The More Things Stay the Same

November 17, 2015

The more things change the more they stay the same is one of the more depressing cliches but one that seems to always prove true.

I recently stopped at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL while on the road visiting friends in southern Alabama. It’s located across the street from the very church where an infamous bomb killed four children in Sunday School at the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. A monument outside of the class marks the spot where the bomb went off at a church still going strong in 2015. Inside the Institute are countless documents and recreations of what life was like in Birmingham when Police Chief Bull Conner and Governor George Wallace waged war on the black citizens of the city. Pictures of police officers with high pressure hoses peeling the skin off of children. City ordinances forbidding white and black people from playing checkers together. Rusty “colored” fountains adjacent to sparkling “white” ones. If you have even a passing knowledge of basic twentieth century US history much of what you see at the Institute is probably not entirely new but no less important or thought-provoking to see in person. I’ve visited similar museums in Memphis and Atlanta but this one was notable for artifacts from not so long ago detailing the extremity of perhaps the most violently segregated city in the country as well as of the struggle of the Freedom Riders. Also notable are the wings showcasing Richard Arrington Jr.’s administration as the first black mayor of Birmingham and the civil rights timeline extending through to the Rodney King assault as well as featuring civil rights struggles from around the world continuing to this day.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many people walk out of such museums thinking “wow, how far we’ve come”  delusional enough to believe the civil rights struggle is fully resolved and a thing of the past. How many do not connect the dots to the events going on right now in America? An entire wing could be added to the exhibit covering the last 2 years alone. Walk outside of the Institute and connect the dots, it’s not that difficult. Take a look at the black folks begging for money, homeless, in a park full of civil rights statues. Ponder the missing affordable housing and impact of gentrification. Think about the people of color who die today at the hands of corrupt police officers. Think about the way minorities–not only blacks but Latinos, immigrants, the poor and the LGBT–are treated today.

How would Fox News have covered the civil rights struggle? It’s not difficult to imagine them denouncing “King the Communist” or shrieking in loud angry voices why more aren’t outraged at the “war on cops” fought by “non compliant’ blacks in the south. “Fox and Friends” would blast freedom riders and marchers for “disrespecting” Wallace and Connor. How would the rest of us fare? I think it’s obvious–just look how we are faring now with those fighting for rights in our midst today. People like to imagine how proactive and engaged they would have been, marching right along MLK Jr. all while denouncing pretty much everything he stood for today. Most people would have just been silent–maybe horrified at the images of women and children being beaten and arrested but afraid to upset their neighbors and church mates by being “too political”.

I’m just exhausted. I’m sure if anyone of the conservative side is reading right now you’ve written me off on this. That’s fine. I have always tried to empathize, respect differing opinions, and be ever open to learning more about the issue at hand. I value knowledge and diversity and have worked, studied and done my best to grow as a person all my life. I have always written off many of the more heinous viewpoints and -isms as a result of ignorance–people just don’t know any better. Of course fear and greed are often reasons people mistreat others or harbor bad ideologies, but with people I love or respect I have assumed more often than not they simply did not know any better. But here’s the thing–information is everywhere if you care to look for it and compassion is a readily available choice if you care to make it. If you are under the age of 75 or so living in America today and have not been through a horrible situation that might have warped your sensibilities and judgements, you have no justifiable reason to be openly and actively racist, sexist, heterosexist or xenophobic. I say openly and actively because I know -isms are embedded in us, that almost everyone harbors some prejudices even if they wish they didn’t. Depending on where you live and how you were raised these can differ drastically but they are almost always there everywhere in the world. When you, as a compassionate and knowledgeable person become aware of your own prejudices you work on them. But when you, as a person with access to all of the knowledge you could want elect to hate, discriminate or assault another human being because of their race, creed color or sexual identity you are unequivocally immoral.

The furor across social media and even in public discourse over Syrian refugees reaffirms the depressing axiom that the more things change the more they stay the same. After all, the US did turn away the first groups of refugees fleeing Europe during the Nazi rise to power. Most Americans coldly tuning their backs then, as today, were Christians. I’ve been writing on  the relationship between morality and religiosity on this site lately and though this post may seem like a detour  it isn’t. The American response to the refugee crisis perfectly showcases a lack of positive correlation between religiosity and morality. It seems for most people religiosity is good until it conflicts with another belief or desire then it is quietly thrown into the back-seat. People are fleeing war, violence, sexual assault, bombs, starvation and oppression. The Christian response seems like a no-brainer—welcome, serve, care for the weak and oppressed. That’s what the World Council of Churches, the League of Catholic Bishops and Episcopal Migration Services are doing and urging their fellow Christians to do but a shocking percentage of Christians are saying no thanks. I’ve read or heard everything from “Jesus was no wimp who would want us to endanger our families” (as if self-preservation was the number one goal of Jesus) to “we have homeless kids of our own to worry about” (as if you are doing anything to help those children or address the systems that cause their homelessness). Just admit that on this issue, you choose not to follow your religion. You choose to ignore it or reinterpret it. That’s fine. There are secularists and atheists who will work with the religious bodies urging your help instead of you–just think before you try to use your religion to dictate their moral choices in the future.

So as I’ve stressed–I believe religion and morality are separate and distinct with little to no positive correlation between them without politics, geography or another such factor to steer them on one path or the other. Islamic extremists just committed appalling atrocities in Paris. Though their acts violate every basic tenet of their text and tradition let’s not pretend that religion itself was in no way a factor in their decision-making process. It was, it’s just that it was filtered through a specific violent interpretation and implementation taught by an armed political terrorist group. Conversely, Muslims scholars, leaders and teachers all around the world are publicly denouncing ISIS, their theology and their actions. Muslims all around the world from every walk of life are denouncing these attacks and all others like them in the #notinmyname campaign. There are 1.5 billion + Muslims in the world and less than half of one percent of them are violent extremists. Right now in America, millions of Christians are defying the pleas of most Christian religious leadership bodies and are turning a cold heart to desperate hurting people. Those aren’t good stats. It’s ironic that many of those who follow a religion founded on the life and teachings of a Middle Eastern Jewish refugee have no love or compassion for similar people today.

I’ll get back to my series of posts next time by considering what morality even is. It may seem odd that I blatantly denounce the mistreatment of refugees as “immoral” without specifying what that word implies but I assume anyone reading who has the slightest inclination or understanding of “morality” can see immorality on display in national responses right now. If not, I’m not sure I have any time for you anymore anyway.

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In my last post I concluded that religion and morality were two separate and distinct things–that a person may be religious and immoral or secular and moral (or vice-versa). I claimed that religion by itself is morally neutral. It may  be an impetus for the greatest good or the worst evil–but that just reinforces the fact that devoid of politics, geography, bias, psychology, environment and community religion will not spark either extreme. Traditionally, at least in the States, many have argued that religion is necessary to inculcate morality. I claim we must divorce the two concepts completely and that in doing so we can enhance the inter-religious/inter-philosophical conversation and cooperation across the religious-secular divide.
So, if there exists no (or a negative) link between religiosity and morality what is the real purpose and function of religion?
If you to asked the saints, devout or extremely pious of past or present the purpose of religion you would likely receive a multitude of answers rooted in the language of the particular religion of each. But all of these purposes can usually be summarized by students outside of the traditions as either “peace of mind”: salvation, moksha, enlightenment, wholeness and assurance of future entry into paradise, heaven or nirvana–or “justice”: transforming society into an egalitarian land of equality, e.g. under the rule of the Kingdom of God or of the rightly guided Caliphs. One of these purposes is internal, the other is external but both are largely “big picture” or eschatological (end of history) goals. The average, even if committed, individual doesn’t give much consistent daily practical attention to these goals. Sure some hyper-sensitive folks may yearn for the good end of history goals more than others and if rooted in fear plenty of children (and adults) have spent nights scared of hell (I remember those days). Many people hope for a day when they will be reunited with their deceased loved ones and we all want peace of mind–but more than any of these lofty goals what religion has historically done and continues to do best is to provide community.
Religion provides community. It gives people a sense of place, an extended family and a group identity. Think of Judaism, how a people persecuted and pushed across the globe through diaspora after diaspora found a way to intertwine text and tradition to form new communities in each new land they found themselves. Today even atheists with Jewish lineage often identify as Jewish. Think of Muslims who picture themselves as part of the worldwide ummah , a global community who feel the persecution of their sisters and brothers around the globe as if it was their own injury and persecution. Think of a Baptist potluck dinner in a church basement extending into the late afternoon where best friends gather each and every week for generations. Religion provides community. Incidentally there have been studies–particularly in light of the shortage of male partners and therefore birth rates in Orthodox Jewish and Mormon US communities–that suggest the lower apostate rate for females in comparison to males in religious communities is due to a higher emphasis on community by females.
Religion functions as family and community for those without and creates larger frameworks for those with. Religion creates historical chains of community, stretching communities back into history predating even one’s known genealogical family tree. Religion creates the opportunity for action–what one alone cannot do one large body can. On the negative side religion can create an “us” and a “them” in contradistinction. Once again, think of Judaism and how the Bible relates the tribe of Judah and the People Israel as unique and set apart from their pagan neighbors. People have always separated into us and them,  this has served an evolutionary purpose–helping protect the group from those outside who may do harm. Monotheism developed out of tribal religions, like early Judaism, in which the tribe was loyal to their god or gods over their neighbors god or gods. A key development in morality is due credit to Judaism in that the Torah was emphatic on caring for those outside of the tribe (the “stranger”) when that was not an evolutionary or historical  good but rather a moral one. Today religion can often spin “us” and “them” in a polarizing manner. Think of the targets of scorn for many American conservative Christians–Muslims, Atheists and LGBTQ persons (particularly T, transgender, easily the most mistreated and abused group in the world for their relatively small size). Care for the stranger often lapses from group dynamics.

So it’s worth noting–Religion, a morally neutral institution serves primarily to promote and sustain community–another morally neutral institution. Yet the power and action that can come from that community can be tremendously good or terrifically bad. Or it can be bland and moderate or unjust and oppressive.

What serves the function of community in the absence of religion? People tend to congregate into community in unique ways when they uproot from traditional mechanisms and the digital age as allowed this to proliferate even more. Millennials tend to eschew civic groups (Shriners, Masons, etc.) more often than their parents much like they do church. What institutions will arise to replace the old way of congregating? Several years ago I researched a possible book exploring how something like Metal music and culture functions as a religion–I’m far from the first to suggest that as there was a half-joking half serious attempt by some metalheads some years past to get “Metal” listed as a religious identification on the census. But the fact that Metal music explores so many religious concepts, often in derision or protest, and the fact that so many metalheads tend to live their music and identify with it their entire lives functions in much the same way as religion. There are other cultures and ideologies– from Punk Rock to rodeo to atheism to libertarianism–that also function as religion in many ways. But what can truly serve the role of religion in such a way with text, tradition, history and accepted institutions?

Back to the broader topic–if religion is separate from morality and the major function that religion seems to serve is that of providing community and group identity, from whence does morality come? What is morality? Is it a good? Is it a fixed concept? I’ll save that for next post.

For generations in much of the world the two were seen as intrinsically intertwined. In much of the western world this relationship has long been doubted as Europe has grown secular but in the States religion and morality as a package deal has been the normative view and a key aspect of the culture war. A recent study (one not bacon related) has been making the rounds titled when reported (as in The Guardian US) as “Religious Children are Meaner than their Secular Counterparts, study finds“. The study was helmed by Professor Jean Decety, a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago. Decety states she did not set out to study religion’s effect on morality but that she had been studying empathy and sharing and how those values differed across cultures. The data she gleaned, however, led her to publish the study with the conclusion that children in religious homes tend to be “meaner” or less empathetic and altruistic and less likely to share than their secular classmates.

I posted the story on social media and one of my best friends (my lifelong  best friend other than my spouse actually) had several concerns with the study and how it was being reported, promoted and shared. His comments made me realize there are a lot of issues worth unpacking about the study, the implications it has and even the rationale for why it is being shared and gaining traction in the first place.

First of all, lets consider the story itself and its use of “science”, a word which unfortunately in recent years has become a social media buzzword and ideological soapbox where many people draw no distinctions between types of science and competing data sources or take the time to understand key scientific processes or concepts–let alone read original studies versus the filtered media presentation of said studies–before making comments or proclamations on said studies. As a lifelong deep student of religion my study of science came later than it should have and I have only been reading in the field in-depth for maybe 5 years (playing catch up), understanding as much as I can as someone traditionally more at home using the other side of my brain with literature, music, art, philosophy and the humanities. Science and mathematics are fields I have grown to love, but I should have devoted more effort to as a young student. Anyway, this study though done by a neuroscientist ( a “hard” science) seems to be more of a social science experiment (a “soft” science)–correct me if I’m wrong science readers. As such it is a lot more anecdotal than say, chemistry. Furthermore, this is one study of 1200 children from many (but not all) countries almost all of whom are Christian, Muslim or “secular” (all other religious affiliations were statistically irrelevant in this study). There have been other studies, including longitudinal ones following children into adulthood (like Benston’s “California’s Longitudinal Study of Generations) offering similar conclusions linked to this coverage in some of the reporting (as in Forbe’s piece) but before any sweeping “religion makes you less moral” statements can be definitively made this study would need to be repeated and verified multiple times with larger groups, more inclusive groups (Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, etc.) and for longer periods of time (into adulthood).

But…based on just this study and the sources reporting it, what conclusions (if any) can we draw? What is the point of this study in the first place, why report it, why discuss it? I know the friend I mentioned as inspiration for this piece in many ways feels stories like this appear only to cast dispersion on religious folks. I’m sure that is some of it, at least as far as how it is titled and why some share it on social media, etc. I’ve certainly seen this study reported in less magnanimous ways than by the Guardian.

To put my own potential biases up front for readers to be aware, I am a life-long student of religion who no longer identifies as religious. I grew up religious, was very active in different Christian denominations and organizations, studied religion in both seminary and secular institutions and have friends and colleagues of every religious stripe and stride who are the best people I’ve ever known. I believe in understanding religion, promoting religious diversity and inter-faith dialogue and action, and respect legitimate religious belief and expression even when I disagree (as long as that belief and expression does no harm or causes no oppression) but do not personally follow the tenets of any religion. I have lived in many different places (at this point all in the South) and it has been my experience, particularly in my current state, that being religious would be easier professionally and personally for me however. Granted a certain kind of religion/religiousness would be best if I wanted to be most comfortable with my neighbors, business contacts and community but any religious expression (so long as Christian) would serve me well in a community where city hall, business meetings, networking luncheons and public college events all commonly incorporate public prayer, praise and religious proclamations. When the first question many people will ask you is “Where do you go to church?”  a certain type of religiosity is normative and deviance from that can be unacceptable. It is my fervent belief that religion/religiosity is morally neutral–equally capable of inspiring awe-inspiring great good and nauseating terrible evil. Most of my heroes are religious (MLK Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, Jimmy Carter). My journey throughout every corner of religion was exciting, intellectually inspiring and ultimately painful as there are a lot of things I wish I could believe and ways I wish I could be that would make every level of my life more comfortable and perhaps enjoyable, but I believe truth must lead you wherever it leads you painful or not. I also don’t claim to corner the market on truth as a lot of folks I know seem to know truth very closely and are yet religious.

Sorry for the lengthy detour but that should clue you in on any biases I may harbor. So why report on this story? Because in many corners of these United States  “secular” or “atheist” are pejorative terms and the thought of a parent who identifies as such being capable of raising moral children is inconceivable. But if there is no link between key moral virtues such as empathy or altruism and religiosity–even more so if there is a negative link between the two–then yes such parents are more than capable of producing good moral citizens.

Millennials are far less religious than their parents and grandparents. It seems that, however more gradually, the US is following Europe’s path into secular modernity. This in fact may (I believe will) actually work to religions advantage, producing a stronger “realer” Christianity in America devoid of folks who identify as Christian simply because it is politically or socially advantageous to do so. However, if we are to have healthy dialogue across the aisles of religion and secular life then we have to divorce the concept of “morality” from the institution of “religion” and admit that one may have no direct bearing on the other. That is why this study, if valid, is important.

There are variables worth considering in any follow-ups to the study–will opening the study up to  data sources which include all religions prove “empathy” and “altruism” have no (or a negative) link to all religions or just in relation  to monotheistic religions? If monotheistic then Judaism must be a  data source as well–but if it proves true only in Christianity and Islam, what could that signify? Furthermore, how do such studies deal with nominal religious households versus practicing religious households? Throughout most of the world people identify as belonging to the religion they are born into. Many Muslims are simply cultural Muslims and many American Christians who would never in a million years identify as secular (let alone atheist)  are less than Christmas and Easter church goers living lives in which religion plays little practical role. What about “progressive” versus “fundamentalist” religious people? A Unitarian, Episcopal and atheist might have much more in common politically and morally than any of those people would have in common with a Southern Baptist or a Mormon.

Consider all of this so far as a lengthy preamble and introduction to other issues this study and discussion has raised for me. I will leave you with these questions, which I hope to address in follow up posts in the near future.

What is morality? What function does it serve? Is it always a good? Is there an unchanging definitive basis for any morality?

What is the purpose and/or function of religion?

What relationship does (or should) religion have with morality?

Could these issues relate more to majority versus minority, insider vs outsider? E.g., does the majority religion oppress the minority religious due to scapegoating issues that have nothing to do with religion per se?

Bevins

…and call it progress. Or not since those taking this approach view “progressive” as a pejorative. So let’s (as voters, as southerners) all shoot ourselves in the foot and call it conserving our values and “making America great again”.

I am not a current resident of the great state of Kentucky but I now live within a short drive of its border again, it is my home state, and I lived in 4 of its cities and towns over the course of many years so what happens there does interest me. Furthermore what happens there affects folks I care about–family, friends, neighbors, fellow students from college and grad school–and what happens there can signify what may  happen in neighboring states and in the region as a whole.

All of which is preamble to say– last night’s election results are sad. Frustrating. Disheartening. Now, I did not follow this race along its route closely as I couldn’t vote in it and from what I’ve heard Conway primarily ran a negative campaign. I can’t testify to how great or not Conway would have been as a Democratic Governor. What I can say is that a Tea Party favorite like Bevin spells disaster for positive progress. If he can manage to do what he claims he wants and plans to do he will strip Kentucky’s Kynect health insurance program and put thousands out of coverage and even more out of range of affordable coverage. Many of these folks are people I know. What’s insane is that Kynect has been a huge success story for the state of Kentucky and it was brilliant of exiting Democratic Governor Beshear to re-brand “Obamacare” as “Ky Kynect” as most conservative Kentuckians hated and opposed “Obamacare” on name alone but loved it when it was called something else. Well, despite all polls showing Kentuckians favorable view of the health care reform effort on the state level, those folks by and large either voted against their own best interest or failed to show up to protect their best interest.

Bevins is adamant and open on his policy positions–that those LGBT kids get no special protection from bullying in public schools, transgender people are just perverts who cross dress and shouldn’t be able to use a public restroom in peace or safety, tax money needs to fund a Noah’s ark theme park, Ky shouldn’t address global warming, Ky should present “both” sides of the climate and evolution “debates”, public school monies should be diverted to private religious schools, Ky should double-down on coal production.

It’s that last one that won the night. Kentucky is fiercely, rabidly pro-coal. I’ve written on that here before. It’s understandable– there are a lot of people working in the mines of Kentucky and even more working in industries directly tied to the production, distribution and use of earth’s dirtiest fossil fuel. Hell,  an astonishing 92% of Kentucky’s electricity comes from coal despite the fact that nationally we are down to 39% dependency on coal for electricity. Even neighboring Tennessee fuels electricity with only 52% coal so it’s not a question of necessity–it’s the result of intention. Do Kentuckians really think they couldn’t transition to solar, wind and cleaner carbon stop-gaps in the mean time? I know that those in the upper industry harbor no doubts this is possible but they relay the “fact” that this is not so to keep Kentucky dependent on a dying fuel source, a dying economic resource and a dying way of life. There is more coal out of the ground and in reserves around the world than can be safely burned without completely eradicating the current environment. Half of Kentucky–its eastern half–depended fully on coal for generations and when it was gone–along with the mountains, clean water and economy–businesses pulled out and left the communities with no viable economic alternatives. Eastern Kentucky is still struggling to recover from its coal dependency.

Bevins  won on coal and “morality”. A brave candidate would tell the people of Kentucky that like it or not, King Coal is on its way out. National regulations, world environmental standards, cheaper carbon alternatives, advancing technology, and over-production make that unavoidable. Hell, huge chunks of the Western half of Kentucky are following suit with Eastern Kentucky as sink holes and under-mining prevents new businesses safe places to build. A brave candidate would tell the people of Kentucky that to safeguard their future they must be at the forefront of what comes next by investing in the future and being aware of which way the wind is blowing. But if you decry education, strip education of its economic and intellectual currency, pander to prejudice and lowest-common denominator religious hypocrisy and convince those who turn out to shoot themselves in the foot and regain their competitive race to become the nation’s least healthy state then…

Damn.

It hurts to be in the south so often. There are so many good people, so much beauty, by and large great weather and a history of great writers, musicians and civil rights warriors but forces that convince a huge chunk of our populace that all journalism (except what is pre-approved for their consumption) is liberally biased, that science is suspect, that compromise is anathema, that religion can only be expressed in its basest and most judgmental  tone, that equality is threatening, that peace is impossible and that progress is a bad thing are being all to successful here as they have in the past.

Cry Me a River

November 2, 2015

GOP debate

So it seems that the GOP presidential candidates are angry at how they were treated by the CNBC moderators and have not only cancelled their scheduled NBC debate out of protest but also laid down a set of rules and requirements that they must have met before participating in any other debates in the future.

For anyone who tuned into the CNBC GOP debate–which includes a lot of us since even we Democrats tend to watch the Republican debates (a favor rarely returned as I know few Republicans who watched the first Dem debate but, you know, tunnel-vision and excluding the other view has been documented to be more common in conservatives)–it was actually apparent that the moderators let the whole shit show go off the rails. It was by far the worst moderation of the season thus far–which shocks me and pains me somewhat to give Fox News a better review but they did actually handle their debate better.

That being said–bad moderation or not is it really professional of a presidential candidate to whine about mean questions? Or even “silly” questions? Or “hard” questions? If they can’t handle a bad exchange with the press how are they going to handle Putin, Isis or the economy? Granted, journalism should be an independent and open exchange. I really don’t think that the right-leaning CNBC was actually showing bias during the debate however. I think they were trying at times to trip the candidates up–which any journalist will do with a subject they think is being dishonest–and I think they were obviously playing off of the reality show style bickering, bluster and misdirection most of these candidates have stoked and exhibited all on their own thus far and that far too many of the viewers are seeking for the sole purpose of entertainment. The real reason the debate was a failure though was that hardly any of the asked questions were even answered. Every single time a question was asked a candidate instead took their air time to spew bully points, take pot shots at the “liberal” media and spout on about whatever they wanted to talk about except the question being asked.

The real way to “fix” the debates is to give the moderators more control–if they ask Trump (or Carson, Cruz, etc.) a question and that question is not broached within 15 seconds then the moderator should be able to cut their mic and move on to the next person. I did not see this at the Democratic debate–they actually took the time to answer the question even when their answer was painful (Chafee) and they actually engaged each other with facts and ideas.

The GOP cannot handle a quality debate because the current GOP candidates never know their position until a conservative poll or the Koch brothers tell them what their opinion is. Cruz smacks of shady untrustworthiness, Trump spews hate and ignorance at top volume, Carson follows Trump’s lead but does so in a soft-spoken manner, Christie has given up respectability to chase the Trump path as well and most often uses any speaking time to rant about “Socialism” and Hillary, Fiorina has no regard for facts or compassion and the only person on the stage within an arm’s length of respectability seems to be Rubio at this point.

The real problem with the debate is the debaters and their empty, disproved policies, their disregard of logic, fact, history and science and their devolving reality show tantrums. What has happened to this party? Seriously? Conservative didn’t always display itself in the lowest common denominator. I may not have agreed with Reagan or H.W.’s policies but at least you could take them seriously and they could debate in a world of logic and reason.