Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘American Enlightenment’ Category

Is Secularism Dystopian?

In American Enlightenment, American Society, Current events on February 21, 2014 at 12:03 am

I commented a couple of days ago on four recent news stories that, taken together, I felt illustrated a disturbing trend in American society – our ignorance may be becoming more dangerous. I thought that there was little controversial subject matter in what I wrote – I did call creationism a lie, and perhaps that was harsh. I know that Christians believe it is true, and when they tell it to their children, they do not think they are misleading anyone. I once believed in the Bible narrative myself, and spent a lot of years trying to come up with theories that would reconcile my belief with the available evidence, until the weight of the latter finally crushed the frail construction of the former. This change in ideology took many years to occur – I was a fundamentalist at 20, an apologist at 25, a non-creationist Christian at 30, a ‘spiritual but not religious’ person at 35, and consider myself to be an agnostic with a nostalgia for religion today.

I did not really think that I was saying anything that even most Christians would not be able to agree with, but apparently I was wrong. Marcos Ortega, writing on his blog Word of Life described my post in what I thought were rather harsh terms. If you didn’t read my post Dumb, Dumber, and Dangerouser, take a few minutes to read it, then look at his response. Note the Orwellian artwork on the page.

I can only guess as to what Mr. Ortega’s definition of secularism is. He seems to equate it with atheism, nihilism, socialism, and communism, erroneously thinks it appeared for the first time during the French Revolution, and feels that it is the cause of most of the ills and atrocities that have plagued society since that time. From the George Holyoke quote that appears on every page of my site, he selects only the words that he feels are damning, ignoring the part about how secularism “does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently….” Since secularism is interested in knowledge that “conduces to the welfare of this life,” it cannot by definition seek to enslave or terrorize.

Secularism is a worldview, but it is not a dogma. It does not start from a preconceived set of ideas handed down by a deity or enlightened leader. Secularism ever cries out for evidence – material, not spiritual. (If this is what Mr. Ortega means by materialism, then with that I must agree). If you say something is true, I want to see the evidence. The New Testament casts the disciple Thomas in a negative light – he is the hero of the secularist. If I am expected to believe outrageous claims, I want to see extraordinary evidence – let me thrust my hand into the wounds.

Anyway, we’ve had a rather lengthy conversation over the last couple of days in the comment section of his site – I don’t want my readers to miss out. I became aware that he had written about my post only because of a ‘ping’ back to my site, so I felt obligated to respond:

Thanks for reading my post. I am honored to see that you dedicated an entire post to responding to my humble observations. I will respond in kind to yours more fully in the next day or two – I always prefer to mull criticisms over for a bit before responding. 

However I do believe you read hostility to Christianity into my narrative where none exists. I commented on 4 news stories, only one of which referred to a person who identified as Christian, and I did not hold him up as representative of the mainstream, other than to say his literal understanding of the scriptures directly caused his death. 

I don’t think a ‘Tarzan-esque’ rendering of my overall theme would be “secularists smart, Christians stupid” but rather something like this: 

Americans not know science good
Corporations help you be stupid
Extreme religion maybe kill you
Rich want be your master

I’m not sure how you got to the French Revolution from there, but I assure you there’s nothing dystopian about understanding the world, avoiding the lethal side of religion, and fighting against corporate oppression. Surely you would agree?

Mr. Ortega responded:

Dear Don (can I call you Don?): 

While you ponder your answer, let me respond to your comments. I have been reading your posts for the past couple of years, that is until the “Great Firewall hiatus” of the past year, and I must say that I find them very interesting. However, I do read hostility against Christianity in your latest blogpost when you talk about “creationism being a lie” (which is generic), your Darwinian belief in the inferiority of snake handlers or their followers (which is somewhat racist as well) and faith healers’ perceived dishonesty as being a proof of God’s lack of interest at best, or non-existence at worst. As I mentioned in my post, it seems that in 2005 Americans at 25% not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun fared much better than their Europeans counterparts at 44%. This is even more telling when we take into account the fact that most of Europe has had a secularized school system for more than a century, are more “advanced” than us, and yet they fared worse (go figure). I think that you read this matter to your own advantage, because, as we know, the church held as dogma the myth of geocentrism, so in a way, you were implying what you say you were not saying (i.e. that Christianity is a hotbed of ignorance). I would also add that if religion has a lethal side (from which most of us steer away), so do secularism and materialism, which brought me to my historical recount of its ongoing lethality, beginning (yes!) with the French Revolution, the spiritual monster child of enlightenment and the root of most (not all) evils of the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, I do agree with you about corporations being the root cause of America’s downfall, but their worship goes more towards the Golden calf and Mammon, than Jesus, who was poor and never hid it. Thank you for responding.

Really I thought that his first set of criticisms would take days to respond to in full. But while I was still composing a few key points, I find that he thinks my comments were racist as well. He does agree that corporate America is contributing the downfall of the nation, but does not see Christian ideology as a contributing factor. He re-states his idea that the French Revolution marks the beginning of secularist thinking – I’m a bit rusty on my French history, but since there were schools unaffiliated with the church in Padua and Bologna in the 1500s, I’m thinking he’s at least 300 years off the mark. And to attribute the cause of any war or revolution to one or two causes is to rely on the most facile line of logic.

Singer Sargent Hercules

My reply:

Hi Marcos – sure, let’s talk on a first name basis.

I am still working on my response to your initial criticisms, and I see I have already generated a few more! I marvel that you find so much of what I say upsetting, as it does seem straight-forward to me. I am as Heracles to your Hydra – I cannot address one issue before another is opened up on another front. Is there no Iolaus among your readers who might come to my aid?

I would like to come to some agreement on one argument before starting another. In your original post, you described my view as dystopian – a charge I think unfair. I thought it was clear that my ideal America would include adults who can understand the most basic scientific principles, corporations that do not make profits from our ignorance and fear (I would add our illness), and Christians who do not take the Bible so literally that it actually kills them. If I followed my gut, I would add that people like Tom Perkins should be tried for sedition – but my head knows that’s going too far.

Do you want Americans to be stupid? Are you in support of Christians handling snakes? Do you agree with Tom Perkins? I would have thought that the Christian and the secularist could come to agreement on these issues. Why steer the debate towards a hot button issue like abortion when nothing in my post was remotely related?

The problem with adopting a dualistic worldview – good v evil, God v Satan – is that everything must now be viewed through that lens. Therefore, anyone who isn’t saying pretty much what you are saying must be your enemy. This is what I feel is the fundamental problem (pun intended) with our politics in America today. If you feel your opinions were spoken to you by God, then it would follow that my opinion must come from the Devil – unless I ‘agree’ to see things your way. One of the over-riding themes of my blog is that democracies cannot function this way.

I think American Christians have developed an almost Pavlovian response to the word ‘secular’, automatically seeing it as threatening, an idea that needs to be quashed – all the more so if it actually starts making any sense. I feel your description of my ideas as dystopian fall into this category – I don’t see it as a fair description of what I said. The word seems to conjure up a lot of other scenarios in your mind – none of which I or any other secularists I know are in support of.

I think the charge is particularly hypocritical because of the future foreseen by most American Christians. Do you believe in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 as the inspired word of God? Then are you joyously awaiting the day Jesus will destroy somewhere around 5 billion people so that he can set up his kingdom here? (My post on this topic). I do not know for a fact what your opinion is about this scripture, so I won’t put words in your mouth. But if this is part of your ‘end times’ theology, I think you should be very careful describing the ideas as others as dystopian.

As to today’s comments, I do wish you would be more careful with the term racism. I feel you owe me an apology on this count, as there was nothing racist in my words. Our species has but one natural advantage over many other species in the animal kingdom – our intelligence. Any species that doesn’t have – or refuses to use – such an advantage when encountering another more dangerous species, will, over time, find itself at a numerical disadvantage. This will happen irrespective of race. Because as humans we have many bad ideas that do not bear directly upon our chances of survival, unlike animals, our bad decisions tend to carry from one generation to another. Saying that this is in anyway racist is, in my opinion, so extremely hyperbolic as to be wholly inaccurate. I did not say that Coots died because he was a Christian or because he was an Appalachian; I think my words were more along the lines of ‘gross misunderstanding of the scripture’. Again, I thought most Christians would agree.

I am a son of Appalachia; my parents grew up in Harlan County Kentucky, which borders Bell County where Coots’ church is located. My first wife was from Middlesboro. I have both dear friends and relatives who still live there. I mentioned his death not because I view him as an inferior creature – but because I am saddened that a faulty ideology has robbed this man’s family of someone they dearly love. If he was ignorant, he was willfully so – every American town has dozens if not hundreds of churches to choose from.

I did not mention the fact that Europeans did more poorly than Americans on the aforementioned science quiz because I am guilty of not reading below the first paragraph. I saw the same headline in dozens of news outlets, none of which referred to that particular statistic, and I assumed that was the gist of the story. Why did none of the headlines read differently? I chose a headline and linked to it in my post – and I see that further down it does include the statistic you mention. I will read more closely in the future before linking. I did say that any society beyond the penis gourd stage should be ashamed of such numbers – and that goes for the Europeans as well.

I still maintain that three out of the four stories I commented on had little if anything to do with Christians. When I said that ‘creationism is a lie’, I said it in the context of what Bill Nye’s goal is – I think everyone knows he was at the Creation Museum in Kentucky last week for a debate. This shows no hostility to Christianity per se, as many Christians – in fact many mainstream denominations – do not believe the world was created six thousand years ago. I suppose you might say these people are not really Christians – I don’t know. Again, I will not put words in your mouth. There are many other systems of belief that also believe the world is created – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, etc, so my comments cannot really be said to be anti-Christian as they could be said to cast doubt on any and all creation stories.

While I enjoy our back and forth on this page, I find that even in such a long response, I cannot respond to all of the inaccuracies and red herrings your comments contain. I feel it is not I who is painting the other side with a broad brush. I wrote a post about 4 news stories that should sadden every American. I wonder if there would be less umbrage on your part if the word ‘secularist’ did not appear in my title.

I like many of Mr. Ortega’s posts. He is usually thoughtful. He is well-educated – got his degree at Stendhal. He did offer the ‘I apologize if I offended” kind of apology that we commonly accept these days – I guess I’m old school in preferring the ‘I stand corrected’ variety, but yes, Marcos, I was a little offended at the racist comment, but I do accept your apology. I honestly believe you meant no harm.

I suppose it will be up to you, the reader to determine if Mr. Ortega’s criticisms are warranted or not. I am pessimistic, as I expect his readers will take his side, and my readers mine. I would like to think there would be a common ground, where everyone would more or less agree that, yes, we as Americans really need to put down the cheese-crust pizza and try to focus a bit more.

But I fear that a dualistic worldview may not allow it.

Have an opinion? Please post in the discussion section. Your views are important to me!

Buddha for President

In American Enlightenment, American Society, Religion and Government on April 8, 2013 at 12:00 am

Wat Po 2009

I am unequivocally opposed to an established religion in a democracy. Furthermore, I do not believe that democracy is a product of religious belief; more specifically I do not believe that the American Constitution is based on Biblical precepts. Anyone who reads the document and has any understanding of history knows that it is a product of the Enlightenment. If the God of the Bible had been the true inspiration behind it, it would have a lot more to say about eating pork, cleansing oneself from blood contamination, and not spilling one’s seed on the ground.

It goes without saying that, in my opinion, the ills of this country are not due to the fact that we have strayed from God. Getting ‘more God’ into our government would make things worse, not better. If you are not convinced, let me remind you of some examples of pious societies – Oliver Cromwell’s England, Puritan New England, Spain of the Inquisition, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, present-day Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, David Koresh‘s Waco, Texas, and Jim Jones’s Jonestown, Guyana. If it’s God-and-guns you want, immigrate to the dozen or so countries across the globe that consistently make the ‘don’t travel here for any reason’ list, and leave this country alone. I’m sure you think that running things according to your religion would be kinder and gentler than my examples – so did the Kool-Aid sipping acolytes at Jonestown.

Are there countries that have no interest whatsoever in making their societies ‘more godly’? Yes, there are. They consist of the 20-odd countries that usually outrank the US in ‘happiest places’ and ‘best places to live’ polls that haunt the Internet. These countries, with much lower crime and poverty rates than our own, decided long, long ago that religion had no role to play in government, and their peoples are happier and healthier because of it.

Seriously, no one in the religious mainstream – measured at it’s broadest swath, from Fred Phelps to any lesbian Episcopalian pastor – is truly interested in having the government involved in our personal religious beliefs – no matter what they say to the contrary. Freedom of religion is what allows you to be as loony as you like; once you start trying to legislate morality, you get a religious practice that looks a lot more like the Church of England, and no American is interested in that, not now, not two centuries ago.

So tell your Congressman to give it up already. We all know that the vote to close down the one and only abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi sprung not from any moral conviction, but from the desire to squeeze every last vote out of the uneducated crowd, from Honey Boo-Boos’s inbred cousins to the cast of Swamp People.

However, if I were forced to choose a religion that I think would work well with our American system, I’d have to go with the teachings of the Buddha. Now, I know what you’re thinking – Westerners who get involved in Eastern mysticism are about the flakiest individuals you will ever meet. It’s hard not to think of the words ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Hippie Narcissist’ together. And the Dalai Lama is charming enough in a ten-minute interview, but I don’t think his outlook would be particularly reassuring to Wall Street. But hear me out.

First of all, Buddhism isn’t technically a religion, as it eschews the belief in a deity.This is probably why it never displaced Hinduism in India, its birthplace. In the land of thirty-five thousand gods, they would have accepted the addition of another one, but never the subtraction of them all. In fact, the Buddha considered a belief in god one of the ‘attachments’ or illusions that bring us so much misery. If your life is going to hell and your god never steps in to help you out, you add an additional heartbreak added to the one you are already experiencing. It’s devastating to have your crops destroyed by a storm; to think that your god could have stepped in but didn’t, that you’ve angered him or her in some way, that some deficiency in your worship may have indeed caused it – this is even worse.

In America, whenever a tragedy occurs, a Hurricane Katrina or a stock market crash, we get the added pleasure of a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, high and dry and insulated by hedge funds, telling us that we ourselves are to blame for disappointing God in some way. Or that God is trying to teach you something through your cancer. Or that the richest 1% in America own 40% of the wealth because God has decided they are good stewards – and you are not.

Getting rid of the deity would remove so many roadblocks to becoming a more rational society in America. These problems that seem impossible to solve – global climate change, gun ownership, gay marriage, etc., would all become so much easier to solve when one side couldn’t claim to have the ‘mind of God’ on their side.

Secondly, Buddhism addresses directly the most negative aspect of capitalism – suffering. Market societies, efficient as they are, produce winner and losers. In past generations, almost everyone got to win a little bit, and the losers were few. Today, the winners win big, and everyone else gets the crumbs. A lot more people are left out in the cold. Buddhism doesn’t lay a guilt trip on you for being one of the losers – it makes you realize that even the so-called winners enjoy a temporary advantage at best. Since winning and losing is all about chance, there is always hope that the wheel will turn in your favor – but in the end, we will all suffer loss, all get sick, grow old, eventually die.

Finally, the life of the Buddha fits into that American motif of privileged Americans spending their lives helping move our society in a positive directions. Siddharta Gautama began life as a prince, but decided to live an ascetic life in hope of improving humanity. Everyone knows that the rags-to-riches stories are a relic from the American past, and, unless you become a basketball player or a reality TV star, such a thing will not happen to you. We’re not interested in what the little guy has to say – let me hear about how the world works from guys like Donald Trump and Warren Buffet.  The guy with nowhere to lay his head isn’t relevant to today’s America.  From Thomas Jefferson to Mitt Romney, American politics have always been a place for the privileged to give something back to those less fortunate.

And by the way, that last paragraph was meant to be sarcastic – in case the Mitt Romney reference didn’t tip you off.