Freedom

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Everywhere man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. So thought Jean Jacques Rousseau back before the French Revolution. One wonders what he might think now. Plus ça change… and all that, I guess.

Freedom is relative, of course. Very much a case of the chains half on or half off. In the West, we often talk about how free we are and, yet, whenever someone chooses to exercise that freedom, say by refusing to stand up when an anthem was played, we get all sorts of responses – such as the pastor who stated at a football game (to wild cheers) that anyone who refused to stand, should be shot.

That struck home since, on occasion, I’ve refused to stand for such ceremonies. I got some dirty looks – or, this being Canada, some sidelong glances – but no one pulled a gun on me. Of course, talk is one thing – it’s a free country isn’t it? – but action is quite another. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Religious freedom is one area where people become particularly confused. They feel that their freedom has been limited if they aren’t allowed to impose their views and values on other people, aren’t allowed to be paid by the government but refuse to serve citizens if they don’t like the cut of their jib. It’s public service folks! If you want a cult-run state, move to North Korea.

Or they believe in freedom religion but only for their own. Daesh (ISIS if you like) is all for freedom of religion – you’re free to convert anytime you like. And if you don’t… well, you have no one to blame for yourself.

But, of course, freedom can take many forms. In some places, people have proposed right-to-work legislation – even imposed it – but what they really want to do is take away your freedom of association, or put it more bluntly, they want to outlaw unions. And why not? Employment they say is a matter of a contract between two people – a boss and a worker. It’s a bit like saying that anyone can get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world and expect a fair fight.

Still, we have the right to vote, right? Well, we do as long as someone is watching. But look away for even a moment, and someone will start to find ways to exclude some voters. Voter registration and identification is just a modern form of the Jim Crow laws that were designed to keep black Americans from voting or the Indian Act in Canada that denied indigenous people the vote into the 1960s. Even when we talk of wasted votes or design systems where votes don’t really matter, we find ways to limit political freedom – at least for some of us. The very wealthy can always buy whatever freedom they want and often do.

Still, not all is lost. In the West at least, what used to be solved by force of arms – war and revolution – is now achieved through voter revolts and populist movements. Not always pretty but less likely to enslave us. And if it does we can turn to another old time thinker who said, echoing Rousseau: Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

And that’s ten minutes.

Church and State

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While many Americans have trouble telling the difference between their country and Canada and even more Canadians live in a state of anxiety about that apparent lack of difference, I suffer from no such illusions. There are dozens of deep differences between our societies; one of the most profound is the role of religion in politics.

It is not that the religious do not try to impose their views on us. Most recently the Catholic archbishops have suggested that those who support physician assisted dying cannot expect to receive a church burial. Similar threats have been made in the past; I expect this one will have no more impact than the others. Canadians and, more importantly, Canadian politicians see no particular role for religion in the governing of the state.

Many people, for example, were surprised to discover that Pierre Trudeau, who legalized homosexual acts between adults in the late 60s with the famous line, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” was a deeply devout Catholic. The vast majority of Canadian politicians view their personal beliefs as private. And so do the voters. When it was discovered (after his death) that PM Mackenzie King held séances to consult his dead mother on policy matters, most people simply shrugged and said: well, he did a good job and kept his strange views to himself.He is still regarded as one of our greatest Prime Ministers.

It’s hard to imagine a modern American politician being so open and obvious about their beliefs – or lack thereof. Bernie Sanders is purported to be a rational sceptic but he hardly proclaims his doubts from the pulpit. Ted Cruz apparently wants to create a theocracy. When I consider the choice between him and Trump, I have to say that Trump who is vague about his religion (but still eats Ted’s lunch among evangelicals) is the lesser of two evils.

In part, our politics reflect deeper divisions between our nations. America was founded out of religious persecution. Many of its early settlers were Protestant dissidents, fleeing Catholic or Anglican persecution in Europe. The American founding fathers may or may not have been religious themselves (some were, some almost certainly weren’t) but were well aware of what religion, when incorporated in the state (the King of England was also the head of the church), could do to freedom. They explicitly forbade the establishment of a state religion or of the dominance of one faith over the other. They’ve been fighting about it ever since.

Canada, on the other hand, came later, when class and nationalism were the driving forces of both oppression and revolution. Religion had a role (especially in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution of the 60s) but not a central one. Early Prime Ministers may well have proclaimed Canada to be a Christian country but the near equal balance of Catholics and Protestants in the population made them wary of incorporating much dogma into the law. Since World War II, religion has grown increasingly silent which may be related to why ‘none’ is the answer one in four Canadians give when asked their religion on the census. The number of non-religious is lower (but growing) in the USA – though fewer Americans than Canadians claim to actually be atheists; in part, it may be to avoid trouble.

Maybe this is why it is easier for Canada to accept immigrants of diverse faiths. We were raised to think that religion is nothing to fear; Americans apparently know better.

And that’s ten minutes.

Capricious Gods

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If there were a God, there would be no question that he would best be described as capricious – unpredictable, moody and arbitrary. This idea would come as no surprise to ancient peoples. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Israelites would have no difficulty understanding the concept.

The gods could and likely would act in any way that suited their moods at the moment. Life was a constant struggle to try to figure out exactly what that mood might be and how to ameliorate it. That was why auguries and sacrifices were so important. Yet, even if you lived an exemplary life, that was no reason to think the gods wouldn’t suddenly turn on you and visit all sorts of unpleasantness down upon your head. Just ask Job.

While the gods were unpredictable to the ancients, he was not unknowable. If a man was struck down with a wasting disease, it wasn’t hard to know why. He had clearly offended one of the gods and was being punished for it. Not much to do but to make a sacrifice and hope for the best. The idea that god works in mysterious ways was completely foreign to the ancient mind.

Why would god choose to kill a good man and let a bad one live? Again it’s not hard to figure out. The good man was struck down precisely because he was good – he had clearly embarrassed Apollo by his goodness or his talent or even his piety. He had to go. As for the bad man? Well, the gods love to torment their creations. Undoubtedly, Hermes was getting great pleasure out this tricky little weasel and wanted the game to go on for a while.

The modern Christian – and I suppose those of other faiths – have a more difficult problem. They can hardly accept that a loving and forgiving god could operate except for the best of reasons. It’s fascinating to watch them try to explain why four-year old children get cancer and die. God must have wanted him in heaven is the most mealy-mouthed answer. To which I might say – what the hell for? He’s God – he can’t possibly need anything. We can’t know God’s mind, they respond

Of course, some so-called Christians have no difficulty in figuring it all out. It is the sins of… you pick it, liberals, homosexuals, Obama, Muslims – whatever. God is angry and he’s showing it by letting all these terrible things happen. You would think that an all-powerful and all-knowing God would be smart enough to know exactly who is pissing him off and powerful enough to punish them directly.

Which I guess is why they are so much more interested in the old testament than the new – a god who is capricious and who, as Shakespeare said: is like wanton boys to flies, is so much easier to envision as one who will do your dirty work for you.

Yeah, I’m pissed off this week. A good, gentle, brilliant man fell down some stairs and died. Another, an abusive, addicted, violent, limited man fell down some stairs the same day and lived. And someone told me it was God’s will. Yeah, I get that, even if Jesus wouldn’t.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Religious Freedom

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Hilary Clinton once said that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. She might be excused for espousing such a logical absurdity given that a poll of Americans once found that they would rather have a communist for president than an atheist. Despite the wishes of its founding fathers, America has indeed become a god-fearing country.

This weekend – on January 16th, in fact – some Americans celebrated religious freedom day. It marks the anniversary of a law passed in Virginia, under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, which removed the Anglican Church (now called the Episcopalian Church) from being the official church of the state. Under this law, ALL religions would be treated as equal before the law and, as is promised in the US Constitution, no religion would have influence over the secular government.

While secular tyrannies abound – such as North Korea – it is far more common to find religious tyrannies in the modern world (Myanmar with its Buddhist extremists or Saudi Arabia where Sunni oppresses Shia Muslims). There are those in the United States who would like to see their own country become one. They would like to change the Constitution to make the USA a Christian country subject to Biblical law. Good luck to them – well, in the falling-down-the-stairs into a pit of flaming oil sense of the words: good luck.

Of course, the fact that there are dozens of varieties of Christians probably poses a bit of the problem. The same way it did in Europe during the Reformation and subsequent 200 years of religious war. It’s hard to tally the number of people burnt at the stake over disputes over the nature of the trinity. One in three or three in one – it’s a dicey question unless you are trying to fix a rusty hinge.

Freedom from religion is at the heart of the idea of the separation of church and state. It means, in essence, that everyone is free to practice their own religion (if they have one) without the worry of being persecuted legally by the adherents of another faith. It means, for all matter that happen outside an actual church, you can’t be discriminated against simply because you don’t believe the things that other people believe.

There are people who don’t seem to get that. A lot of them seem to be running for the GOP nomination for president. Several of those people are Catholics. There was a time in America when Catholics were excluded from membership in certain clubs. One of those clubs was the Presidency. John Kennedy would have won by more than a few hundred thousand votes if he hadn’t been the first serious Catholic candidate for the job.

Having been raised a Baptist, I can see the value of excluding Catholics from high office. Maybe we should even stop them from coming to the country. Some Catholics – Irish ones for example, like Mr. Trump’s ancestors – have been heavily engaged in terrorist acts. Maybe they should be excluded from even staying in the States just until ‘we figure this thing out.’

This is not really satire – it’s simply a case of following things through to their illogical conclusion. Without freedom from religion, there is no freedom of religion.

And that’s ten minutes.

Merry Merry

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Merry Christmas everyone. Or Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Kwanza. If it was occurring this time of year – it very seldom is – I’d wish you a pleasant Ramadan. Certainly, have a fine Solstice or Saturnalia. Festivus for the rest of us for those Seinfeld fans (I don’t worship at that particular altar). I’m sure I’ve left some out. There are just so many religions; it’s hard for an atheist to keep track.

But I send each and every one of you Seasons’ Greetings – for whatever it means to you. That, after all, is the nature of communication. I send a message – containing what is meaningful to me – and you receive it and place your interpretation on it.

Some might say this is a war on Christmas. Which is to say, a war on exclusiveness. A war on imposing your particular religious views on everyone around you. Which, if you are an evangelical whatever, is exactly what your religion requires of you. I say whatever, because proselytization is not simply a Christian thing.

Anyway, all I’m really trying to say is that I grok this Christmas thing. Or things. It is, after all, a very amorphous event. Celebrated at solstice (or damn close to it) despite the fact the birth being celebrated was almost certainly a spring one (shepherds in their fields or big clue: Lamb of God; lambs being born in the spring). There was a lot of competition with other holidays and if you weren’t doing the solstice thing, you weren’t doing it right. I often wonder what would have happened if all these religions had been born at the equator where the solstice is just another day.

Then, of course, there are all those northern European tie-ins. Christmas trees and lights – bringing nature indoors, which by the way is specifically condemned in the Bible. And of course Santa Claus, who has as much to do with Krampus as Saint Nicholas (‘he knows if you’ve been bad or good’ is kind of a threat of punishment, isn’t it?).

For those who think Christmas has become too commercial – that part is in the Bible. Those three wise guys didn’t exactly stint on the birthday gifts. Gold and incense is kind of neat but myrrh? Wasn’t that used in embalming? Well, I guess they knew what was coming; they were Magi after all (which is just a fancy word for magician or fortune-teller).

But none of it really matters. I like it when people wish me Merry Christmas and I like to wish it back at them. Because what they are really wishing me is peace, joy and happiness. What they are hoping for is a new beginning better than the last messed up year. Why would anyone object to that? Sure a few cranky curmudgeons might get their knickers in a knot and proclaim their atheism from the mountaintop but who cares? They are no more fun than those supersensitive church goers who find offence at everything.

So Merry Christmas or whatever it is you celebrate. And if you don’t celebrate anything? I wish you well, my friend, I wish you well.

And that’s ten minutes (which is taking a few days off for Christmas).

Religious Violence

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Is religion inherently violent? Certainly there are those who will say it is. Or rather they will say Islam is. You can find those claims if you like – usually made by people who have an outside’s view of that religion. There are others who will tell you that all religions are inherently violent. That faith itself is the basis of violent behavior.

I’m not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of religion. It is a colossal waste of human time and energy. It is sometimes used to oppress people; it is often used to defraud them. The good that religious people do is neither different nor greater than the good done by the irreligious. And make no mistake; people have done great violence in the name of religion. All people, all religions, everywhere.

It’s hard to do violence in the name of atheism but a few people have even managed it. Not Hitler  – he was a self-proclaimed Catholic – but others.

See, that’s the thing. People do violence. And, sometimes they use religion as an excuse. Some may even use it as a motivation. Nobody gets off the hook for that.

Yet, if religion was a cause of violence, we’d be in a lot of trouble. There are literally billions of devoted people in the world. If religion drove them to violence, we’d all soon be dead. Yet, in fact, the world is getting less violent. Don’t take my word for it – there is good solid research to show it is true. The world is also getting more secular but the trend away from violence predates that change.

Why people like the barbarians of Daesh are driven to commit atrocities is unclear. Some of it is based on ideology rooted in what is clearly a misinterpretation of Islam just as Anders Breivik in Norway murdered scores of people because he misunderstood Christianity, just as Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar clearly misunderstand the teachings of Buddha. I could go on – as I said people have committed acts of violence and terrorism for a long time for a lot of reasons.

You might as well ask if politics is inherently violent. Think of all the acts of violence committed in the name of one ideology or the other – right or left, authoritarian or anarchist, they all do it.

People are violent and usually don’t need any reason at all to be that way – except to justify themselves. Violence is a tool to get what you want – money power, sex. We are all wired to respond to violence – a few by fighting, many by fleeing, some by freezing. Frozen people do not resist.

And of course there are causes for violence – which include poverty, powerlessness, fear of the other, fractured economies, criminal tendencies and human venality.

There are those who think that violence must be met with more violence. The evidence for that succeeding is pretty slim. When you look at why the world is becoming less violent, clearly it is not because of more violence. It is because we are also remarkably good at cooperating, at building societies, negotiating ways of living, of talking and working together for a better world.

Because most people don’t like to be hurt. Most people do not like hurting others. Most people believe in the golden rule: do unto others… And you don’t need religion to know that. But it’s surprising how many religions preach it.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Root Causes

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A week tomorrow I’m heading for Turkey for a long anticipated vacation. So, you can imagine I wasn’t happy to hear that nearly 90 people were killed when bombs went off at a peace rally in Ankara. The fact I’m not going anywhere near the capital is hardly a consolation.

Still, I know that if I die in Turkey it is more likely because my hot air balloon crashed or I had a heart attack from too much Turkish Delight and too many flights of stairs. Neither is likely but both are more likely than being killed by a terrorist (if terrorists it was) even in a country with growing unrest.

So – unless my wife gets too nervous – I plan to go ahead with my visit. It is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and, by all accounts, a very friendly populace. I won’t wander into any political demonstrations – it is not my business to do so – but other than that I will go about my business. I’ll be wary but I always am when visiting a place I don’t know. The best way to get mugged is to look like you don’t belong so I’ll try to look confidant and like an old hand.

The upsetting thing – apart for the sorrow I feel for those who were killed today – is that Turkey has long been a stalwart of secular democratic institutions. It is a multi-party system that was a democracy when other countries in the region, when other countries in Europe, were not. Now, it seems to have changed, though my Turkish friends say it is not quite changed as much as the western press seems to believe.

I have my suspicions as to what happened. The current president and former Prime Minister is a charismatic leader who wishes to break down the secular nature of the state and bring a greater influence of religion into government. He was recently rebuffed in elections but instead of cooperating with other parties, chose to call another election to try and get his way. Let’s hope he is rebuffed once again. The fact he is playing the fear card is eerily familiar to the Canadian election but as we see the consequences are greater.

This is not an attack on Islam; it is an attack on any inclusion of religion in the operation of government. I’m as concerned about the Republican desire to make America into a so-called “Christian” nation as I am with Turkey – or for that matter, parts of India where religious based parties dominate state governments.

Religion is a private matter even when conducted in public. Although I am an atheist and view church as a tremendous waste of time, energy and resources, if it works for you, feel free to practice it in the way you see fit. But keep it out of government. It always leads to chaos, discrimination and, yes, violence.

The greatest thing that may have happened in the evolution of British democracy was making the church explicitly subservient to the state. Religion is all well and good but it is always about dividing the believers from the non-believers. Only the state has room for everyone. Only the state can promote freedom and equality. As Canadians say: only good government brings peace and order.

And that’s ten minutes.