Tuesday, February 28, 2006

62. Morals deeper than religion

In my interview with the Amherst News-Times, I mentioned that I believed morality to be humanistic rather than religious. Such a testament, especially in today's conservative environment, is deserving of both an explanation and a discussion. The problem is, and the reason I have not written specifically on the subject previously, is that religion has been labeled as a "conversation stopper." This ideology, that religion cannot be critically examined and discussed, is not an original idea of mine, rather the theme of Sam Harris' popular book, "The End of Faith." He writes, "Observations of this sort pose an immediate problem for us, however, because criticizing a person's faith is taboo in every corner of our culture. On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse." I emphatically agree with this quandary, for it is not acceptable, on a personal level, to criticize the religion of another. To do so is an individual attack, to the extent that friendships are lost, and families torn apart.

There are, of course, national issues of morality such as abortion, stem cell research and the death penalty. But the issue of morality is much deeper than this. And to discuss morality, and the claim that it is derived from religion, is therefore only fairly considered when religion itself is examined. Two points further trouble the discussion. First, there are thousands of religions, religious beliefs, and religious interpretations. Thus, specific arguments of morality will often be regarded as a misinterpretation or not applicable to one's specific belief. Secondly, there is the issue of defining morality, which is often formed and based on religious belief- not an independent examination. Mark Twain wrote to this problem, "In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."

So, for example, when I quote an Associate Press report that, "nearly a quarter of the grants handed out by the Bush administration's $15 billion program to fight AIDS in Africa have gone to Christian religious groups that oppose teaching people the use of condoms," I have crossed moral boundaries, interpretations and definitions. Christian groups that oppose birth control do so based on moral religious beliefs. However, I would adapt the moral philosophy that by opposing the use of condoms, these religious groups are aiding in the transmission of the very deadly disease that they have specifically been funded to prevent. In this disagreement, there are two assumptions made by the religious groups. The first is that the use of birth control is a mortal sin, subject to an eternity of damnation. The second is that abstinence is a realistic approach in the fight against AIDS. I cannot prove or disprove the first assumption, since it is based on faith (and not subject to examination); however, I can argue scientifically that programs that promote abstinence and birth control are the most successful. Regardless, how is it decided which moral standard is superior, especially when I cannot challenge the issue of birth control as a sin?

As difficult as individual issues can be in the discussion of morality, there are general moral judgments that need to be considered in my assertion of humanistic morality. The first misconception is that one needs religion to act morally. I do not think that anyone needs to rely on religious guidance to understand that killing another person is morally wrong. Secular morality may be best defined by Paul Kurtz in the affirmations of humanism, "We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences." There is the argument to this debate that a non-religious person acting ethically is more moral than a religious person who acts ethically. The reason behind the argument is that a religious person acts morally because he or she has been instructed to, fears the consequences, or has been promised an afterlife in exchange for; conversely, the non-religious person acts morally completely on his or her own ethical values.

The second misconception is that religion maintains absolute moral ideology. Religious theory, especially among religions, is filled with contradiction, hypocrisy and extremism. How does it that religion endorses war on other faiths? How does a religion maintain credibility when the very priests selected to delivers God's message are committing, in mass, some of mankind's most horrendous acts? How is that hatred and discrimination is tolerated in any moral ideology? Of religion's long history of violence and hatred, Blaise Pascal wrote, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." These questions will undoubtedly test the willingness of an individual to objectively examine religious morality.

Furthermore, my opinion is that if an individual is going to adopt a religious ideology, then he or she ought to read it, understand it and act to it. It is not a credible moral argument to pick and choose religious ideas that apply favorably to one's own life or beliefs. If the moral teaching of one's religion is derived from The Bible, then all teachings from The Bible should be regarded as moral. I do not believe that one can use The Bible as moral support for the discrimination of homosexuals and then say it does not apply when the same book calls for rebellious teenagers to be stoned to death. Sam Harris notes that if are to judge the moral guidance of The Bible, then atrocities such as the Spanish Inquisition must be interpreted as a precise and faithful following of God's word- for the book of Deuteronomy clearly explains, in detail, that anyone suggesting the worship of an alternative God must be put to death. Ann Coulter, a leading conservative author, was morally consistent to this idea when she said, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

From a philosophical standpoint, we must note that religions define morality based on their texts, teaching and beliefs. To do so, one must reject some of the moral ideology taught and practiced by other religions. This again leads us to the question, which religion is correct? Which religion is moral? Thus, from the question itself, "religion" cannot be the sole basis of morality when moralities differ among religions. In terms of faith, it is best explained this way by Stephen Roberts, "I contend that we are both Atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

61. Fear drives Bush agenda

In his eleven-page State of the Union address, it took President Bush no less that four paragraphs to mention September 11, 2001. I had to ask, when are we, as a country, going to get past this?

The State of the Union address referred to safety, freedom and terrorism repeatedly. So much so, that I printed out the speech and highlighted every word related to one of these ideas. If someone from another planet were to read this speech, he or she would believe that the United States has been subject to numerous terrorist attacks over the last five years and, perhaps, that it is currently living under tyrannical rule. Through the first four pages of the speech, before speaking about domestic issues, Bush notes ‘freedom' (or related) about fifteen times, and ‘terror' (and others related to hatred and violence) about thirty-five times.

I think that the reason we cannot get past September 11th is because the Bush administration will not let us get past it. President Bush has ridden, and continues to ride, the political benefits of September 11th to its fullest extent. The attack that day in September 2001 left Americans feeling afraid and vulnerable. It also inspired hatred and patriotism. In many ways, for the Bush administration, it was the best thing that could have happened.

Fearful people often make emotional and irrational decisions. Bush used fear related to the terrorist attack to gain support for a war in Iraq, predominately by inaccurately propagandizing a relationship between the terrorists that attacked America on September 11th and Iraq. The war cast Bush as defender of American freedom, liberty and values. While I think just everyone supported the war against the terrorist state that existed in Afghanistan, the Bush administration used this moment to confuse the public, ignore international advice and invade Iraq. War with Iraq during the Bush administration was probably inevitable, for a variety of reasons, but September 11th opened the door. Following which, his approval ratings soared, as those that opposed the war were portrayed as unpatriotic. Bush used fear to misdirect the public into believing that Iraq both had weapons of mass destruction and that these weapons threatened American freedom. Those that supported Bush and the war often defended him and the conflict, even as the disingenuous information surfaced. In the State of the Union, Bush maintained that we are fighting to preserve our freedoms, though Iraq has never actually threatened them

Then the Bush administration used fear to pass the Patriot Act as a measure to protect the American public from future terrorist attacks. The Patriot Act was largely unread by Congress and has unconstitutionally acted upon the civil liberties of American citizens. In addition, the President has used the war on terror to illegally spy on American citizens and torture prisoners in conflict with the Geneva Convention. He created himself as "Commander in Chief" and now feels as though he can do whatever he wants as a "wartime" president.

After the initial plummeting of stocks on Wall Street, the Bush administration benefited from September 11th in that national interests were focused on safety, not the stumbling economy. Except for safety, nothing scares people like the thought of losing their money. But the economy was no longer his fault; it was September 11th that caused the stock market "blip." The acts of war and subsequent patriotism acted to deflect the economic conditions, which only reared its ugly head during the reelection campaign. If the American public would have had nothing else to think about but the economy and high unemployment rates for Bush's entire first term, it would have been much more of a political issue than it was. The increasing deficit, projected at 423 billion for 2006, is troubling for most, but is also reflected as a cost of fighting the war on terror. Meanwhile, American companies tied to the administration, such as Halliburton, received major foreign contracts and, now, oil companies, such as Exxon are recording record profits.

Although the conservative push was well on its way, the Bush administration used September 11th as an attack on American values. Since Muslim extremists committed the terrorist attack, Bush used the connection to insinuate an attack on Christianity and American freedoms. He at one point even called the retaliation a "crusade." In the State of the Union, he labels radical Islam as the ideology of "terror and death."

Thus, September 11th instilled fear into the American public, which in turn led to war, the slashing of civil liberties, deflected economic concerns, and a stirring of patriotic and conservative ideology. If that was not enough, the President's reelection campaign then used safety as, perhaps, the deciding issue in his reelection bid in 2004. The Bush campaign enjoyed only a few ideological advantages over John Kerry, the largest being the idea that Kerry, as a liberal would not, theoretically at least, protect America as well as the President.

If you think the president has not used the terrorist attack to his full advantage, consider if things would have happened differently. Imagine if there had not been a September 11th and instead if the events of Hurricane Katrina had occurred in Bush's first term. Imagine if Bush had to seek reelection portrayed as an unprepared, inept leader that could not relate to the economic and social concerns that plagued the majority of Americans- the middle class and poor.

We have all probably at one time or another "milked" a bad situation for all its worth. President Bush, over the last five years, however, may have redefined the term. Not only did he use the tragic events of September 11th to win reelection, he has used it to trample civil liberties, create large governmental deficits and take us into a war that has led to over 2,000 American casualties and between 30,000 and 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties- all as a result of a frightened American public.

Not so coincidentally, the President just asked Congress to cut more social programs and make available more money for war, safety and the military.

Terror alert: Orange.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

60. Big business behind it all

A Harris Interact poll recently showed that about 90 percent of Americans believe that big business has too much power. Big business, too much power, really? Do ya think?

The problem with big business is that it starts at the top. Will Durst in The Progressive satirically writes, in response to the president sometimes being labeled as a racist, "George Bush doesn't hate black people. George Bush doesn't hate poor people, either. He just LOVES rich people. A whole lot. With a love of operatic magnitude." Durst also points to the president's record, "Economic stimuli for the wealthy. Legislative amendments for the wealthy..." Conversely, he notes, "Medicaid and Medicare cuts for the poor. Food and nutritional cuts for the poor. Education cuts for the poor..."

Rich people (I mean really rich people) do not usually become rich by working real hard and paying off that mortgage, or winning the lottery. If the wealthy do not become so through inheritance, they usually become so by taking it from poor people, or giving their jobs to even poorer people, or bribing other rich people, or by destroying foreign governments.

In the New York Times Bestseller, "Confessions of an Economic Hit man," John Perkins exposes big business on a global level, and the high stakes it entails. Globalization, in his experience, has created a "corporatocracy," in which corporations, though government interest and cooperation and international financial organizations control and manipulate foreign governments- all in the interest of greed and the perseverance of the American standard of living.

The tell-all autobiography details Perkins' experience with Chas T. Main and the impact that his work as an "economic hit man" has had on other countries. It is a chilling tale of his experience in negotiating with foreign counties to loan them exceedingly large amounts of money for infrastructure based on inflated economic projections. The contracts were subsequently awarded to American companies, and the rulers of those countries became very wealthy. In time, however, the inflated economic projections eventually forced countries to default on their loans, which in exchange, Perkins claims, led to "United Nation votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal." Perkins points to Saudi Arabia as a successful example, detailing a symbiotic relationship in which America provides protection for oil, and the ruling party enjoys great wealth.

However if a leader maintains his or her commitment to do what is best for the country, and turn downs the offers made by the economic hit men, Perkins claims that the CIA-sanctioned jackals are sent in. Ideologist leaders are either overthrown or assassinated and a more favorable government is installed. Omar Torrijos, for example, rose to power in Panama and negotiated with President Carter to acquire ownership of the Panama Canal. He not only refused to renegotiate the Canal Treaty with newly-elected president Ronald Regan, but also continued to engage in anti-corporatocracy behavior. He died in a plane crash in 1981. Not so coincidentally, his death occurred only two months after Jamie Roldós, leader of Ecuador, also died in a plane crash after resisting threats and intimidation from the oil companies.

Finally, Perkins claims, if the economic hit men fail, and the jackals fail, the military is then called upon to take matters into their owns hands. The United States originally supported Saddam Hussein, much like they supported Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union. The feeling was that Saddam would make agreements with the United States similar to what the rulers of Saudi Arabia had made. He refused, and he has been paying the price ever since. In the first war with Iraq, Saddam prompted American involvement by invading Kuwait and violating international law (Bush, Perkins notes, also staged an illegal and unilateral invasion of Panama less than a year earlier). And, as we know now, the second war has been the result of the misinformation and propaganda put forth by the second Bush administration.

There is nothing, it seems, more consistent than the interest of big business and those it supports. Perkins summarizes, "The income ratio of the one-fifth of the world's population in the wealthiest countries to the one-fifth in the poorest went from 30-1 in 1960 to 74-1 in 1995. The Untied States spends over $87 billion conducting a war in Iraq while the United Nations estimates that for less than half that amount we could provide clean water, adequate diets, sanitation services and basic education to every person on the planet."

If you are keeping track, 24,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related deaths. It seems the rich get richer, the poor die starving to death. Big business, too much power- you ask? We read over and over about the social, economic and environmental terror inflicted by corporations. We watch the documentaries, and the movies. The question really is, the only question that matters- does anyone have the power to stop them?