally neutral changes in society, or even morally positive ones. It may be that even after these changes, the previously favored group is still doing just fine. But when your traditional privileges get taken away, human nature is to say "What the hell? We've always gotten to do this!" rather than "Yes, I can see that we used to have the odds stacked 10:1 in our favor, and now they're only stacked 2:1 in our favor, so I won't complain."

In a world where there's a huge amount of change--social, economic, technological, intellectual, artistic--there are always people upset that they're getting the shaft, even when whatever changes are happening will leave them better off than most everyone else.

#58 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 12:02 PM:

TexAnne:

I wonder whether we're usually made more uncomfortable by visibly annoying people who are more like us or more unlike us. Someone unlike me being loud and obnoxious is relatively easy for me to tune out, unless he's actually threatening. Someone like me being loud and obnoxious reflects on me, and may also be something of a challenge to me--like if I really believed what I say I believe, I'd be standing there with him shouting at people going into the abortion clinic or the Army recruiting station or whatever.

#59 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 12:14 PM:

SamChevre 47: The atheist side of the discussion dominates the courts; it dominates the school system; it dominates policy-effecting thinking about a whole array of issues. The religious side is overwhelmingly trying to preserve rights that were generally available to them 50 years ago, and are much diminished today...

Hmm. I have little to say to this other than 1. Bullshit and 2. Stop whining.

The little is this: see albatross on diminution of unjust privilege being perceived as oppression by the stupid, the ignorant, and the bigoted. Also, suck it up.

albatross 59: I think SamChevre has an important point, but I'd change the word "rights" to something more morally neutral, like "powers." If you go from "all public meetings will, by default, make a prayer to my God in the language of my religion" to "public meetings will not, by default, make any prayer at all," my religion is in some sense losing power or influence or something.

I don't think you think that's a bad thing, from the rest of your comment. I'll go further and say it's a really, really GOOD thing.

#60 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 12:23 PM:

albatross @#59: I think SamChevre has an important point, but I'd change the word "rights" to something more morally neutral, like "powers."

The word you want is probably "privileges". It is a privilege to be able to assume every public meeting will start etc. It is a privilege to be able to not worry when pulled over by a cop (I have this one, being white, but slightly less than a white man would). It is a privilege to know that no one assumes you got your nifty job just because you're a man and they needed to make quota. Whatever.

#61 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:02 PM:

albatross, 59: I am made uncomfortable by people who call themselves Christians shouting loudly about how evil X is, when X is not evil at all. Gays, lazy-ass poor people, not getting to start football games with prayers to Jesus...the people who call themselves "Christians" worship certainty and money, not that smelly Palestinian peasant.

#62 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:14 PM:

Kelly, #49: It's actually worse than that; the people that you mention believe that they are being persecuted by the Constitution and are continually trying to either ignore it or rewrite it in such a way that "freedom of religion" means nothing beyond the right to attend the Christian church of your choice on Sunday morning. Witness the constant rhetoric about America being "a Christian nation", Huckabee's proposal to rewrite the Constitution because it's "not Godly enough", etc. All of this in a country where they largely control the public discourse, where there are churches on every street corner, where teachers and judges openly defy the law to put the Bible into public arenas (and fight tooth and nail to keep other religions from receiving equal recognition), where there is flaming outrage when Keith Ellison is allowed to take his oath of office on his holy book rather than theirs. TexAnne has it right -- this isn't persecution by any normal definition, it's De Camp's version:

- "You don't like the Goths?"
- "No! Not with the persecution we have to put up with!"
- "Persecution?"
- "Religious persecution. We wont stand for it forever."
- "I thought the Goths let everybody worship as they pleased."
- "That's just it! We Orthodox are forced to stand around and watch Arians and Monophysites and Nestorians and Jews going about their business unmolested, as if they owned the
country. If that isn't persecution, I'd like to know what is!"

albatross, #59: Thank you. That sums it up very neatly.

#63 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:20 PM:

albatross and Carrie S, you've made my point for me. There is indeed a difference between "rights", "powers", and "privileges", and SamChevre would be more correct were he to point out that the dominant Christian majority has lost privilege it once had, including the privilege of having its religious assumptions serve as the default position for a whole slew of social options, behaviors, and attitudes.

We might have a conversation about whether that's a bad thing, or not, and for whom.

#64 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:27 PM:

A quick comments before another meeting. (Remind me to enlighten you on how much I love debugging accounting systems.)

KayTei @ 56
...a specific subset of Christians who believe that their religious beliefs are more ...valid than those of the people around them.

That's (whether one considers it a feature or a bug) part of the structure of the Abrahamic faiths. Quicunque vult salvus esse isn't the position of a minority subsect; no more is La ilaha illallah.

#65 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:34 PM:

Hmm, think I'll let the local vast majority handle this discussion and just repeat: the spam is coming! The spam is coming!

#66 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:36 PM:

SamChevre: I am getting damn tired of the Abner Hales of the world ranting at everyone who isn't their brand of Christian/Moslem/whatever that THEIR insane sect is BEST -- and that the rest of us had better get with the program.

It isn't just freedom of religion -- it's also freedom from religion -- I'm tired of being hassled every Lent by street preachers, or having to convince the Mormons and JW's not to come knocking on my door, or hearing about one more doctor being murdered because he or she was performing a medically legal procedure -- and they rejoice in this slaying.

None of us are perfect -- but do these acts seem reasonable when "love one another" was the main teaching of the man they're supposed to follow?

#67 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:58 PM:

Before the thread snowballs, I'll note that there's an important distinction between the notion that a particular religious belief is correct (and that other beliefs are therefore incorrect insofar as they contradict it), and the notion that a particular religious belief, or its adherents, should be given preference over others in public policy.

These notions are all too often conflated. They were in the article that SamChevre linked, which among other things quotes a UN convention's call for teaching "friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons" and quickly jumps to the conclusion that this is tantamount to forbidding children from being told (by anyone) that "Jesus is the only way to God".

A certain amount of imprecision and sloppiness can be expected in online discussions as people read and write quickly around lunch breaks and other duties of life. Seeing it in a formal publication, however, makes me doubt either the competency or the ingenuousness of the author.

#68 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 01:59 PM:

neatly side stepping the religious issues and returning to the issue of murder and weather

I'm surprised that this happened during the Spring/Summer in Maine, actually. Because while earlier commenters are right that murder seems to spike in hot weather (Note Raymond Chandler's excellent comment that, "There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.") in Maine that kind of thing is more liable to be sparked by rotten winter weather and cabin fever.

I read, a long while back, an account of turn of the century life on the Maine coast where the author noted something along the lines of, "If you got to mid-February and the serving girl hadn't tried to murder you at least once, all you could do was figure she had no backbone."

Naturally, I am unable to find the source of that, but googling "Maine" "Murder" "serving girl" and "backbone" sure got me to some stories I wish I didn't know.

#69 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:18 PM:

Sarah S: I lived in LA for six months, from late January to mid-July. It hadn't even gotten to the really hot part of the summer, and yet I know exactly what Chandler meant with that passage. It was one of the reasons I was very happy to leave LA.

#70 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:22 PM:

Privileges weights the discussion in the opposite direction as rights. My point is that this reaction occurs regardless of any inherent rightness or wrongness of the powers or influence being lost, and that it's valuable to recognize that regardless of your beliefs about the good or bad parts to whatever is being lost. We don't have to agree on that to recognize that people losing something they used to have will feel like they're getting screwed over, regardless of their ending position. For example, retirees are financially better off than much of the country. And yet, propose to means-test SS benefits and cut off the folks with money to spare, and you'll hear a hell of an outcry. This is human nature.

#71 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:43 PM:

SamChevre at 43: False equivalence. Professors writing speculative essays in law reviews are not the same as "violent hyperbole bordering on incitement".

#72 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:45 PM:

Sam Chevre @43:

When you have two sides, one the establishment and one the embattled non-establishment, the violent rhetoric is always on the non-establishment side.

Which is why, in the Jim Crow South, the NAACP was a violent terrorist organization while the KKK and other white groups preached nonviolence.

(Either you and I are not working off of the same history books, or you have definitions of "violent" and "establishment" so far from mine that you can't see them with a telescope.)

#73 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:48 PM:

Albatross, if you require means-testing for SS benefits, it becomes a welfare program, which gives the Republicans the incentive to end it.

Social Security is an insurance policy which most of us pay into -- it is used to insure a certain base income in retirement. Everyone who pays in is eligible for benefits when they reach age 67 (reduced benefits at 62).

Rather than means-test, let's require that all income be subject to the FICA tax, and remove the cap that limits taxation to the first $106,800 earned. Making this change alone would guarantee SS's financial health well into the next century.

Don't bite when the Repubs put that tasty "means-test" worm on the hook!

#74 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:51 PM:

[that was me @ 38; not sure what happened to my last name, apologies]

Fragano@40: by making them doubt. Scary stuff, doubt.

There was a story in Esquire or Vanity Fair a few months ago about Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus driving into LA to start work on her tv show ... on the freeway, he says, they passed one of those Adopt-a-Mile litter cleanup signs, sponsored by a local chapter of American Atheists ... Miley said she felt "threatened".

To take a recent example, google '"Damon Fowler" +atheist' and read the local newspapers' reporting -- especially the comment threads. Or any story about atheist bus signs, billboards, etc.; being reminded that we simply exist is perceived as a threat.

#75 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:54 PM:

Re the particular circumstances of the subject argument: it was stunningly hot in Bangor last week -- close to 90 on Thursday afternoon. But this happened at 5 a.m., and it was about 60 degrees at the time.

But this happened at 5 a.m., which makes me suspect that the chemical co-conspirator was something besides alcohol. (I mean, something that keeps you up and feisty at 5 a.m.).

#76 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 02:58 PM:

Miley said she felt "threatened".

As Billy Ray points out, the sign "could have easily said 'You will now be attacked by Satan.'

#77 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 03:01 PM:

Lori #75:

Regardless of the right or wrong of the specific proposed change, however, the people on the losing end will be upset, and are very likely to feel like they're getting screwed over, whether they are or aren't. This is a point that applies regardless of disagreements over the specific change.

#78 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 03:19 PM:

Kid@78: That's the one, thanks for the link. Even dramaticker than I remembered it.

#79 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 03:28 PM:

I think some calming down is in order. Just because someone says something you don't agree with is no reason to insult them or their beliefs - isn't that where this thread started?

I will point out that telling people in your community to just deal with it, suck it up, and various other less-than-gracious phrasings is rude and will not get your opponent to agree with you or desire to see your perspective. I found the tonal differences between the two sides in this thread interesting - SamChevre may be making inflammatory points, but they are not stated in such a way as to insult any specific poster or group. I keep waiting for this thread to Godwin, on the Christians-loosing-privilege-is-a-good-thing side, and the fact that I am semi-anticipating it because of tone and word choice is *not* a way to get supporters.

Albatross makes the point most handily, that people who are losing status in the status quo feel that loss and may feel persecuted because of that loss. Whether that loss is a good thing or not for an individual, family, or society is an entirely separate issue and can depend on the location of perspective in time (my losing my [tenured, long term, senior] position to hire you, a young minority, is bad for me and good for you). It's a topic that should be discussed, but civilly.

#80 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 03:49 PM:

Albatross @79: Oh, most assuredly agreed!

I'm not surprised that those "losing" these privileges are upset, but I do wish they'd realize that these things were never a "right."

Is it too much to ask that they try to see this from another's point of view?

#81 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 03:51 PM:

SamChevre @43 "the rhetoric of the abolitionists was generally much more violent than that of the slaveholders."

Huh. Are you sure about that? More colorful, perhaps. More emphatic, even. But "We're gonna keep the plantation system intact" is actually an extremely violent statement. "Break the chains! Burn the whips! Kill the overseers!" is advocating a smaller amount of violence, it's just doing so in fiery terms instead of bureaucratic ones.

It's only if you consider the many deaths caused directly by slavery to be "natural" that abolitionist rhetoric starts to look violent. If you perform the correct translation (from "maintain our peculiar institutions" to "I'ma keep killin' me some slaves!") I think you'll find there's no violence gap.

#82 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 03:55 PM:

SamChevre @57: I've been thinking rather a lot recently (...) about the rhetoric and actions leading up to the Civil War/War between the States

Interesting phrase you've got there.

From where I'm standing -- I'm not a native of your United States, nor a Christian -- the event you identify with such circuitous euphemisms is better described as the slave-owners' treasonous rebellion.

(And they started it.)

Broadening the focus slightly, the first task of any extremist faction's propaganda is to choose the battleground. Defining themselves as an embattled minority fighting back against a sea of filth is par for the course. I'm playing propaganda bingo with your postings, and I have to say that so far I seem to have a winning hand.

#83 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 04:03 PM:

Devin @83 -- a very good point, and easy to miss.

#84 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 04:19 PM:

Kate Shaw @ #42, You're welcome!

#85 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 05:46 PM:

Jim, #76: That "making them doubt" angle ties into the push to take over the government as well, as illustrated by the De Camp quote. If the mere existence of people who don't believe as they do is enough to be a threat, then a government which refuses to enforce their little bubble is even more of one. Furthermore, it might suggest to their children that it's okay not to be One Of Them! (Hence the homeschooling article linked by SamChevre.) Won't somebody think of the CHEELDRUN?!!

#86 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:05 PM:

sisuile 81: I found the tonal differences between the two sides in this thread interesting - SamChevre may be making inflammatory points, but they are not stated in such a way as to insult any specific poster or group.

Try hearing the same whiny bullshit over and over and over and see how inclined YOU are to tolerate it when it comes up again on this same blog in the space of what, two weeks? *checks* OK, not two weeks. Less than a month, though. Here's my response to the last time this "we poor Christians are so oppressed" bullshit came up, which was on May 22.

As for SamChevre "making inflammatory points" without actually insulting any poster or group...you're just saying we let him troll us. You realize that's what you're saying, right? Or at least troll-bait us.

Anyway, you should have seen my first draft. Christians who think they're being oppressed because they're no longer allowed to oppress everyone else as much can, indeed, suck it the hell up. I stand by that sentiment and phrasing.

Charlie 84: Thank you. Next time someone calls the Civil War "the War Between the States" or even "the War of Northern Aggression" (now there's a propagandistic twist worthy of North Korea), I'm going to just call it the Treason of the Slaveholders.

#87 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:15 PM:

Chris W. @74: Thank the gods someone else noticed that, too. SamChevre, you clearly have no understanding of history, which is FULL of groups in power enacting extreme violence against groups not in power.

sisuile @81: You are a tone troll. SamChevre comes in and spouts ludicrous, self-privileged untruths and you expect everyone to be Miss Manners in response?

Charlie Stross @84: Nice to see this expressed so plainly. Knowing that history is rarely as clean as it is presented in history books, I was always interested in reading the Confederate side of things. But the more I read, the *less* sympathy I had for the Confederate cause. Contemporary revisionism can't hide the fact that the Confederacy was exactly as you described: a revolt by slave-owners who refused to accept the lawful election of a President committed to reducing slavery. I have nothing against people taking pride in their Southern roots, but when they attach themselves to Confederate flags, they are stating their solidarity with traitors who started a civil war to preserve their right to own slaves.

#88 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:29 PM:

Chris 89: While I think sisuile is deeply wrong-headed on the topic of tone in the present discussion, a click of the "View All By" link will demonstrate that sisuile is not a tone troll. Or maybe you meant to write "you're being a tone troll in this conversation," which really isn't quite the same thing?

#89 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:41 PM:

Frederick Douglass, I believe it was, referred to the Civil War as the "Slaveholders' Uprising."

Which strikes me as both succinct and correct.

And if it pisses off the revisionists and apologists, all the better.

#90 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:44 PM:

Stefan, I've used that. But when people call it "the War of Northern Aggression" it's time to point out that it was treason.

#91 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:44 PM:

@70

I'm surprised that this happened during the Spring/Summer in Maine, actually. Because while earlier commenters are right that murder seems to spike in hot weather [...] in Maine that kind of thing is more liable to be sparked by rotten winter weather and cabin fever.

For what it's worth, last Wednesday and Thursday were miserably, unseasonably hot up here. (link goes to NWS climate summary for Bangor, Maine.) Now we're back down into the cold end of normal, but Wednesday and Thursday last week were August-level heat and most people haven't got their air conditioners going yet, assuming they have air conditioners at all.

IOW, last Wednesday night (when the murder appears to have taken place) was definitely unpleasant enough to kindle any overheated situation.

#92 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:45 PM:

I agree with Xopher, 90. I've known and respected sisuile for years, and trolling is not a thing sie does.

#93 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:55 PM:

It's a very long and not-yet-over day. (Arrive home from day of stressful meetings to teething toddler and two "trying unsuccessfully to be helpful" pre-schoolers.)

But Chris @ 74 and following--I'm making a statement about rhetoric; my point is exactly that violent rhetoric does not usually (I should not have said always) go with the power to actually exercise wide-scale violence--that power goes with quiet respectability, not ranting on street corners.

#94 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:55 PM:

My apologies. I should have written "you are being a tone troll here."

#95 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 07:56 PM:

Xopher, #89: I agree with you that sisuile is not being a Tone Troll in the sense of Chris' link. However, sie is definitely making the tone argument, which is rarely if ever a constructive approach.

#96 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 08:03 PM:

Sam@95: should not have said always.

#97 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 08:08 PM:

Sometimes you write a post and realize "this is bullshit" before hitting Post. When that happens to me, I erase the text in the box and replace it with "Sometimes you write a post and realize 'this is bullshit' before hitting Post..."

#98 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 08:18 PM:

SamChevre: you have my sympathies for your very long day. But I still think you're wrong. Violent people use violent rhetoric. Being in power doesn't change that. Hitler's anti-Semitic rhetoric did not tone down once he seized power. Stalin's attacks on counter-revolutionaries were just as vitriolic after the purges. The Spanish expulsion of Jews took place *after* the Reconquest of Spain. That is, once the Christian king had consolidated power and driven out the Moors, only then did he feel he could safely expel the Jews. After the Jews were expelled from Spain, did that stop the blood libels and inflammatory rhetoric? No, it just emboldened the anti-Semites to the point where they demanded that other kingdoms (specifically Portugal) also expel their Jews (even though King Manuel was reluctant to do so, it became a condition of his marriage to Isabella).

I agree with you in principle that those in power have the privilege of enacting violence without necessarily verbalising it, but on most occasions actual violence is accompanied by rhetorical violence. People who wish violence upon others are likely to express it.

#99 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 08:18 PM:

Sam Chevre:

What is burning a cross on someone's lawn if not violent rhetoric? Or is it your contention that the violent enforcement of racial norms in the Jim Crow South was somehow a thing that nobody talked about?

I could quote you chapter and verse from another obvious example but I'm trying to avoid the additional heat added to the conversation by a Godwin's Law transgression.

#100 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 08:48 PM:

Chris@101: Or one could just point out, as I already had, the case of Damon Fowler, a teenager who received death threats* from the Don't-Need-Violent-Rhetoric Majority for objecting to a sectarian prayer at his graduation.

*and denunciations from the pulpits, and insults from his school's faculty in the local paper

#101 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 09:14 PM:

71
Santa Anas actually are rare in summer. (I describe them as being in any month with an 'r' in its name.) Winter is especially bad: the relative humidity has been known to go into single digits.

#102 ::: Carrie S ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 09:41 PM:

#103: Huh, well, that would explain how it happened in early April, then. :)

#103 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:07 PM:

Jim@102: Excellent example.

Chris W@101: Godwin's Law only applies if you compare someone's belief to Nazism. And trying to get around Godwin's Law by referring to Godwin's Law rather than to Nazism is a clear sign that you intend to refer to Nazism, and is therefore a case of Godwin's Law :-)

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 10:09 PM:

Parke Godwin? :-)

#105 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2011, 11:19 PM:

Lori @ 75

Just a quick aside, as the conversation seems to have moved on: I thought that was a really thoughtful analysis of yours.

#106 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 12:22 AM:

albatross @ 72: "We don't have to agree on that to recognize that people losing something they used to have will feel like they're getting screwed over, regardless of their ending position."

I agree, but one of the things I find so irritating and also fairly scary about the Christian oppression narrative, with its violent subtext, is that it is emerging at a time when (from my perspective at least) their power in this country is actually growing.

There's a problem when people's perception of their power and their actual level of power diverge: when you feel weak and vulnerable, you swing as hard as you can, just to stay alive. Things become justifiable that wouldn't otherwise be justifiable.

#107 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 01:28 AM:

Charlie@12, Jim@13 - while my guess is also that the religious guy did the killing, and therefore wins the "totally unclear on the concept" points, it could have gone the other way. The atheist could have just had enough of people telling him he's Going to Hell, and since he doesn't have a religion telling him not to kill people, all he's got is normal human decency - it's good stuff, most people use it most of the time but should really be more consistent about it, but all too often it fails, especially when somebody just won't shut up.

Religious people being self-righteous and obsessive enough to actually kill somebody are pretty rare, but self-righteous enough to not shut up when it ought to be obvious that they're just annoying the listener? Even minor religions like those emacs people have that problem. And throw in heat and possibly alcohol, and possibly lots of history of other conflict, and people can do stupid things. And the article also doesn't say if the two participants are relatives or equivalent.

#108 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 02:22 AM:

I feel that I should also point out it's not by even the wildest stretch of the imagination that the atheists control the courts, the school system, or what have you--it's the secularists. Secularists count among their number people along the whole breadth of the religious spectrum, from those of deep spiritual conviction to the casually syncretic to, yes, atheists. What unites them, and informs our judicial and educational systems, isn't any spiritual principle at all, but a political one: "let's keep the social and political infrastructure we all rely on free of domination by any one religion, shall we?" And their hegemony is far from complete.

#109 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 08:54 AM:

heresiarch @ 110... their hegemony is far from complete

Cue in a Jack Kirby comic-book cover of the Earth being crushed by an iron glove.

"The Earth Under the Rule of... Doctor Secular!!!"

#110 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 09:50 AM:

minor religions like those emacs people FTW

#111 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 10:26 AM:

I've run into more than one person who does not know the difference between a secular person and an atheist.

#112 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 10:58 AM:

heresiarch #108:

I don't see how you can think that, say, fundamentalist Christianity has become more powerful in the US now than 50 years ago. Look at how things run differently now than then--school prayer, common assumption of Christianity in day to day society, gay rights, womens' rights, legal brtn, widespread cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births, relatively freely available pornography, substantially legalized gambling (in the crony capitalist sense, not the free market sense, but still legally available), the ending of laws keeping stores closed on Sundays, etc.

What I think has happened is that, 50 years ago, the religious right made up a good bit of the conventional wisdom about how society should function, at least in many parts of the US. And that has changed, and as it's changed, the religious right has become a more visible political force because it now stands somewhat apart from the larger society. In 1950, nobody had to fight against gay marriage, because that wasn't remotely on the table in the US. In the early 80s, my small-town midwestern high school biology teacher got through an entire year without, as far as I recall, ever using the word "evolution." (I had read a lot of popular books about evolution (Gould and Dawkins, mainly) by then, and was paying attention.)

Shorter me: I think the religious right is an identifiable group with significant resources and votes and volunteers, but that it owes much of its existence and support to the loss of power over society that has been suffered by, broadly, the sort of ideas and beliefs supported by the religious right.

#113 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 11:11 AM:

Xopher #88:

I understand why you feel that way, but in pretty much any situation where group X is winning and group Y is losing, telling the members of group Y to shut up and take their medicine is unlikely to go down very well.

I pretty-much never see this prescription for groups with which the speaker identifies or sympathizes. Very few people on the left tell members of labor unions "Yes, your generous retirement and health benefits are going to be cut drastically, due to economic and social changes outside your control. Suck it up, you've had it good too long already." Republicans will say that (because they broadly don't like unions), but not Democrats.

#114 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 11:25 AM:

Melissa, #113: Exactly. For many people, there is no difference -- and they also don't understand that atheism isn't a religion by definition.*

This is a case of False Dichotomy in action, AKA "if you're not with us, then you support the Leagues of Satan". It's also the motivation behind trying to declare "secular humanism" to be a religion, in order to do an end-run around the Constitution by saying "if you teach THAT religion, then you have to let us teach ours too".

* If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.

#115 ::: Kate Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 11:47 AM:

Lee @116: I love not collecting stamps as a hobby. There's so much to do when you're not collecting stamps!

Sorry. Carry on.

#116 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 12:07 PM:

The word you want is probably "privileges". It is a privilege to be able to assume every public meeting will start etc. It is a privilege to be able to not worry when pulled over by a cop

Hmm, not sure about this; isn't it - in the sense of 'fair treatment by the police' - more of a right that isn't enforced for everyone than a privilege of one group? Or is there even a difference?

I mean, if you look at an unfair society, it might well be the case that only (say) white people can expect not to be locked up in prison without a fair trial, but that doesn't mean that fair trials are a privilege. They're a right; just a right that isn't protected for people who aren't white. Having your own religion given preferential treatment, on the other hand, is more of a privilege.
Maybe the distinction should be that you can't universalise a privilege.

#117 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 12:10 PM:

*waves hand*

Secularist AND theist, here. I believe firmly, enthusiastically, in the separation of church and state. But then, I've looked rather closely at European history: enough to have what I think is a pretty clear idea of what occurs when there are not boundaries between church and state. And I believe the folks who wrote our Constitution held similar opinions.

#118 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 12:18 PM:

Albatross@114: The last 20-30 years have had the mainline protestant (and catholic iirc) denominations in the US losing a ton of members, and the fundamentalist independent churches picking up quite a few. That's why fundamentalist Christianity has become more powerful. I'm not familiar enough with the numbers enough to know if the entire Christian pie is increasing or decreasing WRT the population, but there are definitely demographic shifts within that pie.

#119 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 12:21 PM:

Hmm, not sure about this; isn't it - in the sense of 'fair treatment by the police' - more of a right that isn't enforced for everyone than a privilege of one group? Or is there even a difference?

Fair treatment by the police is a right. Not having to worry that the cop's going to forget that because se thinks you have too much melanin for the price of your car is a privilege.

#120 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 12:31 PM:

KayTei @107: Thanks -- my first job with the Federal government was with Social Security's Office of Hearings and Appeals. SSA tries to see that all its' employees are able to explain the basic points of the program.

#121 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 01:22 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 113: "I've run into more than one person who does not know the difference between a secular person and an atheist."

Yes, so have I. I think it's a very important distinction to bring into the conversation, because to me it is the truly relevant one. The central political question around religion is not what religion anyone has, but whether that should have any political relevance at all.

albatross @ 114: "I don't see how you can think that, say, fundamentalist Christianity has become more powerful in the US now than 50 years ago."

Well, I think one could make a persuasive case that fundamentalist Christianity barely existed as a political force 50 years ago. But on the wider question of the political/social power of broad-stroke Christianity, the choice of 50 (60) years ago is rather deceptive: it was a height of Christian power. Christianity had gained a sudden political relevance in the wake of anti-Communist hysteria, as everyone knows Communists are all atheists. It was when "under God" was put in the pledge, when "In God we trust" was made the official motto of the US, when that motto was put on the currency; it was the era of the civil rights movement with its strong religious element. Prior to that, public religiosity was much more frowned upon, and after that was the (late) sixties and seventies, which more or less marked the nadir of religion in the US.

Political Christianity re-emerged as a power with Carter, sweeping him to an unexpected victory and then delivering him a stinging rebuke, and they've been becoming only more powerful (nationally) in the decades since. Women's rights have been walked back substantially, not just limiting access to brtn but even contraception and sex ed; gay rights have been explicitly denied in law as often as they've been enshrined.

I think it's very difficult to look at the last three decades and map anything like a decline in the power of christianity in American society. And yet every step of the way, their narrative of persecution and oppression has grown stronger. Think of it: the War on Christmas? Honestly? True, numbers are down--but that just highlights the oddity of their increasing political and socially normative power.

#122 ::: --E ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 01:33 PM:

Carrie S @121: I think the point was that while "Not having to worry that the cop's going to forget that" is a privilege, it's a privilege that all people should have, and in theory all people can have.

Whereas "Say a prayer in the religious tradition of my choice at the beginning of a public meeting" is beyond cumbersome to enact, unless it's a very small meeting in a very homogeneous town. (Which also doesn't account for the "and no one new is welcome" or "and don't tell us you've been faking it all these years" messages it sends as well.)

That's why compromises such as a moment of silence work well--people inclined to pray can do so in the tradition of their choice, while people disinclined to pray can use the minute to think about plot twists in their next novel, or what they're going to make for dinner, or how much they miss their recently deceased brother, or whatever.

----

Eric @120: I wonder how the (re)distribution has occurred, relative to power. While statistics show that more people in the USA now identify as having no religious affiliation (which group likely includes a number of secular deists and similar non-atheists), I wonder how the numbers of fundamentalists have changed.

That is, have people simply become more polarized?

This is complicated by there not being a statistical way to show that people who identified as X in 1990 are still identifying as X in 2010, but the definition of what it means to be X may have changed.

#123 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 01:45 PM:

Lee #116:

Ob Abstruse Goose

#124 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 01:46 PM:

I can haz mah comment releezed from teh moderashunz? kthxbai

(sorry I was watching cute cat videos just now)

#125 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 02:08 PM:

-E-:

I wonder that, too. As socially acceptable attitudes have changed, my guess is that many people who would have made exactly the minimum efforts toward being proper Christians 50 years ago (being "not much of a churchgoer" or some such thing) now simply don't bother with church or religion at all.

#126 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 02:09 PM:

heresiarch @126:

Gnomez iz no more stealin' ur bukkit @123.

But...URL shorteners? DO NOT WANT. Link mouseover haz a flavr.

#127 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 02:10 PM:

--E @ 124... polarized? (...) the definition of what it means to be X may have changed

Darn. Where is that photo of Ian McKellen as Magneto?

#128 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 02:41 PM:

#129 Serge: Where is that photo of Ian McKellen as Magneto?

Right here

#129 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 02:59 PM:

One thing that I think has changed in the last 50 years is that it's easier to be a member of a minority religion and _not_ have a passing knowledge of Christianity. I'm not saying this is better or worse, just different.

Highly personal example:
My daughter, at 15, knows very little about "the story of Jesus." By the time I was her age, I knew the basics and some details (actually, long before I was her age). Plus I knew the reasoning behind a lot of the widely-observed holidays (I remember learning about Ash Wednesday and Lent while I was at Hunter, maybe 8th or 9th grade?).

My kid knew almost none of that stuff until about a year ago. She's learned some since then, but I realized she didn't know much about the Jesus story when I began to show her the musical, "Godspell," and had to stop to explain what she was looking at and who John the Baptist was.

I don't have a really good explanation of this; I'm just reporting.

#130 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 03:03 PM:

albatross@114:

In the early 80s, my small-town midwestern high school biology teacher got through an entire year without, as far as I recall, ever using the word "evolution."

Um, the early 80s weren't 50 years ago. What you describe was not the case 40 years ago, when evolution was the armature my entire HS bio class was built on. That intervening decade is precisely when this crap happened.

And vigorous agreement w/ eric@120, there's a ton of info on these shifts buried in the Pew Foundation site.

#131 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 03:03 PM:

James D Macdonald @ 130... Ah, that evil Magnetic Pole...

#132 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 03:11 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 131... I began to show her the musical, "Godspell," and had to stop to explain what she was looking at

I wonder how she'd react to "Life of Brian".
:-)

#133 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 03:12 PM:

--E@124:

This is complicated by there not being a statistical way to show that people who identified as X in 1990 are still identifying as X in 2010

Well, one way is to ask them; the last big Pew survey asked "what religion were you raised in" along with "what are you now", e.g. (one that sticks in my mind was that the answers for RCs were 31% and 24% respectively). What all the vectors within that shift might have been would be in the data, but I'm not sure they've done/published the work to tweeze that out.

#134 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 04:02 PM:

Serge @134: Interesting question, but I need to show her more regular Python first . . . she's only seen some bits and pieces and she is so, so ready for Python.

Alas, I do not own any episodes, just some of the movies.

#135 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 04:30 PM:

Melissa @136: Have you got Netflix? Because all of the episodes are available for streaming there, although sometimes with atrocious audio synchronization (for which I'm never sure whether to blame my 'puter or the streaming files).

#136 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 04:35 PM:

Meliss Singer @ 136... Many of Python's skits also are on YouTube.

#137 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 05:15 PM:

Melissa Singer #131: And that's what they're afraid of! Not just losing numbers, but (1) not being able to make sure that even the non-believers have Heard The Good Word™, and especially (2) not having their religion being the one that "goes without saying".

#138 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 07:59 PM:

I'm starting to form a "not in their lifetime" generalization that may not be valid. Check my thinking, please.

I saw an explanation of hard drugs that said they become cool as soon as, basically, the previous generation of users is no longer around to serve as a warning. [I may not be remembering it perfectly; heroin had waves in something like 1870, 1920,and 1970; cocaine had at least two waves that I'm aware of, but I don't know the timing that well.]

This seems like a much more generalizable thing: there's a temporal distance between all sorts of Bad Old Days things and current thought processes. (Uncontroversially, vaccination; controversially, illegal and deadly but ongoing brtn.)

Yes, I am thinking "widespread religious persecution in the US" may be one of those things.

#139 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 08:30 PM:

and especially not having their religion being the one that "goes without saying".

I've been in the US a lot over the past year or so for work, and from my point of view, christianity still is the religion that "goes without saying".

1) At a site safety meeting shortly before christmas (which included lunch; I was invited even though I work for a client company) they never once explicitly mentioned christianity - but they passed around a company-required "cultural sensitivity" form which listed various religious winter holidays and what religion they were from, with vague instructions to "be respectful". Christmas wasn't listed because it was assumed: it was a list of those "other" religions. (To my interest, the catholic St. Nicholas day, which I am familiar with due to my dutch catholic grandparents, was listed. So I told stories about it! A little expansion of views is always good.)

2) There is a small book spinner right in front of the centre of the deli counter at the supermarket. Every single title on it that has registered in my conscious mind is overtly christian. (bible study, kids bible stories, etc.)

3) "God bless you" when I sneeze. At home I normally hear gezundheit. Everybody here says god bless you. Everybody, including the swaggering, all gold smile with his initials stamped in the two front teeth, I'm putting nitro in this car I'm rebuilding but it's still in the shop kid says that. (He's a pretty nice kid once you get past the swagger.)

Maybe it's less so than it used to be, but I have to say I'm feeling the overwhelming christian majority.

#140 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 09:02 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 136... she is so, so ready for Python

Does she like killer rabbits?
Gangster sheep?
Then yes, she is ready for the Circus.
(Not Le Carré's, mind you.)

#141 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 09:12 PM:

I've been wondering lately around fiction -- what is it safe to assume is in the Commonwealth of Ideas? For a long time, one could assume that readers of fiction in English were cognizant of Bible stories, Greek and Roman mythology, a smattering of Great Literature. Now, that seems to be less true. And what's replacing the basics, if anything?

I'm not bemoaning the change -- I'm asking what is it reasonable to assume that readers will Get, in the way of allusion. And how do we track it?

#142 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 09:56 PM:

@143

That's what footnotes are for. Not endnotes, at least not on paper; involves too much flipping. Hyperlinks are fine if the medium permits. But footnotes, I loves me some footnotes. Even in fiction.

ESPECIALLY in fiction.

#143 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 11:28 PM:

janra, #141: I explicitly say "gesundheit" rather than "God bless you", and have since I was in my 20s. But I don't know many people who do, and outside of my own social circle (which includes a number of pagans and atheists), I never hear anything but the latter.

#144 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2011, 11:35 PM:

Carrie S. @121: too much melanin for the price of your car

I just want to pull this phrase out where it can have a spotlight of its own on its awesome but tragic aptness.

#145 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 12:35 AM:

I've always heard "bless you," not "God bless you," in response to a sneeze. Either way I think its religious content is pretty vestigial for most people.

#146 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:25 AM:

When people sneeze, I say "à vos souhaits!"
(Sort of translates as 'may you have what you wish for!')

#147 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:33 AM:

For sneezes I generally go with "Godzilla" which generally passes unnoticed (~25%) or gets the strangest looks (~70%). Occasionally (~5%), it will get an "I see what you did there" expression. I'm not sure which of the responses I like best.

#148 ::: Susie ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:44 AM:

"Gesundheit" has always been my default response to a sneeze - learned from my father, who presumably got it from his immigrant parents. Sometimes I say "bless you" if I think the sneezer won't understand "gesundheit". But now I'm tempted to try "Godzilla"!

#149 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:46 AM:

In the college town where I live, I hear "bless you".
In the very small town (one traffic light) where I work, I hear "God bless you." Also "have a blessed day" vs. "good day" or "nice day".

#150 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:56 AM:

)114( albatross

"lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh MY!"
(or as the TV commercial states: "Dude!")

Let us look at your list, shall we?

- "school prayer" - Interests powerful enough to publicly violate federal law with near impunity;
- "common assumption of Christianity in day to day society" - There are huge numbers of people who proclaim (usually very loudly and self-righteously, and from false assumtions) that the Founders used explicitly "Christian" reasoning in the Constitution, also, the enshrinement Sunday as a day to get special treatment in terms of pay if worked, and the extra hurdles that non-christian sects have to go through to be officially recognized and afforded the same privileges as christian sects;
- "gay rights" - "DOMA" statutes at the state & federal level, widespread antipathy and discrimination against members of the LGBT community;
- "womens' rights" - What's the level of pay inequality now? Also, I find it odd that you would find the very gradual rise in bringing women's rights up to that assumed for men to be "unchristian";
- "legal brtn" - The raft of state laws that constrict the availability of same, including some that outright violate the Constitutionally protected bounds established, The Hyde Amendment (which coincidentally restricts options for, and further makes our servicemembers 2nd-class citizens) -- But this one could more realistically class as a "class" issue rather than religious -- the restrictive laws in place affect those of meager economic means much more than those who have higher disposable income;
- "widespread cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births" - Sorry, I was not aware that prohibiting discrimination based on marital status was, like your apparent dislike of "women's rights" "unchristian." And I posit that the only real change is that such is no longer remarked-upon with attempts to publicly shame and discriminate against;
- "relatively freely available pornography" - I will grant that it is more *visible.* porn was always available, just not so visibly;
- "substantially legalized gambling (in the crony capitalist sense, not the free market sense, but still legally available)"- Just how long has Bingo been around, and run by the churches?;
- "the ending of laws keeping stores closed on Sundays" - As far as I can recall, neither Roman Catholicism, nor the U.S. Episcopal Church were hard-core opponents of stores being open on Sundays, just that the religious sensitivities of workers be taken into account. And I believe that those two branches are the predominant flavors of "Christianity" when adherents are asked to self-identify beyond the simple appellation of "Christian".

On the other hoof, the prevalence of "christian" bias is shown in the insensitivity of things such as the unwillingness of the national weightlifting rule-makers to to make reasonable accommodations to the requests of a female weightlifter who desires to both compete in the sport and adhere to *her* religion's strictures for her own modesty.

Then again, maybe your preferred flavor of Christianity is more restrictive than the one I savor.

#151 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:01 AM:

)115( Albatross -

Very few people on the left tell members of labor unions "Yes, your generous retirement and health benefits are going to be cut drastically, due to economic and social changes outside your control. Suck it up, you've had it good too long already." Republicans will say that (because they broadly don't like unions), but not Democrats.

Umm, no, because some of us think that formulation is incorrect, and that the preferential treatment given to the wealthy is, quite simply, - wrong. Not just a convenient excuse.

#152 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:12 AM:

Craig R., I don't think the weightlifting clothing issue can be cast as simply a religious controversy. The reason for the bare-elbows-and-knees rule has nothing to do with religion, and the rule is going to be reviewed at the next international federation meeting--which, by the way, will be in Malaysia.

Also, although a disproportionate number of U.S. Presidents have been Episcopalians, it's nowhere near the 2nd largest denomination (that would be the Southern Baptists--who do tend to be in favor of blue laws). See here for the 25 largest Christian denominations in the U.S.--scroll down to the bottom.

#153 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:16 AM:

Carrie S. @121:

too much melanin for the price of your car

Cue up the scene from "MIB II" -- The re-enrolling agent first sees the auto-drive car (where the autodriver is swallowed into the airbag space):
"Is that standard?"
"It used to come with a black driver, but it kept on being pulled over"

Funny line, but very, very sad.

#154 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:26 AM:

(154) - Lila --
The issue is the presumption that the (predominately christian) body sensitivity should routinely trump the Muslim modesty. And the weightlifter in question is willing to compromise to the extent of tight-fitting sleeves and lower legs to enable the judges to see if she has properly locked her knees and elbows to qualify the lift.

But the fact is that the current, enshrined, mores of dress are predicated on the *christian* mode of modesty.

(as a side note to Albatross -- I wasn't trying to "pile-on," I just get so tired sometimes of people trying to dismiss the existence of "privilege" in re the unconscious assumptions of unquestioned benefits received.)

#155 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:32 AM:

(154 redux) - Lila --

Hmm, I *had* though that the Episcopal Church in the US was more prevalent than that. I stand corrected.

I think the bit about the U.S. presidents has more to do with inherited wealth than anything else.

#156 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 11:27 AM:

Lee 145: I explicitly say "gesundheit" rather than "God bless you", and have since I was in my 20s. But I don't know many people who do, and outside of my own social circle (which includes a number of pagans and atheists), I never hear anything but the latter.

I just say "bless!" ...though if a female person sneezes five times in a row, I have sometimes given in to the temptation (after saying "bless!" on the first four) to say "blessèd art thou among women!"

I love the idea of saying "Godzilla" though. I'm going to try that.

#157 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 11:34 AM:

Craig R.: I disagree with your characterization of the "predominately Christian" idea of modesty. Christian ideas of modesty (and for that matter, of what constitutes appropriate public dress and behavior for women, including sports competition) are all over the map. I really think this story is a poor fit for your argument. There are a good many Muslim women competing in other sports while wearing modest garb: taekwondo, track and field, and even swimming. Unless you have a reason why these sports are "less Christian" than weightlifting, the more probably explanation seems to be the knees-and-elbows rule, which has been in place since before any women were permitted to compete at all.

#158 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 11:44 AM:

The idea of saying "Godzilla!" upon one's sneezing appeals to me. ("Why are we not surprised?") I heard that. It also reminds me of the time I was chatting with a Los Alamos scientist and we got into a discussion of the health hazzards caused by the particles that blow off Mothra's wings, not to mention the sneezing she's bound to cause.

TOKYO BYSTANDER: "Ah-choo!"
OTHER BYSTANDER: "Godzilla!"
TOKYO BYSTANDER: "What? Where?!!!"

#159 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 01:02 PM:

Xopher #158:

As a serial sneezer (the first one, or even two, never get the job accomplished) I consider any form of blessing or salutation to be way redundant after the first one. Usually, in fact, I'm much too busy sneezing again to acknowledge the other person's good wishes. Then I get grumpy because I'm in a social situation for which there is no graceful way out.

#160 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 01:05 PM:

Craig R @152:

It is not necessary to jump down albatross' throat in order to disagree with a comment he has made. The level of personal animosity on display in this comment is not appropriate, particularly in this edgy a thread.

Please address the argument rather than the person from this point forward.

#161 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 01:26 PM:

I want to see Buddhist weightlifting.

#162 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 01:51 PM:

Lila @154 -- note that article on church denominations you link to never once mentions that it's only referring to Christian churches as churches -- another good example of Christianity as the unmarked state.

#163 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 02:29 PM:

I grew up saying "gesundheit," being partially of PA Dutch extraction, but I do like "Godzilla!" I shall have to try that on my daughter, she said with an evil grin.

#164 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 02:32 PM:

Tom: I agree with you that Christianity is the unmarked state in the U.S.; however, to expect the National Council of Churches to explicitly state on every page of its website that "National" means the U.S., and "Churches" means "Christian churches" is maybe a bit much.

#165 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 02:35 PM:

My grandfather (from Poland, grew up in NYC) used to say, in ascending order for multiple sneezes: "Gesundheit", "God bless you", and "Shut up already!"

I find in myself a strange desire to say "Godzilla!" instead.

#166 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 03:10 PM:

Lila @166: True enough -- but wouldn't a similar Islamic or Jewish organization have an indication that they were talking about that particular type of religion? It's a marker of "unmarked" status that they can do this. And that's all I'm pointing out.

#167 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 03:15 PM:

Tom @168: Well, maybe, but when I say "synagogue" or even "congregation," I rarely say "Jewish" when I'm talking about my own faith. I might say "Christian congregation" when talking about one; I might also just say "church," not "Christian church."

I also say "temple" when I mean a synagogue and "Buddhist temple" or "Hindu temple" when I mean those. I think people default on the personally known, even in a professional context.

That said, I annoy Christian writers by making them explain Christian stuff in books they are writing for me, because I contend that not everyone who will read the novel will necessarily be Christian or have been raised Christian. I do the same when people write about other faiths, so I guess I'm an equal opportunist there.

#168 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 03:21 PM:

Isn't 'church' a word associated solely with the various Christian denominations while 'temple' usually refers to other faiths? I mean, when we hear of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", nobody will think it's about Jerry Falwell.

#169 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 03:32 PM:

Those arguments (Melissa and Serge) strike me as directly equivalent to the arguments that "men" includes "women" and there's nothing to be gained by noticing that it's an unmarked state. I've certainly heard "church" used as a generic term for "place of worship" -- that most such are Christian in this country (and other English-speaking countries, in general) doesn't mean that it's just fine to assume that all churches are Christian. Or that one can expropriate the term only for Christians.

I speak as someone who's in one of the few professions where the unmarked term is actually the feminine form. I can't tell you how many people ask me if I'm a masseuse -- the male form is masseur. I'm more amused by it than insulted, and it often leads to some interesting conversations on linguistics when I point this out.

#170 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 03:41 PM:

(159) Lila
in re "Christian modesty"

The default state in the US is Christian, the default, assumed mores for dress/modesty are predicated on that level. The "rules" apparently make no distinction

For lots of people (or, perhaps, just the really vocal ones) the prevailing attitude is "rules are rules" and "everybody else has to conform." Granted, sometimes that argument carries proper weight, *if* there are reasonable accommodations willing to be made to be made to provide for exceptions to the rule. (and especially if it's the rules / conformity that *I* am in favor of being observed...)

#171 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 04:09 PM:

Melissa #169: That said, I annoy Christian writers by making them explain Christian stuff in books they are writing for me, because I contend that not everyone who will read the novel will necessarily be Christian or have been raised Christian.

One of the trickier challenges in one of our Peter Crossman stories was how to explain transubstantiation (an important plot point) to our readers, when the only characters I had available were a Catholic priest, a Catholic nun, and a Catholic bishop, who would hardly stand around explaining it to each other.

#172 ::: Steve C ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 04:10 PM:

"As you know, Father Bob..."

#173 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 04:13 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 171... the arguments that "men" includes "women"

Ahem... I'd rather not have anyone make any such assumption about me. That being said, the thread appears to be turning into a hair-splitting argument over what a word means. That usually indicates it's time for me to withdraw from the exchange.

#174 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 05:13 PM:

Having apparently wandered into a world in which Amish, Mormon, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Hardshell Baptist standards of female dress are the same, and in which both synagogues and mosques are correctly referred to as "churches", I'm off to other threads to see what else has changed.

#175 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 06:13 PM:

As I remember (or misremember), the origin of "God bless you" directed toward a sneezer was the belief that the spirit was temporarily absent while the sneeze took place, so the exhortation was an attempt to cover the poor schmoo until the spirit returned.

#176 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 06:30 PM:

Tom Whitmore @171

Hey, at least you have a word. I am a man who sews (not professionally, just as a hobby, but I'm good enough to make clothes and get compliments from people who think I bought them). I'd call myself a seamstress, were I a lady. But "seamster" is not just a fake word, it's an unappealing, confusing fake word. I wouldn't enjoy saying it and no one would know what I meant (I'm guessing people would hear it as "teamster," and to be fair I could pass for one). I don't like "tailor" either (it suggests a professional, which I am not, and there's a creepy status shift there too, like if the male form of "receptionist" was "office manager.")

#177 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 06:58 PM:

Devin #178:

Dictionary.com says sempster is obsolete, but at least it's a wrod.

#178 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 06:59 PM:

Linkmeister@177: I too have heard that story, usually in a "look at the silly beliefs of our foolish ancestors!" mode. But...when you combine it with the pre-germ theory belief that disease was caused by affliction of evil spirits, you can view it as noting that sneezing is often, though not always, a precursor to falling ill. Which is indeed a true and sensible observation. So if you believe that a blessing can be effective against evil spirits, then blessing someone who sneezes is rational.

(And nowadays it survives simply as a vestigial custom, with hardly anybody even remembering the explanation for it.)

#179 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 07:06 PM:

Devin @ #178, Seamstich?

#180 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 07:39 PM:

#170 ::: Serge

Isn't 'church' a word associated solely with the various Christian denominations while 'temple' usually refers to other faiths? I mean, when we hear of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", nobody will think it's about Jerry Falwell.

Or Brigham Young.

#181 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 07:42 PM:

Devin @ #178: "Sewist" has some currency.

As a sewing professional (cumbersome), I was writing some folks about the flood situation in Omaha, where I have family, and my phrase was "the sewers may be backing up." Several queried me as to what that would accomplish.

#182 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 07:50 PM:

David #180:

Yeah, as I was just noticing last sunrise, expressions based on obsolete, long-forgotten beliefs have been scattered to the four corners of the Earth. I know this in my heart. It makes me feel saturnine, or perhaps phlegmatic. And yet, somehow I get all anal-retentive about the matter when I see people worrying about it. And so, inevitably, I find myself having to square this circle once again.

#183 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 07:51 PM:

Devin @178

You actually have to go one linguistic step back from "seamster" because "seamstress" is doubly-marked for the feminine. The "-st(e)r" and "-ess" suffixes both originated as feminine markers, with the former being of more solidly English origin and the latter having come in through French influence. Cf. baker / baxter (bakster), webber (weaver) / webster, brewer / brewster, spinner / spinster. Only the last of these examples has retained a strongly female association in popular understanding. It's a separate question why seamstress picked up the redundant marking.

#184 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:29 PM:

Carol Kimball @ #183: "the sewers may be backing up"

Which instantly reminds me of Bill Cosby's "Noah" routine, specifically the part where God tells Noah He's going to make it rain 400 days and nights, and Noah thinks about that and says "Listen. Make it rain forty days and forty nights and wait for the sewers to back up."

To which God replies "Right."

#185 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 08:37 PM:

Whoops. God's original idea was 1,000 days. Video of Cosby doing the routine on the Tonight Show.

#186 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:01 PM:

My favorite line from Bill Cosby's Noah sketch: "Right. Who is this, really?"

I've often recalled it when encountering certain notions about What God Really Wants. Including ones that occasionally surface in my own head.

#187 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:11 PM:

Isn't sempster already feminine?

#188 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:14 PM:

Honestly, all this conversation about seamantics!

Back about sneezing, I once had a coworker who said "choke and die" when someone sneezed. From his point of view this was just messing with an empty reflexive phrase; from mine it was damned fucking rude, and I told him so. I used some analogy like "how would you feel if instead of saying 'have a good night' I said 'hope you die'?"

#189 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 09:56 PM:

Heather Rose @ 185

Back when there were seamers (m.) and seamsters (f.), it was then made illegal (I have read) for women to sew for money, thereby making life easier for the tailors of England. Eventually, women were once again allowed to sew professionally, and the "ess" ending was added. Perhaps to distinguish among the three situations. I don't know.

#190 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2011, 10:59 PM:

JMO, #188: Like this, perhaps?

Xopher, #190: I agree. Saying "Godzilla" is messing with an empty reflexive phrase. Actively wishing someone ill... not so much.

#192 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 12:54 AM:

The town of Lincoln, New Hampshire, very much a pulp-and-paper company town in the days of the big log drives, had two houses of worship built by the company for the workers. One was an Episcopal church. The other was everything else.

#193 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 09:55 AM:

One was an Episcopal church. The other was everything else.

Very Gilbert and Sullivan.

"We've invited the priest - he said he'd be delighted to come - and we also invited the elder, the vicar, the minister, the canon, the rabbi, the imam, the guru, the saddhu, the patriarch, the metropolitan, the archdeacon, the lama, the mullah, the shaman and the Wiccan high priest. He said he'd have to check his diary."

#194 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 10:26 AM:

ajay @195

The Lord's High Everything Else, no doubt.

#195 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 03:47 PM:

I’m still curious about the suggestion upthread that some believe atheists are plotting to steal believers’ salvations – is this like an identity-theft racket? Because that would suggest said believers don’t have much faith in omniscience.

#196 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 03:55 PM:

On the subject of "stealing salvation":

I would want to see some original sources for the assertion, personally, if we're going to discuss it. By this, I mean explanations by people who believe it, sermons, tracts, that sort of thing. Absent that, I worry that we'll fall into strawmanning and caricatures of people we don't understand.

And, if I may steal Patrick's excellent litmus test, that doesn't make anyone smarter.

#197 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 05:33 PM:

Purely out of morbid curiosity (there currently being no train wrecks in our town to gawk at), I've been following this case in the Maine news media. Today we finally got an arrest in the case, the names of the two men involved, and the autopsy results:
Bangor Police Charge Man with Murder in Connection with Fourth Street Death.

The victim was Melvin Abreu, 28, of Indiana Avenue in Bangor; the person under arrest is William Hall, 29, in whose Fourth Street apartment the incident occurred.

Court documents say several neighbors said they were awoken to sounds of fighting coming from Hall's apartment around 4:30 am.

The documents say they heard racial slurs being made.

No mention of a religious argument occurs in this version of the story. Of course, the borderline between religious and racial slurs is often a fuzzy one. Mr. Abreu's ethnicity/religious background isn't given; Mr. Hall's mug shot, as reproduced in the Bangor Daily News article on the arrest, shows him to be your standard New England white person.

As to the fight itself:

In the affidavit, a witness says he was in the apartment when the altercation took place and said Hall was straddling Abreu with both his knees and hands around Abreu's neck.

An autopsy by the Medical Examiner's Office is consistent with this. They found that Abreu sustained extensive lethal injuries to his head, neck and upper chest areas, as well as definite evidence of injuries consistent with manual strangulation.

Further googling turned up a an entry in the April 18-22 Court News section of the Bangor Daily News, to the effect that one Melvin Abreu, 28, of Bangor, spent 24 hours in jail at that time for criminal trespass.

I think it's safe to say that whatever sort of argument was going on in that apartment, it wasn't exactly on the intellectual level of the Newman and Huxley debates.

#198 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 06:02 PM:

We find, by Googling, a Melvin Fulvio Abreu, age 28, of Bangor, Maine.


Boston Globe:

"[Bangor police sergeant Paul] Edwards said Hall and Abreu knew each other, but he didn't know the nature of their relationship."

The same Bangor Daily News story shows a picture of Mr. Abreu. He appears to be a person of color.

#199 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 06:16 PM:

The Bangor Daily News is a fast-moving paper, then -- they didn't have Mr. Abreu's pic up when I read the article earlier.

#200 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 06:46 PM:

janra @141:
There is a small book spinner right in front of the centre of the deli counter at the supermarket. Every single title on it that has registered in my conscious mind is overtly christian. (bible study, kids bible stories, etc.)

I'll bet that the spinner is owned by, and stocked by, a christian book publisher. The one at my local CVS* is. And I live in Massachusetts, which is not noted† for its piety.

*Big American Drug Store chain.
† These days.

#201 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 07:31 PM:

#141, #202: There's a floor-mounted spinner full of "inspirational" books in a supermarket near me.

FWIW, this is the area's one downscale discount grocery.

#202 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 08:36 PM:

(162) abi:

Mea Culpa.

#203 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 01:52 AM:

Craig R @204:

Much as I respect someone who will apologize, I'm not the rightful target of your comment.

#204 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:31 AM:

The longer I wait, the more things I want to say and the less able I am to get them unjumbled in 5 minutes, so I'm just going to comment on a couple things in a jumbly fashion.

I think of church as marked Christian--are there religious groups that do not consider themselves Christian that call their groups/buildings churches? (I feel like I'm missing something obvious, but can't think of any.)

Albatross @ 114 has said what I would say more clearly than I could manage. I must admit that Craig R's response @152 isn't comprehensible to me; all those are places where what the Religious Right wants today was the social and legal norm in 1950, and no longer is.

I'll just note that secularists perceive secularism as neutral, and non-secularists don't. On this, I agree with the non-secularists. Providing no public sex education isn't a neutral position; having no public religious ceremonies is also not. The center/other distinction will always exist.

A meta-comment--I think it's important to make a distinction between two statements which are often confused:
1) The world has changed in such-and-such a fashion.
2) This change in the world was desirable/undesirable.

I'm talking about (1), and (e.g.) Xopher @ 61 is talking about (2).

#205 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 11:09 AM:

SamChevre: to my mind, there is a critical difference between public religious ceremonies, and government-sponsored religious ceremonies.

A wedding in a city park is one thing. A prayer at a public high school graduation is a different thing.

#206 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 11:18 AM:

Lila: I agree that there is an important difference. I'm using "public" here to refer to government-sponsored, not just in public places. (Similarly to public schools, or public recognition; in each case, "government" is a more-precise substitute for public, but has a different connotation.)

#207 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 11:44 AM:

albatross @ #184:

One advantage of remembering the obsolete beliefs that bequeathed us our vocabulary is that we're more likely to use the vocabulary correctly.

I can't remember the last time I saw such an apt use of the word "saturnine". And that makes me feel melancholy (though another day, depending on what humour I was in, it might instead make me feel choleric).

#208 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 12:10 PM:
An eyewitness to the strangulation — who told the Bangor Daily News last week that the fight that led to Abreu’s death was over religion — informed police that a verbal argument escalated into a physical fight that forced him to separate the two, the affidavit states. The police document makes no mention of why the fight started.

Family members listed the Bible as Abreu’s favorite book on the memorial Facebook page.

-- BANGOR DAILY NEWS

#209 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 01:05 PM:

SamChevre 206: I'll just note that secularists perceive secularism as neutral, and non-secularists don't. On this, I agree with the non-secularists. Providing no public sex education isn't a neutral position; having no public religious ceremonies is also not. The center/other distinction will always exist.

A false, even ludicrous analogy. Sex is a fact of life and biology. It is objectively part of everyone's experience (with a few exceptions) and something (nearly) everyone will have to deal with (whether they have sex or not) at some point. Religion has none of those characteristics.

In addition, there's nothing in the Constitution that bars a state establishment of sex education.

We can disagree, Sam, but do try not to be absurd.

#210 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 01:17 PM:

Based on the Bangor Daily News story:

Hall has three assault convictions and a disorderly conduct conviction that date back to 2000, according to his criminal history record from the Maine State Bureau of Identification. He also was arrested in December 2009 for disorderly conduct and has four arrests listed for violating his conditions of release, one from May 27, the report states.

Hall also was arrested on May 5 by Bangor police for felony assault on a police officer, assault and refusing to submit to arrest, his criminal record shows. Details about the May 5 incident were not available Thursday.

Levesque said she has lived on Fourth Street for about four years and Hall moved in about five or six months ago. She said he did illegal drugs and drank alcohol “on a daily basis.”

“He constantly brought people off the street up there to party,” she said, adding that on more than one occasion she had to go upstairs and tell him to quiet down. “The only thing I want to hear is that he is going away.”

Mr. Hall sounds very much like he's the sort of person who might kill another because there are no unicorns or because there are no more Romanovs.

#211 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 01:29 PM:

SamChevre, #208: The problem with your argument is that government-sponsored religious activities are specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Yes, this was ignored for a long time, just as the existence of non-Christian American citizens was ignored or glossed over*; that doesn't make it right. And that difference in connotation is precisely what's under discussion here, so using the word "public" to describe it is confusing the issue.

* cf. "Judeo-Christian"

#212 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 03:52 PM:

Not performing Christian ceremonies as a government is more like "providing no public baseball education" than "providing no public sex ed." Lots of people practice religions, lots of people practice team sports, but that doesn't mean your specific favorite sport is special. I did receive neutral public religious instruction, in my history classes.

The thing is, SamChevre, I kinda agree with you. Most humans are religious in some kind of way, and it's not the most natural thing to say that they have to keep that out of their public(/governmental) lives. Secularism is, in fact, a weird compromise. It's a bit arbitrary, like driving on the right side of the street instead of the left. But it's a necessary weird compromise. We just haven't found anything else that works.* It would be cool if some kind of authentically fair way of including all beliefs could be found, but I don't see it happening.**

If, to you, it is "not neutral" to avoid public religious ceremonies, is it then "neutral" for me to insist that every session of Congress must open with a heartfelt plea to the Atomfather? (It's okay if you want to pray to other, less radioactive gods too, but I demand my neutral religious right to public ceremony). Or are you meaning to say that there is a particular religion that is "neutral" while other religions are "biased?"


*And yes, this is considering "Just make all the non-state-religion people shut up and get baptized" as an option. That, as it turns out, is not as good even for members of the state religion as secularism. For examples, see the Thirty Years' War, as well as various English and Irish religious conflicts. There were some hella enlightened dudes among the Founding Fathers, but I really do think a lot of them looked at the whole freedom-of-religion thing and went "Yeah, you know, not trying to stop those heathen idol-worshipers is actually better for us, God's People, than trying to stop them. They might know important stuff about banking or industrialism that'll help our fledgling nation, and plus, Magdeburg was a bad scene."

**But what about proportional representation, you ask? Good question! It's still problematic. For one thing, how do you figure the proportions? I know a lot of Jews who mark surveys as "no religion." Some of them would want a rabbi in front of Congress, some wouldn't. Me, I'm an atheist, but I'd kinda like to see someone get up in front of them dudes and talk a little about liberty by way of a blessing. But hey, I bet there's some churchgoing folk who'd rather have that than a preacher, too (I'm imagining several of our hosts might fall in that category, and yet by virtue of personal beliefs they'd be represented by a priest instead). Another problem: conflicting religious beliefs. Some folks got this whole thing about "graven images," others think they rock. If your proportionately-awarded Congress-blessing day comes around, and you bring your god up there and start to talk about how Lord Ganesha's gonna remove some obstacles that stand in front of this Congress (amen!), and all of a sudden half your audience gets up to leave... Well, that's a powerful statement that you ain't welcome here. That your lawmakers do not love your beliefs. But at the same time, we can't tell those lawmakers to bow down to that idol, can we? So it's better just to avoid the whole question.

#213 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 04:00 PM:

If, to you, it is "not neutral" to avoid public religious ceremonies, is it then "neutral" for me to insist that every session of Congress must open with a heartfelt plea to the Atomfather?

No.

I'm inclined to believe that there is no option that is genuinely neutral in this case; neither having nor not having public religious ceremonies is a neutral choice.

#214 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 04:07 PM:

I think maybe we're in agreement there, except that you're using "neutral" a bit differently than I do. Does what I said about secularism as a weird compromise agree with what you're seeing?

#215 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 04:15 PM:

Thank you, Devin. In fact: hear, hear.

#216 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 04:17 PM:

Also must disagree with SamChevre's contention at 206/208 that secularism is non-neutral. In specific: Having no public (i.e. government-sponsored) religious education is the most neutral of feasible options. If there were to be government-sponsored religious education, then the government would be taking a stance on A) which religions were worthy of being on the curriculum C) and where D) and which religions got how much funding and time for their curricula E) and which denominations got to have representatives teaching them.

And then there's the question of whether people not of a particular religion would be subjected to that religion's education. The traditional method of implementing government-funded/sponsored religious education has been via the public schools, which kids not of the mainstream religion didn't get to opt out of.

A much more neutral position for government bodies to take is "You know what? We'll stay out of it and leave religious education in the hands of religious communities." Really, the only way I can see secularism as a non-neutral stance for government bodies is to misunderstand secularism as the forbidding of private entities to engage in religious education. Which isn't happening, not where the private dime is concerned, no more than the government is preventing private entities from praying. Although goodness knows there are religious spokespeople who are confused about that as well.

Also SamChevre @206: My husband and I were handfasted by a priestess of the Covenant of the Pentacle Wiccan Church in New Orleans.

Linkmeister @ 181: Your suggestion reminds me Steamstitch Studio here in Boulder. (Apparently this is them, and so is this.)

#217 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 04:48 PM:

Devin @ 216

The "secularism as weird compromise" doesn't really agree with my sense of things; I'd incline to see secularism as practiced in the US today as a clear win for the non-religious, not a compromise. (Especially as even private organizations cannot legally take account of religion in most cases.)

I'm trying not to push hot-buttons, but the best example I can think of is one. To me, the secularist "compromise" is a compromise in the same way "do whatever you want in your bedroom, but for purposes of public policy same-sex partnerships aren't recognized" is a compromise.

Nicole @ 218--thanks for the example. I finally figured out the obvious example I knew was in my head, the Church of Scientology.

#218 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:01 PM:

I'm trying not to push hot-buttons

Try harder.

#219 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:08 PM:

SamChevre @219

Huh. Okay. Does it make a difference that most secularists (probably) are religious? Or that the people most in need of secularist protection are minority believers?

Because for me, I'll go to church if you make me. I don't believe anything, so it's a hassle but not an attack on my beliefs. A law requiring that all Americans become Southern Baptists means fuck-all to me, it's just another government hoop to jump through. More of a pain in the ass than most, sure, but assuming Christmas-and-Easter Baptistness is okay, it's probably less trouble than doing my taxes.

But for my friends the Goldfarbs, that law would be an attack on their beliefs and their history. For them, having the state not-recognize their religion is a win, not a loss.

Can I suggest another realigned analogy? The secularist compromise is a compromise like if the government were to get out of the marriage-recognizing business altogether and just let anyone designate any one person as their domestic partner without caring about whys or wherefores. It might seem like "we don't recognize marriages anymore" is a win for unmarried people, but actually we don't care, it's people with minority marriages who'd win.

Re: "Church"
I think the word is certainly post-Christian. It comes out of Christian tradition (maybe not etymologically, but semantically and connotationally) and isn't used by religious bodies that came up outside of Christian influence, but it is sometimes used by non-Christian groups that adopted the usage in the shadow of Christianity.

#220 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:08 PM:

OK, no, I can't just let this go. Tell me what YOU think would be fair, SamChevre? What would do justice to all the people, in your view? What can you come up with that does better than secularism at protecting the rights of the majority AND the minority?

Yes, I'm angry. Your analogies seem designed to piss people (or at any rate, me) off, while you claim you're trying not to push hot buttons. You're not.

AND your analogy is crap. The right analogy would be the state saying "we're not going to be involved in marriage at all anymore, so there will be no different tax rates, no special status, no transfer of benefits from one spouse to another." I'm not saying that would be a good thing, but it sure would be better than what we have now!

#221 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:19 PM:

I hadn't seen 221 when I wrote 222.

#222 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:21 PM:

"if the government were to get out of the marriage-recognizing business altogether"

"the state saying "we're not going to be involved in marriage at all anymore"

Xopher, will you be my mind-husband?

#223 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:27 PM:

Sure! We'll have to keep the State Of Mind out of it, though. :-)

#224 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:41 PM:

Oh, what the heck.....

re 154: The disproportion is not that extreme, because the proportions among the various churches have changed markedly over the years. In colonial days the Anglicans far outnumbered everyone else except maybe in Maryland and in New England, where Congregationalists and the like predominated. Round about independence the Methodists began their spectacular rise and would predominate until probably about 1880, at which point Catholic immigration probably put them firmly in the lead. The Baptists really spiked in the 1950s-'60s, with the Methodists dropping off drastically in the 19070s and onward. So the large number of Episcopalians isn't quite as odd as it might appear at first; the real oddity is why there are so many Presbyterians and so few Methodists. (Well, and Catholics.)

re 168/171: I find this uncompelling. "Church" is a Christian term, just as "mosque" is Muslim and "synagogue" is Jewish; if people are talking about "non-Christian churches" (the converse of having to talk about "Christian churches") they aren't doing it in my presence. Calling a mandir or a synagogue or a mosque a "church" may be sloppy usage on the part of someone from a town in which none of the three exists, but I don't see expecting an official Christian website to bend over backwards to maneuver around that kind of vocabulary abuse.

re 207: An invocation at a school graduation is troublesome, but a student speaker talking about God is merely rude.

#225 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:47 PM:

"synagogue" is Jewish;

To clarify what you probably meant anyway, 'synagogue' is the name for a Jewish thing, but it's not the Jewish name for that thing (that would be 'shul', IIUC). It's a Greek word for the Jewish worship center.

Unless your point is that there should be no distinction between Jew and Greek. And that would be Christian! (And yes, I'm kidding about this last bit.)

#226 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:49 PM:

re 222: Marriage law tended to come into existence to deal with inheritance issues.

#227 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 05:57 PM:

Yeah, and the religious marriage ceremony was drawn from ceremonies binding same-sex special friends together. So what?

#228 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 06:02 PM:

Gentlemen, she says in a mild tone of voice, wishing she wore reading glasses so that she could peer at them over the lenses.

#229 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 06:05 PM:

I don't think it would be a good idea for the state to say "We're out of the contract legislation-and-adjudication business."

#230 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 06:13 PM:

SamChevre, #219: I'd incline to see secularism as practiced in the US today as a clear win for the non-religious

Then you'd be wrong. Secularism is a clear win for anyone who does not happen to belong to the majority religion, whether they are religious or not. It is, as Nicole says @218, the only reasonably-neutral option for the role of government in religion. The only better one would be "equal recognition for all religions AND for atheism as well". Care to place a bet on how likely that is to happen in America? When the previous President openly stated that he didn't consider Wicca a REAL religion (and that it was therefore ineligible for First Amendment protection), and when a Muslim Congressman being sworn in on his own holy book (rather than the Christian Bible) caused a firestorm of outrage?

You are arguing, over and over again, that the special privileges accorded to Christianity in America are natural and good and should be the One True Way of things. Do not be surprised that even your fellow Christians have been disagreeing with you, let alone those over whose civil rights you want to run roughshod.

#231 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 06:13 PM:

It could get out of the SEXUAL contract legislation and adjudication business. I don't think it would be a good idea either, but it WOULD be better than what we have now.

#232 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 06:24 PM:

It might, however, be well to ask why the hell an adult has to have (or claim to be having) sex with another person before designating that other person as the one who can visit in the ICU, jointly own a house with rights of survivorship, jointly file income tax returns, etc. etc. Sex really has very little to do with most of the privileges of marriage. But that's another topic for another day.

As far as the current topic goes, I hereby identify myself as a Christian who feels that other Christians of different flavors are a significantly greater threat to my religious freedom than a great many other religions (or non-religions) I could name. I do, without irony, thank God for secularism.

#233 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 06:39 PM:

Xopher @ 222

Again: I'm not certain that there is an option that everyone will perceive as fair, or (an alternate statement of the same goal) that allows everyone, whatever their pre-suppositions, equal weight in the public realm. (Natural law, utilitarianism, and Rawlsian morality are all supposedly conclusions that can be reached solely from non-religious principles.)

To answer fully "what would be more fair" takes a book, not a blog comment. I strongly recommend Stephen Carter's The Culture of Disbelief as the book. But I would note that the French and Dutch systems seem to be at least as fair as the US systems, although their rules are quite different.

To Lee @ 213: I would say that Federal-government sponsored churches are specifically forbidden by the Bill of Rights; whether and how that prohibition interacts with your local city council opening its meetings with a Christian prayer is not a matter on which there is either a specific statement or an agreed-upon interpretation of the statements that there are. (I maintain that if the Supreme Court isn't in agreement, it's not a settled question.)

#234 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 08:10 PM:

I maintain that if the Supreme Court isn't in agreement, it's not a settled question.

Your faith in the integrity of the Supreme Court is another one I don't share.

#235 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 08:15 PM:

SamChevre @ 206: "I'll just note that secularists perceive secularism as neutral, and non-secularists don't. On this, I agree with the non-secularists. Providing no public sex education isn't a neutral position; having no public religious ceremonies is also not. The center/other distinction will always exist."

A few things:

1. I am a secularist, and I don't perceive it as being neutral. I perceive it as being a value that I actively cherish and protect, one that emerged out of centuries of struggle. I'm not sure I'd take a bullet for it, but I'd give it serious thought.

2. Secularism is not a claim about religion, it is a claim about politics. Politically, it is not neutral at all: it comes with a big set of consequent oughts and shalls. It is however neutral religiously: it is applied the same to everyone, and it does not enjoin or prescribe any sort of religious practice. You can even engage politically on the basis of your religious beliefs! See all the praise secularists heap upon King and Gandhi. You just can't compel anything based on religious grounds.

3. I support secularism not because I see it as a win for the non-religious, though by many definitions I am one, but because I see it as a win for anyone who'd rather not die in religious war (their own or someone else's), for anyone who'd like to get a cure for a mortal disease that happened to be thought up by someone of a different religion, for anyone who'd like to talk or exchange ideas with all sorts of people, for anyone who'd like to engage with the whole breadth of human experience and knowledge and communication. I see it as a win for everyone. (Even those who dedicate their lives to overthrowing it. After all, in a secular society such people have their rights to campaign on behalf of theocracy guaranteed; in a non-secular society they'd only be better off if their particular brand of theocracy happened to come out victorious.)

Secularism isn't darkness, the absence of faith--secularism is light, the presence of all colors.

#236 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 08:23 PM:

heresiarch @237: I nodded in agreement all through your post.

I'm observant (after my own fashion), Jewish, and a secularist.

#237 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 08:38 PM:

heresiarch...*bows*

#238 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 08:50 PM:

heresiarch @237: Secularism isn't darkness, the absence of faith--secularism is light, the presence of all colors.

I don't have anything to add; I just wanted to repeat that.

#239 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:12 PM:

heresiarch, 237: Excellently put. Thank you.

#240 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:15 PM:

heresiarch @ 237 *sustained applause* That is all.

#241 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:22 PM:

Bows in the direction of heresiarch @ 237.

I'm quite happy with "secularism is a value, and a good one, better than the values it replaced"*; my discomfort is with "secularism is neutral" and "America has always been secular", and legal/political reasoning that begins with those premises.

*I may disagree, depending on the barometric pressure, but it's a plausible argument.

#242 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:29 PM:

heresiarch: thank you.

To SamChevre: it is difficult to be the only voice when all the other voices seem to be disagreeing with you. As I have mentioned: I am a theist and a secularist. One of the reasons I am a secularist is because of the particular theism I cleave to. I'm a Catholic, which means I believe in the Fall. I believe that human beings are broken. We are not as we were designed to be. We see through darkness, and our reason, senses, emotions and even our deepest and clearest understanding of God's will is flawed and may, at any point, be mistaken. Simply: we get it wrong, a lot. When we get it right, our "works" show it: we love, we heal each other, we treat each other with respect and kindness, we recognize our failings before we look for those of our neighbors, we bear each others' burdens, we pardon and we ask for pardon. We don't condemn: it's not our business to condemn.

We are capable of all this, despite our brokenness.

But history has shown us that when governments favor one religion over others, and attempt to legislate based on the principles of that religion, it doesn't matter which religion, ugly and hideous things happen. Power corrupts. As heresiarch so wisely says, secularism, as it exists through our Constitution at least, is a claim about politics: it declaims that the public sphere must not favor any particular religion, or the co-mingling of the two will corrupt both the government and the faith. And alas, we know that this is so. As the Heart Sutra says, This is the truth, not a lie. We have plenty of historical examples to point to.

I believe in the Kingdom of God. I believe that heaven is within us, waiting to be born. But I also believe that we cannot use the machinery of worldly government to make that kingdom come, and that when we try, as we have tried so many times, we doom the very effort. In fact, I think that's one of the things Christ meant, when he said, "Let Caesar have what is Caesar's; give to God what belongs to God."

The kingdom comes slowly, without coercion, unescorted by law. It comes one heart at a time.

#243 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:45 PM:

re 227: One can split this hair further, since shul is Yiddish and (so I am told) not used by all Jews anyway. The point at any rate is that, modulo the use of "temple" by some Jews, calling it shul or a synagogue identifies it unambiguously as a Jewish place of worship.

re 229/233: If we're talking Boswell's theory, I'm skeptical of it, especially considering how different western and eastern church rites are. Be that as it may, I've taken the trouble of quickly flipping through The Maryland statues on family law and estates. the former does not define marriage except to state that it involves a man and a woman (which one assumes will eventually be changed to "two people") and (in another place) to outlaw bigamy. There are also some age limitations, but that's it; there are no consanguinity restrictions. They don't even say a thing about how to get an annulment or what the grounds for one are, as they do for divorce. They not only don't say how you have to live, they specifically rule out a bunch of potential restrictions (e.g., you don't have to live together). They also spell out that the woman in the marriage acts as a separate legal party in all circumstances.

After that there are long sections on abuse, adoption, fostering, alimony, child support, and various support agencies for each. Other than that, you don't get any explicit rights out of marriage unless you divorce, except the expectation of support from the other spouse.

BUT a lot of obligations kick in if you have children, and the entire first section of estates is devoted to establishing a default system of inheritance based upon consanguinity, and of course consanguinity is created by marriage, adoption, but especially having children. Illegitimacy in this wise does not matter, but paternity has to be definitely determined.

Sex enters into this only insofar as children are conceived and as it remains necessary for a woman to bring the child to term. In the case of artificial insemination even that is unnecessary, as the husband is presumed also to be the father. The notion that marriage legitimizes sex isn't in the law at all, at least not in this state's law. Alabama, for all I know, may have a different theory. But marriage as an authorization for sex is strictly a social norm; what the laws do tend to do, by implication of the various sections, is establish norms of being a family, and even those norms are very, very lax. The formation of a family creates the expectation of support and establishes abuse as a separate legal category, and it sets up default inheritance. I suppose in the world where women no longer get pregnant and children are not assembled from sperm and eggs, then the last connection to sex would be severed; but as it is, the link to sex now arises out of the biological reality that sex is how most people make babies.

#244 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 09:46 PM:

Lizzy L @ 244... We are capable of all this, despite our brokenness

"You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other."

#245 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2011, 10:59 PM:

heresiarch: add mine to the chorus of "Amens".

#246 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 08:34 AM:

heresiarch #237: Thank you!

I'll note also note that the reason secularism is not a religious bias, is because it's operating on a meta-level above that. It's explicitly not concerned with any particular religion, only with setting constraints on how any religion can operate in the public sphere.

#247 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 09:59 AM:

Sam Chevre @ 235

I'm prepared to accept that secularism as practised in France is just as fair to Chritians and then non-religious. It's not quite so clear to me that its fair to young Muslim women.

(And, while this rather off-topic I think that Turkish secularism, at least as practised when I first came to Turkey, which is closely modelled on the French version is definitely not - though I should probably say that this would be strongly contested by many Turkish women I know.)

And as far as I can see, the biggest wiin for the non-religious in any political system I know of is the establishment of a state church as practised on the mainland parts of the UK (or at least England and Wales - Scotland may be another matter.

#248 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 10:06 AM:

Copy-editors of a nervous disposition - please avert your eyes from the previous post.

#249 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 11:04 AM:

Devin @ 178 ...
Hey, at least you have a word. I am a man who sews (not professionally, just as a hobby, but I'm good enough to make clothes and get compliments from people who think I bought them). I'd call myself a seamstress, were I a lady. But "seamster" is not just a fake word, it's an unappealing, confusing fake word. I wouldn't enjoy saying it and no one would know what I meant (I'm guessing people would hear it as "teamster," and to be fair I could pass for one). I don't like "tailor" either (it suggests a professional, which I am not, and there's a creepy status shift there too, like if the male form of "receptionist" was "office manager.")

Stitcher?

#250 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 11:40 AM:

re 248: I would say that secularism is a religious bias, because it divides religions according to how they manifest themselves in the public square.

#251 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 11:45 AM:

heresiarch @237 and Lizzie L @244 -- yes, yes, yes, and thank you!

SamChevre @ 243--
my discomfort is with "secularism is neutral" and "America has always been secular", and legal/political reasoning that begins with those premises.

You might be interested in this article from the Atlantic, concerning the separation of church and state. Concluding from Article VI, as well as the First and the Fourteenth Amendments, "If government can't require its officials to support a church; may not support a church itself; and may not interfere with the worship or belief of any church, is there a serious argument that church and state are not separate?"

#252 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 12:25 PM:

Oh wow, thanks folks!

Part of the reason I feel so strongly about secularism is that I think it is an inextricable part of the communities I value--communities like Making Light. A particular view on metaphysics is rarely what I value in people, and I feel my world would be infinitely poorer if it was.

#253 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 12:31 PM:

heresiarch @ 237... A bit late, but well said!

#254 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 12:55 PM:

I would say that secularism is a religious bias, because it divides religions according to how they manifest themselves in the public square.

Secularism is, however, the least biased choice anyone has come up with for justly dealing with people of all religions. It's not perfect; neither is democracy. We just haven't come up with anything better, nor has anyone in this thread proposed anything better.

#255 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 01:05 PM:

C. Wingate @ 251: "I would say that secularism is a religious bias, because it divides religions according to how they manifest themselves in the public square."

By that measure, any law on any subject can be anti-religious, because religion can be involved in any sphere of human activity. Your murder laws are biased against religion, because some religions require human sacrifice!

But all such arguments are based on a religious belief: the belief that this religion is legitimately interested in this (worldly) activity. But by the criteria of secularism, arguments of that sort are not sufficient in the public sphere--you must make a secular, empirical argument that this law is anti-religion.* Religious arguments, therefore, only invalidate secularism if you start from the assumption that secularism is invalid.

Secularism is an empirical position based on empirical grounds, both in that it emerges from trial and error and that it relies on those truths which can be universally validated. The only grounds by which it can be universally judged anti-religion (as opposed to particular instantiations of secularism) are themselves religious.

* Which can be and is done! I'm not setting up some unachievable bar here.

#256 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 03:51 PM:

If I can steal a pithy statement that stayed with me (from Fred over at slacktivist, though I don't know if it's original to him) - the alternative to secular is sectarian.

I think that about covers it.

#257 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2011, 04:11 PM:

Russ @ 258.. It does.

#258 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2011, 04:12 PM:

A few disjoint comments - Lila@154 pointed to a list of Christian denominations in America, and the numbers looked really strange to me. Most of them are precise, while others are round (e.g. 1,500,000) - that wouldn't be too surprising, because some groups explicitly have organizational membership and others don't, but almost all of the groups that had round numbers are African-American denominations (except for the Greek Orthodox and possibly the Baptist Bible Fellowship International.) I don't know if that's an issue of how much they cooperate with the NCC, or how they view membership in the church.

On "church" as a Christian or generic term, there is the Buddhist Churches of America group. They started out in the late 1800s as the Buddhist Mission to North America, and organized themselves with buildings and pastors and meeting on Sundays to compete with Protestants among Japanese immigrants to California, and they're Pure Land Buddhists so that's not as weird as it would be for Zen or some other types of Buddhism. (And Quakers did the same kind of thing when they moved out west.) They adopted the name "churches" around the end of World War II as a deliberate statement that they're assimilated into American culture, in response to the internment of Japanese Americans.

I find SamChevre's comment @ 206: "Providing no public sex education isn't a neutral position; having no public religious ceremonies is also not." to be very puzzling. Not providing sex education (and not selling alcohol on Sundays, etc.) because some groups object to it isn't a neutral position. But not allowing some religious groups to hold ceremonies on behalf of the public is a highly neutral position, unless what you're actually talking about is not allowing religious groups to practice their beliefs in public (whether that's street preachers or headscarfs or signs on their buildings, etc.), which I agree would be very non-neutral.

On the other hand, SamChevre's comment in the same post on the distinction between "Has there been a change?" and "Is that change desirable/undesirable?" resonates with me, though you can distinguish between "desirable for the world, in my always correct humble opinion", and "desirable for the unmarked privileged group" and "resulting in an increase or decrease of privilege for the privileged group, as distinguished from whether that change in privilege is good for them".

#259 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2011, 04:41 PM:

Hey SamChevre-

Thanks. You've been in a tough position here and you carried it. I might think you're totally wrongheaded on a few points here, but your actions speak to serious personal qualities. I'd rank those qualities much higher than right-headed-ness, when it comes down to it.

#260 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 12:36 AM:

heresiarch @ 237:

Yes, that, precisely.

I think the crux of the question of sectarianism has to be that the purpose of human society is to bring people together so they can aid each other's survival and welfare, and that the net result of holding any group's belief, whether that's belief in a certain flavor of god, or belief in a certain style of software developmentY2K, is to separate people and make it harder for them to cooperate.

Y2K. I have been in the middle of many religious disputes of the sort that didn't result from disagreements about gods; that doesn't make them less divisive or less religious.

#261 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:51 AM:

On a topic way back upthread - I was told (by non-church-going scientist parents) that saying "God bless you" or "gesundheit" after someone sneezes was a relic of the plague. In the case of pneumonic plague, a sneeze could mean you'd be dead very quickly, so a very relevant good wish.

(And plague is not gone - it's endemic on the East side of the Sierras, for instance, although I think that might be bubonic.)

But my reason for mentioning this is that in the last couple of years I have been explicitly challenged by a religious person for not saying "God bless you". So not totally vestigial in that way either.

#262 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 11:37 AM:

heresiarch: I also really liked your comment about secularism.

The separation of church and state is a wonderful innovation, because it takes certain issues (like which religion will be the state religion, and which religions will be officially supported or opposed by the state) entirely off the table. If there's to be a state church, to which my taxes go and whose rituals I'm required to attend to be a full member of society, then I'll want it to be my church. And so will everyone else. Since we don't all agree on which church should be the state church, this becomes (demonstrably) a matter of conflict in the society. We divide the society up across religious lines, there's a Catholic party and a WASP Protestant party and an Evangelical party and maybe splinter Jewish and Muslim and Atheist parties.

By taking that whole issue off the table in political terms, by saying "the state will remain, as far as is possible, neutral between religions, and will support none and oppose none," we can keep religion from being the defining political issue in the society.

The other way for this to happen, I think, is for religion to diminish enormously in importance. If nobody takes the gods to whom they're required to make sacrifice at all seriously, then having occasional sacrifices to the gods required by the state is one of those silly things your society makes you do, like standing for the pledge of allegiance or singing the Star Spangled Banner before ball games in our society. In a society full of people for whom religion is simply not that interesting or meaningful, having the social requirement of a formal prayer before all public events would be boring, but not offensive; having a state church would simply mean that everyone with ambitions would be a member of that state church, despite finding the whole affair rather silly. And in that kind of society, even most of the people in the state church would probably see things the same way, and be disinclined to push to persecute anyone for heresy.

As someone who leans libertarian on many issues, I very much like the idea of ruling some classes of issue to be off the table, in terms of politics. That's one thing I've found really upsetting about the Ground Zero Mosque[1] pseudo-controversy--it's an attempt to put the state in the business of deciding which religions it likes and dislikes.

[1] Which, as I understand it, is neither at ground zero nor exactly a mosque.

#263 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 11:58 AM:

From this side of the Atlantic, this debate is both fascinating and strange. The UK has a state religion; the acting head of the church is a state appointee*, the state mandates acts of compulsory religious worship in all schools; and the present government is actively pursuing a policy of transferring control of state education over to religious groups. Every session of parliament begins with prayers, as do all formal state events. The net result of this profoundly non-secular state is that the UK has one of the lowest levels of christian belief in the first world. Church attendance is falling like a stone, and has been ever since the state stopped making church attendance compulsory. After all, why take the kids to church to meet believers when the state will teach them all they need to know.

A non-secular state must, by definition, have a preferred religion - you can't say you want prayer in school without deciding whose prayers get said. And no matter what you choose, you either exclude all the other denominations, or invent an anodyne, "generic christian" theology. (The only belief that will render you ineligible for Church of England membership is the belief that you are ineligible for membership of the Church of England - a belief in God is strictly optional.)

Thus non-secularism must lead either to a decline in religious belief, or religious conflict. And after Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth had spent 80 odd years burning people for having the wrong religious opinions - shortly followed by "the government of the saints" - we broadly figure that we've had quite enough of that. (Of course the fact that groups broadly perceived as religious have been chucking bombs around the country for the last 40 years hasn't exactly endered religion to the population either)

It is ironic to think that the very thing that unites the religious right is the fight against the secular state. If they ever won, and changed the constitution, they would immediately fragment into a multitude of competing factions each trying to become the "winning" sect. Candidates would find that their votes followed their personal denomination, and the left would hold power for years. And yet broadly speaking, the right want it and the left don't.


*The actual head of the state religion is of course the Queen, who is also the actual head of the government, making the UK technically a theocracy.

#264 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 12:57 PM:

albatross, #264: one of those silly things your society makes you do, like standing for the pledge of allegiance or singing the Star Spangled Banner before ball games in our society

I submit that, at least in certain parts of America, overt and jingoistic patriotism is a religion -- and furthermore, that these are precisely the regions in which making Christianity the official state religion is being pushed the hardest. The conflation of religion and patriotism is one of the strongest threats to our society IMO.

Andy, #265: I'm confused by your last paragraph; I don't see how you get from "a multitude of competing factions" to "the left would hold power for years". Could you unpack that a bit more, please?

#265 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 01:04 PM:

Lee (266): I took Andy to mean that the right would be so badly splintered that the left would win by default.

#266 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 01:08 PM:

albatross @ 264... one of those silly things your society makes you do, like standing for the pledge of allegiance

First, it's the Pledge of Allegiance. Caps, please.
Second, it's not silly.
Third, I do it in whichever position I darn well please.
Fourth, Thursday will be the 17th anniversary of my first taking the Pledge.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, in a dirigible, with liberty and justice for all."

#267 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 02:48 PM:

Serge, #268: It's not silly to you because you came to it as an adult, knowing what it was about. When it's something you were made to recite by rote every day in school, long before you were old enough to understand what it meant, even learning what it's about doesn't help much -- it remains pointless ritual.

If I, as an adult, want to recite a Pledge of Allegiance that means something to me, I prefer a slightly altered version:

"I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Republic which it established: one nation from many peoples, promising liberty and justice to all."

We have yet to fulfill that promise -- but I think it's a good thing to be reminded of it.

#268 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 03:28 PM:

Lee @ 269... Good point, except for the part that I came into this as an adult. :-)

By the way, if you go to YouTube and seach for 'red pony', you'll find the movie's scene where the kids recite the Pledge. It's interesting to notice the differences in the gestures or in the Pledge itself. And speaking of differences, did you notice one slight change I made to the official Pledge's text?

#269 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 03:39 PM:

re 257/262: Those truths cannot be "universally validated", because only those people whose religion doesn't transgress the strictures of secularism would agree that they are valid! That's also why I cannot agree with what you say, Bruce, because anyone who holds to a religion outside of some pagan tribal thing really believes that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as they do-- and so do the secularists.1

A genuinely neutral argument is that religion, in the abstract, is legitimately interested in any activity, because the only meaning standard of legitimacy is that own religion's standard. There's no universally acceptable standard, so to pick one is to prefer religions and sects that can live with that standard over those that cannot. Secularism is already opposed to some religions, even if it does not endorse one particular religion. So it's really a compromise among the irreligious and among adherents of certain religions that it's OK to oppress other religions.

See, the origin of the problem is that, if I may be blunt, Jefferson's and Madison's religions were publicly undemanding (in Jefferson's case because he edited his religion to fit his secular biases, and in Madison's case because he was nominally Anglican and therefore didn't have anything in his religion which, at the time, would have made any significant public demands either). They signed away a right that they didn't need. Jump to Attaturk's Turkish secularism, and there's no question at all that it is explicitly sectarian, and that the sect in question is a certain vision of Islam. And thus for instance he banned certain public expressions of religion (e.g. head coverings). Now translate that back into the USA. There's not a snowball's chance in hell that the federal supreme court would support a similar law, because it is too baldly a violation of the free exercise clause. I suspect (I don't know whether the question has even arisen) that it would explicitly permit an orthodox Jewish judge to wear a yarmulke in the courtroom based both on that and the "no test" clause, but I'd bet a lot of American secularists would object. So let's go to a county-sponsored soccer league that starts scheduling games and practices on Sunday mornings. OK, well, that's secularist, and it's also valuing playing soccer over going to church. What makes things work 80% of the time is (a) that there is so much commonality in the moral visions of religions that most of the fighting is over ceremonial, and (b) that the principle of "you can't expect non-believers to observer your rules" is accepted widely enough to where the dissenters don't have the political power to overcome it, and (c) the bill of rights encodes the metaprinciple that simply being offended by something isn't actionable (other than by saying something offensive back), to the degree that it's hard to defend a law that encodes the value that some religious act or another is offensive. But it's also hard to live in a society in which offensive things are done as a matter of course2, and therefore there is a great deal of pushback against this metaprinciple. People don't just want to live in a society that is tolerant, because they don't really want to have to be tolerant, because that's stressful; they prefer to live in a society that's inoffensive.

I don't agree that the alternative to sectarianism is secularism; I see secularism as treating irreligion as normality and religion as a deviation from that. It thus privileges irreligion as if it were a sect. Maybe it's possible to overcome that deficiency, but one is only a less difficult to live with version of the other. Indeed, it is possible to imagine that a person of sect A may well find sect B as a state religion less objectionable if explicit concessions are made for his own sect.

1 Bruce, I also disagree profoundly with your teleological view of human society. Probably the majority of the human race needs a society for psychological reasons, and not for the content of social interaction; it could be characterized as a need and not a tool in that sense.

2 ...although some have held that this has been achieved in parts of NYC and in certain foreign capitals. I wouldn't know personally.

#270 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 03:42 PM:

grrr.... let's try the first sentence of the second paragraph again:

A genuinely neutral argument is that a religion, in the abstract, is legitimately interested in any activity, because the only meaningful standard of legitimacy is that of the religion in question.

#271 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 03:45 PM:

C. Wingate, 271: I am a liberal Episcopalian, and I do not believe that the world would be better if everyone else were one too. Furthermore, I disagree that "secularism privileges irreligion." It puts religion firmly in the private sphere--which I believe comes up in the Gospels rather more often than homosexuality does.

#272 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:07 PM:

I am a liberal Episcopalian, and I do not believe that the world would be better if everyone else were one too.

Can you expand on that statement?


*I think of you as someone who would say "seeking the dignity of every human being" is something that the world would be better if everyone did--but that's an explicitly religious commitment.

#273 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:13 PM:

anyone who holds to a religion outside of some pagan tribal thing really believes that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as they do-- and so do the secularists.

NOT SO. This is another "everyone is secretly like me" argument. I most recently heard it from a racist who said that "everyone puts the needs of their own group first, whether they admit it or not."

I am Wiccan. Maybe you class that as "some pagan tribal thing," about which more in a moment, but I don't think it really qualifies. Not everyone is suited to Wicca; even some of those who would like to be Wiccans don't belong among us. It's a matter of personality and...more esoteric things that I can't get into without sounding like a lecture. My friend John, who died last year, was a wonderful Christian (both a wonderful person and really well-suited to being Christian) who would have made an inexpressibly awful Witch. I was never tempted to recruit him for my coven, even though we were close at a time when the coven was recruiting, and when he was deeply dissatisfied with the church he was going to. I perceived that it was because the church wasn't Christian enough for him, and suggested he visit other churches.

I personally emphatically do NOT want everyone in the world to be Wiccan. It would rob the world of so much beauty and diversity, which I value in the religious sphere as in the biosphere. It would also be tantamount to wanting all other religions stamped out, which is truly anathema to me. I sure would like it if more people understood Wicca correctly, but that's far from the same thing.

I've been told that "to a Hindu all things are Hindu," meaning they don't want everyone to convert to Hinduism either. But that would be another pagan religion, though perhaps not "some pagan tribal thing."

Judaism is definitely not "some pagan tribal thing," and it's firmly opposed to proselytizing. Whether most Jews think the world would be a better place if everyone were Jewish, I don't know, but I really doubt it: they believe that they are the Chosen People, and that was G-d's Choice, and that a) you generally don't choose yourself, and b) you definitely don't "choose" someone else: doing so would be saying that G-d was wrong not to choose that person's ancestors to be Jews. I suspect (don't know for sure, mind you, only suspect) that wanting the whole world to be Jewish would actually be considered sinful in Judaism.

So: speak for yourself. Say that you want all other religions eliminated (even if by the most civilized possible means), or that YOUR religion teaches that the whole world ought to believe as you do. I know this is common, but it's far from universal. I personally believe it goes with believing in hell; if you don't think not being of your religion has any dire consequences for the soul of the non-practitioner, why would you want to change their religion? It's just interesting, that's all, and interesting is good.

Finally: in case you couldn't guess, I find your casual use of the phrase 'some pagan tribal thing' deeply offensive. What makes you think you're any better than a person practicing an animist religion in a tiny village in Africa (total adherents: 37)? Sorry, you aren't.

#274 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:15 PM:

C Wingate:

I really liked this sentence: People don't just want to live in a society that is tolerant, because they don't really want to have to be tolerant, because that's stressful; they prefer to live in a society that's inoffensive.

It strikes me that this depends a lot on what you mean by "tolerant." I can think of three ways to think of it:

a. I tolerate you in the sense that, although I despise you for being X, I recognize that beating you up or burning your house down is a one-way ticket to jail, and so I remain at peace with you.

b. I tolerate you in the sense that, although I find you distasteful and uncomfortable to be around, I recognize that I must remain at least formally polite with you.

c. I tolerate you in the sense that, although you're notably different from me in important ways, I'm basically comfortable around you--I'm okay with my kids playing with your kids or having you over for dinner sometimes.

I think (a) is extremely stressful--it's the Klansman living next door to the mixed-race couple, making it clear how he feels about them with his looks and words, but refraining from taking any illegal action on their basis.

I think (b) is the more common case of stressful tolerance--it's the well-mannered conservative guy living next door to the openly gay couple, finding them uncomfortable to talk to, but being determined not to be overtly rude.

I think (c) is the kind of tolerance most of us want for our communities, and really the main kind that works within a community. Communities can't function with a lot of (b) or really any significant amount of (a) at all.

I think communities form largely around people whose tolerance of one another extends to (a) and maybe occasional instances of (b). It's hard to have much of a community if the best I can do interacting with you is stiff, formal politeness while biting my tongue.

#275 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:16 PM:

I think of you as someone who would say "seeking the dignity of every human being" is something that the world would be better if everyone did--but that's an explicitly religious commitment.

Either you missed a 'not' in that sentence, or I profoundly disagree. I see no reason why an atheist couldn't believe in "seeking the dignity of every human being." Could you explain what you mean by calling it an explicitly religious commitment? (Unless you really did miss a 'not' there.)

#276 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:18 PM:

Could you explain what you mean by calling it an explicitly religious commitment?

I should have said if you are Episcopal "seeking the dignity of every human being" an explicitly religious commitment--it is part of the Episcopal baptismal vows.

#277 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:20 PM:

I think communities form largely around people whose tolerance of one another extends to (a) and maybe occasional instances of (b). It's hard to have much of a community if the best I can do interacting with you is stiff, formal politeness while biting my tongue.

Did you mean "(c) and maybe occasional instances of (b)"? That would seem to track better with the rest of your post, with which I strongly agree.

#278 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:21 PM:

"seeking the dignity of every human being" is something that the world would be better if everyone did--but that's an explicitly religious commitment

Definitely.
Not.

#279 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:22 PM:

Ah, Sam, I understand. But the fact that it's an explicitly religious commitment to an Episcopalian doesn't mean that wanting more people to behave that way is the same as wanting more people (much less everyone) to be Episcopalian.

#280 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:34 PM:

Sam, 274: Of course I seek the dignity of every human being. I do it, in part, by respecting a person's spiritual autonomy--i.e. their free will, which is what I understand "God's image" to be; if that means not praying for my atheist friends, so be it.

Yes, Jesus explicitly said that nobody goes to the Father except through him, so I'm probably a heretic.* But what if somebody doesn't want to go to the Father? What if they want to go to Nirvana instead? If they are faithful to their beliefs, and happy in them, why should I poke my nose in? If we're going to talk about a God who sends people to hell for believing the wrong things...well, I hope they put my boiling cauldron between Xopher's and Charlie's.

tl;dr--I trust the God who made me and loves me. I do what I can to fix the world, in small detail-oriented ways. The rest of it's above my pay grade.

*Of course Jesus died for that sin too. Also the pomposity I fear I'm subjecting you to. This is why I try not to talk about it in public.

#281 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:34 PM:

Albatross@276

Isn't (c) properly acceptance, rather than tolerance? I think of tolerance as having a strong element of "I'd really rather not" as part of the definition.

Xopher @ 281

I am trying to articulate something here that I'm not sure will come out clear.

For each person, there are elements of their moral/ethical/religious code that they see as universally important, and ones that they don't. I would argue that the elements of your religion that you think are universally important are your core religious commitments.

#282 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:39 PM:

TexAnne @ 282... the pomposity I fear I'm subjecting you to

I meant to say something about that.
:-)

#283 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 04:57 PM:

Sam 283: I would argue that the elements of your religion that you think are universally important are your core religious commitments.

I don't understand why. Certainly my religious practices are consistent with my values, but the core of them is practice that is not universally important. And I certainly have seen people get to values remarkably like mine from sharply contrasting religious viewpoints.

For example, I certainly believe in seeking the dignity of every human being. Does that mean that TexAnne and I share a core religious commitment, even though she's a liberal Episcopalian and I'm a Wiccan?

#284 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 05:03 PM:

If so, then I'm an atheist who shares a core religious commitment with a liberal Episcopalian and a Wiccan.

That doesn't sound right.

#285 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 05:05 PM:

C. Wingate@271 I don't agree that the alternative to sectarianism is secularism; I see secularism as treating irreligion as normality and religion as a deviation from that. It thus privileges irreligion as if it were a sect. Maybe it's possible to overcome that deficiency, but one is only a less difficult to live with version of the other. Indeed, it is possible to imagine that a person of sect A may well find sect B as a state religion less objectionable if explicit concessions are made for his own sect.

I don't know if you intend to, but it seems like you're straying dangerously close to the old "atheism is also a religion" canard.

The point of secularism in law is that nobody should be allowed to say "this must be, because my God said so". If you want something to be law, you're going to have to argue for it on the basis of societal benefit, without reference to the numinous.

This *should* mean a) that we end up with laws whose good can be explicitly argued on a purely human level and b) observances that your God tells you to make, but that can't be argued to be in the common good without reference to a higher power, become a private matter which the state has no business legislating over - except, of course, where there is a clash with a).

Granted, in practice, it's a bit more complicated than that, and "except where there is a clash" is its own can of worms. I don't, however, accept the implication that secularism is nothing more than the religious sect of the irreligious.

It occurs to me that if the key feature of a democracy is the ability of the governed to remove a bad leader, then a key feature of a just legal system is the ability to overturn a bad law. This is substantially more complicated where laws are commandments.

#286 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 05:10 PM:

Indeed, praisegod, it's coming awfully close to the old "if you even try to be a good person, you're really a Christian" thing. The worst thing about this is that the people who say this really don't understand why (or even that) it's insulting.

#287 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 05:11 PM:

I thought Xopher was an Episcopalian and that TexAnne was a Wiccan.
I'm confused.

#288 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 05:59 PM:

#275 ::: Xopher :

If you want to write that lecture-like piece about an esoteric aspect of Wicca, I'm interested in reading it.

#289 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 06:06 PM:

re 276: I don't count your option (c) as tolerance. There's not really a need to have principles about a situation in which there isn't conflict.

re 275: I was sort of half thinking about you when I wrote that, knowing that I had the possibility for a certain exaggeration in trying to keep what was already starting to run away into being too lengthy. Obviously what I said failed to some degree, for which I apologize. Nevertheless, the very way in which you feel yourself authorized to take offense for someone else here points toward the way in which I think you DO tap into the phenomenon I'm talking about. Your enmity towards the evangelical impulses of Christianity and Islam is all over your response, if I weren't already aware of it. Perhaps you view such a proselytizing Christianity as a legitimate and reasonable expression of what you express as a Wiccan, but I'm inclined to doubt that you do. I think that you have a notion of what a legitimate, reasonable, tolerable Christianity looks like. And it seems to me that you thus have a metareligion, a more fundamental religion, of which other religions (as well as your own) ought to be the expression, and that (to take a particular example) you don't accept, as a legitimate expression of that deeper religion, the fundamentalism that Jerry Falwell taught.

Likewise, it seems to me that Hindus both do and do not represent that localized paganism. Hinduism is not such a coherent thing, for starters. Judaism does represent the sort of localization now (though that was not always true), but orthodox Judaism at least insists on a public manifestation which potentially requires toleration.

I don't think that I'm "any better than a person practicing an animist religion in a tiny village in Africa". But I think that the religion of which I claim to be an adherent is better. How much are you willing to tolerate that?

re 286: A core ethical commitment.

#290 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:03 PM:

C. 291: I was sort of half thinking about you when I wrote that

Assuming you weren't being intentionally offensive, let me just suggest 'except for certain pagan religions' as an inoffensive alternative. Actually, I can't think of ANY pagan religion that has the characteristic you describe as nearly universal; in fact, certain sects of Asatru specifically ban people who are not of Northern European descent from joining (racism in religion, shock). You might have to say "adherents of Abrahamic religions generally believe" to be accurate, but of course that would undermine your point.

You're quite right that I think proselytizing is unethical, not to mention hubristic. Hubris is the error that Christians call the sin of Pride. I believe this because proselytizing (that is, trying to get someone to leave their religion (or lack of same) and join your religion (or lack of same)) presupposes that you know better than they do—better than the Divine does!—what their religion should be. And you may be taking them from a religion that works for them and fulfills their spiritual needs into one that doesn't and doesn't, or even one that makes them crazy.

That "makes them crazy" is particularly relevant to Wicca, btw. It's absolute mind poison for people who have certain mental disorders. (I don't know the technical terms for them and am not capable of diagnosing...but I can say "nope, not that one" with a fair degree of trained instinct.) I think that Christianity has that problem too, to a lesser degree; unfortunately the problem is generally completely ignored (or maybe "uncomprehended" would be fairer) by even the best-willed Christians.

I don't understand what you're saying about Judaism, or how what you're saying in 291 is relevant to the question of whether Jews think the world would be a better place if everyone were Jewish. Could you unpack a little please? I'm not being deliberately obtuse; I really don't understand how it connects.

I don't think that I'm "any better than a person practicing an animist religion in a tiny village in Africa". But I think that the religion of which I claim to be an adherent is better. How much are you willing to tolerate that?

albatross' (b). Well, actually, probably (c) with misgivings. If you said that to my kids I'd ask you to stop talking to them about religion. Again, the error here is hubris/the sin of Pride.

re 286: A core ethical commitment.

Just so. Anyone can have an ethical commitment. I think Sam's error here was in overgeneralizing from his own case: that is, because that core ethical principle comes from religion for him, he concludes that it's fundamentally a religious principle. It can be, of course, but needn't be.

#291 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:05 PM:

albatross @ 264: "By taking that whole issue off the table in political terms, by saying "the state will remain, as far as is possible, neutral between religions, and will support none and oppose none," we can keep religion from being the defining political issue in the society."

It also lets us benefit from the whole range of religious traditions, ideas, and people. I believe that diversity is its own virtue.

C. Wingate @ 271: "Those truths cannot be "universally validated", because only those people whose religion doesn't transgress the strictures of secularism would agree that they are valid!"

No, I think most people of faith agree with: this is a rock. That is a cow. (And if we can't agree that it's a cow, let's not pass any laws about it, hmm?) It's true that "universally validated" probably isn't the best term, though. "Mutually verifiable" is better. Secularism makes its case using secular reasoning based on secular evidence, with no reference to religion at all. It is anti-religion in precisely the way that cheese is anti-muppet.

"That's also why I cannot agree with what you say, Bruce, because anyone who holds to a religion outside of some pagan tribal thing really believes that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as they do-- and so do the secularists."

I would say that rather, secularism is a tool for determining which of my personal beliefs would make the world a better place if they were universally held, based on an engagement with said world. On the whole, secularism is much more about what beliefs *don't* need to be universal than which *do*.

"A genuinely neutral argument is that a religion, in the abstract, is legitimately interested in any activity, because the only meaningful standard of legitimacy is that of the religion in question."

That is a neutral argument in that, by carefully placing every instance in a hermetically-sealed pocket universe, it renders them all completely incomparable. Off in the abstract, religions can be interested in anything they please! Here in the world though, I must insist on some verifiable basis for one's claims.

"Jump to Attaturk's Turkish secularism, and there's no question at all that it is explicitly sectarian, and that the sect in question is a certain vision of Islam. And thus for instance he banned certain public expressions of religion (e.g. head coverings)."

Would it shock you overly to learn that I, as a secularist, argue against headscarf bans precisely on the grounds that they violate secularism? Even the soccer practice thing seems a little unfair.

#292 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:08 PM:

C. Wingate, 291: I think that the religion of which I claim to be an adherent is better for me.

FTFY.

#293 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:14 PM:

TexAnne 294: Had he said that I would not have disagreed with him!

#294 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:16 PM:

#293 heresiarch
It also lets us benefit from the whole range of religious traditions, ideas, and people. I believe that diversity is its own virtue.

It also nets us a whole lot of days we can get off work, exchange presents, and eat candy. What's not to like?

#295 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:16 PM:

It may have been wayback in this thread that someone whether it was possible to have a church that wasn't Christian. I'm late to the game, but I would hold that the congregation I attend weekly would qualify:

Architecturally, the building is a church: Angular modern building with vestigial steeple on top; a large room with raised platform at one end, pulpit, piano, couple of tables with candles and flowers and sometimes assorted other ritual gear; rows of pews, some chairs, hymnals, offering-plates, a microphone that works most of the time; elsewhere in the building a nursery room for preschoolers, a large linoleum-floored gathering hall with attached kitchen and service window, bulletin boards covered with newspaper clippings and kids' artwork and volunteer opportunities, a few literature racks and a coatroom with a misplaced umbrella in the corner and stack of non-perishables intended for the local food pantry.

Organizationally it's a church: paid full-time ordained clergyperson, underpaid part-time administrative clerk, board of laypeople administering business affairs, another group of laypeople assisting with worship activities, couple of other program-specific paid part-time staffers, and an abundance of committees and volunteer projects.

It's shaped like a church, it functions like a church, it's called a church (the word is included in the organization's official name), but theologically, being Unitarian Universalist, it's non-doctrinal and Christian faith is not required or even particularly emphasized.

As I remarked in a leadership workshop once, we're probably the only congregation in town that could install a window with an enormous cross in the middle of it and not notice until after it was in. [1]

(At this point one of the staffers looked at me funny, and excused herself to go take a look. She came back with the most peculiar expression. "It -does- look like a cross, now that you mention it. I hadn't noticed.")

That's us.

[1] The sanctuary was build some twenty-odd years ago without any windows as a heat-saving measure. It was renovated a couple of years ago and windows were installed; the division of the window in question is structural, since there were a load-bearing beam and column where we wanted to put the window.

So we installed the windows around them; the result, if you are looking for it, is a Calvary Cross built into the wall defined by the negative space of the windows. If you are not looking for it, well, it looks like someone found a load-bearing beam and column where they wanted windows, and installed them anyway.

I think it's delightfully ambiguous.


#296 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:23 PM:

Lee #266 At the moment the religious right is a coherent block having shared goals. It can gather folk together to implement a shared platform irrespective of their particular denominational orientation. So the RR will happily back a candidate irrespective of his or her particular church membership. But if one of the things up for grabs in an election is the right to decide whose particular brand of christianity is the 'official', state sponsored version, then people will want to make sure that the republican candidate is one of theirs, rather than one of the other guys. So all the Democrats have to do is to field a candidate from the largest losing denomination, and a substatial fraction of the RR have a compelling reason to switch sides.

Of course this is an overtly cynical view, and in no way a serious proposal. It just strikes me as one of those "be careful what you wish for" things - or indeed,, another example of how the Republicans don't actual want (on an institutional level if not on a personal level) to win on some of their core issues. The last thing they actually want to do is to sucessfully ban brtn for example, because the struggle is such a fertile source of support and funds.

I've just totted up in my head incidently, and I don't know a single christian, or at least I don't knowingly know any: there may some folk I know who do trot along to a church on a sunday, but if so they have never disclosed the information to me. In the last 40 years I have worked with precisely two people who I knew went to a church, again others might have done so, but the subject never came up in all the time we sat next to each other. This is in no small part I think the lingering affect of Edward and Mary: 7 years of being killed for being a catholic, followed by 10 years of being killed for not being a catholic results in a population deeply committed to not telling their neighbours their religious views*. The US may be unique in being the only country which has never officially killed any of its citizens for having the wrong religion opinions. The downside of this of course being the frightening readiness of the population to actually have such opinions, and to articulate them. If we could only pursuade Alabama to roast episcoplalians, while Maryland cooked Baptists we could, I'm certain, convince everyone of the benefits of ensuring that the state remain strictly neutral on matters of faith.

*You might venture to remark that it was a long time ago, but I will reposte that London is a long, long way away from me - it's over 100 miles!

#297 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:34 PM:

The US may be unique in being the only country which has never officially killed any of its citizens for having the wrong religion opinions.

Except for them heathens. Though I suppose you could argue that they were killed for being the wrong color.

#298 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:38 PM:

Thena @ 297: You have just described my church to a t, with the caveat that we have discussed changing it to 'congregation'. It's not so much to leave behind the name church as to not alienate people who have had bad experiences in churches.

#299 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:40 PM:

C. Wingate @ 271:

I've found good reason to accept Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a set of driving forces for most of the people I've met; the base of the pyramid is the fundamental set of drives that keep people alive and functional: hunger, etc. And those are precisely the drives that society must help satisfy first, before any others can be addressed.

It's my opinion also that teleology can't be ignored in the context of human affairs, precisely because everything we do consciously is based on purpose, and a lot of what we do unconsciously is affected by how we think about what we do. Certainly the idea of discovering and fostering abstract principles in human history and political theory has a generous helping of teleology1 in it. A good example: the Constitution of the United States contains discussion of the purpose of the structures it proposes, because it was intended to solve a set of political problems the writers felt needed addressing. And I think most of us here are willing to give the Constitution credit for a damn good try at those solutions.

1 Or at least teleonomy, but I'll leave that discussion for later; I've found that for many people that's too fine a hair-splitting to inject into this subject.

#300 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:47 PM:

@286 et al: Yeah, I'm an atheist who happens to think "Thou Shalt Not Steal" is pretty nifty. NPAN.

#301 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:48 PM:

(... in case that's not universal: New Post Adds Nothing.)

#302 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 07:49 PM:

John @300 - If you did the same thing with your windows I'm going to have to tell the Buildings and Grounds Committee :-)

Bruce @301 - I'll go get a magnifying lens and some obsidian shards if there are hairs that need splitting.

#303 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 08:00 PM:

I have not read alot of the stories mentioned in this thread, but the only one that I can think of when murder and hot weather are combined is Alfred Bester's 'Fondly Fahrenheit'.

Cool and discreet, honey, in the dancing frost while the thermometer registers 10 degrees fondly Fahrenheit.

#304 ::: john A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 08:08 PM:

Thena @ 304: We've been too busy moving the air conditioners onto the roof and putting them in cages* to think about windows.

*You'd think Unitarian Universalists would prefer free-range air conditioners, wouldn't you?

#305 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 08:25 PM:

Xopher@299: I submit that the differences in religion and color merely made it easier to justify killing them because we wanted their stuff, where stuff=land.

#306 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 08:41 PM:

Xopher@299, Rikibeth@307: The original poster specified "citizens".

#307 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 08:45 PM:

Hmm. Good point.

BUT: do you get to join that club if you strip people of citizenship before killing them? Anyone know if Germany stripped Jews of citizenship?

#308 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 09:00 PM:

Xopher @ 292
I think Sam's error here was in overgeneralizing from his own case: that is, because that core ethical principle comes from religion for him, he concludes that it's fundamentally a religious principle.

I don't think so. Self-knowledge is hard, but that certainly isn't how I got there, and I don't think it's why I am there.

I don't see that any useful moral system with which I've familiar does not actually rely on propositions that are inherently not proveable, as to what is valuable/tolerable/harmful. It's really obvious if you look at the commandment-based systems, but it isn't a "flaw" that I've seen escaped--call it Sam's Incompleteness Theorem of morality.

Take the big four* supposed-to-be-empirical theories of morals--natural law, utilitarianism, strong-form liberalism (Mill, for example), and Rawlsian justice theory. They don't come to the same conclusions about much of interest.

And so I maintain that 1)government neutrality among moral systems isn't possible and 2)non-religious and religious moral systems share the "flaw" that non-adherents see them as arbitrary.

*Big four as in "frequently referred to in political discourse."

TexAnee/Xopher/praisegod barebones @ 288

I find a liberal Episcopalian, a Wiccan, and an atheist having the same fundamental religious/moral beliefs at least as comprehensible as saying that Pope Paul III, Ulrich Zwingli*, and Jerry Falwell share core religious beliefs.

*Reformer: infamous in the Anabaptist tradition because it was at his orders that Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr, was drowned in Zurich.

#309 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2011, 09:54 PM:

Xopher @ 309: The Reichsbürgergesetz of September 1935 created the difference beteween "citizens of the reich" and "national subjects" - only "real Germans" could belong to the first category. The second group lost their voting rights (not that *that* mattered much) and were subjected to many more dicriminatory measures:
The last remaining Jewish state employees were fired, Jewish doctors, apothecaries and lawyers were forbidden to practice their profession, all Jewish children were banned from visiting public schools. When leaving Germeny, subjects would lose even their worthless second-class-citizenship and their possessions. Marriages and sexual relation between Jews and Non-Jews were outlawed [1].
The Nuremberg Laws are very scary and depressing, but also quite interesting as a clear example of "legal" suppression and percesution, which , AFAIK, led mostly to shrugs from other governments.


[1] Possibly related to the sex-offender law thread: Apparently Hitler personally intervened to treat only the male part in these "miscegenation" cases as guilty - in his opinion, women were sexually irresponsible and generally unable to give or deny consent.

#310 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 12:36 AM:

The video Serge mentions at 270 is here in case you are prone, as I was, to exploring the false matches from a band called the Triffids.

#311 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 12:55 AM:

Xopher #279:

Yes, that was a typo/thinko. It's pretty hard to have a community when its members are often thinking "I wish there were a way I could kill that bastard over there without going to jail for it."

#312 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 03:29 AM:

#311 ::: Jörg Raddatz

Your footnote fits with something I read long ago about successful or semi-successful demonstrations in the Third Reich.

Non-Jewish wives of Jewish men [1] demonstrated to save them-- successfully-- for at least some time in Berlin.

Other examples were demonstrations to save inmates in mental institutions. This didn't work, since the inmates were slowly starved rather than executed.

The demonstrations to prevent a policy of killing crippled people were successful. Hitler would have lost the military on that one.

[1] How to phrase that? I'm not happy with 'Aryan', 'German' implies that the the husbands weren't German (I've gotten tired of the 'Nazis killed Jews', as though Jews weren't members of various European nations), and 'gentile' lack specificity.

#313 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 03:30 AM:

Second thought: Maybe I should go with ' "Aryan" '. Scare quotes convey what I mean.

#314 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 04:39 AM:

SamChevre @283

Judaism provides an excellent counterexample. I'm sure there are some Jews who really want everyone to be Jewish, or behave according to some set of Jewish mores, but that's a minority view. There is a reasonable interpretation of Judaism (certainly not the only such, but I think a view that a nontrivial number of Jews would agree with) that the core religious activity of Judaism is keeping faith with the big fellow: holding to the law He handed down to His chosen, and maintaining the observances that mark them as His chosen. Some of those can be universal, yes (I think lots of Jews would approve of nonbelievers who don't murder), but some aren't. I've never been told that I should keep the sabbath, or skip the cheeseburger, or anything like that.

I also think it's possible to say "I believe in doing X because I believe God wants me to" and simultaneously "I believe everyone should do X along with me for nonreligious reasons."

I think the argument that there can be no morality that is not "religious" is problematic. You're right that morality mostly comes from somewhere we don't know (at least, I think so). But that doesn't mean it's religious.

Look, I'm an anarchist. I can't prove the values that lead me to that. I can't build them up from axioms. I feel it's right. I think self-determination is important, I think a free choice of service to others is more meaningful than an enforced one, but I can't write a proof (maybe a proof can be written, but that doesn't mean my belief is logical). There's at least a dose of non-rationality in there. That doesn't make it a religion, though. There's a vast gulf between strict rationality and religion*, and lots of things aren't rational without being religious. In this case, if you called anarchism my "religion," people would look at you funny. (I wouldn't, in general conversation, dispute your characterization. It's close enough. But in conversation about religion specifically... There are similarities, but I don't believe in the Revolution like you believe in the Resurrection.)

*But it's like the gulf between the US and Mexico: they share a land border too. I'm not asserting that religion can't be rational, just that there is some nonrationality in some religion, and there is also some nonrationality that is not religious.

#315 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 06:04 AM:

Devin @316: Though I wouldn't call my politics or code of personal ethics my religion, any more than you do, I'm considerably more tempted to call them my faith. It makes much more sense, to me, to say I'm keeping faith with my commitment not to do murder, than to say I'm keeping faith with the heliocentric model of the solar system. And I'm reluctant to cede the use of so strong and clear a word to that particular flavour of religion which most aggressively blurs the difference.

My worry is that this sense of 'faith' departs so far from common usage, it may not be casually intelligible.

#316 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 10:23 AM:

SamChevre @ 310: "having the same fundamental religious/moral beliefs"

Ah! there's the problem. You see, what people have been pointing out is that "moral" and "religious" are not the same thing. Xopher, TexAnne and praisegod barebones are commenting that they share core moral values but not core religious values. Now it may be that for you the two (morals and religion) are so intertwined that you cannot think of them being separate, but for many people they ARE separate. My husband is atheist, and a moral/ethical person. His moral values are not religious values, even if they happen to be shared by many people who would put a religious slant on the same values.

Also, re C. Wingate @ 291, I agree with TexAnn @ 294. Judaism expressely does not suggest that everyone should be Jewish, or even that everyone should follow Jewish laws and customs in orther to be a "good" or moral person. Officially (as I recall), non-Jews have it easy - they just have to follow the seven Noachide commandments. What I find worthy of maintaining, in Judaism, is what I term "social Judaism": the Judaism which says don't murder, don't steal, don't bear false witness, don't commit adultery, don't covet; don't put a stumbling block before the blind or curse the deaf (and the wider implications of those, e.g. that you don't say nasty things about people where they can't hear you), looking after the widow and the orphan; the idea that you leave the gleanings from the field for the poor because having these is their right - all that stuff. Now, I was born Jewish, so that's where I got those principles from. But I can follow them, and think they are worth following, entirely separate from whether or not I believe in God. And in my experience, other people can follow similar moral principles whatever their religion, or if they are of no religion at all.

#317 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 10:45 AM:

Allan Beatty @ 312... Thanks for the link. By the way, did you recognize the actress playing the teacher?

#318 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 01:10 PM:

Devin, #316: I think a lot of morality arises from simple observation. A society that doesn't have laws against murder, assault, fraud, and theft isn't going to be stable enough to survive. The only three of the 10 Commandments which are currently supported by the American legal system are "thou shalt not murder"*, "thou shalt not steal", and "thou shalt not bear false witness"**.

The problem arises when the ethical issues which are necessary for a stable community are conflated with issues of religious ritual, and then all of them are considered to be "universal morality".

dcb, #318: This is why I have taken to using the word "ethics" instead of "morals" or "morality"; the latter terms have been so hijacked that many people think of them as being synonymous with "religion". And beyond that, there are those (none of them in this discussion, thank $DEITY) who consider "moral issues" to mean those relating to sexuality only.

* "Murder" is the modern word which conveys the sense of the KJV's "kill".

** In the limited senses of committing fraud or perjury.

#319 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 02:44 PM:

Xopher #292:

There's an interesting comment there about what you'd say to a friend's kids w.r.t. religion. Despite thinking that my religion is a nice thing that most or all people would benefit from in principle[0][1][2], I would take it as a given that prosthelitizing to other peoples' children about a religion other than their own is Simply Not Done. (Answering questions, yes, though with a lot of respect for their family's religion or lack thereof, and a lot of thought about how not to do more damage than you do good. And even there, I'd be much more comfortable answering such questions from a kid whose family was Catholic, or with the kid's parents around.)

[0] This is another way of saying I think we're closer in some sense to having a true picture of some important stuff about God, man, and the universe.

[1] Though your point about different people being a better fit for some religions than others is well-taken. I think the ritual and history and complicated structure of beliefs and observations that have grown up around the Catholic Church is a very good fit for some people, and would drive others batty. My grandfather found great comfort in evangelical churches whose lack of structure and doctrine bugged me at a really fundamental level. And so on.

[2] Unfortunately, there are a largish number of people, notably gays and Catholics who have divorced, for whom my church is not at all welcoming. I very much wish I knew how to fix this.

#320 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 03:41 PM:

Gray Woodland @ 317: "It makes much more sense, to me, to say I'm keeping faith with my commitment not to do murder, than to say I'm keeping faith with the heliocentric model of the solar system."

The difference, I believe, is between "ought" and "is."

#321 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 04:52 PM:

dcb 318: I agree. And the idea that all morality and ethics are religious is a poisonous, oppressive meme in itself; it leads to the assumption that atheists cannot be moral or ethical. Far from true, of course, but I've heard people say it.

This frightens me. If they lost their faith would they suddenly become wanton murderers? I hope not. Makes me nervous to be around them, honestly.

albatross 321: I would take it as a given that prosthelitizing to other peoples' children about a religion other than their own is Simply Not Done.

Well, unless the parents use you as a free babysitter. Then you teach them to worship Setesh.

KIDDING. Seriously, I think answering questions is the right boundary. And preface the answers with a qualifier like "As a Roman Catholic, I believe..." or "I'm Wiccan, so I..."

Unfortunately, there are a largish number of people, notably gays and Catholics who have divorced, for whom my church is not at all welcoming. I very much wish I knew how to fix this.

Me too. I wish I knew how to fix it, but even more I wish YOU did. Because you're a Catholic, and that gives you access and cred that I can never have.

#322 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 05:03 PM:

dcb @ 318 You see, what people have been pointing out is that "moral" and "religious" are not the same thing.

And what I've been pointing out is that saying "these unproveable beliefs about what you should do are moral, so it's OK to coerce you to follow them, but those unproveable beliefs about what you should do are religious, so it's not OK to coerce you to follow them" is not an enlightening or convincing statement. Particularly when, as is currently the case, it's basically the powerful saying "our unproveable beliefs are moral, but yours, oh ignorant hicks, are religious."

#323 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2011, 06:00 PM:

SamChevre, I really don't understand your last post. At all. You seem to be suggesting the following: 1) No broad agreements about how human beings should behave toward each other (of any kind) are possible; all social order requires coercion. 2) All statements about how human beings should treat each other are, by definition, "religious". 3) No assertion of moral principle about how human beings should treat each other can be subject to proof.

Do I have that right? I really don't understand.

And where do you find (in this thread, at least) religious adherents being called "ignorant hicks"? Because I would be happy to march right over and um, enlighten the name-callers, if you would point such out to me.

#324 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 09:14 AM:

LizzyL @ 325

You seem to be suggesting the following:
1) No broad agreements about how human beings should behave toward each other (of any kind) are possible; all social order requires coercion.

Close, but not quite what I'm trying to say. Lots of different roads can get you to the same outcome, and so there is overwhelming agreement on some points of "how people should act"; by definition, nothing that is hotly debated with substantial numbers of people on both sides is in that category. There are different ways of handling those areas of disagreement, but when the government takes a side, it's using coercion.

2) All statements about how human beings should treat each other are, by definition, "religious".

Not by definition, but they have exactly the same problem whether they are religious or are not--the premises aren't proveable, and so they are arbitrary from the point of view of anyone who does not share those premises.

3) No assertion of moral principle about how human beings should treat each other can be subject to proof.

Correct.

If this were the sort of place where I had to deal with being called an ignorant hick directly and to my face, I probably wouldn't be here.

#325 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 10:17 AM:

As is true in another thread right now, perhaps it would be better to respond to people who are here making arguments, rather than people who aren't here but have made different arguments from different premises at other times?

#326 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 10:41 AM:

heresiarch @ 322: That's how it starts out; but it's the question of what valid interactions exist between the 'ought' and the 'is', that renders disagreements over faith-modes so truly... interesting.

#327 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 10:49 AM:

SamChevre: Could I ask you to elaborate on how you define "provable?" I'm getting the odd feeling that you're using the word in some sort of strict, term-of-art fashion, rather than a casual everyday usage, and it may be hampering my understanding of your assertion that no ethical premises are provable.

#328 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 10:57 AM:

Could I ask you to elaborate on how you define "provable?" I'm getting the odd feeling that you're using the word in some sort of strict, term-of-art fashion, rather than a casual everyday usage, and it may be hampering my understanding of your assertion that no ethical premises are provable.

Hmmm. I think I'm using it in the casual sense--an ethical premise would be proveable if it could be shown to necessarily follow from something that was agreed to, rather than those who disagree perceiving it as arbitrary.

If examples would help, I think John Rawls' A Theory of Justice is the best modern example of an attempt at a proveable ethical framework, and scholastic natural law the best historical example.

#329 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 02:04 PM:

SamChevre, #330: I'm having trouble with the idea that anyone would consider laws against murder, assault, theft, and fraud either arbitrary or coercive. (I also don't consider them to be religiously based, even though most religions also include rules about those things; I explained this in more detail @320.)

#330 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 02:12 PM:

SamChevre: Premises are not provable. They're the start from which one proves other things. When one takes them all the way back, they become axioms.

And every system that includes the equivalent of arithmetic necessarily contains well-formed statements that are not provable. cf. Godel. The house of logical positivism is built on a cloud, not even on sand.

This is, in part, why I'm not religious. It's all unprovable stuff, but so is much of what I believe; various versions of religious approaches are wildly contradictory to each other on their faces; and it seems less than useful to me to try to pick one. I suppose you could call me a militant agnostic on that basis, except that I've given up saying that other people can't *know* -- they can *know*, and frequently do, even if their knowledge is not of a sort that will convince me. This does not preclude me having numinous experiences, nor awe at the complexity and wonder of the world. And it certainly doesn't mean that I don't try to deal fairly with people on a regular basis (that grows out of s personal belief, from experience, that my world is much more pleasant when people treat each other that way, so I should start).

I'm not trying to tell you, or anyone else, to live this way. I'm merely testifying that it works for me.

#331 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 02:18 PM:

Lee @ 331

Maybe an example will help.

Using murder as an example, approximately everyone agrees that killing people is a bad thing to do, but what killings are and are not justified varies substantially.

Take the following list:
Abortion
Capital punishment (assume certain guilt)
Killing someone who killed a relative of yours
Killing someone who you found in bed with your spouse
Killing an abusive spouse
Killing an enemy soldier
Killing a brutal jailer (as an inmate)
Killing someone who is severely disabled

Different ethical/moral systems disagree on whether it is or is not wrong to kill in those cases. They may agree that shooting random passerby is wrong, but they don't get there from the same premises, so they don't answer a lot of common edge cases the same.

#332 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 02:59 PM:

SamChevre @333

Okay, I agree that there's a similarity in that given a justice system based strictly on a combination of Scriptural and Papal dictates, and one based on common law and Constitutional legislative and judicial processes, they both have unprovable premises at some level.

So does a justice system based on flipping a coin and then giving Charlie Manson veto power over the result.

All these things are not equal.

I also think that it's useful to point out that our current secular government is a work in progress. It ain't done. It does, absolutely, fail to be properly secular in many instances. Sometimes there's a subtle religious bias, other times it's blatant. This isn't evidence of failure, it's evidence of progress yet to be made.

If you look at the period from Constitutional ratification to the present, you'll see definite progress on that front. Hopefully there's more to come.

(Also, addressing directly your list: Most of those things are not exactly religious morality, they're cultural. Catholicism today leans against capital punishment, yet many Catholic cultures broadly support it. Catholicism has strict rules about killing enemy soldiers, yet many Catholics worldwide would say that doing so is patriotism rather than murder even if the war doesn't meet the Church's standards. Jesus wouldn't want you to shank the warden, but He'd probably have a lot more sympathy for you than for the jailor. Yet worldwide, I suspect you will find that every single country with laws on the subject sentences a prisoner who hits a screw far more severely than a screw who hits a prisoner, even when the CO is found to have acted wrongly.)

#333 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 03:07 PM:

Devin @ 334

Natural law is not based on "a combination of Scriptural and Papal dictates"--it is an attempt to come up with a framework that enables right morals to be derived from observation, within a very careful logical framework. (Remember, scholasticism is based on Aristotle, not scripture.)

#334 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 03:43 PM:

SamChevre @335

I wasn't talking about natural law, I don't know enough about the subject to talk about it. I suspect it'd be closer to my second example than my first: an attempt at secular justice, even if rather thoroughly tinted by religious origin. (Confucian law would fall in a similar place, and I think this was the original intent of Islamic law as well.)

If it's confusing, imagine a justice system based on a Southern Baptist reading of the KJV instead. The point is just that you can make a specifically religious justice system, and you can make a pretty good attempt at a secular one. And yes, they both share unprovable premises, but that doesn't mean that they're both the same thing, it just means they're both things.

#335 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 07:50 PM:

Devin: sorry about the misunderstanding.

I agree that you can make an explicitly religious justice system, or an explicitly secular one. Unless everyone who is in contact with whichever justice system you have agrees that it is just, the two systems will have exactly the same problem--some people are convinced that your justice system is unjust. You can resolve that by appealing up to some agreed-on notion of ethics (if there is one), but there is no way of saying one is a better system than the other without a frame of reference, which just gets you a turtles all the way down problem.

There are several plausible ways of resolving the issue (plausible as in currently or recently used.)

One is consent. If everyone directly involved consented to the system used, it's no one else's business. Many libertarians are comfortable with this, but that's because autonomy/consent is an over-riding ethical principle in classical liberalism.

A second is contract, which is sort of a stabilizing version of consent. We agreed up-front, as a group, to do it this way, and unless we as a group change that, that's the way it should be. The legal originalists are an example of this tendency.

A third is majoritarianism in some form. We are the majority, so we get to do it our way. That's the populist tendency on both left and right.

A fourth is sheer raw power. We have the army on our side, so what we say goes. This is the tendency of the Warren Court, conservative authoritarians and (non-populist) socialists, and of most dictatorships.

I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones that have been significant in American discussions in my lifetime.

#336 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 09:00 PM:

Right, I think we're on the same page there.

(Except that turtles-all-the-way-down isn't a problem, it's a solution.)

I think there are still important differences between justice systems that share your legitimacy problem, which is what I was pointing at with my coin-flip/Manson example. I can't quite put my finger on it yet, though, so I'll have to chew on that a while more, mix up a couple more metaphors and see what comes out.

#337 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2011, 11:32 PM:

SamChevre @338 and Devin @339,

Might I suggest that one key difference between explicitly religious and explicitly secular justice systems is this:

With a religious system, you get laws that are justified largely or solely on the basis of "this is because (we think) that this is what (the) God(s) require(s)." Such laws will pretty much automatically be regarded as unjust by anyone who is adversely affected, and who does not share the religion.

I cannot think of any corresponding secular justification with the same effect. Secular systems depend on justifications that are supposed to make sense to believers (of all stripes) and unbelievers alike.

J Homes.

#338 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 02:52 AM:

SamChevre @ 324: "And what I've been pointing out is that saying "these unproveable beliefs about what you should do are moral, so it's OK to coerce you to follow them, but those unproveable beliefs about what you should do are religious, so it's not OK to coerce you to follow them" is not an enlightening or convincing statement."

Not speaking for anyone else, but that's not what I've been saying in the slightest. The entire point of secularism is to avoid unprovable, unverifiable statements of both the ought and the is variety, be they religious or otherwise. (And ought statements are verifiable, in that they can be verified to exist in the world and be held by people.) People can have unprovable beliefs about morality that aren't religious, but that doesn't make those beliefs secular. Secular beliefs are by definition based on evidence, which is to say they have a basis in material experiential reality.

@ 337: "You can resolve that by appealing up to some agreed-on notion of ethics (if there is one), but there is no way of saying one is a better system than the other without a frame of reference, which just gets you a turtles all the way down problem."

Which is the point of secularism: the frame of reference is reality. ("Turtles all the way down," by the way, is the product of a very poor spatial metaphor within which more important logical premises are viewed as lower to the ground: fundamental, basic, etc. If that is your metaphor, then the strength of your arguments rests on the solidity of their foundations--but dig far enough and you eventually run out of foundation, which can be very disturbing. I prefer the spatial metaphor of gravitic accretion: truths are built outward from a center, from not the most basic but the most core propositions, the most central of which is the existence of experienced reality.)

#339 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 06:22 AM:

heresiarch #340: I prefer the spatial metaphor of gravitic accretion: truths are built outward from a center, from not the most basic but the most core propositions, the most central of which is the existence of experienced reality.)

Oh, I like this metaphor! Too bad the people who need it most would understand it least... ("It says right here that God separated the heavens and the earth..." :-( )

#340 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 06:38 AM:

the most central of which is the existence of experienced reality

But the religious do not share the same reality as the non-believer. To some, the bible is a mixture of folk tales and history, compiled and edited over a number of centuries by a variety of groups - to others it is the word of God, divinely inspired and literally true. Thus there are people who live in a world in which the sun actually stopped in the sky one day*, and another group in which that never happened. Casting our net wider, some people live in a world in which UFO's regularly abduct people, others in a world in which 911 was a CIA plot. There is no concensus reality, merely a lowest common denominator of a syncretic reality that a majority of people can accept.

If you believe that God intervenes directly and personally on a daily basis, then trial by ordeal is a perfectly rational concept: if you don't so believe then it's medieval madness. (It might be contradicted by scripture* to actually use it, but the concept is not irrational).

Secularlism is in effect saying "let us run our courts as if God doesn't exist". Now I would maintain that that is a reasonable method, given the lack of any concensus on the existence or nature of the Deity/Deities involved , but there's little doubt that it is a compromise forced on the believer by the presence within society of others.

*Joshua 10:13
*Deuteronomy 6:16

#341 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 07:24 AM:

heresiarch @ 340

Secular beliefs are by definition based on evidence, which is to say they have a basis in material experiential reality.

Can you expand? I can see that easily for "is" beliefs, but I'm trying to figure out how you'd get from material experiential reality to, say, an answer to what killings of one thing with human DNA by another are wrong and which are not. (Avoiding "person", since in a significant portion of those cases that's a pre-supposition that isn't generally accepted.)

#342 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:34 AM:

Here's what I'm really failing to track, and where I really start to feel like I'm vanishing down the rabbit hole:

I can tell you, in detail, what the harms are from the imposition of a specific religious set of values are on people who do not share that set of religious values.

I have real trouble identifying specific harms that stem from requiring people not to impose their religious values on others, without some sort of broader, non-religious explanation for why a given restriction is necessary to maintain a just and functioning society.

And this entire conversation about how somehow there's no more rational justification for secular rules than for religiously based ones -- again, it just goes past me. That's exactly the point of secularism -- to create as objective a set of rules as possible. As noted above, it's definitely in process, but I believe that making that effort is preferable to "My God said so, I don't have to explain myself." Which is what the alternative often feels like from this side.

#343 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:47 AM:

heresiarch #340:

People can have unprovable beliefs about morality that aren't religious, but that doesn't make those beliefs secular. Secular beliefs are by definition based on evidence, which is to say they have a basis in material experiential reality.

I think you're just wrong, here. As best I can tell, moral arguments cannot in general be derived from reference to objective reality. To use the simplest example I can find, what's the moral status of the folks who keep living in Omelas. What objective reality would you refer to, in order to convince them that they must give up the benefits they have at the expense of someone else's suffering? Or that they should change their system to one in which they and their loved ones lived in a less pleasant place, to avoid that suffering by another person?

Ought-from-is is, as best I can tell, an unsolvable problem in philosophy. And yet, we humans seem to need morals to function, and communities need shared morals to function. (The further apart the morals, the further we move into more stressful versions of tolerance, eventually resulting in civil war.)

#344 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:56 AM:

KayTei:

I think the cost is the lack of societal unity. Communities and societies work better in some ways when they're more alike in beliefs. In the extreme case, there are beliefs that aren't reconcilable at all--if Alice believes that she is morally required to kill any gays she meets, and Bob is gay, peace between them is not in the cards.

In practice, our secular society pushes all sorts of unprovable beliefs by propaganda and PSAs and education of various sorts, intended to keep the society functioning smoothly. Frex, there's a large society-wide effort to convince people that beating their wives isn't acceptable, that using drugs and smoking are both bad things to do, that racial hatred and discrimination are unacceptable, etc. These are all unprovable statements in terms of morality (though it's easy enough to produce objective evidence that, say, smoking is bad for you, it's not possible to produce evidence that tells you how you should weigh those health costs against whatever benefits smoking provides you).

#345 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 03:16 PM:

SamChevre, #343: Because things don't happen in a vacuum. You say "the killing of one thing with human DNA by another" as though that were the ONLY moral issue involved. It's not, and never will be, and failing to recognize that is arguing in bad faith.

Am I morally required to let someone else kill me, if the only alternative is me killing them? Some pacifists will say "yes", but that's an outlier position; the consensus, based on experiential material reality (and which is backed up by our legal system), is "no". What you're pulling here is the equivalent of the lawyer asking, "Did you kill him? YES OR NO?" without reference to the circumstances under which it happened, and everyone recognizes that as a slimy trick.

KayTei, #344: I have real trouble identifying specific harms that stem from requiring people not to impose their religious values on others

And that takes us back to the beginning of the argument, and the de Camp quotation. We see it as religious freedom for everyone, they see it as oppression of their specific religion, and never the twain shall meet.

#346 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 04:58 PM:

It strikes me that in the past few comments we've made some backwards steps in understanding. One place where things seem to me to have gone off the rails is in seeing secularism and religious belief as being two co-ordinate instances of some over-arching genus.

That's not right. Atheism is the thing which is co-ordinate with a religious belief. Secularism is a view about what law should be, not about why it should be that way. It's possible to be a secularist because one is an atheist but it's also possible to be a secularist for religious reasons (eg because you think coercion in religious matters is necessarily self-defeating). (Heresiarch made this point in a different way somewhere up thread; but it doesn't fit well with Heresiarch @ 340 - hence my sense of moving backwards) It's also possible, as I hinted earlier, to be an atheist and in favour of the establishment of religion.

Sam Chevre: I put it to you that Jesus was a secularist (or maybe less anachronistically that secularism is one natural way of developing the thought behind 'render unto Caesar') St. Paul perhaps not - except on his better days.

#347 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 05:03 PM:

Lee #347:

Consensus may well be the best we can do in terms of agreeing on morality, but it's not a very reliable guide. I can say this even without ought-from-is, because widespread consensus has changed radically over time. Just in the US, look at consensus views over the acceptability of interracial marriages over the last 50 years or so.

#348 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 06:51 PM:

Lee @ 347
You say "the killing of one thing with human DNA by another" as though that were the ONLY moral issue involved. It's not, and never will be, and failing to recognize that is arguing in bad faith.

No no no. That's not at all what I meant to say or imply[1], and I'm sorry it sounded as if it was. In 333, I gave a bunch of examples of kinds of killing; I'm asking what distinctions among them are meaningful and why, not trying to imply that they can't be distinguished.

KayTei @ 344

I have real trouble identifying specific harms that stem from requiring people not to impose their religious values on others,without some sort of broader, non-religious explanation for why a given restriction is necessary to maintain a just and functioning society.

Justice IS an unproveable moral value, as is it's definition.

Maybe an example will help? Both "man and women are different,and should have different social roles" and "men and women are both people, and should have the same social roles open to them" are moral statements, with a significant grounding in observable reality. They are in neither case something that one can live out without imposing it on others.

Which goes back to my original point: society as it is, and in all modern configurations, imposes values. It's not surprising that as one non-proveable framework displaces another in society, the displaced one would feel wronged and speak angrily about "how to get back what's rightly ours."


1] Although that they are not differentiable WOULD be the moral position I grew up with and still find purest. (traditionalist Anabaptist position.)

#349 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 09:50 PM:

SamChevre: When you say

Maybe an example will help? Both "man and women are different,and should have different social roles" and "men and women are both people, and should have the same social roles open to them" are moral statements, with a significant grounding in observable reality. They are in neither case something that one can live out without imposing it on others.

I disagree. There is nothing in the second instance, that of making social roles equally available to all, that prevents individuals from adopting the roles they believe are most suited for themselves and their sex. Of course, if you believe that your own role requires you to be financially dependent on someone else, or that it entitles you to the unpaid labor of another, you have to find another person willing to play by those rules and adopt those roles, but there's nothing in the equal provision of opportunities that PREVENTS people from adopting sex-specific roles. All it does is to prevent others from imposing role restrictions on those who don't desire them.

#350 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 10:39 PM:

SamChevre @ 343: "I can see that easily for "is" beliefs, but I'm trying to figure out how you'd get from material experiential reality to, say, an answer to what killings of one thing with human DNA by another are wrong and which are not."

I'm sorry, do you want me to produce the One True Secular Position on Murder? I must disappoint you. Secularism isn't about establishing a single truth or a self-consistent moral system, it's simply the position that arguments in the political sphere ought to work within questions and approaches that can be proven or disproven. What we do within that framework is a different question altogether.

albatross @ 345: "As best I can tell, moral arguments cannot in general be derived from reference to objective reality....Ought-from-is is, as best I can tell, an unsolvable problem in philosophy."

But ought already exists within "objective" reality; there's no need to derive it from is. It may be the case that I can make no argument why I ought to desire anything, but I do--that's as perfectly tangible to me as the existence of trees. So for us all. Ought and is may not be commutable, but they interrelate: one can use is to get from one ought to the next.

praisegod barebones @ 348: "It's possible to be a secularist because one is an atheist but it's also possible to be a secularist for religious reasons"

Yes, let me amend my earlier statement: secularism can be defended on purely secular grounds, but one can also be a secularist for non-secular reasons.

#351 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 10:59 PM:

heresiarch... Are you starting to feel like you're in a Beach Boys song?

'Round, 'round, get around, I get around, yeah Get around, 'round, 'round, I get around

:-)

#352 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2011, 11:51 PM:

Serge, I surely do -- and I'm not willing to participate any more, because I think it's a waste of time, and also because it's starting to piss me off. I'm afraid I'll say something seriously rude.

See ya, guys.

#353 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 12:57 AM:

#351 ::: Rikibeth

I'm going to throw in a couple of minor examples of social unity.

When I was a teenager, I went to a summer camp where everyone was required to wear white on the Sabbath. It did produce an interesting emotional shift, even if it's not something I want to pursue.

Much more recently, I've been to a couple of faerie conventions, so all the people who costumed were wearing costumes that were around a theme rather than, as at science fiction conventions, wearing costumes that cover a much wider range of possibilities. The emotional effect is different between the two of them, and neither is like ordinary life, where you're very unlikely to see anyone in costume at all.

The thing is, cultures with a lot of choice are a particular sort of place. There are effects that they can't get.

A social role isn't just something you do yourself. Doing something that most of the people you're dealing with think is reasonable isn't the same as being a rare eccentric.

I prefer societies with a good bit of choice, but people who want their own choices to be maximally convenient really will lose something by being in a minority.

#354 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 09:15 AM:

heresiarch @ 352

Secularism ...is simply the position that arguments in the political sphere ought to work within questions and approaches that can be proven or disproven.

Right. I keep hearing that, and I keep not understanding it, so I'm asking for an example. I'm not asking for the one secular answer, and I'm not going to argue that you got the wrong answer--I'm just trying to make sense of what you (and others in this discussion) mean when they say "proven", because "executing murderers is a right thing to do" doesn't seem to me to be proveable or disproveable from observation, or from any kind of universally-shared consensus on observable reality.

#355 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 10:39 AM:

SamChevre @ 350, 356

It seems to me that the purpose of laws and social contracts is to create a structure that permits the resolution of tensions created by individuals and groups with competing needs and desires.

You can resolve that tension by suppressing or including dissenting views. As any nation, we do both, with what we hope is appropriate restraint.

I agree that it's totally rational for a previously privileged group to resist the loss of their privilege. But I also find efforts to equalize the distribution of such privilege appropriate.

Second thought:

The dialogue that secularists are calling for -- including people from the entire range of ethical and religious backgrounds -- does not demand moral certainty or perfection. It demands inclusion and equal representation, as we squabbling monkeys try to continually improve ourselves and our ways of relating to each other.

But to the extent that religious people want to convince the rest of us to go along with their ideas, they need to have a more persuasive argument than a simple appeal to their own religion's values. They have to be able to explain why their values are sufficiently relevant that the rest of us should voluntarily limit our own activities to match.

I think I would suggest that "proveable/disproveable" is not precisely the descriptor I would choose. What is relevant, in secular discourse, is the ability of a religious group to persuade others who are not members of their religion. That requires a level of reasoning that transcends "because the Bible tells me so," and which speaks to broader interests and trends.

#356 ::: alsafi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 11:31 AM:

I am disinclined to argue (from any angle, but especially a non-sectarian one) in favor of the death penalty, but if you'll grant me the switch to arguing against it, here's a shot.

I am against the death penalty, for reasons that I would claim as secular--they certainly don't proceed from any religious thinking on my part. I oppose it because: our justice system is provably imperfect (no citations for the simple reason that I'm at work and can't freely google, but a search for "wrongful convictions" should set any interested parties up nicely). To deprive an innocent person of their life based on a wrongful conviction is, in its essence, the same as murdering them--a criminal act. Since the mechanism of the state is organized "of the people, for the people, by the people," this makes we, the people, guilty at least of being accessories to murder. However attenuated this guilt may be, I find it to be untenable. Therefore, I feel that executing people convicted of murder is a wrong thing to do.

#357 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 12:03 PM:

SamChevre @ 356:

- people enjoy being murdered
- murdering people is also quite fun
- people like to maximize their pleasure
- therefore murder should be allowed

There!

#358 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 03:58 PM:

heresiarch:

That doesn't tell you how to resolve the situation where our wants or values are fundamentally in conflict. That happens all the time in normal politics. Sometimes, it's about what values our laws should enforce--like whether we should arrest people for staging dogfights or for raising meat animals. Sometimes, it's about what we should do with our shared resources--like whether taxpayer money should go toward no-kill animal shelters, or should be used to buy meat for school lunches.

There's not an algorithm that lets your society decide who wins in these cases. It's based on what's okay in your society, based on the values of the people in your society and the balance of power between those people. And the same is true of whether slavery or abortion or allowing women to appear in public will be supported, permitted, or forbidden in a society. Those are value questions that can't be answered by reference to objective reality.

#359 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 08:41 PM:

albatross @ 360: "That doesn't tell you how to resolve the situation where our wants or values are fundamentally in conflict."

Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Are some of the conflicting values supernatural in rationale? Then toss those out! Conflict resolved. Are they supported by empirical evidence? Then play on!

Secularism is not, and has never claimed to be, "an algorithm that lets your society decide who wins in these cases." You continue to fault secularism for not being able to accomplish something it never claimed to do.

Would a sports analogy help? Secularism is like the carrying rule in basketball--it doesn't decide who wins the game, it just says this particular strategy isn't allowed within this arena. That's it. If you're upset that it affects your team more than others, then maybe you should work on a strategy that doesn't rely on running about with the ball firmly clutched in both hands.

(Are you really suggesting that there is no basis in objective reality for prohibiting slavery?)

#360 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 09:01 PM:

Are you really suggesting that there is no basis in objective reality for prohibiting slavery?

I'm not albatross, but for me, yes absolutely. All the reasons I'm familiar with for prohibiting slavery are religious or quasi-religious.

#361 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 09:10 PM:

Just for clarification: by quasi-religious, I'm thinking of the iconic statement that "all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

#362 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 09:18 PM:

SamChevre #362: Um. no. The secular basis for prohibiting slavery is simple empathy and recognition of the slaves as fellow humans.

#363 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 09:20 PM:

I wouldn't describe my opposition to slavery as quasi-religious -- I'm just enough connected to history to know how many slave uprisings there have been. I also wouldn't say there's a basis in objective reality for prohibiting slavery -- if there were, it wouldn't resurface in so many different cultures.

#364 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 11:00 PM:

...Moreover, I'm perfectly capable of looking at enslaved people and realizing that if I don't oppose it when it affects someone else, I'm likely to find my own liberties compromised that much more easily by people who are already comfortable with slavery...

#365 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2011, 11:03 PM:

heresiarch @ 352: Ought and is may not be commutable, but they interrelate: one can use is to get from one ought to the next.

So from Ought #1 and Is #1 you can get to Ought #2; and from Ought #2 and Is #2 to Ought #3, etc.

I think part of what SamChevre is saying is that in going backward from Ought #3 to #2 to #1, eventually you'll reach an Ought that has no Is to justify it -- Ought #0, perhaps. I think he's right in that part. I wouldn't call the Is-less Ought religious, necessarily, but I do think that that our various #0s are unprovable.

Even if you've proven objectively that cutting my left big toenail would harm no one, end world hunger, and make me myself happy, wise and beautiful -- you haven't proved I ought do it. I believe that in those circumstances I ought to; but I'm relying on the unprovable principle that one ought to help others and oneself (at the very least when doing so is no bother). Someone who believed that one ought to harm oneself and others whenever possible would regard the toe-clipping as hideously immoral.

Now there are very few such people (and that is an Is); but just because we're mostly built to think certain things are right doesn't mean they are. And people certainly do differ on other unprovable Oughts, even when they agree on the Is.

#366 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:09 AM:

Yarrow @ 367

I think your hypothetical is over-extreme. I don't care about achieving some platonic ideal. I just care about negotiating the best possible solution we can figure out, in our imperfect, human way.

#367 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:16 AM:

For various reasons, I have been unable to keep up with this, so I'm going to have to skip way ahead in the discussion. My apologies that I cannot give responses to earlier replies.

It seems to me that at least one of issues lies in the assertion made by H. in 352: "But ought already exists within "objective" reality; there's no need to derive it from is." I'm going to have to side with Albatross on this one: there are no objective "oughts" until everyone is forced into a common framework, and that begs the question. This difference of views is part of the problem itself: you're privileging an irreligious viewpoint by saying that the religious dissent from objectivity can be ignored.1

This comes back to my observation that Jefferson was giving away a right he didn't need. It seems to me that even if one rejects having a state church/religion, there is more than one approach to mediating viewpoints. For example, if one takes an extremely strong free exercise position, one could argue that religious positions and arguments cannot be ruled out of bounds; they have to sink or swim on whatever merits they may be seen to have by others, but the government cannot act against them simply because they are religious, nor can it prefer an irreligious over a religious position simply on the basis of that difference. It could be argued that this position is insufficiently tolerant, of course, but it does present a third option other than establishment and secularism of whatever degree.

And let's take a concrete example: teaching sexual morality in the public schools. Really, there's no winning this one, because they cannot avoid teaching something: if they teach nothing at all, what they teach in effect is that there are no moral standards. But what objective consensus can be reached is extremely limited; that's simply the reality of the variety of positions held, religious or not. It's next to impossible to avoid setting the state, in proxy of the schools, in opposition to someone's religiously motivated moral positions. So one could make the argument that the least offensive position is to teach the standards of the community, wherever they come from. I get the impression, H., that this would not be acceptable to you, because it doesn't sound like your version of secularism.

1And we're talking an irreligious viewpoint, as one can easily drop other such viewpoints into the mix which also make theories of objectivity factually incorrect.

#368 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 02:06 AM:

Yarrow @ 367: "Even if you've proven objectively that cutting my left big toenail would harm no one, end world hunger, and make me myself happy, wise and beautiful -- you haven't proved I ought do it. I believe that in those circumstances I ought to; but I'm relying on the unprovable principle that one ought to help others and oneself (at the very least when doing so is no bother)."

What I am saying is that those "unproveable" Ought #0s exist in reality. I, myself, do not want to feel suffering--I perceive that imperative, that ought, in the same way that I perceive light and sound. It is inherent to my experience of reality; it does not need any argument to justify my perception of it any more than I need an argument in order to justify perceiving green.

(That must be one nutritionally dense toenail.)

C. Wingate @ 369: "I'm going to have to side with Albatross on this one: there are no objective "oughts" until everyone is forced into a common framework, and that begs the question."

I do not force anyone to experience the common framework of experiential reality; they just do. Given that, it seems the soundest basis for a common political framework as well. But of course it isn't precisely the same reality they report perceiving--this is why issues where people's perceptions of reality are sufficiently diverse politics oughtn't be employed to coerce any behavior.* (I hinted at this @ 293.) This rule covers both preferred flavors of ice cream and one's favored faith-based societies and practices.

* Need I add that coercing no behavior is not equivalent to coercing any subset of behaviors? Yes, I likely do.

#369 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:07 PM:

H., they don't. First, people have quite divergent experiences; I do not grant that hypothetical discussion is an acceptable substitute, and indeed I would argue that people are known to be bad at this. Second, it isn't the potentially shared experience of the world that leads to conflicts: it's the divergent interpretations that people bring to the table. To take a very simple case: on the one hand people DO try to argue from the divergence of possible experience to argue that males really don't have an input on abortion; on the other hand the physical reality is not controversial, modulo misinformation about fetal development. It is entirely a matter of values: responsibility, right to life, personal freedom. It is "solved" in American law by simply imposing the value of personal freedom over anything else. But we do not appear to be getting to a consensus on this, because there's no physical reality which is mediating between "life" and "choice". It is all question of which ought you pick, nothing more.

#370 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:21 PM:

SamChevre: All the reasons I'm familiar with for prohibiting slavery are religious or quasi-religious.

So where on the quasi-religious scale does "I don't want it done to him because I sure as hell wouldn't want it done to me" fit? Inquiring minds would REALLY like to know about this one, because on the face of it there's no way I would like to subscribe to your newsletter if this is typical of the content.

#371 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:31 PM:

Let us all be perfectly clear that this will not become a discussion about abortion.

Kthxbye

#372 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:41 PM:

I'm likewise having problems with the idea that all opposition to slavery is religious or quasi-religious. I would think that you can derive it and much of secular morality from evolutionary sources in the neurobiological realms.

Humans are social apes. We know that at least some of our primate cousins have an innate sense of fairness, and I think it's fair to say that humans posses that same impulse. Add in the evolutionary impulse toward empathy through mirror neurons and it's not that hard to derive the golden rule and it's negative corollary from our fundamental neurobiology.

Do unto others as you would have them do onto you. And do not do onto others that which you would not have done to you. From there to most of consensus morality is not a long step.

#373 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:54 PM:

Do unto others before they do unto you.
:-)

#374 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:54 PM:

For most Christian religions, at least, slavery is condoned in the Bible; so it's not quite so easy to say that the reasons against it are religious. There are many religious reasons to support it, both in Christianity and other religions.

#375 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 12:59 PM:

The extremely strong sense of fairness and our reactions to injustice keep me thinking that religion is derived from morality and not the other way around. I think that we, in part, structure a model of the world from the emotions we experience, and something as emotionally evocative as morality therefore must come from a transcendent source.

#376 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 01:13 PM:

heresiarch #370:

The existence of an objective morality outside our preferences is actually not the issue w.r.t. government and morality and secularism. Instead, the issue is a little different--can we come to agreement on moral issues, by use of reason and observation of reality?

My claim is that we cannot reliably come to any such agreement. As evidence, I offer the vastly different moral beliefs and laws and customs of different people, across time and space, in places where scientific knowledge really doesn't come into play.

As a simple example, consider the sort of sexual morality of the ancient Greeks, which was pretty okay with sexual relationships between older men and adolescent boys which we'd now call pedophilia. It's not like the people of ancient Athens weren't interested in moral reasoning. Yet, somehow, they didn't see that this thing, which we now look at as a more-or-less unforgivable crime, was wrong--instead, they thought rather highly of it.

There are millions of examples like this. History offers us plenty of folks with *very* sophisticated moral philosophy and reasoning and advanced civilizations: books and learning, science and math and history, governments with laws and courts and large public works. And it's not hard at all to find examples of these where the people were just fine with stuff we now see as moral atrocities: slavery, infanticide, killing humans or animals as a cruel public spectacle, mass executions as group punishment for rebellion, torture as part of the normal legal system (both to get confessions and to make an example of the convict), treating women and religious/ethnic/linguistic minorities as second-class citizens, forced religious conversions. All those things are commonplace throughout history. About the only one that is subject to empirical disproof is using torture for getting confessions--the rest are about values.

So, when we come together to determine what rules we should establish, and we want to base those rules on some moral principles (which we must, ultimately), we aren't going to be able to hammer them out from empirically-verified reality or from universally agreed-to premises.

You can see this in the US, where we overwhelmingly share the same culture and premises. We can all agree that slavery and murder are wrong, but we can't all agree that homosexuality or polygamy or abortion are either wrong or right. Nor are those subject to any kind of empirical verification one way or another--what experiment could you devise that would convince anyone who's morally opposed to homosexuality that it's really morally okay?

Now, you could attack the reasons of the anti-homosexuality person by saying "we don't permit religion-based moral beliefs to be argued. in the public sphere." But there have been and are plenty of nonreligious anti-gay people. The old Soviet Union was pretty famously not okay with gays, and this surely wasn't based explicitly on Christianity. Hell, my old boss is an atheist, yet has little use for gay rights or gay marriage.

#377 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 01:18 PM:

Kelly #374:

That would be plausible, except that slavery has existed in so many different societies. As have all sorts of other awful things, from infanticide to burning a man's wife alive on his funeral pyre to staging prisoners-vs-lions fights for public entertainment in the coloseum. Any theory of innate morality needs to explain that wide range of cruel and horrible behavior, in much the same way that any theory of innate human nature that posits (say) that men are naturally drab and uninterested in appearances relative to women needs to account for times and places where exactly the opposite was true.

#378 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 02:55 PM:

albatross @ 378: "Instead, the issue is a little different--can we come to agreement on moral issues, by use of reason and observation of reality? My claim is that we cannot reliably come to any such agreement. As evidence, I offer the vastly different moral beliefs and laws and customs of different people, across time and space, in places where scientific knowledge really doesn't come into play."

And yet the means by which you are trying to convince me that we can't come to such an agreement is by the use of reason and evidence. Hm.

The "vast differences" between moral systems across world history are highly exaggerated: they are far, far more similar than almost any other cultural phenomenon you could care to name. The vast majority of morality is unproblematically common to all human beings--Buddhist morality, Confucian ethics, Shari'a law and modern American jurisprudence all share more similarities than differences. The places where they conflict swell to fill our minds, but they're really quite tiny and esoteric in comparison to the vast, towering things upon which they all agree.

Athenians argued men should have sex with boys because it helped the boys learn and made them into better human beings. We don't disagree that those ends are desirable, we simply dispute the argument that those means achieve that end. It's the oughts that have been iterated outward over multiple is's that we disagree on; the more core the ought, the more it is universally upheld. People have at times followed chains of moral reasoning shot through with poor logic and false evidence. Yes. So? Such people and their non-sequitur oughts are no more a disproof of correctly-reasoned and empirically-grounded oughts than aetherics is a disproof of quantum physics.

"So, when we come together to determine what rules we should establish, and we want to base those rules on some moral principles (which we must, ultimately), we aren't going to be able to hammer them out from empirically-verified reality or from universally agreed-to premises."

"Suffering ought to be avoided." Empirically valid and universally agreed-to. Constructing it into a rigorous and self-coherent moral system is left as an exercise for the reader.

"Nor are those subject to any kind of empirical verification one way or another--what experiment could you devise that would convince anyone who's morally opposed to homosexuality that it's really morally okay?"

Paula Helm Murray on Love Wins seems to have done alright. This TED talk isn't about gay marriage, but it's certainly an empirical, experiment-based argument over the sorts of government actions many dispute the morality of.

#379 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 04:03 PM:

albatross @ 378: "Instead, the issue is a little different--can we come to agreement on moral issues, by use of reason and observation of reality?"

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say "Yep, absolutely." Oppression is only sustainable in the short term. Anarchy is only sustainable in the short term. Eventually, the people on the losing side will start changing things. People enjoying privilege will resist. A new balance will be negotiated (sometimes violently).

We've gotten where we are by trial and error -- we tried some really unethical things, and in general, they failed. More equitable social constructs have generally proved more sustainable than less equitable ones. There's a clear trend over time in the direction of inclusion and populism and democracy, not just because it's trendy, but because it works better and more consistently than anything else we've figured out yet.

Yep. Reasonable and observable. And not in any way religious.

#380 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 07:18 PM:

albatross @370: You can see this in the US, where we overwhelmingly share the same culture and premises. We can all agree that slavery and murder are wrong, but we can't all agree that homosexuality or polygamy or abortion are either wrong or right.

I would say that the population of the US does not all agree that slavery and murder are wrong. Indeed, that there are frequent references on Making Light to the way certain segments of the US population long for the good old days when it was legal to own another person; and the way that other, overlapping, segments think that murder is a perfectly reasonable method of dealing with those you consider to be immoral.

#381 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 08:38 PM:

albatross @ 379 I would think those things are relatively easily explained if you expect systems of morals to be relative rather than absolute, and you also assume that various societal pressures will interact with any such relative morality in different times and under different circumstances to produce divergent results.

I'm a shades of gray person. I expect neither simplicity nor black and white contrasts from any system involving humans. In fact I tend to view any theory that purports to find such simplicity and absolutes in humans with a great deal of suspicion because I don't think we work that way.

#382 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 09:56 PM:

The human need for morality is an absolute, but the actual rules, customs, and mores that morality is comprised of are demonstrably variable.

Fifty years ago, smoking in western society was morally neutral; now it's rapidly becoming immoral. The evaluation of smoking changed, but morality didn't disappear (in a puff of smoke?) when it did so.

#383 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2011, 10:49 PM:

A good deal of our morality is evolutionary.

Consider the following two scenarios*:

  1. Two tracks, one with five guys working on it and a train going toward them (they can't get out of the way in time); one with one guy on it. You can't warn anyone, but you can switch the train to the track with only one guy on it.
  2. One track with five guys working on it, and a large person on a bridge above it, with you. You can save the five guys only by pushing the large person onto the tracks, derailing the train.
In either scenario you can trade five deaths for one, yet most people will pull the switch**, but not push the large person.

The theory goes that we're evolved with a strong prohibition against pushing each other from high places (out of trees, for our distant ancestors), because groups with such a reluctance survive better than groups without. We have no such evolved prohibition about track switching. (This is not to say that there's no reluctance to kill the one guy who otherwise would have lived, even to save the five who would have died.)

*I got this from RadioLab.
**In fact, only people who have absorbed the rather grotesque cultural idea that inaction is intrinsically blameless (or at any rate less blameworthy than action) wouldn't do it. Actually, since chimpanzees can't do either (even if they understand what the switches do, they just stand there screaming in distress without doing anything, as the (simulated) chimps are killed), perhaps it's more of a primitive instinct than a grotesque cultural idea.

#384 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 12:58 AM:

Huh. Are you sure the key difference is the pushing?

If we frame the scenario without the pushing, it doesn't change the outcome, at least in my head. What if you can derail the train by putting your car in front of it, with time to jump free, but the passenger door's busted and your passenger won't be able to get out in time?

I think we modern machine-operators have internalized the idea that standing over a switch means that the choice of not flipping it is just as much a decision as the choice of flipping it, so the first example isn't really about action vs inaction, it's about one vs five. The second, though, pushing someone to their death, that's a little more active.

I also think there's a positional difference. In the first example, there are two groups in a dangerous place: working on train tracks. The danger native to that place looms before them: a train is coming. You choose which group suffers that fate. In both your second example and my alternate, you're taking someone from a position of safety (at least relative to this danger) and putting them in front of it.

To be clear, I don't think either of those considerations really matters, morally. I think they're just noise when compared to the key decision: one or five? And they might well be evolutionary relics or heuristic shortcuts. I just don't think it's a specific ancestral-memory prohibition on pushing from high places.

I think I'd kill one to save five either way, myself, but it's a lot rougher when you take someone who wasn't in danger and put them in the box than when you're picking between two endangered groups.

As an aside, I do think choosing inaction over action can be the better choice, sometimes. Let's say it's one person standing on either track. Let's say you know who each potential victim is, you know their vices and their virtues. And let's say that you can't see the switch from where you are. Do you turn around to look at it? Do you switch it and decide who dies?

You could choose. That could be a moral action. You might say that the convict with the family deserves to live, and the stockbroker doesn't. You might say that the stockbroker who volunteers at the literacy program deserves to live and the stick-up artist doesn't.

But me? I wouldn't. I don't think I have that right, to judge those people in that way. I'm okay with a numbers game: one death is better than five, and I agree that inaction is wrong in that circumstance. But to set my own rules for what kind of person deserves to live? Not me, thanks.

#385 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 01:08 AM:

One vs. one has no logical solution; it comes down to deciding who "deserves" to live more.

But all that's beside the point, which is that our morality is at least partially instinctive and formed by evolution.

#386 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 04:17 AM:

Xopher @ 385: No, there is a real difference, and only a near-horizon consequentialist morality can flatten it out. The difference between action and inaction is neither grotesque nor spurious. It's the abnormal and designed clarity of this famous question that makes it seem so.

I would pull the switch and not push the guy, and I would feel mighty rotten about not having broken the dilemma - but that way around, at least I might be able to live with myself afterwards. And my mind and heart speak with the same voice about what the right choice was in each case.

Let me elaborate on this a bit further, with some statements I think all or very nearly all of us can accept as far as they go:

I do have the authority to live my life in a way not optimized to minimize the global involuntary death rate, and to allow others to so live theirs; that is not morally equivalent to some actuarially calculable number of murders; I do not have the authority to commmit the precise subset of murders which, in my honest opinion, will so minimize the needless dying.

At least, I hope so, since the alternative is that both I and just about everybody I know are morally indistinguishable from J Random Murderer. Or J R Manslaughterer, at very best.

If you're right in judging the railway scenarios morally equivalent - my ethics are deontological enough to reject that vehemently, and even on grounds of rule utilitarianism I will still be disagreeing - then, given my assumptions above, it still isn't possible to extend that principle very far into everyday living.

In which case, the instincts or cultural assumptions are not looking so grotesque or irrational after all. Or, if they are, how so?

#387 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 06:47 AM:

"We're all part monsters in our subconscious, so we have laws and religion."
- from Forbidden Planet

#388 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 08:20 AM:

We're guessing that our moral sense is formed by evolution. It seems reasonable, but we don't have more samples of intelligent species, we don't have the historical path by which our moral sense evolved, we don't know the physical basis that goes from genes to people to their responses on questionnaires, and I haven't seen anything about how trolley issues play out (if at all) in actual behavior.

I'm pretty sure we don't know how much is formed by culture, either-- have trolley problems been tested worldwide?

#389 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 08:35 AM:

Gray, I said the calculation is the same in both cases. The dry math of "greatest good for the greatest number," which I think is a very high moral standard indeed.

Yet I would not push the large man off the bridge. I hope I WOULD have the courage to pull the switch. In that I'm an absolutely typical human. My morality is based on a combination of the greatest good standard, the strong form of the Golden Rule, and, I admit, instinct. That last is subject to analysis and reasonable argument, but sometimes it wins anyway.

Do I actually think it's less moral to push the large man than to pull the switch? I admit I haven't resolved that, and I deeply hope I will never be in either situation. Of course, the certainty in the two scenarios is artificial; I think I'd be more likely to try jumping onto the tracks myself than push someone else. SELF-sacrifice for others is an authority I do have.

Whether I'd have the courage is a separate question.

#390 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 09:12 AM:

Xopher @385

In scenario 2, pushing the large man off the brdge would result in serious injury, whether or not there was a train.

And what about injury to the train crew in a derailment? But that's getting picky.

#391 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 09:55 AM:

Dave, they're arbitrary hypothetical scenarios, and entirely artificial. Other ways of being picky include: how is it possible that you can't signal the train in any way? How is it possible that there's no room for the five workers to get out of the way? How can it be that you can't communicate with any of the workers in either scenario? How can you be certain that pushing the large person off the bridge will stop the train and save the five?

Neither scenario is very plausible in the real world. It's the difference between them in terms of people's responses that's interesting.

#392 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 09:57 AM:

Please, folks, remember that these "problem box" scenarios are not meant to be genuine moral hazards, but instead probes into the machinery of moral reasoning. They are purposely unrealistic, with no room for compromise or alternative -- it's like setting up a forced-perspective view or an apparent precipice for other psychological experiments.

#393 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 10:37 AM:

Xopher @ 391: I think our actual reactions to that situation are about the same on every point. The story I tell myself about mine is a very different one, and I think the difference is likely to get more consequential as we move away from the harsh light of situations where all consequences are known and foreordained.

I don't think the 'greatest good of the greatest number' is usually something I have good grounds, or even authority, to estimate. In some cases it's very clear which way the pan swings: in others, not so much, even before we get to unintended consequences.

If I'm to cast my morality in the terms you describe, I think I'm heavier on the strong form of the Golden Rule, and lighter on greatest-good - which I use more as a reality-check, to make sure I'm not privileging my own 'would be done by' to the point of enabling something really atrocious.

My suspicion is that not being a Person of One Rule is much more important for avoiding catastrophic outcomes, than exactly where one stands along the continuum between thinking in terms of 'utility' and 'agency'. I don't think those two conceptions of good are really separate in the last analysis, but I do think they're extremely different perspectives.

To clarify where I'm coming from a bit more concretely, suppose we take your example one stage further. The moment of truth has come. A crowd of us are standing on the platform. Nobody is such a bad ape as to push the big man. Paralyzed by morality or stupidity or cowardice, I am not moving. You are not so paralyzed. You make a self-sacrificing lunge.

I'm no longer confused - I won't stop you, though I will mourn you in the sequel, and repent that I didn't show your quality.

Jezza Bentham is also standing on the platform. He doesn't push the big man, because he believes this will stir up more harm in the medium run than it saves (not least, his going to prison). He further estimates, quite reasonably, that you are very likely to get yourself killed without saving the other party. Also, since you'll have been prevented against your will from doing the heroic thing, you'll no longer have any reason to blame yourself. From his perspective, this is a utility win in every way. He rugby-tackles you before you can make your jump. Is he right to do so?

This is a general question for anybody who cares to respond, and it is not supposed to demand a definite answer. I don't have one.

I don't know whether I'd intercept Jezza or not - only that I wouldn't copy him.

If it were not you, but my beloved sister or her husband heading for the track, I have no idea what I'd do, removing ego from the situation by assuming I couldn't substitute in time. Were it instead a Certain Teenage Relative, who is very conceivably capable of pulling some such heroic crazy shit as that, I'm pretty sure that I would in this particular situation tackle her. There are others not far removed in which I don't know that I would; and there will soon come a time in her life when I can pretend no more right to stop her in such a pinch, than I have to stop my sister.

Again, I can only wish with you that I will never be in a position to find out the answer to any question of this flavour.

I have faith in my approach to such rocks and hard places as these; I would very much suspect anybody who claimed to have the solution, because at the end of the day, the rocks are still goddamned rocks, and they clash on everybody who passes between them.

#394 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 10:46 AM:

Gray 395: I agree with most of what you say here, the main exception being this line: "I don't think the 'greatest good of the greatest number' is usually something I have good grounds, or even authority, to estimate."

I think I have an obligation to consider the GG/GN at all times, to make the best judgment I can as to what it is, and to inform myself about what factors go into it. Only occasionally, rarely, or never, is an ordinary civilian person called upon to make such a judgment in reality, but we should, in my view, be prepared.

More commonly, we're frequently asked to judge which policies of our leaders are best, and give our opinion on them at the ballot box. I think GG/GN is a better criterion than "what's in it for me," which appears to be how the majority of voters make these choices.

#395 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 07:30 PM:

Serge @129: Ian McKellen

Thank you. I kept coming up with Ian Holm, and I knew that was wrong.

#396 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 08:10 PM:

Jacque @ 397... Holm as Gandalf, and McKellen as Bilbo?

#397 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2011, 11:31 PM:

heresiarch @370: What I am saying is that those "unproveable" Ought #0s exist in reality. I, myself, do not want to feel suffering--I perceive that imperative, that ought

That you do not want to feel suffering is an Is; that you ought to avoid what you do not want to feel is unprovable. (A good axiom, if taken with a large helping of "all other things being equal". But axioms are unprovable.)

@380: "Suffering ought to be avoided." Empirically valid and universally agreed-to.

It is empirically valid that most people, in most situations, avoid suffering. I don't see how to stretch that to "suffering ought to be avoided" as an empirical truth.

As for "universally agreed-to", this is false. Many Buddhists, for instance, are against suffering but think that avoiding it has the paradoxical effect of increasing it, and so believe that suffering ought not be avoided.

And I doubt if we'd find many people to argue that pregnancy should be avoided because the process of labor often involves suffering. Not to mention the process of raising kids. Or the suffering involved in being raised, and afterwards. (David Benatar would argue against giving birth on those grounds.)

#398 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 12:14 AM:

Yarrow @ 399: "That you do not want to feel suffering is an Is; that you ought to avoid what you do not want to feel is unprovable."

But I want to avoid what I do not want to feel--if the first is an Is, the second is as well. You seem to think an ought is something different than an urge--why?

"Many Buddhists, for instance, are against suffering but think that avoiding it has the paradoxical effect of increasing it, and so believe that suffering ought not be avoided."

Isn't that just an argument about what sort of approach most effectively avoids suffering? You're still advocating the path of least suffering.

"And I doubt if we'd find many people to argue that pregnancy should be avoided because the process of labor often involves suffering. Not to mention the process of raising kids. Or the suffering involved in being raised, and afterwards."

I think you'd find more than a few--but that's besides the point, which is that those who defend child-birth and -raising would inevitably do it on the grounds that it's worth it. Why? Because the pleasure, however they define that, outweighs the suffering. In other words, that having children minimizes suffering.

#399 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 01:30 AM:

Steve, #377: The extremely strong sense of fairness and our reactions to injustice keep me thinking that religion is derived from morality and not the other way around.

Yes. It is quite clear that we make God in our own image... which goes a long way toward explaining the personality differences claimed by various groups for what is supposed to be the same God, working from the same source material (the Bible).

Julia, #382: Also, there's a lot of disagreement over exactly what constitutes murder, which is at the heart of the brtn controversy, as well as arguments over the death penalty, etc. IMO the fact that different people have different definitions for "murder" does not negate the universality of the agreement that murder is wrong.

Xopher, #391: I am deeply suspicious of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one" because it so easily segues over into "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs", and from there into "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". This doesn't mean that I find the first statement to be an incontrovertibly immoral position, only that there are no easy answers.

I do think it is absolutely moral to make that statement when the "one" in question is yourself.

#400 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 02:37 PM:

I like the greatest good for the greatest number formulation, but don't find it to actually help much for two reasons: first, "what's good" isn't always widely agreed on, and second "Even the very wise cannot see all ends". (IOW, in most systems, there are enough non-linear and feedback effects that the results of discrete actions are not easily determined.)

heresiarch @ 400
It seems to me that "suffering" is not well-defined if both "getting beaten up" and "not being able to travel to Europe regularly" count as suffering.

#401 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 04:00 PM:

I was thinking a bit about the original discussion of secularism. One thing that occurred to me: When I think of secularism, I think of it as a societal agreement to disagree on many religious issues. That is, we're trying to avoid spending lots of energy and time on fighting about religious issues on which we're unlikely to agree.

At least for that notion of secularism, it strikes me that it wouldn't really apply in a society where, say, 90%+ of the society is the same religion. What's needed in that society (and also in this one, obviously) is respect for differences. In a 90% Catholic society, Muslims living there will necessarily see and hear about Catholic rituals and observances and such all the time. But in that kind of society, it's important for members of the majority religion to keep in mind that not everyone is Catholic, and to try not to exclude non-Catholics where possible.

In this society, where we are much more diverse religiously, we still need respect for individual differences, but we also need the notion of moving religious conflicts out of the public sphere to the extent possible. That doesn't mean telling religious people not to vote on the basis of morality informed by their religion, but it does mean trying to avoid having politics become a game of deciding whether the Catholics or Protestants will have the upper hand this year. More broadly, it means moving things about which there's not much society-wide consensus, like prayers before public events, out of the public sphere where possible.

My point is that these are two really different goals. In one case, we have substantial society-wide consensus on Christianity or Mormonism or Islam or whatever, and the problem is figuring out how not to screw over the minority who doesn't share this consensus. In the other case, we don't have that consensus, and the goal is figuring out how not to turn participation in the public sphere into fights over whose god gets mentioned in the opening prayer.

#402 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 04:43 PM:

albatross @403: or why one religion's holidays are government-mandated days off and people who are of a different faith have to use their personal days to observe the holidays of that faith?

#403 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 05:39 PM:

Melissa:

Yeah, I guess (to tie this to the current discussion) I see this more in utilitarian than rights terms. That is, in a society where almost everyone is the same religion, having more of the society's "default settings" optimized for that religion seems almost inevitable, and not generally like a bad thing. In a society that's overwhelmingly Christian, Christmas is a holiday. What's important there is to make sure that the majority doesn't just bulldoze over minorities. ("We don't need a flexible vacation, we'll just give you a week off for Christmas and another for the week beginning Easter Sunday.")

As a rough parallel, if we have a company picnic, and I bring food with meat in it, I'm excluding some coworkers who are vegetarians. I don't think there's anything inherent in doing this that's evil, though as an organizer of the picnic, I'll want to make sure there is some kind of vegetarian food available. Move to a company where 90% of the employees are vegetarians, and hardly anyone will bring meat. (Back when I lived in a small town in the midwest, this very rarely came up. Now, living in the DC area and working in a high-tech office, it's very common to have to think about whether the restaurant we're all going to has anything at all to eat for vegetarians.)

On the other hand, sometimes you're stepping on peoples' toes for no benefit at all. Years ago, my wife's office had a potluck day, and at some point after everyone had brought the food in, they realized that it was Ramadan, and one of their coworkers couldn't touch *anything*. There wasn't anyone *trying* to step on his toes, it's just that nobody even *thought* of it. Rescheduling the once-a-year office potluck a by couple weeks would have cost nobody anything, if they'd just thought about it in time.

Without claiming any deep insight or fixed rule, it seems pretty obvious to me that bringing meat to the company picnic where there are some vegetarians coming is in a completely different realm from having the company picnic during Ramadan.

#404 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 05:50 PM:

re 403/404: Well, as far as Christmas is concerned, if (say) even 60% of the people are going to take the day off, the government cannot function. So if you say, "well, the government cannot pay attention to Christmas, because it's a religious holiday, so it has to stay open," that really forces people to go to work that day. And conversely, at least in most of the country Yom Kippur does not take so many people out of the office that it cannot function, so having Jews take that day off is a possible solution. A friend of mine who teaches high school around here told us that at his school that have started taking the first day of Ramadan off, for no other reason than that there are sufficient Muslims now, and they tend to be thrown off the first day, resulting in a lot of disruptive behavior.

#405 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 06:19 PM:

Okay, even though I'm still Ccomments behind, I'm going to cave to impulse and jump in here. My points will doubtless have been made long since by wiser souls than I, so just ignore/discount things that have already been covered.

C. Wingate @271: anyone who holds to a religion outside of some pagan tribal thing really believes that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as they do-- and so do the secularists.

If Xopher hasn't gotten here first: Gross overgeneralization unsupported by the facts—and invalidated by specific personal testimony of participants in this conversation.

the principle of "you can't expect non-believers to observe your rules" is accepted widely enough to where the dissenters don't have the political power to overcome it

This acceptance is long-fought-for and hard-won. There is a large class of dissenters who are working very hard to overcome it, hence the need for ongoing, active protection.

I don't agree that the alternative to sectarianism is secularism; I see secularism as treating irreligion as normality and religion as a deviation from that.

What is it about secularism that gives you this view? If I am anti-theist (that is, I disbelieve in the existence of God, and think all right-thinking people should agree with me), secularism prevents me from imposing my beliefs on you as much as it protects me from you. Your term, "metaprinciple" applies here, not religion.

the majority of the human race needs a society for psychological reasons, and not for the content of social interaction; it could be characterized as a need and not a tool in that sense.

The majority of the human race would starve and/or freeze to death, and/or be eaten by various nasties, if they didn't have other humans helping them acquire food and share protection. It's possible for humans to survive as solitary creatures, but orders of magnitude less likely.

SamChevre @274: "seeking the dignity of every human being" is something that the world would be better if everyone did--but that's an explicitly religious commitment.

But that's not the same as it being an exclusively religious commitment.

#406 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 06:36 PM:

heresiarch @400: You seem to think an ought is something different than an urge--why?

Because I sometimes feel an urge to do something I ought not to do. And some of (say) George W. Bush's urges were to do things that he ought not to have done.

You seem to think that an ought is the same thing as an urge--why?

About whether people ought to avoid childbirth because it involves suffering: the pleasure, however they define that, outweighs the suffering.

I agree that taking pleasure into account is a sensible addition to your original "Suffering ought to be avoided." But you advanced that as something "[e]mpirically valid and universally agreed-to", sufficiently comprehensive that "[c]onstructing it into a rigorous and self-coherent moral system" could be "left as an exercise for the reader."

I'm arguing that it is not comprehensive enough for that, and that any expansion of it into something which is comprehensive enough would be neither empirically valid nor universally agreed to.

You seem to me to be heading either for some kind of utilitarianism -- I ought to do what is best for all -- or for some kind of ethical egoism -- I ought to do what is best for me. I don't see that either is empirically valid, nor that either has universal agreement.

#407 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 07:03 PM:

Xopher @275:

some of those who would like to be Wiccans don't belong among us. It's a matter of personality and...more esoteric things that I can't get into without sounding like a lecture.

What Nancy Lebovitz @290 said. Purely to scratch my comparative religious study itch. Probably not here. Perhaps over on the open thread?

albatross @276: c. I tolerate you because you're different than me and so it's really fun and cool and interesting to hang out with you.

TexAnne @282: I do what I can to fix the world, in small detail-oriented ways. The rest of it's above my pay grade.

You made me grin. :-)

Russ @287: It occurs to me that if the key feature of a democracy is the ability of the governed to remove a bad leader, then a key feature of a just legal system is the ability to overturn a bad law. This is substantially more complicated where laws are commandments.

Oo, shiny! (Just admiring.)

C. Wingate @291: you don't accept, as a legitimate expression of that deeper religion, the fundamentalism that Jerry Falwell taught.

I had to slow down and chew over this one very carefully, but I think you're onto something here, and I'm not quite sure what to do with it. This is precisely and exactly rock on which conversations break when I try to talk about spirituality with my (one) fundamentalist friend.

But I think that the religion of which I claim to be an adherent is better. How much are you willing to tolerate that?

Depends on your answer to the question, "better for whom, and whatcha gonna do about it?"

#408 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 07:42 PM:

C. Wingate, #406: And yet, somehow hospitals and police and fire departments manage to stay open on Christmas... and also, oddly, movie theaters. And if you have a power outage on Christmas, you don't have to wait until the next day to have it repaired. I'm sure it takes some arranging, and that some people swap holidays with those of other faiths, and possibly some have to give up their holiday (in return for time-and-a-half and a different day off). What I don't see is why that sort of thing can't be extended, if not to private businesses, at least to other government services.

#409 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 08:48 PM:

In NYC, spring break generally runs the entire length of Passover and the school system closes for the Jewish High Holy Days in the fall. But Jewish workers who do not work for the school system but observe the holidays must use a minimum of 3.5-4 personal days if Yom Kippur and the first days of both holiday "weeks" fall on weekdays, more if they have to travel to see family and friends. If you only have 6 personal days a year, those holiday days use them up pretty fast. Vacation time can't always be applied to individual days, and many people can't work Christmas as a trade-off because their workplaces are closed.

Yet, as others have pointed out, many business stay open on Christian holidays without any difficulty. Why the extra burden on non-Christians? Why not allow everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, a pool of days to be used for religious holidays?

#410 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 09:48 PM:

Yarrow @ 408: "Because I sometimes feel an urge to do something I ought not to do."

Which is to say, sometimes you feel an urge to do something but also feel another urge, based on different grounds, to not do it. Oughts can be contradictory--that does not thereby rend them into two separate categories, those that you approve of and those that you do not. Nor does the existence of oughts that you disagree with.

"I agree that taking pleasure into account is a sensible addition to your original "Suffering ought to be avoided.""

Addition? I would say self-evident corollary, but if you insist.

"sufficiently comprehensive that "[c]onstructing it into a rigorous and self-coherent moral system" could be "left as an exercise for the reader.""

Oh dear. Obviously, constructing a rigorous and self-coherent moral system is a work in progress for all us human beings. I was trying to make the point that it was the process of construction, not the aims to which it is directed, that confound us, while trying also to point out our individual responsibility in that endeavor.

"I'm arguing that it is not comprehensive enough for that, and that any expansion of it into something which is comprehensive enough would be neither empirically valid nor universally agreed to."

And I'm still waiting for you to produce a case where someone doesn't want to avoid suffering. That would be a rather important part of your argument, wouldn't it?

#411 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 10:17 PM:

Heresiarch @412: And I'm still waiting for you to produce a case where someone doesn't want to avoid suffering.

How about various forms of asceticism and corporal mortification?

Speaking of which, has it occurred to anyone else that the self-flagellation and other forms of self-harm practiced by some Christian saints and the Flagellants might have been a coping mechanism for depression or anxiety, like people who cut themselves nowadays?

#412 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 10:27 PM:

Here's how I've heard the railroad dilemma explained (citation needed):

In the first scenario, the death of the one person is not an essential part of saving the lives of the five, and in the second scenario it is. In the first, switching the train to the other track would save the lives of the five even if nobody was on the other track; the one who dies is just collateral damage and not an indispensable part of the rescue. In the second, the train won't be derailed without sufficient mass in the way; the life of the one who dies is deliberately used.

Supposedly this is why many of us see the morality of the two scenarios differently.

#413 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 11:07 PM:

Avram @ 413: "How about various forms of asceticism and corporal mortification?"

You mean the ones who thought the purity it bought guaranteed an eternity in the Heavenly Paradise? Or the ones who were working towards worldly power and understanding? It doesn't really matter: when it wasn't simple masochism, they were just prioritizing one form of suffering over another, like going to work so you can buy food and watch movies.

#414 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 11:22 PM:

re 410: Somehow? Even eighty years ago, when blue laws ruled the land, "somehow" these things were all taken care of. And that "somehow" was minimum staffing, putting off the elective and much of the routine, and perhaps some drawing straws on the one hand and making some overtime on the other. It is tolerated because people will die if it is not done. These personnel are a pretty small part of government employment as a whole.

#415 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 11:23 PM:

heresiarch @412 Which is to say, sometimes you feel an urge to do something but also feel another urge, based on different grounds, to not do it. Oughts can be contradictory--that does not thereby rend them into two separate categories, those that you approve of and those that you do not. Nor does the existence of oughts that you disagree with.

So by your lights Ted Bundy ought to have done what he did? (And also ought not to have, of course.) I think conflating "ought" with "urge" leaches all the meaning out of "ought", and I'm still puzzled as to why you want to do that.

I'm still waiting for you to produce a case where someone doesn't want to avoid suffering.

I've produced two. You've argued that both have good reasons for not wanting to avoid suffering, and I would agree with you. That doesn't negate them.

That would be a rather important part of your argument, wouldn't it?

Not at all. Even if it were true that everyone wants to avoid suffering, there would still be a further truth (or not) as to whether they ought to avoid suffering. I personally do think it's a truth that (all other things being equal) one should avoid suffering, and particularly avoid causing others to suffer; but "all other things being equal" is a loophole big enough that armies drive through it on a regular basis.

I can imagine starting from something like your 340 (ought statements are verifiable, in that they can be verified to exist in the world and be held by people), and trying to boil those ought statements, both present and historical, down into some sort of kernel arguably held by almost all human beings, and from that basis trying to build up a more detailed ethics. And (if there is such a core) "most humans have believed that Y should be done" is more convincing to me than "My deity says Y should be done", because in my experience the Mysterious Ones tend to communicate in ineffables, and translating those into ethics is tough. But why should someone whose deity has laid down a thousand-page lawbook with footnotes find my preference for an elaboration on a putative human consensus more convincing than her Lawgiver's word?

#416 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 01:30 AM:

C. Wingate: You're engaging in a Weeble argument here.

At 406: Well, as far as Christmas is concerned, if (say) even 60% of the people are going to take the day off, the government cannot function.
At 416: Even eighty years ago, when blue laws ruled the land, "somehow" these things were all taken care of. And that "somehow" was minimum staffing, putting off the elective and much of the routine, and perhaps some drawing straws on the one hand and making some overtime on the other. (Which, BTW, is pretty much exactly what I said.)

You can't have it both ways. Either it's possible to make things work while not recognizing Christmas as a Special American Holiday, or it's not. And if it works for some functions, there's no reason to assume it can't be made to work for all... except that "well, that's not how we've always done it".

#417 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 02:35 AM:

Kantian Ethics don't require any sort of deity to work.

1: Don't do anything which can't be extended as a thing that everyone can, or must do.

2: Don't treat people as means to an end.

The short version: You aren't special.

#418 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:12 AM:

Yarrow @ 417: "So by your lights Ted Bundy ought to have done what he did? (And also ought not to have, of course.)"

I'm not entirely sure why you thought accusing me of giving cover to serial killers was a productive direction to take the conversation, but okay.

"I think conflating "ought" with "urge" leaches all the meaning out of "ought", and I'm still puzzled as to why you want to do that."

I think denying the connection strands oughts in a vacuum of meaninglessness. That is, as far as I can see, your position: that oughts have no tangible connection with reality, we just all perceive them and connect them with reality for totally inexplicable reasons. That's nonsense--"being perceived" is what being part of reality means.

"You've argued that both have good reasons for not wanting to avoid suffering, and I would agree with you."

You've misunderstood me entirely: the point of my counter arguments are that people who have kids are still trying to minimize suffering. They simply judge the suffering of having kids less than the suffering of not having kids. They judge the suffering of accepting suffering less than the suffering of trying to avoid it. Both your examples are just people of avoiding suffering the best they know how--proving my argument, not yours.

"But why should someone whose deity has laid down a thousand-page lawbook with footnotes find my preference for an elaboration on a putative human consensus more convincing than her Lawgiver's word?"

Why indeed? Perhaps because she feels the same oughts and perceives the same reality that your arguments are based upon. This, to bring the whole thing full circle, is why secularism is such a valuable tool: it limits political arguments to those which have a chance of persuading people who don't accept your idiosyncratic oughts and is's.

#419 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:14 AM:

Xopher: That's a fairly old dilemma in ethics. The difference to me is this... for whatever reason, the people on the track chose to be there. Being there poses certain risks (as given they are working, which is a different level of consent).

The guy on the overpass has done nothing which accepts any risk. Given those options the guy on the overpass is in a fundamentally different category from the single guy on the second track.

#420 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:27 AM:

Still stewing over some of the points raised here, but a couple of quick thoughts:

Allan @ 414: I'm not best qualified to speak on these matters, but isn't that the Thomist doctrine of double effect? I'm not sure this isn't the place I first learned about it.

heresiarch, variously, on suffering: The most certain and effective long-term way to end global or personal suffering is rather drastic, and understandably unpopular. I suggest that even absent belief in an afterlife, people do not, would not, and should not act as if minimization of suffering were their overriding ethical principle. Allowing counterbalancing pleasure doesn't help, since we need only add the capacity for Death By Extended Ecstasy to produce yet another repellent and terminal solution.

I think that suffering and pleasure, though important, can't be taken as goals in themselves, without falling into the old trap of gaming the indicators. But then we get right back into the dispute as to what they do, or 'ought to', fallibly indicate. Which admits of no simple solution.

On 'ought vs urge': I agree with Yarrow that the two are radically different. To me, it's very strange to call an urge an ought if I judge that my own self-estimate will sink if I follow through on it. The ought adds a level of moral approbation to the mere want, whether I end up going along with either or no. Maybe I can't say why I ought to do something, and maybe I'm wrong to think I should; but I still know the difference between wanting to do something and thinking I ought to do it, and I don't see the value in flattening out that distinction.

#421 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 04:50 AM:

When a new moral question comes up, ("Is stem cell research OK?"), we see how this all operates in practice. People (including religious people, who have prayed about it or whatever) chip in with their opinions. There is a debate, and guidelines or laws are brought in.

Sometimes we come up with a clear rule, sometimes it's a fudge like "Stem cell research is OK, but no federal funds are to be used".

The rules evolve over time until some practical consensus is reached.

During the debate, some people may point to a religious text or tradition to make their case. Others may give more or less weight to those arguments based on their beliefs, but at no point does anyone need to go up a mountain with stone tablets in order for new answers to new moral questions to be agreed.

Since we see this happening today, and we see how it happened when opinions on, for example, slavery changed in the past, I see no need to assume anything else was going on when societies agreed that murder, theft, lying, or adultery were wrong.

If there was some supernatural, ideal or Platonic system of morals inspiring all of this, why would our vision of it change so much? Why would slavery have been OK in the year 1 CE, but not now? Why would gay marriage be illegal last week and legal this week?


#422 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 05:02 AM:

Terry @ 419: I'm not a Kantian, among other reasons because (1) doesn't accommodate diversity very well, except by ascending to such rarefied levels of generalization as to be practically useless; and because I find (2) destructively flattening of the multiple levels of community among human beings, except when so weakened and nuanced that weasels can frisk through its fields unimpeded. Sometimes a bit of casual mutual exploitation may be all that is keeping utter strangers alive.

But I get where Kant's coming from. "You aren't special" is pretty much the touchstone for any morality I can respect, and the foundation of my own. It also offers a very handy way to detect when somebody's libertarianism or egalitarianism, especially mine, is heading into full failure mode.

I think I prefer Xopher's 'strong form of the Golden Rule' to (1) as stated, since it's more clearly encouraging an effort of imaginative sympathy and intellectual humility in a diverse world, in order to achieve a similar end. It covers (2) similarly by implication: use not except as you would be used, and remember that not everybody's usages are as your own.

Treating people as if they can never be merely means, I go along with absolutely.

#423 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 07:57 AM:

heresiarch @420: I'm not entirely sure why you thought accusing me of giving cover to serial killers was a productive direction to take the conversation, but okay.

Well, shorter us:

h: Oughts are just urges.
Y: But, but -- George W. Bush!
h: Just because you disapprove of some oughts...
Y: But Ted Bundy!
h: How rude of you! But okay.

I'm taking the "but okay" to mean yes, Ted Bundy's urges were oughts. I was trying a reductio ad absurdum (and meeting a credo quia?)

You've misunderstood me entirely: the point of my counter arguments are that people who have kids are still trying to minimize suffering.

No, I understand you. But why should anyone undergo suffering in the present, just in order to minimize suffering for their future self? Why should Ted Bundy have undergone the suffering of stifling his urges, just in order to minimize the suffering of his victims?

I believe both those are indeed oughts; but judging by actions, they aren't "universally agreed-to" (your 380). People often act in ways that don't minimize their future suffering, and often act in ways that don't minimize other people's suffering.

secularism ... limits political arguments to those which have a chance of persuading people who don't accept your idiosyncratic oughts and is's.

That's not how political arguments are actually made. Are you saying that's how they should be made? I'd be more comfortable with the positive advice to appeal to our common humanity, which at least lets me condemn Ted Bundy!

#424 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 11:11 AM:

Serge#389

"Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many."
- from Doctor Who

#425 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 11:15 AM:

Lee #418:

Huh? I think you're missing the difference between efficient/convenient/easy and possible. Suppose you have a factory where 90% of the employees very much want to take Christmas off, and where the factory can't really function without at least 80% of its workforce. You now have two choices:

a. Give everyone the day off for Christmas.

b. Use threats or extra pay to get most of your employees to show up on Christmas. (10% won't mind--for them, it's just another day. But you can only let 20% of your workforce take the day off without shutting down the factory.)

In this situation, I think the smartest and kindest thing to do is to give everyone the day off for Christmas. I recognize that this isn't equal for everyone--folks who don't celebrate Christmas are getting a day off they don't care about, rather than one they would have really liked to get. But it's adapting to the preferences of your employees.

Nothing about that means that you *can't* run anything on Christmas day (or any other common holiday in your society). Just that it's hard to do--you may have to pay people extra to come in, you'll have scheduling headaches because almost nobody wants to work that day, it will make a lot of your employees unhappy.

And the answers to this are well-understood and common, as C Wingate pointed out--the railroads and airlines and hospitals and firehouses and police stations and some gas stations stay open, perhaps with a skeleton crew, while most everything else is closed. This happens now w.r.t. Christmas (an explicitly religious holiday), and also for Thanksgiving (a patriotic harvest festival with religious overtones), July 4 (a patriotic festival of no religious significance), and New Year's Day (a nonreligious festival). It happens without any laws requiring it to happen, because when most people want the 4th of July off, it's often easier for employers to give them the day off than to fight it.

#426 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 12:47 PM:

James D. Macdonald @296: It also nets us a whole lot of days we can get off work, exchange presents, and eat candy. What's not to like?

And feasts. Don't forget the feasts!

#427 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 01:16 PM:

If the goal is strictly to minimize suffering, think about the end case. Dead people don't suffer (as far as we know) -- so kill everyone, and further suffering is minimized (at least on this earth).

The attempt to minimize anything is, on the whole, not good enough as a sole rule for living. There must be something that's being supported/maintained/raised as well. Optimizing is a better goal. And an optimum of zero -- not likely to happen.

#428 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 01:42 PM:

Tom, I don't think 'minimize suffering' is a philosophy so much as a tendency. People start from that primal desire and build philosophical systems from there.

Wrt your specific point, the urge to survive is even stronger than the urge to avoid suffering. Animals will gnaw their own limbs off to escape from traps; humans will take painful recovery over comfortable death in most cases (the exceptions I know of involve them becoming convinced that actual recovery is impossible, and they're really choosing between painful death and less-painful death).

And I would submit that the disinclination to kill one's fellow humans is also a primal instinct; people who do so have either overcome it through training (the most neutral term I can employ) or have lost it through trauma (see above) or inherent mental defect.

Or, of course, the urge to survive (tranferable to some extent to one's offspring) has superseded that instinctive disinclination. These things are complex and trying to reduce them to single sentences strikes me as futile.

#429 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 02:17 PM:

Jacque @ 428... Renminds me of the Far Side cartoon about the Fourth Wise Man, who's seldom mentionned because his gift was fruit cake.

#430 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:02 PM:

Xopher @430 -- the inability to reduce these things as far as some folks here seem to have been trying for is, to a great extent, just the point I was hoping to make.

#431 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:27 PM:

Gray Woodland: I'm not a Kantian either (esp. not as he defined "virtuous").

I was responding the specific claims that moral systems need an outside (i.e. religious) quality. That absent that they breakdown.

Kant doesn't need that. A pair of statements (which I paraphrased, to avoid some linguistic confusion) give a basis from which one can work, which requires nothing outside the people involved.

#432 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:29 PM:

Tom, actually I had the impression that people were trying to reduce each others' philosophies to single sentences (and occasionally to humanoid figures composed largely of straw), rather than their own.

#433 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 03:40 PM:

Why would slavery have been OK in the year 1 CE, but not now?

A friend who home-schools says that the curriculum she buys, which comes from the knee-jerk Biblical-literalist Talibangelical Christian community, states that while slavery as practiced in the United States prior to the Civil War was wrong, slavery as practiced in the Bible is right and proper because after all it's in the Bible.

Never underestimate the power of the truly stupid and the brick-headed to come up with some way to explain any hypocrisy you like.

[NB: My friend uses the good parts of this curriculum, omits the stupid bits, and also teaches from her own knowledge. I doubt, for example, that Talibangelicals teach their children that the primary lesson of history is "people are idiots."]

#434 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 04:14 PM:

Terry Karney @ 433

Note that I'm not arguing that moral systems break down without outside/religious input; I'm arguing that the axioms remain axioms, whether they are religious or not, and so strong-form secularism (e.g. heresiarch @ 361, Are some of the conflicting values supernatural in rationale? Then toss those out! Conflict resolved) is just a form of game-rigging.

Jacque @ 407

I'm trying to make sense of this exchange.

The principle of "you can't expect non-believers to observe your rules" is accepted widely enough to where the dissenters don't have the political power to overcome it.

This acceptance is long-fought-for and hard-won. There is a large class of dissenters who are working very hard to overcome it, hence the need for ongoing, active protection.

Who, exactly, except a few anarcho-libertarians, believes that "you can't expect non-believers to observe your rules?" (e.g., Anti-discrimination law, trespassing law, environmental law, domestic abuse law--all of those are explicitly requiring people who disagree to follow the societally-preferred morality.)

#435 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 06:16 PM:

Sam: And I'm saying that there is nothing supernatural in those axioms.

#436 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 07:04 PM:

SamChevre @356: I'm just trying to make sense of what you (and others in this discussion) mean when they say "proven", because "executing murderers is a right thing to do" doesn't seem to me to be proveable or disproveable from observation, or from any kind of universally-shared consensus on observable reality.

Let me have a go: in the purest secular sense, executing murderers is less about it being "right" or "wrong" than about the results you produce.

Pro execution arguments might be:
1) Gets the murderer off the street. You know he can't kill anybody else.
2) Provides a deterent to others who might murder. "Gee, if I get caught, I'll get executed." (Proving this is as simple as finding one person who says they didn't murder somebody because they didn't want to be executed if caught.)

An argument against might be that some people who are executed for murder are later proven to be innocent.

All of the above are empircally measurable consequences of execution.

#437 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 08:26 PM:

Gray Woodland @ 422: "The most certain and effective long-term way to end global or personal suffering is rather drastic, and understandably unpopular."

That's, at best, one possible extension of the suffering-avoidance principle. And I'd thought I'd established, multiple times, that it's perfectly possible for people to follow chains of reasoning from solid beginnings to totally cracked conclusions.

"I suggest that even absent belief in an afterlife, people do not, would not, and should not act as if minimization of suffering were their overriding ethical principle."

I never claimed that minimization of suffering was an "overriding" ethical principle, just that it was a moral principle that is "empirically valid and universally agreed-to." Must you invent more things to disagree with? I rather thought you already had plenty.

"I still know the difference between wanting to do something and thinking I ought to do it, and I don't see the value in flattening out that distinction."

Explain what that difference is, and perhaps I'd agree with you.

An ought is simply about articulating a desire through the world. In both "if you want to win, you ought to practice" and "if you want to die a painful death, you ought to drink Draino" the ought is only as valid as the impulse that it fulfils; it has no independent existence. When people throw oughts out into the world unmoored--"he ought to be wearing a jacket in this weather"--it isn't because the impulse isn't there, it's because it's so common as to go without saying.

Yarrow @ 425: "I'm taking the "but okay" to mean yes, Ted Bundy's urges were oughts."

You're really caught up on this idea that "ought" is synonymous with "right," aren't you? But that's absurd: people make ought arguments all the time that are totally wrong. If that doesn't satisfy you, people make ought arguments that are in complete conflict--at least one of them must be incorrect. Ought statements are not a pure apprehension of Right.

"But why should anyone undergo suffering in the present, just in order to minimize suffering for their future self? Why should Ted Bundy have undergone the suffering of stifling his urges, just in order to minimize the suffering of his victims?"

Because they ought to, obviously. And they ought to because they feel the impulse to, articulated through a valid understanding of the world--you see, I have an answer to why people ought to do what I think they ought to do. It is you who lacks an explanation and must resort to the waving of hands and invoking of woo.

"which at least lets me condemn Ted Bundy!"

Wait, what? When on earth did I impinge upon your ability to condemn Ted Bundy? Do you think my position is that Bundy's morality is unimpeachable? How ridiculous.

#438 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 10:01 PM:

Albatross at # 427: New Year's Day (a nonreligious festival).

I read an internet ranter who maintained that New Year's Day (January 1) is a Christian religious festival and complained about how it was taken for granted that it should be a public holiday. As far as I could see he was using "Christians" to mean "non-Jewish westerners".

(I avoided the temptation to point out the origins of a former Catholic observance 8 days after the celebration of Jesus' birth.)

#439 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 10:49 PM:

Someone at the Houston Skeptics gathering this evening had a copy of this book, which appears to be discussing precisely the same kinds of issues that we're trying to hash out here. There's an interview with the author at the link that probably covers a lot of the same ground as the book.

#440 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2011, 11:47 PM:

re 440: What do you mean, "former"? It's still on the Episcopal calendar!

#441 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2011, 01:46 PM:

heresiarch @ #439 :

I never claimed that minimization of suffering was an "overriding" ethical principle, just that it was a moral principle that is "empirically valid and universally agreed-to." Must you invent more things to disagree with? I rather thought you already had plenty.

No, I'd rather not. I misunderstood your characterization as a 'principle' of something I'd relegate to a 'very good heuristic'. When someone says 'principle', and especially when vehemently strengthened and widened, I tend to hear 'objective source of value'. And minds much better than mine have regularly confounded - in my opinion - gameable indicators of moral value with moral value itself, an identification I love as Dracula loves garlic baguettes. So I'm perhaps a little too quick on the draw on this subject.

I apologize for this error. I still don't concede the assertion you intended, but it's much closer to my beliefs than what I thought you meant.

"I still know the difference between wanting to do something and thinking I ought to do it, and I don't see the value in flattening out that distinction."

Explain what that difference is, and perhaps I'd agree with you.

By my lights this is so easy, that I fear I am missing a point. Suppose I make the following honest complaint:

"I want to punch Tom Trouble in the face, but I ought not to!"

Now, by your equation, this seems to me an inherently symmetrical relationship as far it's specified, and there's no reason to ascribe greater moral weight to one side of it than the other. Want = ought: it's anyone's guess which will happen, or which I think would turn out better, or deserves praise or blame.

But, of course, that symmetry doesn't exist in the language! I am very plainly stating, to my mind, that I would be gratified to thump Tom Trouble, but that I will think worse of myself if I do so, because it is overall morally wrong for me to do it.

That, to me, is the clearest possible statement of priorities. I say thereby that the 'pleasure' heuristic - according to which thumping Tom Trouble wins out - loses out morally to holding my peace, by authority of whatever unspecified paramount ethical principle I really hold to, and irrespective of whether I can give a good account of what that principle might be. I might still thump Tom, because all folk are fallible; but I've conceded in advance that I will be wrong to do so.

I'm banging on at some length about this; but I should really like to know at which stage either our communication is failing, or we disagree on the raw substance.

#442 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2011, 04:51 PM:

SamChevre @436: Who, exactly, except a few anarcho-libertarians, believes that "you can't expect non-believers to observe your rules?"

I got the impression that the rules being referred to were religious rules. As distinct from "e.g., Anti-discrimination law, trespassing law, environmental law, domestic abuse law", which are laws developed by means of the secular process.

There very surely are those who could be expected not to follow the laws you cite, which is why we have a judicial process and defined punishments for infractions.

heresiarch @439: An ought is simply about articulating a desire through the world.

An ought is a means of expressing a long-term desire that is in conflict with an urge for short-time gratification.

the ought is only as valid as the impulse that it fulfils

I submit you have it precisely backwards. An ought is a meta-imperative designed to displace an urge. "I ought not eat that last piece of cake, and I ought to do the dishes." This even implies that I do have the urge to eat the cake, and I don't have the urge to wash dishes.

why people ought to do what I think they ought to do.

And this is another kettle of greeps altogether: a disembodied meta-imperative.

Whereas "I shouldn't eat that cake," is a case of my regulating my urges in service of my longer-term goal, "he ought to be wearing a jacket in this weather" is a case of you trying to regulate his urges. Any number of meta-imperatives could come into play here: you could be concerned for his health, you could be trying to control him, or any number of other agendas.

For the record, I don't get what you're saying, and my understanding of ought/urge matches what Gray Woodland is saying.

#443 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2011, 09:41 PM:

heresiarch @439: An ought is simply about articulating a desire through the world. In both "if you want to win, you ought to practice" and "if you want to die a painful death, you ought to drink Draino" the ought is only as valid as the impulse that it fulfils; it has no independent existence.

Thanks for that -- it clears up a lot of my confusion about what you're saying. Let's see if I've got it: "ought to" is purely instrumental ("if you want to win you ought to practice"), except that certain places at the end of the chain are, so speak, their own oughts. For instance: you ought to practice to win, you ought to win to have a feeling of accomplishment, you ought to have a feeling of accomplishment to feel good about yourself, you ought to feel good about yourself to avoid suffering -- and the urge to avoid suffering is so universal that we don't need further justification.

Like Gray Woodland and Jacque I use the word "ought" with a different meaning, but I'd accept the general description of the instrumentally-justified chain and the endpoints that don't need instrumental justification.

I don't think it gets you as far as you want it to, though. When I asked why people should refrain from harming their future selves, or Ted Bundy his victims, you answered Because they ought to, obviously. And they ought to because they feel the impulse to, articulated through a valid understanding of the world. Here "they feel the impulse to" is correct but unconvincing, because smokers (say) and Ted Bundy clearly feel the opposite impulse also, and more strongly. All the work is done by "articulated through a valid understanding of the world", which suggests that there are good reasons for smokers not to smoke and Bundy not to murder -- but doesn't say what they are.

I think valid understanding of the (moral) world involves non-physical truths. Not woo-ful truths, necessarily -- as Terry Karney says at 419, "Kantian Ethics don't require any sort of deity to work." But Kant's principles are not empirically verifiable.

Actually, "not necessarily woo-ful" is too weak. Moral truths are no more woo-ful than they are physical. Murder is wrong whether or not Goddess, God, or spirits say "Don't kill people" (and thus wrong no matter whether or not Goddess, God or spirits exist).

#444 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 12:08 AM:

re 439: I'm doubtful I would agree that "minimization of suffering was [...] a moral principle that is empirically valid and universally agreed-to." To begin with, I still am nowhere near accepting that "valid" in this context means anything which empiricism can provide. As far as I am concerned, the only validation that matters is consistency with the revealed moral teachings that come from the divine. Obviously this isn't going to work for people outside my religion or people who aren't religious at all. The existence of a rough moral consensus is interesting but the theories about why it exists (not to mention a great deal of argument over its boundaries) are as divergent as these theories of validation. Validity simply isn't objective.

And if "universally agreed-to" is conceded, the problem still remains that the difficulty is contained in the theory that minimization is even a solvable problem. There is a LOT of work out there on casuistry, and one of the things this work shows is that you can get wildly differing conclusions from relatively small changes in how you judge the consequences of acts-- and when you throw in religions as sources of ideas about the consequences, we are not talking small changes any more, but often big, absolute, dichotomous changes.

Likewise, I'm having problems with your statements about "ought" because it seems to me to beg the question. Suppose the principle at hand is "I ought to follow orders", where there is no other contravening impulse other than that disobedience is, on some level (psychologically, physically-- I don't think it makes a difference) is more immediately pleasant than obedience. One can assert loyalty itself as a principle, but loyalty is, after all, nothing but an "ought" in itself. And for instance, jumping to the Supreme Loyalty, there are moral theologians who will argue that you should obey God not because you fear the consequences of disobedience, but simply because obedience is what He is due.

We keep stumbling here across what Albatross said back in 378: there just isn't enough commonality of systems to be able to work out a compromise version. The best one can do is attempt to mediate the conclusions of the various solutions, trusting heavily that much/most of the time there isn't any different significant enough to pose much difficulty in mediating. And as he hints towards the end of that response, the deeper problem is that on the level that matters as far as this resolution is concerned, religious and irreligious systems aren't different. There is an irreducible inarguability which is obvious in religion but just as present in utterly secular thinking.

#445 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 12:15 AM:

Gray Woodland @ 443: "Now, by your equation, this seems to me an inherently symmetrical relationship as far it's specified, and there's no reason to ascribe greater moral weight to one side of it than the other."

I think this is a very fruitful turn of the conversation, and illuminates many of the confusions that are swirling around. Let me see if I can explain myself.

First of all, it is incorrect to say that I am arguing for the moral equivalency of all wants and oughts. Quite the opposite: for me, this entire debate is about how to weigh relative moral value in a coherent, valid way. To say that two claims are moral claims isn't to say that they are both equally valid or important--there are countless oughts that are utterly specious, either because their premises are flawed or because their logic does not follow. Some number of them are called wants. My argument is not that they all bear equal moral weight, but that they are enumerated in the same experiential coin: the imperative.

In your example, a want comes into conflict with an ought and the ought is the better claim. I do not disagree. But it does not follow that the want is either immoral or amoral. It is equally possible to construct scenarios where two valid "oughts" come into a very similar sort of conflict. "I ought to get to work on time, but I also ought to help this accident victim!" Here oughts conflict, and one clearly carries more moral weight than the other. If that is too trivial, it's easy to up the stakes: "I ought not shoot a man, but I also ought not let a genocide take place!" It is even possible to construct situations where a visceral, felt want is the moral superior of an abstractly derived ought. "I want to give a second chance to this genuinely repentant criminal, but I ought not because the law says otherwise."

Now this is not a problem for me, because I do not see wants and oughts as being different types of things. To me, the difference between ought and want is that wants are what we call imperatives we feel viscerally and oughts are what we call imperatives which are externally imposed, but they are not at heart different things. So some wants are immoral. What of it? Some oughts are immoral. But it seems to me this presents a problem for your model.

"I am very plainly stating, to my mind, that I would be gratified to thump Tom Trouble, but that I will think worse of myself if I do so, because it is overall morally wrong for me to do it."

And I would say that you would think worse of yourself for doing so because you would not be satisfying the moral imperative that you feel. Really, we hardly disagree at all--all I'm saying is that that desire that you have to act morally is a visceral part of your experience of the world in the same way as your desire to feel pleasure. Not that it is the same thing, but that it is the same type of thing, and that its real existence is all the justification it needs.

(It seems quite clear to me that when someone says "You ought to buy the red one" or "I ought to punch you in the face for saying that!" that they are not referring with "ought" to some "overall morality." Thus it's very difficult to buy the argument that "ought" can only refer to overarching moral claims.)

#446 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 12:31 AM:

Yarrow, #445: Murder is wrong whether or not Goddess, God, or spirits say "Don't kill people" (and thus wrong no matter whether or not Goddess, God or spirits exist).

Which is, effectively, the argument for secularism in law. By leaving religion out of the picture, you avoid arguments about whose religion gets to be privileged in the legal system, and you also give the lie to people who claim that one must have their religion to be moral.

#447 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 01:32 AM:

C. Wingate: As far as I am concerned, the only validation that matters is consistency with the revealed moral teachings that come from the divine.

That's the strongest argument for secularism I can see. Because if that were the rule... well it has been the rule in lots of places (and still is in some).

It doesn't work well. To apply a different discipline (security) it has a really bad failure mode.

#448 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 07:27 AM:

re 449: It's also an extremely strong argument against secularism, because it is still the rule, everywhere. The point is, some standard for "validity" is one of the things that has to be worked out, and it may or may not be the "real" validity because the real thing is patently subjective, inarguable, and disparate.

And we get most of the way there in the USA because the commonalities among the most important systems (the various Christian views, Judaism, Enlightenment secularism, and generic spirituality) allow a compromise "validity" which most of the time comes up with acceptable answers under the various real validity standards. The issue really is that the compromise doesn't always work, and that when it fails we don't have anywhere to go. Saying, "well, the irreligious win" need not be a particularly compelling answer, if you aren't irreligious. It seems to me that a more equitable solution would revolve around saying, "well, the irreligious need to make compromises too, just like everyone else."

#449 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 08:38 AM:

C. Wingate@450

It has been pointed out several times, by several people, that secular and irreligious are not the same thing, and that furthermore "the secular arguments wins" *is* in fact a compelling answer to at least some of the religious posters here.

Freedom of religion, as established in your constitution, *enshrines* the essential compromise made by the irreligious and religious alike: the government will make no move to prevent you from (or encourage you towards) the practise of yours, so long as it doesn't otherwise conflict with the law of the land. Plus, you get tax exemptions. You are rare amongst your co-religionists historically and geographically in having it so good.

Saying, "well, the irreligious win" need not be a particularly compelling answer, if you aren't irreligious.

Saying "well, the irreligious win" makes it sound like a zero-sum game and frames the discussion as us vs. them. I'm not sure this is helpful. The entire point is that a secular system intends to be a level playing field that doesn't privelege religious arguments over any other. Whether you get your moral philosophy from the divine, from introspection, from study, or simply pull it fully formed from your fundament, it should be subject to exactly the same scrutiny. Throwing out religious belief as the sole basis for argument is not the same as throwing out the religious - is it?

I understand you would prefer it if your sect got to "win", but I disagree with your assertion that those who do not follow a religion, or those who do but do not think it should be the basis for national law, count as a sect in themselves. To torture a classic metaphor, you are making out that those who do not collect stamps (and indeed, some who do) are a unified force with a common agenda, while in fact they are united only from your perspective and only in that they do not believe what you do.

#450 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 03:24 PM:

Jacque @ 444: "An ought is a means of expressing a long-term desire that is in conflict with an urge for short-time gratification....I submit you have it precisely backwards. An ought is a meta-imperative designed to displace an urge."

You say you disagree with me, but I do not think you do. First off, "imperative" and "desire" and "urge" are all synonyms. So when you say an ought replaces a short-term imperative with a long term imperative, well yes, I agree, and I also agree that the long-term one is better--because it fulfills one's imperatives more perfectly. Your "meta-imperative" is not conjured out of thin air: it has a real basis in your desire to stay healthy or not have to deal with a messy kitchen tomorrow morning. Complex moral reasoning is both more abstract and wider in scope than simple moral reasoning, but by the same token is less viscerally felt and therefore harder to act on. It does not make it a different sort of thing.

Yarrow @ 445: "-- and the urge to avoid suffering is so universal that we don't need further justification."

Not quite--it (arguably) requires no further justification because it is a prereflective impression of reality. I can doubt the existence of China, I can doubt my memories of having been to China, I can even doubt the existence of the desk in front of me--but I cannot doubt that I perceive a desk in front of me. It may be an illusion cast by an evil demon, but that I perceive what I perceive is incontrovertible fact; it is its own evidence. There are imperatives that exist on that same perceptual level.

But not all of them are universal to all people, and therefore are not appropriate principles for political action--that is where the universality and empirical verifiability come in.

"Here "they feel the impulse to" is correct but unconvincing, because smokers (say) and Ted Bundy clearly feel the opposite impulse also, and more strongly."

Well, yes. Many people either reason incorrectly or do not feel the correctly-derived imperative as strongly as they feel other, less complete imperatives. And I'm not going to argue from first principles the wrongness of murder--there are only so many hours in the day, and I'm pretty sure we're all on the same page on that. My point is that what animates it, what transforms it from a logically and empirically valid observation to a moral principle capable of compelling action is the imperative at its heart.

"I think valid understanding of the (moral) world involves non-physical truths."

I'm not sure what you mean by "non-physical." (And I am not a Kantian, but if I am reading this wikipedia article correctly, Kant put a "good will" at the center of his moral philosophy--that would be an urge to do good, wouldn't it?)

C. Wingate @ 446: "To begin with, I still am nowhere near accepting that "valid" in this context means anything which empiricism can provide."

The claims which empiricism can validate are:

- This is an imperative which exists in human perception.
- This is an imperative which is felt by all human beings.

Do you disagree that those claims can be proven or disproven by observation?

"The best one can do is attempt to mediate the conclusions of the various solutions, trusting heavily that much/most of the time there isn't any different significant enough to pose much difficulty in mediating."

If you took seriously the proposition that "the only validation that matters is consistency with the revealed moral teachings that come from the divine" then this is simply impossible. If the only validity comes from the divine, then there is no possible meeting ground upon which any disagreement can be mediated. None. Every internally-consistent moral stance is equally valid, and between two equal rights only force decides.

But of course there is a meeting ground upon which all claims must be settled, and that is reality.

#451 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 04:15 PM:

C. 446: As far as I am concerned, the only validation that matters is consistency with the revealed moral teachings that come from the divine.
Ibid., 450: [The above statement is] also an extremely strong argument against secularism, because it is still the rule, everywhere.

You've lapsed into repeating the often-refuted without making any coherent argument against the refutation. This is unproductive in terms of the current conversation and counterproductive for future conversations, because each time you do it your spurious-argument count goes up...and my (at least, not speaking for others who may feel the same way) respect for you goes down.

Just a little. Still far from the point where I just scroll past your posts. But it's an erosion that you might wish to avoid.

Oh, and consistently referring to secularists as "the irreligious"? Another decrement on your Respect-O-Meter™ rating.

Also, you're bearing false witness. You're accusing everyone who doesn't have religion of having no morals OR accusing everyone who says their ethical principles don't come from revealed moral teachings of lying.

And I'm still waiting for you, or SamChevre, or anyone, to present and defend what you [pl.] think would be a good substitute for secularism, where by "good" I mean at least as fair to all parties, and better in some way you outline. I think I know what you prefer, and it doesn't fulfill my definition of 'good'; prove me wrong. Or, indeed, say ANYTHING about what you think would be better instead of just saying, again, that you don't like secularism.

Because otherwise you sure look like your complaint is that you're not privileged enough. And that's the biggest respect-decrementer of all.

#452 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 04:39 PM:

It's not a world I created, but it is one I write in, and many of the characters follow a pretty simple precept: whatever God you choose to follow, if you're an aviator you'd better be polite to the Thunderbird.

#453 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 04:58 PM:

Xopher:

I think the hangup here, at least the one I see, is with the definition of secularism. If it's "the government ought not to choose sides w.r.t. religion," then I think it's a good guide to how our government should run. But that's really different from some of what I've read from heresiarch, for example, involving things like which moral premises or arguments are or are not to be followed, with the apparent notion that moral premises based on religion should be excluded from debate about what laws we should have.

I think a society's laws must ultimately agree with consensus morality in the society. And while it's only right that religious groups and other groups that share values hold themselves to a higher standard than outsiders, to the extent the moral beliefs of members of a society are derived from their religion, at least some important subset of those moral beliefs will and should be reflected in the society, ultimately.

Morality is ultimately based on unprovable premises, things that can't be derived from physical reality. There is no physical evidence or experiment or observation I can make to convince you that infanticide or slavery are morally wrong. So privileging non-religious bases for moral sentiments and premises over religious ones seems kind-of hard to justify, to me. I mean, I get that I'm not going to convince you of the wrongness of pre-emptive war by reference to the Catholic Church's position on the matter, but my opposition to it comes from my own moral sentiments, built up partly by knowledge of the Church's position on pre-emptive war and surely informed more by the broader moral teachings of my church. And I think it's entirely appropriate that I take that moral belief with me into political arguments and into the polling place.

#454 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 05:07 PM:

There is no such thing as an imperative that is felt by all human beings at all times, heresiarch @452. Not even breathing, and I won't hold my breath until you admit that it's not true at all times. So that part of what empiricism can demonstrate is solved.

#455 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2011, 05:40 PM:

C. Wingate: I am not irreligious. It's why I like secularism. There are a lot of religions out there which would see me as a heretic, or a heathen. A lot of them want to be in charge in this country.

THat a lot of religious systems parallel the rules which non-religious systems (Mills Utilitarianism... Kant's Categorical Imperatives, Confucious Practicalities) doesn't mean the religious systems are validated. The Polynesians, the Aztecs, the Babylonians, the Romans all had some broad-stroke parallels. But the fine details, very different. Same is true inside chrisitanity. Chuck colsen's idea of "Promoting Virtue" and mine don't mesh (in part because he might like to see me either forced to comply, or executed).

They can never be mediated because he has Divinity on his side, and (according to him) I don't. That's the whole nonsense that a million people can vote all they like, but God gets to decide.

That, as history shows, has a really bad failure mode, precisely because the issues can't be mediated.

#456 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2011, 10:13 AM:

heresiarch:

The claims which empiricism can validate are:

- This is an imperative which exists in human perception.
- This is an imperative which is felt by all human beings.

Do you disagree that those claims can be proven or disproven by observation?

I'm not C Wingate, but no, I don't see how you can, by observation, determine what is felt by any human being. by introspection, you can determine something about what imperatives you feel, and you can ask others to introspect to find out what imperatives they feel. But you'll never learn all the imperatives, since you won't be able to ask everyone, and since some people will lie about what they feel, or even will construct some elaborate psychological defense to keep themselves from feeling some things that are extremely socially unacceptable.

Obviously, simply observing peoples' behaviors won't tell you all their moral sentiments, since people often behave in ways they themselves later feel very bad about.

More fundamentally, though, I think a huge chunk of the moral imperatives we feel are socially installed, not driven by some innate, evolved-in moral sense. (And even the evolved-in moral sense isn't necessarily right, it's just some mixture of what worked and the side-effects of what worked, with a side order of randomness.) Even today, there are many (mostly old) people who have a visceral moral revulsion to seeing interracial couples, or blacks in prominent positions like the white house, or whites ever having to take orders from blacks. At certain times and places, you could have found a majority of people with that reaction, I think. And those people could have inferred an imperative: race-mixing is evil, you have a duty to help keep your own race on top, etc. We look at those moral imperatives, and think they're nuts, but I wonder how many years you'd have to go back in, say, Arkansas, before you got a majority of people expressing them. 100?

Again, go back to the ancient Greeks and men f--king boys. We think about it and we have a huge, visceral revulsion--that's the sort of thing that can make civilized people want to form a lynch mob, in our society. And yet, those ancient Greeks didn't even blink at it--there was no automatic revulsion for them, it was just what they were used to. (Note that Afghan culture, for one, still has some of this.) The same ancient Greeks, along with a great many other people, were just fine with drowning or abandoning an unwanted or imperfect infant. When someone does something like that in our society, we lock them up for the rest of their days, and when the crime gets a lot of media attention, there are plenty of people loudly hoping the murderer gets badly mistreated in prison.

#457 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2011, 10:57 PM:

Actually (and I've been trying to stay out of it)... ancient Greeks did have a problem with it (less so the Spartans, but I think that's an outgrowth of the combined effects of the Agoge, and not being allowed to entertain the idea of marriage until they were 25).

Plato like the idea, and his arguments in the Symposium were an attempt to justify his likes, but the Greeks, in general, didn't think there could be sexual relations between equal, and being the penetrated partner diminished the manliness of that person.

The Roman took it to an even greater extreme. It could generate, if not a lynch mob, an accepted reason for murder. What happened between adults in Greece) was largely between them, but men and boys, not really acceptable.

Which ties into (esp. in light of both his Hellenisation,and being in a Roman culture) the justifications of Paul's condemnations of the practice. It wasn't so much that he thought it evil, per se, but that male homosexuality had cruel effects on one of the partners, and Christians shouldn't do that to people.

#458 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2011, 01:05 AM:

In an odd bit of only-slightly-related news, I ran across a woman today who makes art out of the little metal squares at the bottom of votive candles (she gets them from the local cathedral). Most were not very exciting, but I found the ones arranged to make a cross in the negative space on a black background oddly affecting.

The entire dress made out of them, on the other hand, was just strange.

#459 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2011, 07:40 PM:

albatross @ 458: "no, I don't see how you can, by observation, determine what is felt by any human being."

I am precisely as interested in this argument as I am in the argument that we can never prove that other people feel anything at all. If you'd like to debate p-zombies, then we can, but I don't think anyone in this conversation actually holds that position, including you, and so I cannot help but see it as a straw defense.* Here in this world, we accept that human acts reflect an internal will, albeit imperfectly. We can know, by observation, just as much about the imperatives other people feel as we can about atomic structure.

"But you'll never learn all the imperatives,"

That's just about the opposite of my purpose. It would be neat, but I'm not interested in every last imperative people feel. Actually, it feels like an invasion of their privacy. I am rather strictly interested in the ones that we all feel in common, and only for the purpose of getting along. The rest is their business.

"More fundamentally, though, I think a huge chunk of the moral imperatives we feel are socially installed, not driven by some innate, evolved-in moral sense."

Well, yes. But that socially-installed morality isn't assembled in our selves sui generis: it's bootstrapped up via the imperatives we already feel. Do this or you'll be spanked. Don't do that and you'll get a cookie. Eventually, with luck, we learn the world and discover that it wasn't arbitrary authority that makes this rewarding and that unpleasant, but the shape of reality itself. We learn to guide our own actions according to a system that maximizes our ability to fulfill our imperatives, which in turn evolve to fit their environment.

But our knowledge of reality is limited, reality itself changes around us, and our moral instruction is corrupt. Nothing guarantees that we will feel rightly.

"We think about it and we have a huge, visceral revulsion--that's the sort of thing that can make civilized people want to form a lynch mob, in our society."

But that's a problem for you, not for me. I'm perfectly comfortable with the varying quality and viscerality of moral claims, and I have a standard for discriminating between them. You're the one caught in the uncomfortable position of both having moral beliefs and yet being unable to account for them. You can throw up your metaphorical hands and say it's all arbitrary, but you and I both know you do not, in your bones, believe that.

* Which is a term I just made up for the debate tactic of pretending to hold a position that you don't actually believe in order to present difficulties for your opposite.

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Another "member profile" page, just set up.

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Let's give them "a more personal interaction" from the mods.

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