Tomas de Torquemada & Dick Cheney

Listening to Dick Cheney defend the torture on Sunday, December 14, 2014 edition of Meet the Press put me in mind of a passage I recall reading in the Catholic Encyclopedia some years ago.  What struck me was not that Cheney resembled Torquemada, although he does in a way.

A slight resemblance, I suppose.

A slight resemblance, I suppose.

What stuck me was former Vice-president Cheney’s tone and demeanor.  He might just as well have been reading from the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on The Grand Inquisitor albeit with a little more apologetic gusto.  The article from the Encyclopedia follows.  Read it through.  In speaking of a Dominican Friar whose name is almost synonymous with torture, the Encyclopedia is dispassionate, clinical and absolutely devoid of empathy.

Cheney directly declares that torture works.  Even the Catholic Encyclopedia does not come right out and say torture works, but it comes close with its references to protecting the “purity of the faith.”

From the Catholic Encyclopedia

Tomås de Torquemada

“First Grand Inquisitor of Spain, born at Valladolid in 1420; died at Avila, 16 September, 1498. He was a nephew of the celebrated theologian and cardinal, Juan de Torquemada. In his early youth he entered the Dominican monastery at Valladolid, and later was appointed prior of the Monastery of Santa Cruz at Segovia, an office which he held for twenty-two years. The Infanta Isabella chose him as her confessor while at Segovia, and when she succeeded to the throne of Castile in 1474 he became one of her most trusted and influential councillors, but refused all high ecclesiastical preferments, choosing to remain a simple friar.At that time the purity of the Catholic Faith in Spain was in great danger from the numerous Marranos and Moriscos, who, for material considerations, became sham converts from Judaism and Mohammedanism to Christianity. The Marranos committed serious outrages against Christianity and endeavoured to judaize the whole of Spain. The Inquisition, which the Catholic sovereigns had been empowered to establish by Sixtus IV in 1478, had, despite unjustifiable cruelties, failed of its purpose, chiefly for want of centralisation. In 1483 the pope appointed Torquemada, who had been an assistant inquisitor since 11 February 1482, Grand Inquisitor of Castile, and on 17 October extended his jurisdiction over Aragon.

As papal representative and the highest official of the inquisitorial court, Torquemada directed the entire business of the Inquisition in Spain, was empowered to delegate his inquisitorial faculties to other Inquisitors of his own choosing, who remained accountable to him, and settled the appeals made to the Holy See. He immediately established tribunals at Valladolid, Seville, Jaén, Avila, Cordova, and Villa-real, and, in 1484, at Saragossa for the Kingdom of Aragon. He also instituted a High Council, consisting of five members, whose chief duty was to assist him in the hearing of appeals (see INQUISITION — The Inquisition in Spain). He convened a general assembly of Spanish inquisitors at Seville, 29 November, 1484, and presented an outline of twenty-eight articles for their guidance. To these he added several new statutes in 1485, 1488, and 1498 (Reuss, “Sammlungen der Instructionen des spanischen Inquisitionsgerichts”, Hanover, 1788). The Marranos found a powerful means of evading the tribunals in the Jews of Spain, whose riches had made them very influential and over whom the Inquisition had no jurisdiction. On this account Torquemada urged the sovereigns to compel all the Jews either to become Christians or to leave Spain. To frustrate his designs the Jews agreed to pay the Spanish government 30,000 ducats if left unmolested. There is a tradition that when Ferdinand was about to yield to the enticing offer, Torquemada appeared before him, bearing a crucifix aloft, and exclaiming: “Judas Iscariot sold Christ for 30 pieces of silver; Your Highness is about to sell him for 30,000 ducats. Here He is; take Him and sell Him.” Leaving the crucifix on the table he left the room. Chiefly through his instrumentality the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Much has been written of the inhuman cruelty of Torquemada. Llorente computes

The Inquisitors at Work

The Inquisitors at Work

that during Torquemada’s office (1483-98) 8800 suffered death by fire and 9,654 were punished in other ways (Histoire de l’Inquisition, IV, 252). These figures are highly exaggerated, as has been conclusively proved by Hefele (Cardinal Ximenes, ch. xviii), Gams (Kirchengeschichte von Spanien, III, II, 68-76), and many others. Even the Jewish historian Graetz contents himself with stating that “under the first Inquisitor Torquemada, in the course of fourteen years (1485-1498) at least 2000 Jews were burnt as impenitent sinners” (“History of the Jews”, Philadelphia, 1897, IV, 356). Most historians hold with the Protestant Peschel (Das Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, Stuttgart, 1877, pp. 119 sq.) that the number of persons burnt from 1481 to 1504, when Isabella died, was about 2000. Whether Torquemada’s ways of ferreting out and punishing heretics were justifiable is a matter that has to be decided not only by comparison with the penal standard of the fifteenth century, but also, and chiefly, by an inquiry into their necessity for the preservation of Christian Spain. The contemporary Spanish chronicler, Sebastian de Olmedo (Chronicon magistrorum generalium Ordinis Prædicatorum, fol. 80-81) calls Torquemada “the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order”.

Sources:  MOLÈNES, Torquemada et l'Inquisition (Paris, 1877); BARTHÉLEMY, Erreurs historiques (Paris, 1875), 170-204 FITA, La Inquisición de Torquemada in Boletin Acad. Hist., XXIII (Madrid, 1893), 369-434; TOURON. Histoire des hommes illustres de l'ordre de Saint Dominique, III (Paris, 1746). 543-68; TARRIDA DEL MARMOL, Les Inquisiteurs d'Espagne (Paris, 1807); RODRIGO, Historia verdadera de la Inquisición, II, III (Madrid, 1877); LEA, History of the Inquisition in Spain (London and New York, 1906-08).

Isn’t it interesting how we humans can manage to treat each other so inhumanely from one century to another and rationalize what we do with such aplomb and matter-of-factness. Cheney thinks torture is just fine and makes no apology for it.  They say that history is written by the victors.  Perhaps that is the problem, since the victors seem to have a perennial tendency to reclassify horror into courageous necessity. After all, as the Catholic Encyclopedia implies, Torquemada saved his country.  

Can a Theocracy also be a True Democracy?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Can theocracy and democracy co-exist?  Is it possible to have such a thing as a democratic theocracy? Or is this combination of adjective and noun not a mere oxymoron but a real contradiction in terms?

The terms theocracy and democracy have similar endings.  Both words’ roots are Greek.  In Greek the word “kratia” means power or rule. Thus both theo and demo refer to a type or source of power or rule.  In Greek the word “theos” refers to god or the divine and the word “demos” refers to people or the people.

Theocracy then refers to divine rule or power and democracy to rule or power residing in the people.  In a theocracy, a divinity of some type is not only the one source of governmental authority but also provides the fundamental law which all are to follow.  In a democracy, the people are the source of authority and also the creators of the laws to which members of that state subject themselves.

Simply put, in a theocracy, something is right or wrong (should or should not done) because god says so.  In a democracy, something is right or wrong (should or should not done) because the people say so.  These two terms describe mutually exclusive notions of governmental authority: one divine and the other human.

Both Jesus of Nazareth and Abraham Lincoln, at much different times and places, noted that houses divided against themselves “cannot stand.”  Either governmental authority resides in the people or with god but it cannot be both.

In a democracy, people who believe in a god and seek to live in conformance with what they believe that god requires of them are free to express their opinion and to vote and engage in other forms of public discourse and decision making but they must do so with the understanding that the government in which they are participating is, as Lincoln said, “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

This understanding is a bedrock principle of democracy itself–not of secular democracy, representative democracy or any other adjective used to qualify the noun democracy.  Democracies do not seek to do the will of god.  They seek to do the will of the people.  Individual believers may seek to do the will of a deity but the structure of government in a democracy recognizes only the authority of the people qua people.

Therefore, seeking to place the authority of a god above that of the people is by definition anti-democratic.  In taking this position, I do not want to suggest that a divinity may not function as an authority for a believer.  Nor do I want to suggest that believers should not be faithful to the gods in whom they believe.

All I want to argue is that when it comes to government, democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive terms and that when we muddy the distinction between the two, we do so at our peril and at the risk of liberty.

In America today, there are Christian groups who argue that America is a Christian nation and should not only recognize this fact but also subordinate the authority of the people to the authority of God in matters of government. We are after all, they argue, “one nation under God.”  The same can be said for some Islamic groups in other parts of the world. Elements of Zionism also share this theocratic vision.

If these groups were to hold sway in nations that are currently democracies, the net effect would be to change those countries from pluralistic democracies to theocracies.  A Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist can be a good citizen in a democracy but it is quite another thing for a member of a religious group to try to subordinate the will of the people to that of any particular divinity or religious teacher.  Voting is a viable means of determining the will of the people but largely irrelevant in determining the will of god. Calvin’s Geneva, Vatican City, and Riyadh are one thing and the United States or any other democracy quite another.

Child refugees versus Child Illegal Immigrants

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2It is a long way from Honduras to the US border in Texas:  approximately 1,200 miles.  It is also a hard journey, fraught with danger from bandits, child traffickers, unprincipled coyotes (smugglers), rugged terrain, desert heat, lack of food and water and one that cannot help be marked by the sense of dread that chills the heart of any child alone in the dark of night in a strange place.  What would prompt a child as young as 4 or 5 (some toddlers are reported) to undertake such a journey?  What would prompt a parent to either send his/her child off on such a trip?  Why would these children risk their lives?  Are they just migrating or are they fleeing.  If fleeing, what are they fleeing from?  Are they simply looking for a better life or are they “gone in search of refuge (safety) as the French root of our English word “refugee” implies?  Perhaps these guys are frightening them? gangs 2

Many of the children making their way from central America and especially

I think I would like to flee the murder capital of the world!

I think I would like to flee the murder capital of the world!

Honduras are fleeing the violence that surrounds them everywhere.  Both the United Nations and other Human Rights groups report that Honduras is one of the most violent countries on earth and that young children are at particular risk.  The Guardian reports that the murder rate in Tegucigalpa, Honduras 90.4/100,000–the highest in the world.  Other Central American countries from which children are fleeing en masse are not much better.

Honduras is a violent place.

Honduras is a violent place.

Children are fleeing alone without parents because both they and their parents are afraid.  The administration of George W. Bush recognized that these children fleeing from countries not contiguous with the U.S. were different from those entering the country undocumented from Mexico.  In 2008 President Bush signed the William Willberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Re-authorization Act. This statue required that unaccompanied minors who entered the U.S. from a non-contiguous Central American nation needed to be afforded a hearing to ensure that they were not the victims of child trafficking.  If a child was found to be at risk, he/she was to be resettled rather than deported.

Since the passage of that law in 2008, the number of unaccompanied children fleeing to the U.S. has risen sharply because these children could not be immediately deported, needed to be given a hearing–which typically took years to be completed during which time they could melt into general American society–and were from to time found to be at risk in their home country and granted asylum.

In short, because of a change in our law, Central American children and their parents saw the long arduous and dangerous trek to America to be one way of living a safe life free from the violence that threatened these children daily.  This influx of children at risk is not the result of anything President Obama has done or not done on immigration.

This crisis is the result of the brutality and neglect of those governments/societies in Central American who have failed to nurture and protect their precious children Honduras_childrenforcing them to face death in order to flee death and reach a better level of safety in the U.S.. Even our gun incident ravished schools, pale in comparison to the violence that surrounds and oppresses these young people.

Normal planned and managed immigration is one thing, and we could certainly do a much better job at that. But, responding to the cry of children, fleeing sex traffickers bandits and neighborhood gangs is quite another. Perhaps an embrace and some sort of sanctuary are called for while the conditions under which these children would otherwise live are addressed more directly by the offending countries with the assistance of their neighbors and richer nations like our own.

What are these young Honduran boys learning?

What are these young Honduran boys learning?

Again this situation is not about immigration.  This situation is about children fleeing for their lives and how you and I will respond to them in their time of need. 

Hobby Lobby: an argument against employer-based healthcare

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The recent decision of the United States Supreme Court allowing closely held private for-profit enterprises to limit the medical benefits covered by insurance programs they sponsor for their employees on religious grounds points to one of the weaknesses of our employer-based national healthcare policy. Employer-based healthcare almost inevitably brings the right to freedom of religion into conflict with the right of citizens to healthcare on which the combined human rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” depend.hobby lobby

Freedom of religion and the right to healthcare are not inherently at odds. These rights are only at odds if the provision of one right prevents the free exercise of the other.  In a system in which private employers can be required to violate deeply held religious beliefs in order that others be afforded the right to healthcare, the argument that such an arrangement infringes on religious liberty has some merit.   At the same time, the argument that one person’s exercise of religious freedom burdens the right to healthcare excessively also has merit. In a pluralistic society, like ours, respect for widely differing points of view, both religious and secular, is an important characteristic that allows those who hold even diametrically opposed points of view to live and work together in peace avoiding the evils of theocracy, ethnocracy and other forms of divisive governance.

public safety 1One of the roles of government is the protection of the rights of citizens.  In the U.S., government has delegated the provision of health insurance largely to employers (with exceptions for veterans, the elderly, the poor and other vulnerable members of society).  Employers and employees make contributions to private healthcare plans (insurance companies) that provide healthcare coverage for generally accepted medical needs.This situation can put some employers, and maybe even some employees, in the position of having to contribute funds for medical needs (e.g., contraception) that they regard as offensive to their religious beliefs. Delegating healthcare to the private sector, inadvertently and unnecessarily places the provision of healthcare and the assurance of religious liberty in opposition to one another.

Removing the provision of healthcare benefits from the private sector would liberate business owners and employees from having to pay directly for health benefits that, although legal, are objectionable to them on religious grounds and also provide the basis for a healthcare benefit rooted in scientific and medical data and equally available to all regardless of religious belief.  No one would be forced to pay directly for a specific medical benefit.   Rather, healthcare would be funded through normal taxation (with or without co-payments at the point of service). Debate about the legality of a particular medical procedure would, of course continue, but at least public health itself would move from the private to public domain liberating individuals from any undue burden on their exercise of religious liberty while at the same time ensuring the public availability of all legal medical treatment. 

Public health would be funded like other public safety programs: fire, police,top-public-safety-degrees and numerous other programs that serve the commonweal.




Religious Belief and Public Policy

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Recently, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a bill passed by the Arizona legislature which made it legal for the proprietor of a public business establishment, like a restaurant, to deny service to another person based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  A proprietor who believed that homosexuality; for example, was immoral would have been able to deny service to homosexual people based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  If it had become law, this Arizona statue would have legalized discrimination.

Fortunately, Gov. Brewer acted wisely and the law will not be implementedjan brewer.  This instance, among others, does, however, raise an interesting set of questions about grounding public statues on religious belief.  Those who favored the law argued that not to allow proprietors to decline to serve those they found morally reprehensible on religious grounds was interfering with the Constitutional guarantee of “freedom of religion.”  Proponents argued essentially that free Americans had the right to practice their religious beliefs in the public sphere without interference from the State.

Opponents argued such a statute would violate the principle of the equality of all citizens by denying them access to services on discriminatory grounds.  Framed this way, the situation seems to be one in which we are confronted with two sets of rights that are in conflict with another:  religious freedom, on the one hand and the equal rights of all citizens, on the other.

The question I would like to pose in this brief essay is easy to ask and a good deal harder to answer.  Is religious belief a suitable grounds for public debate on matters of public policy? Typically people belief something to be true or false based on evidence from their experience or other authoritative source; for example, a scientific study or trusted news source.  We believe the source.  We accept what the source says whether that source be our own reason or the testimony of others.

Religious belief has a unique place in the pantheon of belief sources.  Religious belief claims as its source something that cannot be proved to actually exist.  Religious belief is grounded, in one way or another, on the existence of a deity (at least in the Western tradition).  For religious belief to stand shoulder to shoulder with other beliefs, it demands that the existence of the deity (God/Goddess) be accepted.  If God does not exist, than the guidance for human behavior provided by this source, can not have the same weight as other beliefs which are rooted in scientific study and secular philosophical/political reflection on the well-being of all, including the environment.

Without setting out on a discussion of the existence of God, almost all who argue this point would agree that the existence of God can not be proven.  Some may argue that it is reasonable to believe in a supreme being while others argue that it is unreasonable.  Both groups concede that proof for God’s existence does not and will not exist while clothed in “this mortal flesh.”

Thus, to believe in God is to believe something not in evidence.  It is to trust that there is a God. We call this “the gift of faith.” It is making as Kierkegaard said “a kierkegaardleap.”

No leap is required for me to believe or trust in the observation that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or that the earth orbits the sun or that the moon is not made of green cheese.  These things I can believe without leaping–because there is tangible evidence.  Others can observe similar facts about the physical world and from these facts even reason to additional conclusions that also require no leaping. Outside of the realm of faith, evidence and reason rule.  Inside the realm of faith, both evidence and reason are subsumed and made handmaidens of the divine.

For public debate to proceed, all voices need to be heard but not all voices are equally credible.  Religious voices have no special claim in the forum of public debate at least not in the United States where we have a separation of church and state.

There are many who believe that the founding principle of religious belief (the existence of God) is false and not even amenable to empirical study.  Thus, for them, God and his/her principles, however revealed or made know, do not exist and have no authority in the public sphere. How can the non-existent have authority?

If public policy debate is to be meaningful, the interlocutors need to debate in terms that are meaningful to all.  Reason, rational argument and data must of necessity ground these discussions. There are a vast variety of religious systems of belief and, in the US, all are free to worship as they prefer and debate among themselves any topic with reference to any authority existent or not.

Once we enter the theater of public affairs, however, conversation and debate must be rooted in public, secular and not sectarian religious terms.  We must reason together using authority we agree upon in order to accept things like why lying is bad and charity is good, why mercy is preferable to vengeance and why openness of heart is superior to closed mindedness.

Evangelicals will perhaps bridle at this position.  They need not.  They remain free to seek to convert others.  But, when it comes to public debate and the passage of secular law, reason and the common good trumps belief.  Some will protest that the God in whom they believe and reason are not antithetical.  Excellent! In that case,  we can reason together without reference to God and armed with the authority of our own best reasoned judgment on each ethical questions which arises. We will not, of course, always be right but we would not have abdicated our moral responsibility to one another.

Hardworking or Hardly Working

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Listening to today’s political rhetoric, from the left, center or right, it would be easy to get the impression that there are only two types of Americans:  those who are hardworking and those who are hardly working. On the one hand, the rhetoric implies, there is a large group of normal citizens who are by nature hardworking and motivated to move upward through the economic and social strata; while on the other hand, there is a group, not as large as the former, who are by nature not interested in working or spending much effort at all to move up the economic and social strata but are rather content to “leech off” hard workers and beat the system while at the same time burdening it with the cost of maintaining them.

The relative size of these two groups varies depending on where one stands on the political spectrum.  In the political imagination of the left, the size of the group that is thought to be naturally adverse to work is relatively small.  Most people, the left argues, want to work and contribute to their own betterment and to that of society at large. The vast majority of people, no matter their race, creed, gender or national origin, either already are or are, at least, willing to work hard.  The social ascendancy of this group is limited or cut off completely by societal and economic structures. If these limiting structures were changed, those citizens currently held back by these structures would begin to prosper and achieve, what is rather loosely called, the American dream.

On the right side of the spectrum, the group of people not naturally inclined to work hard is thought of as rather large.  Some exceptional and meritorious individuals are in fact naturally hardworking and by stint of that work succeed both economically and socially. These hard workers are the exception not the rule. In this view, the vast majority of people are assigned to a grey area in which the harsh conflictual realities of life force them to choose between working (sometimes very hard) in order not to be overcome by these conditions or collapsing in the face of reality, failing to work hard and ultimately simply depending on others.

In either view, work is meritorious and hard work is a virtue.  In either view, hard work should yield positive economic results. If a person’s economic results are poor, they are either not working hard enough or the positive results of their hard work are not being realized because social/economic structures are preventing their labor from realizing its just reward.

Since hard work resides in such a central place in the national political imagination and working hard seems to stand with other virtues like integrity, honesty, fidelity etc., perhaps we should be clearer about what we mean by the term “hard” in relationship to work and whether the hardness of work is something to admire or avoid.  Perhaps hard work is more social ill than social good?

There are a great many modifiers that can be applied to work.  In addition to hard, work can be challenging, rewarding, interesting, exciting, dull, repetitive, meaningless, meaningful, difficult, easy and so forth.  What exactly do we mean by “hard”?

The New Oxford American Dictionary  (2005) defines “work” as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.”  Work is activity that requires human effort of some sort.  “Effort” is defined, by the same dictionary, as “a vigorous and determined attempt” and as “strenuous physical or mental exertion.” Hard” is defined as something “requiring a great deal of endurance or physical or mental effort.”  Hardworking people are thus people who exert a great deal of effort in a way that challenges their ability to endure that level of exertion over time.

Strictly speaking work is a human activity and is not really done by machines like robots, assembly lines, laser cutters, CAD/CAM machines and so forth.  Devices and systems like these have been developed by human beings in part to lessen the strenuous effort that we are required to exert in order to achieve our ends.  We humans have applied our ingenuity BOTH to lessen the need to exert strenuous effort and to accomplish more simultaneously. From the first tool, to the lever, wheel, plow, boat, wagon, staircase, loom, mill, calculator, computer, MRI machine, we have sought to make life easier, safer and more productive.

We have not been about the business of making life harder and harder but rather easier and easier.   We have had a good deal of success doing this over time.  Life is easier today that it was for our forebears.  Life may be more complicated in many ways, but from the point of view of strenuous, protracted exertion it is less hard and we in the developed (and many parts of the developing) world are not as hardworking as most of those who have gone before us.  In the developed West and increasingly around the world our time and energy have been liberated to devote to things other than protracted strenuous exertion–to work as such.

For many today, the line between what we do because we have to in order to meet our basic needs and what we do because we find it interesting, engaging, challenging, rewarding or simply fun has begun to blur.  Physically speaking, many of us do not exert ourselves strenuously enough and need to take up fitness activities.

By the standards of yesteryear, many of us could be said to be hardly working in the sense that we spend much less of our time strenuously exerting ourselves physically in order to provide, what we take to be, the necessities of life. Many of us do not live in a world where the application of individual strenuous energy in order to supply ourselves and our families like the hunter-gatherer or family farmer of the past is even a possibility.

“Hardworking” suggests a person who endlessly toils the majority of his/her time willingly and steadfastly in order to, at a minimum, sustain and maintain themselves and their families or, at a maximum, proceed inexorably upward economically. “Hardworking” is synonymous with “toiling.”  “Hardworking” is simply a way of saying “toiling” more palatably.

There is an inescapable irony here.  A good deal of human history is the story of   lessening toil, increasing social goods and liberating time for other aspects of human life. Yet, today politicians hardly ever talk about virtuous Americans without the modifier “hardworking.”  Put another way, “toiling” Americans are good Americans and should be rewarded.  Those who do not “toil” are less meritorious and should not be rewarded for that lack of merit.

Would it not be a better thing if we were to reignite the human dream of rising above the need to toil rather than enshrining willingness to toil in the hall of virtues? Work itself can be so many good things that too ready a willingness to settle for toiling (being hardworking) can only impede capturing the sense of meaning, contribution, mastery, creativity, fellowship, purpose and joy work can provide in balance with family, friends and community.

Life without toil is perhaps a Utopian aspiration, but in the realm of aspiration and dream, realism may be much less important than an ideal which grasps the imagination penetrating more deeply into the nature of life and lifting us to an ever greater experience of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. 

If we conjure it, is it real?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2In today’s New York Times, there is an interesting article by Stanford anthropologist T. M. Lurhman entitled, “Conjuring up our own Gods.”  In this article, Ms Lurhman reprises the notion that God is akin to an imaginary friend.  Following the thought of contemporary evolutionary biologists, she suggests that we humans conjure up the notion of God because we are “hard-wired” by evolution to do so and that spiritual practices, like some forms of meditation and prayer (individual or collective), can increase the sense of the presence of a conjured incorporeal entity like a ghost, angel or ultimately God.

The notion of God being a human creation has been around for some time. Freud, for example, argued that God was a projection of our need for a father figure.  In this sense, we create God rather than vice versa.

Without denying or affirming the existence of God per se, reflections on the existence of God of the type that Professor Lurhman raises in her article beg the question of what it means to “exist” at all.

The typical definition of “to exist” means to have objective reality.  What sort of reality is objective?  Objective reality refers to that reality which is not dependent on the mind for its existence; i.e., that reality which we do not only think or believe exists or that multiple people think exists but which is, at least in principle, “there” whether we think and or believe it to be or not. Something which is objectively real has an existence independent of the ideation of a thinker or observer.

Objective reality is often juxtaposed to subjective reality which is that reality that is dependent on the mind or an individual’s/group’s perception for its existence.  There is, therefore, little doubt that God exists subjectively; i.e.,  there are a large number of people who think/believe that such an entity exists.  The same, however, cannot, be said for the objective reality of God.

Those who believe in God believe that God is an objective reality.  They think that God’s existence is not dependent on anything.  The claim the believer makes is that he/she knows that God is an objective reality by subjective means.  They claim to know the existence of an objective reality “subjectively.”

This subjective knowledge of an objective reality is commonly called the “gift of faith.”  The Greek word usually translated as “faith” literally means “trust.”  In short, the believer trusts that what she/he thinks/feels subjectively is objectively the case.

Believers cite miraculous occurrences, purported answers to prayers, tradition (written and oral) and all manner of events serendipitous and not so serendipitous as indicators that their “trust” is well-founded.  As great a thinker as Blaise Pascal, thought that it made sense to live as though God were an objective reality because to decline to believe and be wrong would be catastrophic while believing and not being correct would have no dire consequences.

As human beings we cannot have unmediated and objective knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God.  We can choose to trust that what some of us as a result subjective experience is objectively true.  But, we cannot know whether God is objectively real or not.  All we can do is conjure God. The observation that God’s objective existence, as far as we are concerned, is dependent on our minds does not mean that God does not have an objective existence.  God may objectively exist but we have no way to know.  If we choose to believe, we are trusting in our own conjuring and the conjuring of our forebearers. If we decline to believe, we are only admitting that we cannot know and therefore accept our conjuring for what it is–at best provisional (agnostic) and at worst destructively delusional.

Is refusal to raise the debt ceiling unconstitutional?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. 

While the Fourteenth Amendment, which was in part adopted to allay fears about the good faith of the US government post Civil War, says nothing explicitly about raising the debt ceiling or paying federal employees, it certainly does say that debts incurred legitimately by the United States government are to be paid and that failure to pay those debts is prohibited by the Constitution itself.  A later section of the same Amendment gives Congress the authority to implement this amendment.

On the surface, it would appear that the House Republicans and Speaker Boehner are in the process of acting, or at least threatening to act, unconstitutionally!  It would further seem that if the Speaker declines to do his constitutional duty and allows the country to default thereby throwing the domestic and international economies into chaos that it would well be in the emergency powers of the President to act unilaterally to restore the good credit of the nation.  If President Obama were to exercise his emergency powers, while the far right would no doubt begin a movement for his impeachment, he would be acting in the courageous company of both Lincoln and Roosevelt.

If the House and its Speaker refuse to do their duty and follow the Fourteenth Amendment, the President should call them out on this matter and if that fails muster the courage to assume his emergency powers for the good of the nation and the world economy.

Post Script:

Just finished reading the NY Times and Princeton History Professor Sean Wilentz apparently agrees with me.

American Society & the Fundamental Attribution Error

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Did you ever overhear a conversation between two people discussing the ills our our society that went something like this?:

“Did you hear?”


“They want to raise the minimum wage again.  Small business people are going to suffer and pass all the cost along to you and me!!”

“I know but people have to eat and right now you can’t make a living wage even if you have two minimum wage jobs.”

“They don’t have to work those minimum wage jobs.  They are just to lazy to work hard and get something better.  They have a choice don’t they? Besides look at how many kids they have and none of them with the same father!  They are so irresponsible that they have kids they can’t afford and expect the rest of us to pick up the tab!”

“But, the deck is stack against most of these people.  They are on the bottom rungs of the social ladder and the way our society works it is very difficult for many to even see a way out of the drudgery of their lives.  It’s sad and depressing.  As a society we need to do more to help those with the least among us.”

No way!  This is a matter of personal responsibility and accountability.  There is no such thing as a free ride.  These people simply make bad choices and are too lazy to earn a better living.  They would rather sit around drinking, doing drugs and collecting!”

The conversation sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it?  Most of us have taken either  the blue or green side at one time or another in our lives.  The speaker in blue tends to attribute the economic state of the poor to something in the character or traits of the poor person:  they are lazy, irresponsible and make bad choices.  The speaker in green tends to see the condition of the poor as a function less of their character and more of the social situation which oppresses them.

The person taking the blue position and attributing the condition of the poor to individual internal disposition or character trait is making what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error; i.e., attributing too much weight to individual traits and character and not enough weight to the social situation in which people find themselves and, in this way, blaming the poor internal disposition of the poor for their being poor. We tend to reverse this process for the rich.  In the end, many think, each category, rich and poor get what they deserve, more or less .

Individualistic cultures like the United States tend to make this error more readily that do more collectivist societies.  Across the political spectrum, conservatives make the fundamental attribution error more readily than liberals while the most liberal among us may miss those aspects of social problems which are in fact grounded in the internal disposition of others.

On balance, at least in the West, we have had a significant tendency to blame the “have nots” for not having the internal disposition necessary for success and to laud the “haves” for their supposed strength of character and  internal disposition in favor of hard work.  Assistance to the poor and least advantaged among us is even argued to be an encouragement to further indulge the natural disposition to sloth and debauchery of the poor, while aid to rich, usually in the form of tax breaks, is thought to be providing additional resources to those with the moral character to make the best use of it.

Maintenance and even re-enforcement of the fundamental attribution error presents a major impediment to the resolution of complex social problems which  only worsens as economic disparity increases.  The rich will need more aid and the poor less, as we continue to tilt with the wrong enemy.  As Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s not the people. It’s the situation, stupid.”

Notice that simply by adding the word “stupid” to the sentence above,  I have committed the fundamental attribution error myself.  It is way to easy and natural a sin to commit and should have be included in any list of deadly sins.  Like any sin, this sin too must be repented of by creating a new mental situation in which we forgive ourselves our missteps, humble ourselves before the complexities of existence  and open ourselves to a more profound realization of how each of our life situations, and the relationships we have in those situations, impact both who we are in any given moment and who we, as a people, will become in all the moments to come.

A short graphical summary of the attribution error.

A simple example from a work situation.