Courage is one thing, heroism quite something else

Several years ago, I wrote a Remembrance/Veterans Day post in which I expressed admiration for the aged veterans of WWII, people whom I came to know through sharing a cardio-fit group with them.

Although my own father had been a combat vet in that war, he and I never spoke about it. When I was young, he was still too traumatized to talk about the war. And when I grew older, he and I had a distancing conflict over my decision during the Vietnam occupation to refuse induction and leave the U.S. permanently. It was through my years on the next recumbent bike to survivors of my father’s war that I came most fully to appreciate their humble but crucial parts in preserving Western democracy, in what is rightly called the last war to ensure freedom.

So it is with a large dose of respect and sympathy for the individuals whom this day honours that on this Remembrance Day I have to agree in large part with David Masciotra’s provocative and hugely controversial Salon article, “You don’t protect my freedom:  Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.”

Continue reading

In the camp of the hierarchists …

Thanks to a provocative article title, a little while ago I found myself on the unfamiliar webpage of The American Conservative.

It’s an alien place, where, in the manner of an 18th century salon conversation, sincere hierarchists present erudite justifications for all manner of political and social injustices.

The article that drew me to this font of evil is titled “Right Minds: What sets conservatives apart from authoritarians and fascists?” Officially a review of left-leaning Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Samuel Goldwin’s article is really a short history of rational conservatism.

Continue reading

Jefferson’s “Bible” — revising the revision

But while this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true
and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code
of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines.
I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism.

“This syllabus” is Jefferson’s revision of scripture, a document that has come to be known as “Jefferson’s Bible,” although he never gave it that name. It’s clear from the passage, from an 1820 letter, that Jefferson was in no sense an orthodox Christian.

But that doesn’t stop some on the Christian right in the United States from recruiting Jefferson to support their false claim that the U. S. was founded as “a Christian nation,” that the separation of church and state was never the intention of the Founding Fathers. Continue reading

Conquistadors, communists, and the blame for atrocity

One over-heated battle between fundamentalists and atheists is over which “side” is to blame for causing more suffering.

Not only is this a silly contest — “My dad kills fewer people than your dad!”  — but it’s also a simplistic, and simply wrong, way to look at human aggression. It’s not religion, or its absence, that causes atrocity.

Crusades, conquistadors, pogroms, witch hunts, suicide bombers, inter-faith and inter-denominational genocides — the list goes on and on. In the name of one divine god or another, millions have been oppressed, tortured, and murdered.

Hitler and the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in China — the list goes on and on. In the name of one godless dogma or another, millions have been oppressed, tortured, and murdered.

Looks like a tie — and in the event of a tie, the winner is the person who understands that a “tie” occurs when the terms of the correlation are incorrectly identified in the first place. And that’s what’s happened here.

Let’s try a different comparison: Proselytizing faiths and dogmas on one hand, and tolerant faiths and ideologies on the other. Faiths and dogmas that put ideas ahead of people on one hand, and faiths and ideologies that put people ahead of ideas on the other. Now, assign our lists of atrocities above to one group or the other.

So, what happened? All of the atrocities lined up behind the faith-spreaders and the dogmatists, didn’t they? And none of them strolled over to hang out with the live-and-let-live folks, did they?

When atheists write about religion, there’s always one section where the author lists the evil deeds committed in the name of God. When they’re being subtle, which is infrequent, they may distinguish a bit between one religion and another — Islam takes most of the big hits these days — but few allow that it isn’t religious dogma but the human capacity for evil expressed through religion that is the root cause of the actions they condemn.

When theists write about atheism, there’s always one section where the author lists the evil deeds committed because of the absence of faith in God. From the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution to the communist purges of the 20th century, theistic authors blame dogmatic murder on one or another form of secularism or materialism, which they invariably attribute to atheism. (Yes, I know that this very contentious idea is certainly wrong, but that’s not the subject of this post.) Few allow that it isn’t disbelief in God but the human capacity for evil expressed through non-theistic dogmatism that is the root cause of the actions they condemn.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to indulge in another long, repetitive argument about this creedal spitting contest. On the contrary. It’s just that sort of endless back and forth on what I believe to be a non-issue that I’m complaining about. So I’ll be brief and to the point.

It isn’t religion or “atheism-induced” dogmatism that causes human behaviour — religion and dogmatism are human behaviours. They are expressions of mental states that lie far deeper in us than the external forms by which they come to light. To blame religion or non-theistic dogmatism for atrocity is as illogical as to blame Brooks Brothers for the banking crisis or Mueslix for eco-terrorism.

Creeds that must be spread at any cost to free mankind from evil or ignorance share the same impulse for power and control, open the same neural pathway to primitive violence, no matter how dissimilar their details are. What important difference is there if one person was burned as a devil-worshipping witch in medieval Europe for having a birthmark, and another person was executed as an intellectual anti-revolutionary in Kampuchea for wearing glasses?

It doesn’t matter whether a true believer — God-fearing, God-hating, or God-indifferent –wields a sword or points a rifle, quotes Leviticus or cites Karl Marx. What matters is the intention to strike, the moral evil of believing that your creed is worth more than my life. It’s that simple.

It really is.