Friday, February 8, 2008

In Defense of Faith, part II

This was an article that appeared a few weeks ago that I felt up to task of challenging. As I review my answers, I realize that many times I answered one question with another. While I realize the burden of proof falls on me, I thought it important to examine the position of the author and fictional panelists by examining some of the ideas behind the questions as well, Socratically. Additionally, I use the word "man" loosely in place of the word "mankind." My remarks shall be in red italics.

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS, Dr. of Mathematics at Temple University

As much as possible, the presidential candidates should refrain from talking about their religious beliefs. Perhaps even a self-imposed ban on public avowals of religious [belief] would be wise. It's all too easy to cross the fine line between expressing faith and aggressively declaring it, and religious tolerance is, I think, inversely proportional to the latter. I shall express my faith and I shall aggressively declare it: Jesus is LORD! So, what you are saying here is that the less people proclaim their faith in an increasingly secular society (thanks to... whom?) the more tolerance is placed upon those who are "faithful." You know, I think I will pass on that notion. I would rather have Jesus stand for my behalf than have the praise of all the men of Earth. Matthew 10:32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. Luke 12:8 And I say unto you, Every one who shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God.

Still, it doesn't appear that this is going to happen. Religious beliefs have been a big issue in presidential politics for a while now, and many of the candidates, particularly Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, have opted for different reasons to talk about theirs.

This is a two-way street, however. If religion and religious ideas are going to be more publicly discussed, candidates and their supporters will have to accustom themselves to the free expression of doctrines contrary to their own, in particular to irreligious perspectives. Very true, however, exactly what are the limits of these doctrines? In the subjective world of situation ethics (which is espoused by atheists) are all doctrines equal? Are there no standards of good and evil? (I could go on and name numerous organizations whose goals are inherently evil, but I desire to keep my blog G or PG at best.) Free expression and support thereof are two entirely different things.

Their religiosity will eventually invite questions about their beliefs and their provenance more pointed than the usual vague queries about the role of faith in their lives. Here are a few such questions that might be directed explicitly to Huckabee and Romney — and then generally to some of the other candidates.

Questions for Huckabee and Romney

The setting, let us pretend, is a university auditorium somewhere in the Heartland with a panel of four slightly nervous, irreligious questioners facing the candidates. You can also envisage appropriate graphics and theme music proclaiming, "Free Thinkers Debate 2008."

A moderator would note the importance of the elections on Super Tuesday and, given the evening's topic, might even mention that the name of the day, Tiw's day, is derived from Tiw, the old Norse god of heroic glory, justice and combat. I think the first question should be why exactly are you pulling up word origins of this sort, Dr. Paulos? Are you attempting to put The LORD of the heavenly host on equal ground with false gods? Such an introduction speaks much about your viewpoint and the objective questions these fictional students are about to ask.

The house lights dim and the first panelist begins with a few questions for Huckabee. The answers to all the questions the reader will have to imagine.

1. Do you really believe, Mr. Huckabee, that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs cavorted together? Can you prove, Dr. Paulos, by recreating the Earth over the course of millions of years with repeated experimentation and results that it was not? I would state that it is possible, but not conclusive by any means. Here lies the test of faith- not in whether you believe a certain dogma, or adhere to the Pharisees or Sadducees interpretation of scripture, but rather if your faith is God in you, the hope of glory. The only judge of a man's heart is God's Holy Spirit.

2. Religious people often accuse atheists and agnostics of arrogance. Do you agree? And is it arrogant to say, as you have, that your sudden rise in the polls was an act of God and that you wish to amend the Constitution to better reflect "the word of the living God"? Each person should be evaluated individually according to their own lives and actions. Pride cometh before the fall, Christian, Jew and Gentile alike. I think I have enough on my plate just trying to keep myself in line (and not doing well at that) much less looking to others. Do you wish to define exactly what God can and cannot do? I think it would be presumptuous to acclaim a change in polls to an act of God. The Constitution is a secular document and has no comparison with scripture, although philosophical and spiritual truths are necessary to reflect the attitudes and values of the people it represents.

3. Article 19 of the Arkansas state constitution states, "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court." Although it and similar laws in other states are not enforced, do you support their formal repeal? I would support their repeal.

The next questioner turns to Romney.

1. Why, Mr. Romney, in your speech ostensibly devoted to religious tolerance, did you not extend this tolerance to the millions of atheists and agnostics in this country, people who, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, are still held in very low regard by many religious people? So then, shall we acknowledge every sect, every religion, every cult, every fringe group, every denomination in every speech for fear of hurting someones feelings? Furthermore, are people not free to think whatever they desire of other religious viewpoints? Is it a thought crime then, for someone to have a viewpoint you personally disagree with? Shall we give tax money then, to offset these thoughts in the form of "affirmative action?" The answer to each of these questions, sir, is no.

2. Do you not see an implicit religious test in your statement that "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom"? Furthermore, are not, respectively, most of Europe and some Islamic countries obvious counterexamples to your statements? DO-YOU-NOT-SEE the statement "Freedom requires NO RELIGION" being practiced in nearly every aspect of our society today? In answer to your second question, I would ask this: Is most of Europe free (spiritually speaking)? What is the difference between secular freedom and spiritual freedom? Because another society is different, is that reason to copy and apply it to ourselves?

3. Is it right to suggest, as many have, that atheists and agnostics are somehow less moral when the numbers on crime, divorce, alcoholism and other measures of social dysfunction show that non-believers in the United States are extremely under-represented in each category? Have you cross indexed those statistics with educational level? Employment? Other demographic data? So then, being agnostic makes one more likely to be moral. Um, no I didn't think so. Neither does being a Christian, for that matter. Isaiah 64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

Questions for the Other (or Future) Candidates

Let's move on to the other candidates and the third panelist.

1. Do any of you think God speaks to you, only to Gov. Huckabee, or to none of you? And, if I may, does God have a tax policy, a health care policy, a policy on Iraq, Iran, gay marriage, Guantanamo or the Riemann Hypothesis? God speaks to all of us. Whether we listen or not or can hear His voice is dependent on our spirit. If I may, your second question seems rather flippant. God's kingdom on Earth resides in His Spirit and in the hearts of men. I allow God to judge the hearts of others. As for Guantanamo, how about if we immediately release all of them in your home neighborhood and grant them the right to bear arms and peaceably assemble? I promise they will love you for setting them free.

2. How would you suggest that we reason with someone who claims that his or her decisions are informed, shaped, even dictated by fundamental religious principles, which nevertheless can't be probed or questioned by those who don't share them? You mean like how atheists and agnostics decisions are dictated by their religious principals? I am probing and questioning now. Isn't freedom of speech wonderful?

3. I think we can all agree that a candidate who thought that we ought to outlaw interest on loans or revert to a barter system would not be a good steward for our troubled economy. Would you also agree that someone who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and that Noah's Ark is an event in zoological history would not be an effective leader on issues such as stem cells, climate change, and renewable resources? I have taught science for almost 20 years, and know a little bit about the topics you mention. Why would lack of faith make one better qualified for such a position? Oh, yes, thats right- because they are in agreement with you in YOUR faith. Forgive me, I am a little slow tonight.

The debate concludes with a few more general queries about religion from the fourth and last questioner.

1. Do you see any danger of a kind of theocracy developing in the United States? And, if I may sneak in an extra question, do you think that American religiosity has (or could) threaten American dominance in science and technology? The Constitution forbids the kind of government that the colonists came from, namely, one in which the church (or any religious organization) shares secular powers with the government. As to your second question: which is more important, scientific knowledge or the destination of a man's soul?

2. How literally do you take the Bible or other holy book? Do you subscribe to any argument(s) for God's existence other than the one that God exists simply because He says He does in a much extolled tome that He allegedly inspired? I accept scripture as it is written, but do not consider myself a strict fundamentalist. He lives within my heart! Disprove *that* with science.

3. For many, religion has been a source of ideas and narratives that are enlightening, of ideals and values that are inspiring, of rituals and traditions that are satisfying. It has also led to hatred, cruelty, superstition, divisiveness, credulity and fanaticism. What can you do to further the former and minimize the latter effects? I can do nothing. Only the Spirit of God can change the heart of man.

The questioners would then breathe a sigh of relief, thank the university and the candidates for making the discussion possible, and wish them all Godspeed in their continuing campaigns.

Dear Dr. Paulos,
You state that candidates should refrain from talking about religious beliefs. Religion, and faith, are part of our society. Should they do as you suggest, they would then be forced into talking only within the constraints of *your* religious belief, atheism. Think about it.

armchair coach
amateur historian

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