an imaginary war on the imaginary

By: Derek Dyson

“There’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media.” – Newt Gingrich
The recent debates leading up to today’s Republican primary in New Hampshire have featured an alarming new talking-point that seems all-too-familiar in the lexicon of the far-right . A “war on religion” or more importantly the Obama administrations “war on religion” has been mentioned multiple times over the last few days. Much like the “war on Christmas” or the “war on drugs”, this war seems to be nothing more than a political scare tactic lightly veiled as a legitimate social concern.This issue is so dire that some candidates have even went as far as calling the Obama Administration the most secular administration in the history of the Republic (if only we were so lucky). But is this really the case?

This alarmist outlook on the secularization of America is nothing new. Beginning in the early Reagan years (some actually argue as far back as the Johnson administration) there has been an active pursuit by those on the right to distort our nations history; all in an attempt to prove that America was in fact founded as a “Christian Nation”. This, despite a preponderance of evidence pointing to the contrary.

Take for example one of our nations founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. Those on the right have attempted to use phrases found in the document such as “natures god” and “endowed by their creator” as proof of their hypothesis.  The problem with this is that it completely overlooks, not only the context of those phrases, but more importantly the deeply held philosophy of its author, Thomas Jefferson.

By all accounts, Thomas Jefferson was a Deist. To him, “natures god” was another way of describing the empirical universe that surrounded him. Not to say that he didn’t believe in a god of some sort, but he in no way believed in a personal god or a god of the Abrahamic tradition. That is, he refused to believe that there was a heavenly father figure that spent time answering prayers or supernaturally intervening in the lives of humans in any way.

Not only did he ascribe to a natural “god” akin to that of Einstein’s, but he also despised religion and the corruption found within religious institutions. In a letter from 1816 he writes “My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there”.  This quote lends a lot to his views on the the authority of the church, but what about the authority of the bible?

Well, if you ever get a chance to make it to the Jefferson wing of the Library of Congress be sure to take a look at his personal bible. In it you will find no miracles. No virgin birth, no water to wine, no resurrection. This is because he cut them out. He literally took a razor blade to his copy of the New Testament and removed the “ignorance, absurdity and untruths” held within. He simply cut out the myths.

The other document constantly quoted by the right on this matter is of course the Constitution. This 222 year old document is the oldest of its kind, written by some of the brightest Enlightenment figures in our nations history. Immense thought and effort was put into every word during its drafting. So much so that only 27 amendments have been made to date. Of those, surely some of them mention Jesus or at least Christianity?

Actually, no. Not at all. The only real mention of religion in the entire document is made to ensure that you have the freedom to practice (or not practice) any faith you choose, and that no single religion or religious affiliation could be a prerequisite for holding public office. This is because its drafters, men like John Adams and James Madison, knew all too well of the horrors found within European governments and the power struggles they continuously had with the church and it’s leaders.

There is another important document from the early days of the republic that those on the right conveniently leave out of this debate. In 1797 congress unanimously ratified and then President John Adams signed into effect the Treaty of Tripoli. In this two page document you will find the phrase “As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion…”. Historians say the phrase was intended to ensure the Muslims of the Barbary Coast that they shouldn’t fear a holy war from the United States.  Although this document is not as important as say The Constitution, it does lend credence to the fact that our founders saw a definite separation between church and state.

So, putting the Republicans alternate history lesson on the founding of the country behind us, what merit (if any) do the current Republican candidates hold on the assertion that the Obama administration is waging a “war on Christianity”? Basically, they only have a couple of policies.

Obamas healthcare plan is in the forefront of this debate because it denies federal funding for religious health institutions that refuse to provide contraception to women. In their view, this denies their first amendment right to free speech, in that It keeps them from openly practicing aspects of their faith.

The problem with this outlook is that from the Obama Administrations stance, it has nothing to do with a war on religion. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the Federal government funding potentially harmful religious practices that could deny things like birth control pills and basic healthcare to a section of the female population that may have no other alternatives.

No one is saying the Catholic Church needs to be handing out Plan B from the confession booth. What they are saying is that if you are going to be a hospital or a pharmacy that receives federal funding, you can’t deny a basic health-care product or procedure from a patient for purely religious reasons.

To me this seems to be more of a slight stint of rationality than a “war on religion”, but I wouldn’t expect those on the right to recognize this.  After all, this is the same supposed “small government” party that gave Catholic missions groups over 200 million dollars in 2004 to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa.  That’s close to a quarter of a billion dollars of federal tax dollars to a group who refuses to recognize the importance of condom use and instead focuses on an abstinence only approach to combat AIDS.

I’m assuming the American public basically funded a soul saving missions trip for the Catholic Church since they obviously weren’t focusing on curbing the AIDS epidemic. A mandate that I can guarantee would not have been backed by any of the founding fathers.

The point here is that President Obama is not anti-religion or even anti-Christian. He’s simply just not an Evangelical zealot and this scares the shit out of the conservative right.  They can continue to paint his administration in this light if they choose, but i like to think that eventually genuine, rational thinking will win out in the eyes of the American public.

The reign of the Evangelical is on the decline politically and socially. Today more college aged Americans identify as Atheist or Agnostic than any other generation in the last 100 years.  More people are getting fed up with the ties between political leaders and their corporate interests (which includes religious lobby’s) every day and many believe we are finally on the verge of a social/political upheaval.

This “War on Religion” is an imaginary war. It’s propagated by neo-cons and religious zealots in an attempt to rewrite the history books of this nation and marginalize the effectiveness of the current President, nothing more.

As the far right continues to push irrational and highly polarizing ideas into the public spectrum, they too will continue to ignore the issues that are truly pressing for most Americans.  Things like education and the economy will take a back seat to their imaginary wars and eventually we will reach a breaking point.  The longer these true issues are ignored the greater the backlash will eventually be and I for one will be cheering on that backlash every step of the way.

All Stem Cells Go to Heaven?

By: Derek Dyson

In March of 2009, as promised, President Obama lifted an 8-year ban on embryonic stem cell research that had previously been imposed by the Bush Administration. This ban stopped labs from developing new cell lines for research and effectively put American scientists a decade behind the rest of the world. This is because they were now forced to derive stem cells from other sources (skin cells for instance), which proved to be an arduous and inefficient method to accomplish a task that had already been done effectively (through the use of embryos) for many years. In August of 2010 a federal court halted Obama’s executive order, citing the “Dickey-Wicker” rule that Federal Funds cannot be used in any research that will lead to the destruction of human embryonic cells. Finally, last July the case was dismissed and federal grant money was again made available to American Colleges and research institutions.

When President Obama originally signed the Executive Order in 2009 he also ordered the White House Office of Science and Technology to “Restore scientific integrity to government decision making”.  Why exactly do we need to “restore” the scientific integrity of a nation that put a man on the moon and developed the Internet?  It’s no secret that scientific literacy in America is on the decline.  After all, more people in this country believe in ghosts than believe in (or understand) the concept of evolution.  In a society that is so dependent on science and technology, how (or why) are so many Americans completely out of touch with even the most basic of scientific principles? Why do so many Americans with a rudimentary understanding of something like climate change, adamantly disagree with an international community of experts on the subject?  I would certainly say that education is a big part of it, but I think more at fault is cultural bias.  A persons Philosophy (political and religious) is a likely determinant of their stance on many scientific issues. The problem with this is that science, more importantly the scientific method, is inherently unbiased and fully dependent on verifiable evidence. It’s dependent on the facts. When a person denies these facts because it interferes with their personal worldview, there is a logical disconnect between their beliefs and reality that needs to be addressed.  Religious conservatives and their stance on stem cell research is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Embryonic stem cells are basically builder cells found in human embryos at very early stages in development. The possibilities for these cells are limitless at this point, as many scientists predict major advancements in the cure of human diseases and other human insufficiencies as a direct response from the research in this field. Although close to 60% of Americans believe that this research is vital, many on the political and religious right have made attempts to stop advancements in the field altogether. This is because they believe the destruction of a human embryo is tantamount to murdering a human being.  In their minds, a human embryo is a life and presumably, among other things, contains a “soul”. On its outset this may seem like a valid and meaningful argument from their prospective.  As it turns out, it is anything but.

A majority of the people who oppose embryonic stem cell research assume that a human embryo (this is a female egg at the point when a sperm cell penetrates the wall of the egg) is the full equivalent of an actual human being, solely because it has the necessary genetic makeup to “potentially” become a living, breathing person.  This outlook shows a complete lack of knowledge on the subject of human development and an obvious lack of critical thinking. If the potential to become a human is the determining factor, their argument has no validity. Take for instance a fertilized egg (an embryo) sitting in a Petri dish at a fertilization clinic. If this fertilized egg sits in a freezer for years waiting to be used, is it a human that whole time?  Now lets say that one of those embryos (or more likely a whole slew of them) is injected into the uterus of a prospective mother with fertility issues.  If any of those embryos fail to implant into the uterus of the host female, then those embryos have absolutely no potential to become a human being. They will simply be flushed down the toilet (literally). To take this one step further, unless an embryo implants into the uterus of a fertile and healthy female and then extends onto a journey that will entail a myriad of other decisive factors leading to child birth, then that embryo will never actually become a fully developed human being.  If you are concerned with the lives of these embryos, then you should be outraged at how many of them are being flushed at fertility clinics on daily basis. Transversely, the current statistics concerning fertility and modern medicine should also outrage you to the point of taking political action.

A study done by the Presidential council on biomedical ethics in 2004 puts this whole issue into perspective. They found that of all eggs fertilized by sexual intercourse, only 49% will actually implant into the uterus of the female host. This means that half of all human embryos (potential humans or souls) are naturally aborted within the first month of fertilization. Of those that do implant into the uterus, only 67% will actually give rise to a human being, so out of 100 fertilized eggs only 49 will implant and of those 49 only 33 will result in a birth.  If a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a human being, then nearly 70% of all humans are murdered while in their mother’s womb. Ironically, if you believe that these embryos are “lives”, then this would make God the single most successful abortionist in human history. Especially when considering the thousands of years prior to modern medical advancements that have curbed these numbers. With this in mind, one would assume that The Right would be just as outraged at the vast number of naturally “destroyed” embryos as they are with the ones lost to stem cell research and to things like Plan B and medical abortions. One would assume that they would also spend millions of dollars setting up interest groups and lobbying congress to fund research on increasing fertility rates. As we can tell by their actions, Conservatives are not actually concerned with the large number of lost embryos or the potential humans they pretend to represent. What they are concerned with is a political stance.  One that is an outright attack on not only the advancement of science and reason, but also on human sexuality and the reproductive rights of women among other things.

Another way to look at the flawed logic of a stem cell research opponent, is to discuss the problems faced at a biological level if one believes that a human embryo is equivalent to a human being and therefore (for the religious) has a soul. Let’s take for instance the occurrence of biological twins. When twins are produced in a mother’s womb, a single fertilized egg is present (one soul). After fertilization, this single embryo can split into two genetically identical embryos. If the original fertilized egg contained the soul of that potential human being and then that embryo was to split into two separate embryos, which twin would receive the soul and which would go without? Most believers would arbitrarily answer “well god would give them both their own soul” presumably ending the argument with the infusion of divine intervention, but the complications do not stop there. Let’s now look at the occurrence of human-human chimeras. This is when two separate embryos are present in the womb (un-identical twins) that eventually fuse together to make a single embryo, containing the genetic makeup of two un-identical embryos. This leads to a human being that has two separate blood types or cells that contain XX chromosomes and XY chromosomes (many would recognize these people as hermaphrodites). Under the their system of logic, they would be forced to admit that this single person would be in possession of 2 souls (if only we were all so lucky). This may seem silly, but it is an accurate example of how simple logic cannot co-exist with an irrational belief system.

The issue of stem cell research is but one example of how the Evangelical movement in America has used its vast resources and political influence to adversely affect the lives of other Americans, ad hoc. With a constant and well-funded war on science (paraphrasing Chris Mooney) they have proven that their strongest assets are their vast numbers, enforced ignorance and corporate alliances. They effectively duped the American public into believing that stem cell research was un-ethical and subsequently set the field of research back almost a decade in the process.  They consistently push a religious conservative viewpoint into public policy and even attempt to do so in our public schools. State by state they attempt to combat the biological fact of natural selection and Darwinian evolution, by pushing unsubstantiated ideas through school boards and into our science classrooms.  They consistently attempt to stifle women’s reproductive rights by pushing an issue that, as I pointed out earlier, completely overlooks the almost identical “problem” of biological infertility.  By adding global climate change, the Israel/Palestine conflict and the AIDS epidemic in Africa to the list, it is easy to see that Conservatives, religious and political alike, are making decisions that adversely effect this world as a whole. With that said, we as educated Americans must take a stand. A stand against religion in political discourse, against corporate greed and inequality, and against any and all anti-science rhetoric at a governmental level.  As cliche as it sounds, our future and the future of our children literally depend on it.

Barack and the Bible

By: Derek Dyson

Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has recently come under fire from a leading Evangelical leader because of his stance on Biblical texts and the role that he believes these texts should play in public affairs.  As reported by the Associated Press, James Dobson (Evangelical Leader and founder of the Christian conservative organization Focus on the Family) has publicly decried Obama’s understanding of the Christian Bible as “confused theology” and a “fruitcake interpretation”, implying that the Harvard Educated Lawyer and otherwise highly intelligent man we know as Barack Obama has somehow failed to truly understand the content of this ancient book.  What could Barack Obama possibly have so wrong that Mr. Dobson seemingly has so right?  More importantly, how does a Harvard Educated politician who was raised in a purely secular and some would say borderline Atheist home, pander to the skewed views of the religious community in order to win over their much needed Evangelical vote?

In 2006 Obama gave a speech to the liberal Christian group “Call to Renewal” where he explained that it would be foolish to solely delegate morality to a book that continuously promoted the institution of slavery, yet condemned the eating of shellfish.  For these presumably logical statements and others like them, Dobson has attacked Obama’s faith and has taken a stand against what he sees as a liberal interpretation of the bible.  For Dobson the bible is the infallible word of god and should be read and understood accordingly.  If the bible (or god) says jump, Dobson asks nothing more but how high? Transversely if god were to say something like jump into owning other human beings and then gives you instructions on how and when to beat them, Dobson would again say….well what exactly would he say?

Well, if you are James Dobson and you are confronted with a question about any number of biblical inadequacies found between Genesis and Revelation you simply blame it on the Old Testament (a common low blow to the Jewish text that has been dealt endlessly for the last 1500 years or so).  This is the basic deflection tactic employed by most if not all religious extremists and biblical literalists when confronted with damning evidence on the subjects of not just slavery but also scientific discovery, morality, intolerance and countless other issues that seem to contradict our post-enlightenment sensibilities. So, is this an adequate explanation as to why god could be so horribly flawed on his views toward so many vitally important subjects of humanity?

If we were to only look at the subject of slavery and then were confined to James Dobson’s reasoning behind gods views on this subject, we would have to make some considerable assumptions.  First, when “god” says things like Leviticus 25: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves, it is important to understand that god only meant for this to ring true for the 198,000 years of modern human existence that predated the point where he changed his mind some 2,000 years ago.

After recognizing this much needed change of heart that god encountered (somewhat late in the game I might add), we must also assume that gods new book of morality and justice contains no passages that promote or even allow the institution of slavery.  So when versus like Luke 12: ….that servant, which knew his lord’s (masters) will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes, startpopping up in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of his followers, teachings that obviously recognize the act of slavery and then fail to condemn it as morally deficient, we are forced to make yet another assumption.  Either god doesn’t mind if one human being owns another human being, or (on a somewhat lighter note) Abraham Lincoln was actually the second coming of Christ (for Americans only).  This would allow god to change his infallible mind once again and finally put him on the correct side of this important issue.  I added the second assumption only as a joke, but it would be somewhat ironic considering the Southern Baptists pro-slavery and eventual pro-segregation stance that was held throughout the civil rights movement.  Imagine, Southern Baptists so adamantly defying the will of Savior 2.0, unknowingly citing the manual from Savior 1.0 all the while.  Sadly, when you really think about it, this scenario wouldn’t be all that far fetched compared to some of the other things these people already believe.  So, either god told us in his divine book of morality that slavery has been and will always be an acceptable practice or possibly, just possibly, modern societies have overlooked the short comings of “gods laws” and have taken morality into their own hands essentially overwriting thousands of years of Bronze Age cruelty and human injustice.

This brings us to the final question.  If people of  faith are going to attack Barack Obama because he reads the Bible as he would any other book, objectively and reasonably, how could he possibly convince these same people (roughly half of the voting populace in the U.S.) to look beyond this  slight discrepancy and still vote for him despite the fact that he reads their moral textbook liberally?

In his most recent book the Audacity of Hope, Mr. Obama explains how he was raised in a secular home.  His mother, an anthropologist and avid humanist and to a lesser extent his father an outspoken atheist, had both played a role in his upbringing.  He remained secular throughout childhood and into college, not officially “finding god” until he took a job with a Chicago Church after graduating from Law School.  Straight out of Harvard Law and ready to make a difference, he took this job because it was the best opportunity to help the struggling black community that he was likely to find. He eventually placed his faith in this church, not because it was leading him to everlasting life, but because it afforded him the opportunity to make a difference in his community.  To most this would seem like a noble cause. To most, fulfilling a lifelong dream and helping out those who are less fortunate would be viewed as anything but a fault, after all isn’t this exactly what Christianity is supposed to be about? But, for some this is not the case.  In fact, many Conservative Christians will fault Obama for this fact alone (well, at least the ones who aren’t already leading the “Obama is a Muslim” campaign of fear and intolerance) either of  which seems to be a little contradictory to the whole followers of Jesus scenario, but I digress.

In the end Barack Obama is a progressive, liberal Christian who sees merit in many philosophies, not just in those espoused by a highly Western and Christian ideology.  This biblical and religious liberalism flies in the face of many of the religious extremists who make up the Evangelical Right and threatens to diminish the political stronghold that they have held on Washington for the last 25 years. If men like James Dobson can attack a highly intelligent and prominent figure in American culture for being too logical or too reasonable on a subject that when taken literally is anything but reasonable, what do we as American citizens have left?  We have nothing but the same dogmatic fervor, religious intolerance and enforced ignorance that has been upheld by the current administration for nearly a decade and will presumably be extended into another eight year period of war mongering and diplomatic ineptness, unless the minds and voices of the American public can be changed.