What You Should Think About Religious Freedom

December 10, 2007

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

–Sinclair Lewis

Last week I happened to catch Mitt Romney’s speech on faith in politics. As a contender in a partisan primary election, it came as no surprise that his message was carefully tailored to maximize its appeal to 21st century Republican voters. His embrace of diversity was not so broad that it included agnostics and atheists. Yet there seemed to be some sort of attempt to establish a theme following from the peculiar utterance, “there can be no religion without freedom and no freedom without religion.”

In the spirit of the season, I suppose Governor Romney should be granted a measure of charity. It could be said that religious practices dictated by force of law or other threat are not authentic. Given the choice between being crippled by stretching on the rack or professing my devotion to the faith of Torquemada, I suspect I would muster an articulate and convincing plea for spiritual salvation. Yet the devotion in those words would not reflect a devotion in my heart.

Christian practices supplanted pagan traditions in many parts of the Old World as a direct result of authorities wielding force to compel participation. Secret reverence for suppressed deities, nature spirits, etc. provides evidence that generations often passed between the forced imposition of Christianity on a community and widespread sincere belief in Christian doctrine. The underground survival of pagan practices, even in the face of the original witch hunts, reveals this to be the case.

Yet cannot sincere faith continue even where religious practices are forbidden? Are Chinese Christians, conducting informal services in private homes (much like the earliest generations of ancient Christians) not true believers? Wherever there is a state-mandated religion, or even state-mandated atheism, divergence from compulsory faith may be a genuine manifestation of faith. Religious practice might not be as easy or comfortable (or materially lavish) as it would otherwise be. Yet I believe some great figures in religious history would question if easy comfortable religious practice was truly better than adherence to a challenged faith.

For that matter, what is to be said about Christians in “liberated” Iraq? Saddam Hussein was a bona fide tyrant designated by some American leaders as a threat worthy of much more attention and resources than Osama bin Laden. Yet under Hussein’s rule, Iraq’s Christian minority peacefully coexisted with the Muslim majority. Christian churches were rarely vandalized, services generated little hostility, and the Vice President of Iraq took Communion on a regular basis. Now, years after George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” there are few parts of Iraq where civilians are not sure to draw persecution for overtly Christian activities.

The plight of Iraqi Christians provides us with a useful lens for scrutinizing both Mitt Romney’s remark and Republican rhetoric in general. Clearly “freedom” is not as simple a concept as it is made to seem by most political speech today. Saddam Hussein did use brutal methods, including techniques borrowed from Joseph Stalin’s playbook, to govern a nation harboring powerful cultural rifts between various Iraqi groups. Even so, he made good on a commitment to religious freedom in a part of the world where tolerance for other faiths is in short supply.

Perhaps there can be no genuine religious devotion without the freedom to choose the particulars of faith. Yet clearly religion can thrive in the general absence of civil or economic liberties. To suggest otherwise seems to reveal a failure to understand the nature of freedom, if not also the nature of religion. Of course, the flip side of Governor Romney’s remark is an even more dangerous misunderstanding. In declaring that there could be no freedom without religion, he reinforces the bogus Red Scare narrative holding that godlessness is a stepping stone to totalitarian governance.

There is much debate over the true religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like the Freemasonry that served as a social network for many of them, individually they at least endorsed the existence of a higher power. In some instances this can be connected with strict observance of the practices of a particular sect. Yet for most of those hallowed men, no particular church attendance or other ritual behavior was regarded as a prerequisite to a life of virtue.

Most of them knew full well that great evil could be done in the name of Christ. Puritans and other radicals, not at all unlike modern Afghani Taliban, managed to set bad examples that went beyond the torture and murder of alleged “witches.” This nation was forged with keen sensitivity to the excesses of religious zeal and the pitfalls of intractable dogma propagated from the pulpit. Most of the Founding Fathers also followed suit with other Enlightenment thinkers in recognizing that great good can be done based on moral beliefs that exist independently of religious teaching.

Collectively, their words and their deeds both reveal the hope that this nation might be full of good acts and benefit from good leadership as a function of rational processes rooted in philosophy and science, not theology and scripture. After all, if a religious teaching illuminates a genuine moral lesson, then that lesson will stand on its own merits without any need for mortals to invoke the purported stance of deities on the subject. This reasonable restriction on moral thinking only seems weak or otherwise inferior to people who cannot overcome an attachment to unreasonable beliefs.

It is no more sensible to translate a personal incapacity to recognize achievements in the field of non-religious thinking on morality into disbelief in their usefulness than it would be to translate a personal incapacity to understand calculus into disbelief in the usefulness of rocket science. We may thrive without being a nation of philosophers just as we thrive without being a nation of mathematicians. Yet when the value of secular morality is rejected outright, the possibility of worthwhile social progress is also rejected. Non-religious thinking on morality is the only way any diverse society can go forward without instituting a state religion.

Even if one were so senseless as to simply eliminate or forcibly convert the millions of Americans do not view Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind, Christianity itself is not a monolithic entity. Some sects really would ban alcohol, music, dancing, immodest attire, etc. Others impose strictures like a prohibition against military service or a refusal to acknowledge the dissolution of marriages. Many of the moral lessons dear to the hearts of some Christians are at odds with moral lessons dear to the hearts of other Christians.

In any working pluralist society, secular moral reasoning provides a common ground where no conclusion is cast aside but that it fails to make good sense in universal terms. In the late 18th century, among many different communities founded by European religious outcasts, it was especially clear that disaster would follow from letting articles of faith drive a national agenda. Our fundamental principle of religious freedom is as much a concession to practical reality as the embrace of a noble principle. A significant element of America’s success story is this independence of governance from ecclesiastical pressures.

The circumstances that drove Governor Romney to that particular speech paint a picture of this invaluable national asset under assault. For too long, to great excess, America’s political leaders have permitted faith and governance to become muddled in the public life. Countless citizens fail in their civic duty by embracing a falsified religious duty to evaluate candidates on religious grounds. This may be less a de jure violation of the 1st Amendment than President Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, but the nebulous trend is clearly a greater threat to authentic Constitutional governance.

If the Bible has any place in civic discourse, perhaps it should begin with these words attributed to Jesus himself — “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Many centuries before the Revolutionary War, there was a sensible (and to most Christians sacrosanct) call for separation between civic life and religious life. Like all religious conclusions worthy of advancing in political arenas, this belief stands strongly even when supported exclusively by secular arguments.

A religious commitment is innately a personal commitment. Within communities of faith, it may well also be a public commitment. Beyond communities of faith, in a broader society where many different faiths must coexist (ideally in peace,) dedication to religious teachings must give way to government action framed by enlightened secular moral thinking. By all means, do your best to live your private life and your church life as your faith demands. Insofar as you may have an American political life, your nation demands reason, neither supported nor encumbered by religion, should guide your words and deeds.

What You Should Think About Prohibition

December 5, 2007

“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse — the existence of a hunted man.”

–Al Capone

When a friend asked me what today was, my response of “Cinquo de Decembero” was not only grammatically incorrect, but it also missed the point. Among other things, December 5th is Repeal Day. No longer a day of widespread national celebration, it nonetheless seems like a good cause for it. The prohibition of beverage alcohol, a.k.a. Prohibition, was one of the biggest policy disasters in the history of American democracy.

Unlike slavery, disenfranchisement of women, capital punishment, etc., this was a distinctively American creation. Guided by overwrought thinking on morality, the citizens of the United States collectively and deliberately volunteered to live in a dry nation. This position is not without merit. Though the cultural movement’s backbone was a camp revival movement analogous to modern megachurches, the rational secular case was not weak either.

The neurochemistry of alcoholism remained mysterious, but the hopeless drunk was an archetype with a venerable history. Even many people who were not chemically addicted to alcohol still had complex feelings as unfortunate experiences cast shadows on memories of happy celebrations. Used responsibly, it is a delightful substance. Used to great excess, it is a poison that sickens. The argument that it posed a problem in need of a solution was not ridiculous. Unfortunately, neither science nor policy were evolved enough to offer constructive responses.

The American people faced a choice between banning this intoxicating vice outright or taking no substantial action. Even in the relatively short life of our culture, alcohol enjoyed an entrenched position. When a debt-ridden federal government sought to expand by taxing liquor production, unrest mounted until a minor armed rebellion occurred. In regions where there was little population density or infrastructure, a working still might be a standard fixture at every farm, and whiskey might serve as a medium of exchange. Economic stresses on frontier agrarians may have motivated the rebels, but a substance already integrated into many European traditions had a place of prominence in early American history.

Some popular drinking establishments in colonial cities served as informal meeting places for the Founding Fathers and other revolutionaries. Many early American warships kept alive the English custom of rationing a full gallon of beer per day per sailor. Several unorthodox Christian sects banned the consumption of alcohol. Yet the first purported miracle of Jesus involved transforming water into wine. Generally speaking, the majority of the faithful, and Americans in general, found this form of drink acceptable.

Thus the association between charismatic evangelists and Prohibition seems counterintuitive at first glance. There were other social forces driving the political change, but American attitudes were shaped significantly by the hyperbolic demonization of alcohol in popular sermons. It was a vicious cycle. Hostility toward alcohol would increase support for a particular ministry while increasingly influential religious leaders would strive to outdo one another in expressing that hostility.

To hear them tell it, all other evils sprang from an excess of drink. Having little experience with, or even precedent for, controlled substance enforcement, there was little forethought about the practical limitations of such a policy. As the public swallowed the hysteria of the temperance movement, lawbreaking would be required to swallow any significant concentration of ethanol. Practically no one so inclined would give up the activity on account of the law.

Yet an already problematic situation was made worse by the change. Widespread demand for an illegal good created an enormous revenue stream for criminal organizations. Legitimate industry, shipping, and retail was replaced by covert production, smuggling, and illicit commerce. There was tremendous economic upheaval as some communities lost major businesses while others gained well-funded criminal networks. The infrastructure of the black market quickly expanded to accommodate a legally dry yet relentlessly thirsty United States.

Yet the social harm went well beyond mobsters and bootleggers. Millions of Americans would come to associate pleasure or relief with breaking the law. Crackdowns by zealous enforcers would intensify urban violence. The need for secrecy prevented useful regulation of alcohol production and distribution. Responsible use more frequently gave way to severe drunkenness, lasting addiction, or even blindness from poison as concentrated beverages of unreliable composition replaced properly labeled and comparatively safe products.

So on this day in 1933, nearly thirteen years after the ban took effect, it once again was legal to sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. While this horrible law was enforced, what was accomplished? Prison populations expanded. Debilitating medical conditions became more numerous. Respect for law and order was diminished. Social connections between career criminals and basically honest citizens were much more widespread. In short, Prohibition was a monumental failure.

So there is cause for celebration in Repeal Day. On the surface, it is an excuse to drink. On a deeper level, it is cause to honor the capacity of democratic governance to correct its own mistakes. It may be that campaigns of rabble-rousing can stir political passions to the point that self-inflicted disaster follows. The intensity of these passions may ruin countless lives and even leave scars on our Constitution. Yet they can be reversed. All that is required is the clarity to see through the hyperbole of blustering moralists plus the will to vote for leaders able to express that clarity in both word and deed.

This sense of hope is all the more important as we live in times when it seems like the hyperbole of blustering moralists is an insurmountable force in American politics. As the titans of talk radio and the panorama of partisan media outlets express messages more and more divergent from evident facts, it can be heartening to know that there is some basis in American tradition for siding with the facts. As a nation, we are not impervious to harm. Yet we are also not incapable of healing.

Beyond the general goodwill Repeal Day should inspire, there is also a specific message. Vice prohibitions from coast to coast invariably do as “the” Prohibition did — address a problem merely by driving it underground and increasing related harms. Several substances banned by law today are much less addictive and toxic than alcohol. Yet even the most pernicious vices are still not consistently reduced by legal prohibition. In the realm of vice, translating the morality of temperance into an outright ban is never a constructive act.

It is fair to argue that many vice behaviors are problematic. By its nature, gambling will always wreak a measure of economic havoc. Prostitution poses serious problems in the realm of public health. Like caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; many banned or restricted substances raise health issues to varying degrees. Yet crackdowns, from the American War on Drugs to the routine execution of minor opium traffickers by the Chinese government, generate misery without accomplishing the social good misinforming moralists cite as their purpose.

Today the influence of charismatic preachers and passionate suffragettes is replaced by that of popular pundits and pandering politicians. Getting “tough on crime” is an effective way to get applause at a rally, though vice crackdowns typically serve increase the wealth and influence of criminal organizations. Our record-setting prison population, along with epidemics of medical emergencies and the direct cost of enforcement activities, amounts to so much waste as to generate significant economic drag.

Repeal Day gives us cause to think happy thoughts about a a political accomplishment that took effect in 1933. Yet it also gives us cause to ask why it has not become the first of many. Similar political follies continue to make criminals of millions of Americans while doing much more to obstruct than support useful activities like regulation of vice commerce, treatment of vice abusers, and assorted other harm reduction strategies. We can do better. We know we can do better. So when next you take a little tipple, have a toast to Repeal Day, then resolve yourself that we should do better.

What You Should Think About Existentialism

November 30, 2007

“In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.”

–Franz Kafka

In some circles, existential philosophy has the reputation of an angry teenager. Yet that reputation is different in crucial ways from the “nobody understands me” cliché of adolescence. The trials and tribulations of a typical experience with puberty are made to seem more intense by a host of physical and chemical changes. Little by little, young people must cope with a range of adult issues for the very first time. Like teenage acne, teenage angst is unsightly yet also perfectly natural and well understood by adult outsiders, most having endured it themselves.

By contrast, many critiques of existentialism do not stem from any sort of genuine understanding. It is one thing to have passing encounters with notions like individualism and uncertainty. It is a much different thing to delve into the profundities of the human condition without any ideological safety blanket. Many are the clumsy critics, mauling great works of existentialist thought with interpretations bereft of nuance. Rather than embark on a lifelong journey of learning and personal growth, they wallpaper over great mysteries with conformity and faith.

Understanding existentialism begins by understanding the futility of asserting useful absolute knowledge. We can only be ourselves. Even much of what we know of ourselves comes through flawed perceptions and imperfect communications. All the knowledge we possess of entities beyond ourselves is also a product of those perceptions and communications. Then there is the ever-present prospect of faulty inference.

To uphold any teaching as beyond dispute is to assert inhuman perfection exists within human belief. Yet this process does not end where it begins. Accepting the general limits of human understanding is a major step toward transcending the limits of any specific tradition or doctrine. Insofar as existentialists have any particular aim, it is to liberate the human mind from the circumstance of life as a moral marionette. However uncomfortable a question with no answer may be, it has clear advantages over dedicated entanglement in the threads of popular false narratives.

When existentialist ideas were emerging in the 19th century, even ivory towers were populated predominantly by people convinced that questions of morality yielded to certain answers rooted in traditional beliefs. To people firmly anchored in a particular religious or cultural worldview, it is unpleasant to confront the suggestion that life is packed with unknowns and unknowables. From Apollo’s chariot to literal interpretations of Genesis, it seems human nature to favor even outright implausible narratives over comfortable coexistence with the unknown.

Much of existentialist thought is concerned with philosophical deconstruction. This is no haphazard obliteration of all that has come before. Martin Heidegger, among others, favored the term “abbau.” Perhaps the best metaphor for this process involves the architecture of a growing city. To deliberately level the entire place would be enormously harmful. Yet selective demolition of edifices that are not useful in the present is an essential activity that clears space for new projects that serve new needs.

Abbau offers us a minor paradox in that it is at once destructive and constructive. Just as decrepit brick buildings are best dismantled to make way for towers of glass and steel, invalid or obsolete ways of thinking are best abandoned so as to make way for more realistic and useful beliefs. It is a creative form of destruction, as the absence of dogma and falsehoods is itself a phenomenon worthy of creation. It also facilitates further constructiveness to the degree that accepting uncertainty establishes a foundation for later acceptance of novel information.

Existentialists are often accused of discarding all of tradition in order to embrace amoralism or nihilism. Yet this accusation can only be born from some simple-minded interpretation of philosophy. If anything, existentialists encourage the pursuit of knowledge about other moral and philosophical beliefs. After all, it is dogmatic thinking that causes that the vast majority of human thought to be discarded as heterodox. It becomes much less difficult to assimilate the vast diversity of worthwhile human wisdom after recognizing the profound limitations of all human wisdom, including those beliefs one holds most dear.

Centuries earlier, the dawn of astrophysics prompted ecclesiastical authorities to persecute, even kill, people guilty of no greater heresy than challenging official church doctrine on the nature of heavenly objects. Thus it should come as no surprise that existentialist writings condemning absolute faith in religious morality provoked, and in some circles continue to elicit, incendiary hostility from devout worshipers. The rise of secular governance, especially Western civilization’s embrace of free speech as a human right, protected men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard from state-sanctioned reprisals for controversial publications.

Those two individuals have a peculiar part to play in the story of existentialism’s rise. Both struggled with inner demons even as they displayed outright genius in the analysis of human morality. If there is any real link between nihilistic brooding and existentialist philosophy, it is not in the actual message of existentialist philosophers but rather in the darkest moments of human drama endured by its pioneers.

Neither of them actually espoused nihilism. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian who observed (as is also apparent today) that a vast gulf divides the teachings of Jesus from the deeds of those most vocal about acting in his name. Yet Kierkegaard was also an existentialist. He granted that his faith was a personal choice rather than a logical conclusion, and he never lost touch with an inner struggle between faith and doubt.

By contrast, Nietzsche leveled many powerful broadsides at the core of religion. His command of religious history conspired with a rapier wit to make his works especially provocative. Even as he wrote about the folly of being certain in beliefs, his literary voice conveyed a merry prankster’s boldness. Traditional thinkers were insulted enough to see sacred teachings linked to the ancient myths from which they were so clearly derived. Adding ridicule to the mix helped to shake some readers out of mental malaise even as it afflicted some critics with obsessive hostility.

To some degree there is a link between Buddhism and existentialism. Some Buddhist teachings promote stark honesty regarding the human condition.  Others emphasize the importance of arriving at beliefs as a continuous process of searching for personal enlightenment transcendent of any established doctrine.

Yet existentialism is no religion. In fact, it actively discourages the kind of orthodoxy that comes with most organized religious activity. The central lesson existentialism teaches regarding religion is that whatever wisdom priests and scripture may contain should be given due consideration right alongside wisdom that contradicts the assertions of clerics and holy texts. The search for insight is also a search for the will to let go of the false security provided by attachments to tradition, faith, conformity, nationality, etc.

Existentialism does not offer a path to the easy satisfaction of transcending doubts. This is good, because that easy satisfaction is the progenitor of dangerous zeal. By acknowledging that the human condition simply does not permit an absolute escape from the unknown, existentialism offers a means to become comfortable with abundant mystery. It shines light on the illusory nature of the comforts of dogmatic belief. By acknowledging the real limits of human knowledge, the stage is set for a rebellion against tradition.

Through this process of rebellion, guided by awareness of human limitations, it becomes possible to constantly refine one’s own beliefs, moral and otherwise. Few people find it controversial to assert that lifelong learning is better than settling for an outlook firmly fixed long before life’s end. Yet few also understand just why and how an adaptive personal approach to morality has more to offer than an inflexible doctrinal approach.

Existentialist philosophy offers a long, and occasionally absurd, journey to the frontiers of human understanding. Still, it seems unsound to me to avoid this journey. Attributing infallibility to any particular tradition or teaching can only retard personal moral growth. If there actually was a creative thought process driving the birth of the universe or the development of its inhabitants, it seems clear that this process left human beings with the capacity to think for ourselves. With or without a God watching over us, it seems better to exercise that capacity for moral reasoning than to settle for uncritical adherence to beliefs promoted by others.