Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Disillusionment unlimited.

On March 12th, the New York Times carried a front page story reporting that Catholic and Orthodox Jewish officials had banded together in opposition of a bill pending in the State Legislature that would temporarily lift the statue of limitations on child sex abuse law suits.  The bill, also opposed by the Civil Liberties Union, presents some broader legal issues, but it is the opposition of these religious groups that is so telling.  The sex abuse of children by Catholic priests is now well known to all.  It has cost the Church dearly in both reputation and in the pocketbook.  In fact, a Catholic spokesman sought to discredit the legislation by suggesting an ulterior motive, that it was only “…designed to bankrupt the Catholic Church”.  Why Jewish groups have a stake in this is less known, but no less horrific.

A month earlier, NPR broadcast an investigative report by Barbara Haggerty on All Things Considered about the abuse of orthodox children in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.   In it she tells the story of Joel Engelman and Joe Diangelo, both now young adults who were abused in their Hasidic community’s mikvah (ritual bath) and school.  Diangelo, raped by an unknown assailant while having a pre-Sabbath cleansing, was so traumatized that he ultimately changed his name from Joel Deutsch and has cut all his ties with both family and community.  The then eight-year-old Englmen was abused twice a week over a period of two months by Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, principal at his school, The United Talmudical Academy.  Like the Catholic Church, the Hasidic community tried to cover up the scandal.  One of their spokesmen even dismisses it as “…being blown out of proportion — big time.” At best, they seek to ajudicate compaints within their own internal “legal” jurisdiction, which often amounts to discrediting the victim while sustaining the perpetrator.  Reichman was actually suspended but Haggerty reports was hired back in July of last year “one week after Joel Engelmen turned 23 and could no longer bring a criminal or civil case against the rabbi.”  This was far from an isolated case. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, Haggerty reports, “has 10 active sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jews — including a school principal…and Hynes says there could be many more.”  Author Hella Winston reported to Haggerty that, in researching for her book Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, she “encountered dozens of alleged victims who told her sexual abuse is an open secret in the Hasidic community.  But the community is so insulated and the rabbis are so powerful that few dare to come forward.”

Orthodox religions are not, as some current critics might have it, innately evil.   But they are the breeding ground for, among others, modern day terrorism.  The September 11 hijackers were fundamentalist orthodox Muslims acting “in God’s name”.  In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, an American born orthodox Jewish physician and graduate of The Yeshiva of Flatbush, gunned down worshipers in a Hebron mosque killing 29 and injuring 150 before he was beaten to death by the crowd.  He was eulogized as a martyr by his orthodox rabbi; his graveside in Kiryat Arba has become a shrine to someone who “gave his life” for his people.  In contrast, those who killed him are deemed murders by his fellow orthodox extremists.

Over the last three decades, orthodox religious groups have played an aggressive, and in my view very negative, role in American life.  They have grabbed hold of the public microphone and, in part by taking control of the Republican Party, have used it and political power to influence public policy.  That has, among others, set back progress in both stem cell research and in combating global warming, though some in the religious right are coming around on that issue.  The orthodox have presented themselves are arbiters of morality and values including how young people should approach sex.  In that, their blocking of comprehensive education in favor of abstinence-only teaching has led to disastrous consequences.  In her November 2008 New Yorker article, Margaret Talbot reports that in states where orthodox religion holds sway, and sex education is inhibited or limited to abstinence, teen pregnancy, STDs and early marriages leading to higher rates of divorce prevail in contrast to those where it has no such influence.  Anna Quindlen echoes these findings in her most recent Newsweek opinion piece, Let’s Talk About Sex.

Orthodoxy, like much of religion, is predicated on a leap-of-faith and on assumptions about our past, present and future that often run contrary to what many of us would consider positive progress.  The results can be repressive and, taken to their ultimate conclusion, often lethal.  Progressive religionists often disavow this approach to faith, but their own insularity, timidity and relative silence has allowed it to dominate the agenda and give religion its most visible public face.  While many in the orthodox communities adhere to their beliefs with heartfelt loyalty and integrity, the hypocrisy meter is off the charts for others, in many cases their leaders, whose words and deeds fail to match.  The protests against lifting the statue of limitations on child abuse by the self-proclaimed pious are only a metaphor for a much larger and more pervasive problem.  It’s scope is reflected in the just released General Social Survey showing that only 20% of us have great confidence in organized religion, just about the same number that trust in our beleaguered banks.  It is a broad brush of disillusionment that affects all religion not only the religious right orthodox.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tried and true?

Charlie Rose has a knack for giving us access to very interesting people and ideas.  That’s particularly the case with his series of topical interviews, none more so than those focused on the interrelated areas of technology and science.  A few days ago he spent an hour with Google’s Eric Schmidt.  In the closing minutes, Schmidt was asked whether people in technology are different?  “Yes”, he answered, “technologists as a group tend to be more analytical, data driven,…more global in their focus…they’re into creating whole new businesses.”  In his experience, he continued “other companies are often locked into a paradigm that was given to them by their grandfather.”  People in technology, he concluded, believe “that you can literally change the world.”   A parallel contrast was drawn between science and religion by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his 1999 Natural History Magazine essay, Holy Wars.  Tyson writes, “scientists heap their largest rewards and praises upon those who do discover flaws in established paradigms. These same rewards also go to those who create new ways to understand the universe. Nearly all famous scientists, pick your favorite one, have been so praised in their own lifetimes.  This path to success in one's professional career is antithetical to almost every other human establishment – especially to religion.”

It is precisely for this reason that I have never found science and religion to be ultimately compatible.  To be sure there are many religious leaders who profess just the opposite, who accept many of science’s discoveries and who, in theory at least, share its commitment to searching for truth.  So, too, there are those in science who have strong ties to religion. Nobel Lauriat Sir John Houghton, among the world’s preeminent climatologists, is a devout evangelical Christian.   The problem is that religion’s embrace of science, and in seeking what scientists would call truth, is always conditional.  In his recent book Why Faith Matters, Rabbi David J. Wolpe reflects that conditionality when he describes science as “… a vast, glorious tribute to the abilities God gave us to discover secrets about the created world.”  God and divine creation are immutable.  Again, some of his colleagues, Jewish and Christian, might not put it in exactly the same way, but the message is clear.  Truth, another one of those loaded words, cannot transcend or deny the “truth” of God, however individual religions may define it.  Religion, joined by many of us, draws the line at “inconvenient truths” – truths that question its basic premise.

Interestingly both Schmidt’s citing corporate commitments to old paradigms and Tyson’s suggestion that overturning paradigms is a basic purpose in science strike at the core of the problem.  In his argument to uphold Proposition 8, Pepperdine Law Dean Kenneth Starr contended, among other things, that marriage, defined as between a man and a woman, had been part of California law and practice from the beginning.  Similar arguments were made in other places about slavery and women’s suffrage.  While not a lawyer, I think it was his weakest (that a majority of voters favored Prop 8 seems stronger).   But it is exactly the one often used by religion in defending the continued reading of old texts and of observing customs that have lost any contemporary meaning.  It is the “tried and true” argument that in the end forecloses discussion because it claims no relevancy to be proven.  Religion embraces science and technology conditionally and also selectively.  The Religious Right is happy to use mobile phones and even to “tweet” as communications tools or to promote their ideology over the Internet, all products of science and technology, but not the “pill” that will prevent pregnancy.  The first serve their purpose, the second runs contrary to what they perceive of as “God’s will”.

But the real issue is the one alluded to in Schmidt’s last statement, the thing about “changing the world”.  Barack Obama ran on a platform of change, an idea widely embraced at least in theory.  He has consistently warned that change is easier said than done, reflecting that most of us are change-resistant.  What really bothers the religious about issues like abortion, stem cell research, same sex marriage, science and (perhaps to a lesser degree) technology is that they challenge what is tried and long accepted as true.  They require fundamental change.   On a very personal level, and these battles tend to be personal, such change undermines their perception of self.  That’s not merely inconvenient, they just can’t let it happen.  Science and technology are great, but they can go too far.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Loaded Words

“We are a nation”, proclaimed Barack Obama in his Inaugural, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.”  I am sure those who count themselves among the non-religious were heartened by that nod given them; one rarely afforded in recent years.  The irony of this neglect is that, according to both the just released ARIS and the 2008 Pew surveys on religion, the “nonbeliever” group is the fastest growing in the nation (having doubled since 1990) and now outnumbered only by Catholics and Baptists.  There are five times as many of them among us as there are Muslims, Jews and Hindus combined.  They represent at least 15/16% of the population and if you add the 5.2% non-committal ARIS respondents perhaps closer to 20%.  Moreover, Pew found that number rises to 25% among those 18-29.  ARIS reports that 70% of the non-religious are under 50 compared with 59% of Catholics and only 49% of Jews.  Neither of these studies really measures the depth of active participation among the religiously identified, which is often minimal.  But even taking their numbers at face value, and especially the trend both suggest, one wonders if what De Tocqueville characterized as “a religious nation” may endure as such in the future.

That hasn’t happened yet, and there are many thoughtful people who think religion has always been, and will always be, deeply embedded in America.  Perhaps that’s why the non-religious are a minority that gets little respect and indeed is marginalized, including by the loaded words that have crept into our discourse.  First among them is the term “nonbeliever”.  For sure the President simply meant nonbelievers as those who don’t believe in God.  Whether even that is a fair characterization of all those who no longer identify with religion is open to considerable question.  Professed atheists remain only a small (though growing) number of that group.  But, in the context of our current political and social milieu, the important point is that nonbeliever suggests something pejorative.  Those so named are implied to have no beliefs.  That may account for the fact that a large majority of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a nonbeliever as president – no belief in God equates with no belief at all.  Of course, that’s a fallacious assumption and always has been.  Thomas Payne, without whose pen our democracy might never have come into being, probably didn’t believe in God but could hardly be called someone with no belief. 

Words do count and where religious-speak prevails, and is accepted as “gospel”, some have been co-opted and given a proprietary and loaded meaning.  When words are used for our exclusive purposes, or turned on others, language is transformed from being the instrument of free discourse into a tool of arrogant self-confirmation.  That’s precisely what’s happened to the word belief but also to others like values, morality and life itself.  Religion has long seen these words as their domain, but since the 1980s they have also been politicized.  Their definitions have been loaded to meet specific ideological objectives.  Just as those who don’t believe in God are deemed to be nonbelievers, only those who follow religion are considered to be people with values – the famous “value-voters” obsessed about by pundits during the Bush years.  While a growing number of neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers now believe morality to be innate, religion still claims that word as its own, seeking to be its ultimate arbiter.  But no word has become more politicized, manipulated or loaded with ideological meaning than life.  The religious, of all stripes believe that life is ultimately under God’s control, but some have taken upon themselves to impose their particular read of that on everyone else.  They use life as a manipulative slogan.  It has become a proprietary brand, accepted and reinforced by the press and public officials who have ceded its “right” to those “speaking in God’s name”.  Not only does that give the religious extreme the upper verbal hand in a debate drawn as one between “life” and “choice”, this loaded branding suggests an opponent who promotes death, murder as they blatantly call it.  Again, as with nonbeliever, the implication transcends the issue of abortion.  It reared its loaded head in the infamous Terry Schiavo spectacle as it does in the stem cell debate.  The embryo has become the “unborn”, a life with seemingly greater rights than those of the real living – the child fighting leukemia, the adult with a spinal injury or facing a tortuous Parkinson’s existence.

You don’t have to read the results of surveys to know that religion has lost its grip on many of us, perhaps vastly more than simple identification numbers would suggest.  When CNN’s Jack Cafferty asked listeners why that’s so, many attributed it to an alienation with organized religion, an institution often disconnected from our daily lives.  Others blame the kind of religion that has taken center stage; that controls the microphone and the public agenda or that sponsors acts of terror.  What about words?  Perhaps it’s true that “sticks and stones can break my bones” but not so that “words will never hurt me”.  Words alone can’t drive us from religion, but loaded words can hurt and they do turn us off.  We are, as the President said, a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and increasingly we are also a nation of the non-religious.  All are believers.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Beyond all That

There has been a lot of finger pointing of late.  We have to look beyond all that.  By the summer of 2008, polls suggested that more than 80% of the public thought the country was headed in the wrong direction.  You can read that as an indictment of the Bush administration, and reference the election to prove your point.  That’s too easy.  Perhaps, we should rather look in the mirror.  After all we are the country.  So I’d rather that we turn this statistic on ourselves and admit that we – all of us – were headed in the wrong direction.  The enormous problems we face today can’t all be blamed on what one President left on another’s plate.  There is little doubt that Bush bequeathed Obama a negative legacy of almost criminal proportions, but he had a lot of help and we, that amorphous country from which we like to disassociate ourselves, were willing enablers. 

Something has gone terribly wrong with the values to which subscribe or to which we pay homage.  We gaggle at celebrity and at Fortune’s pathetic and shrinking list of the super rich while factory workers vote for politicians who cut taxes on everyone but the hourly wage earner.  Like lemmings we, and I include myself, follow that misnamed thing called “conventional wisdom” when we should know that it is nothing but “conventional stupidity”.  Perhaps the context of Phil Gramm’s infamous “country of whiners” was off the mark, but we most certainly like to complain about our woes being the other guy’s fault.  Elie Wiesel may be no financial genius (though he probably likes money as much as anyone else), but someone with a $17 Million foundation bares a fiduciary responsibility in turning it all over to a single “money manager”, even one who is not a crook.  The promise of big returns was just too good to resist.   Sure the banks held out misleading mortgage and credit card offers, but we took and we used.  In large measure we are responsible for where we find ourselves.  Perhaps our financial institutions have a systemic problem, but so do we.

Almost since its inception, I’ve focused my blog almost exclusively on politics, hitting other subjects only on an ad hoc basis.  There were good reasons to do so and to begin advocating for Barack Obama even before his formal announcement.  Needless to say, I’m happy to have him in the White House.  His position is not enviable, but somehow I think he is the right person for the time.  If we can bend our heads around the truth that you can’t lose 20 pounds in a week, perhaps we’ll be better equipped to understand that this crisis won’t be fixed overnight.  Instant is just not in the cards.  In any event, at this point there are an untold number of voices speaking out on matters political and economic, many of them doing it better and with substantially more credentials.  My interest hasn’t waned, but I want to turn my efforts in another direction, one that reflects the larger writing in which I’ve been engaged, specifically the role that religion plays or for many doesn’t play in our lives.  We’re facing some very real problems that will have to be overcome, but I want to look beyond all that.  Some people believe the President shouldn’t be thinking about health and energy as we face this crisis.  I think he’s right; both are deeply intertwined with our financial woes.  So, too, while my turn from political commentary to things beyond all that may seem equally unrelated, life is all of a piece.  It isn’t only about what we do but who we are and in all things there is a substantial amount of déjà vu.

Here’s just one example of what I mean.  In the scheme of things is there much difference between a mega-corporation and a megachurch?  Both like to tout their numbers, $5 Billion “earned” this quarter, 20,000 members and counting.  Is bigger means better any more or less a value?  When Joel Osteen looks out at the assembled thousands at Lakewood, he tells them (and us) that they have come to find God.  He unashamedly promises them much in God’s name.  God will protect and God will fix. I don’t know him and can’t question his commitment or faith.  But do you have any doubt that he and his “Tammy Faye” or Rick Warren and his aren’t pretty proud of the institution they built much as were Sandy Weill and his wife Joan?  In looking out at that former stadium filled to capacity it’s hard to believe that it doesn’t occur to Osteen that all those eyes and ears “are focused on me”.  Of course, he and Warren aren’t the whole or even a small part of religion, but they are often the face of it we see on the news and in the public square.

Religion is a human endeavor and while the megachurches are building their memberships (often at the expense of smaller institutions) growing numbers of Americans are rethinking their commitment.  They were reared in a church or synagogue but are now looking beyond all that, wondering if just doing what they always did still works for them?  Perhaps for the majority it does, but as we consider the general path we’ve been on in other areas, I can’t think of a better moment to ask the question or to look beyond.  That’s what I hope to do with this reset blog, “Beyond All That”.  I hope you’ll come along and engage with me.