Freedom from Religion

Book burning on the rise

Senior year in high school included the long-feared ‘senior paper.’ A project of English class, the paper’s thesis had to be approved first then the long drudgery of research would begin. The paper itself, to be footnoted and typed, would form a significant part of the final grade in that class.

I was no stranger to research and looked forward to hours at the local library, which was located only a block from the high school. Unexplored wonders could be found in that quiet place, books on the history of the world and the various exploits of human kind. As I sought further information to prove my thesis, I jotted my notes on 4×6 index cards, another requirement for the project.

My thesis asked the question: Why did existential thought that existed throughout the history of mankind suddenly become an overwhelming condition of modern mankind?

The material I explored included Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, James Gutman’s Philosophy A to Z, John Killinger’s The English Journal, and a long list of citations from the Bible as well as ancient writings from world cultures. In reading these materials and processing the information into a coherent statement in proof of my thesis, I realized that much of what I had come to believe in my eighteen years was right: Christianity—indeed, all organized religion—was a construct of humanity meant to salve our existential despair.

The difference with the modern age, as so clearly delineated in philosophical examination, is/was that by the very process of advancing civilization, humans have cut themselves off from key partnerships that once provided balm to our woe: Nature, tribal life, our gods, and ourselves, the latter with our frenetic pace and endless amusements. With these alienations, we find ourselves utterly alone, a condition so difficult that we endlessly seek escape in intoxicants, entertainment, and work.

The paper earned me an “A.” I packed it away along with the notecards in their little clasp envelope. I’ve always remembered the paper and the education I gained in my research, but I never looked at those cards again. If the question ever arose, I would have guessed they had been tossed out a long time ago.

Not so. My mother saved them, and they once again entered my domain when a few years ago she handed me a couple of boxes crammed with souvenirs of my life—photographs of junior high and high school friends, letters home from California or the Philippine Islands, clippings of my various public activities through the years. And the notecards.

At first, I picked up the small packet of cards not knowing what it contained. On the outside, at some point my mother had written “Denele’s – what helped her turn away from God!”

Well.

Yes, insomuch as I indeed turned away from the Church of Christ’s concept of God, this project helped. But what my mother could never grasp is that I had been questioning God, or more to the point, religion in general, since age five. By eight years of age, I had settled on key questions no one wanted to answer, typical questions for young people such as ‘Where did God come from?” and “Who did Adam and Eve’s children marry?” The answer always condensed down to “Don’t ask.”

Fast forward six or seven decades while I continued to read and question and discover. I have no regrets that I discarded the blinders imposed by my parents’ fundamentalist faith. I’m happy that my curiosity led me to explore philosophy, natural history, and science with the many mysteries of human existence. What makes me sad is that even today parents still seek to limit their children’s exposure to knowledge that exists outside the boundaries of their rigid belief systems or which violates the dogma of their faith.

The burning of the pantheistic Amalrician heretics in 1210, in the presence of King Philip II Augustus. In the background is the Gibbet of Montfaucon and, anachronistically, the Grosse Tour of the Temple. Illumination from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c. AD 1455–1460.

For example, I once lamented the limited extracurricular activities available at the small rural school my children attended, pointing out that so many opportunities were being lost. Where was the encouragement to attend college, learn music or art, explore the wonders of the world? The response from one parent actually struck me speechless. “Well, honey, somebody’s got to flip the burgers,” she said, fist propped on her hip. “What about that?”

Indeed, what about that? How tragic that her children and so many others would be trapped in that mindset.

The price of limiting the thinking of our children is immeasurable. We see it every day in intolerance even hatred for anyone different, whether ethnic, racial, or gender differences. We see it in embrace of authoritarian figures like Trump who fit a distorted concept of leadership based on an authoritarian god. We see it in the fear of change that leads to violence against those perceived as ‘Other.’

Frans Hals – Portret van René Descartes, Wikipedia

Much of what is written on those cards is nonsensical taken in isolation, like quotes from Heidegger’s book Being and Time (1927) about the two kinds of being, “Sein” meaning all things, and “Dasein” meaning only mankind. Or the postulation of Descartes in his 1637 Discourse on the Method wherein he wrote: Ego Ergo Sic, or “I am, therefore I am thus,” or more widely conceived as “I think, therefore I am.” Pondering these kinds of concepts is not easy and tends to take oneself out of the hum of routine. And away from the strict belief systems of doctrines undergirding religion.

What my mother exclaimed in her quickly penned remark about my notecards is true. Those learning experiences helped me abandon religion entirely. Another big step on that path was a college course in English Bible, where the three authors of the Books of Moses were examined with comparisons of material in Genesis to the Sumerian books of Gilgamesh—and much more. It’s been a lifelong study, full of empathy for others who, like me, struggle with the very essence of existence, remarked by feminist French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948):

“The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself. …Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.”

For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom.[1] Freedom to believe, to act, to question, to reach out to others in individual acts of kindness—these fulfill us in myriad ways that counter the existential despair of modern life. Understanding that, and the awareness that our personal journey is best seen as an opportunity to make the world a better place, has helped me live a rich life.

I thank the notecards. I thank the Founding Fathers for enshrining my freedom of thought within the Constitution. And I thank my parents and ancestors for giving me the intelligence, if not the freedom, to choose.


[1] Summarized at https://fs.blog/simone-de-beauvoir-ethics-freedom/

The New Censorship

The latest absurdity to emanate from the Trump White House is the edict to scientists at the Centers for Disease Control that they cannot use seven words in a report that will be part of the 2019 budget request. The words are vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.

If I were a scientist working on that report, I would be strongly tempted to go through the draft that contains those words and simply black them out. That would remove them from the report, as requested. Let those who don’t want to see those words guess what’s under the black mark.

My second temptation would be to replace the words with a first letter and a following blank, as in t__________. Since all the forbidden words begin with different letters, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the reader to figure out the missing letters.

Alternatively, authors less willing to be openly defiant could resort to lengthy talk-arounds. For example, “vulnerable” could be replaced with “persons who through birth defect, age, illness, or other conditions are less able to resist potential harm from…”

“Entitlement” would become “the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something, or the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges), or a type of financial help provided by the government for members of a particular group.” Readers get to choose which meaning they prefer.

No reasons were given for the banishment of these seven words. Observers are left to speculate whether more words might be forbidden in the coming months and what they might be. Already we’ve learned that agencies may not refer to “global warming” or “climate change,” all part of this administration’s fervent embrace of denialism. Such an approach speaks volumes about the close-mindedness of the Republican right.

In the psychology of human behavior, denialism is a person’s choice to deny reality, as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.  Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality. In the sciences, denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favor of radical and controversial ideas.[1]

Explanation is also missing about who in particular requested these restrictions. No one would be surprised if the proclamation came from the petulant-child-in-chief himself, since he prefers monosyllables. Maybe the four-syllable “diversity” is too much for him to move his lips over as he attempts to read it. With his utter disregard for science as a discipline and the exacting process science pursues in developing “evidence,” he might prefer, in the possible instance of his developing prostate cancer, that his doctor explains “there’s a bigly bad problem in your thingy down there.”

However, advisors whispering at the Big Baby’s elbow surely find political hay to be made from eradicating the word “fetus” in the hopes that report authors would be forced to use a preferred term such as “unborn child.” However, a fetus is not a child, born or not, and scientists would probably be picky about technicalities like that. They might resort to using a phrase something like “a being in the stage of prenatal development between the embryonic state and birth, occurring after the first eleven weeks of gestation.”

If the report isn’t specified to contain a limited number of words, perhaps no one would mind that a concise single-word scientific term like “fetus” would require twenty-two words to replace it.

This points up the deeply ridiculous aspect of the seven-word ban. Our society – and societies worldwide – agree on words like “fetus” to describe a precisely-understood concept. It’s not that the current administration doesn’t understand what a “fetus” is or feels that it needs a bigger explanation. It’s that the word is involved in a political debate about a woman’s right to choose whether to produce a child. The word “fetus” doesn’t trigger the warm fuzzies that make an evangelical want to rush out and murder a gynecologist or chortle over the prospect of an illegal abortion causing a woman to bleed to death.

Similarly, the word “transgender” triggers instantaneous outrage among the more benighted among us. Ready to drag out the Bible to point out where it clearly states that God only made man and woman, these folks aren’t going to listen to reason anytime soon no matter how clearly it’s explained that there’s a whole other world of gender- and sexual identity-reality out there. They still haven’t accepted that men and women can love and desire members of their own sex. Despite their abysmal ignorance and visceral terror over anything other than their mirror image, the prurient interests of these folks prod them to inspect and judge the more intimate details of Other People’s Lives.

Wikipedia:

Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex. Transgender people are sometimes called transsexual if they desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another. Transgender is also an umbrella term: in addition to including people whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex (trans men and trans women), it may include people who are not exclusively masculine or feminine (people who are genderqueer or non-binary, including bigender, pangender, genderfluid, or agender). Other definitions of transgender also include people who belong to a third gender, or conceptualize transgender people as a third gender. Infrequently, the term transgender is defined very broadly to include cross-dressers, regardless of their gender identity.

Being transgender is independent of sexual orientation:  transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or may decline to label their sexual orientation. The term transgender is also distinguished from intersex, a term that describes people born with physical sex characteristics “that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”. The counterpart of transgender is cisgender, which describes persons whose gender identity or expression matches their assigned sex.[2]

It might be difficult to sum up all that in a short phrase in order to replace the word “transgender.”

Our collective intelligence and good will has been insulted repeatedly in the electoral-college victory of Donald Trump. Both before and after the election, he has intentionally incited violence, misunderstanding, prejudice, racism, and division. His performance as president is an international embarrassment. It’s difficult to believe he actually thinks about anything much less reasons. He’s the worst possible person for the role he managed to grab off the gut wagon.

We’ve been forced to accept a presidency of an essentially illiterate man with such a record of abuses, deceptions, insults, sexual assaults, adultery, and overarching greed that it’s difficult to maintain an appropriate level of disgust. While we may hope for a favorable outcome of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, meaning Trump himself would be found red-handed and subject to prosecution, we face the clear possibility that even this last glimmer of faith in our system will also fall by the wayside. And although we hope for a reversal of Congressional control in the 2018 election, even that will not remove the idiot currently occupying the Oval Office.

But this — this censorship of important words — is alarming evidence of the danger facing our nation.

Whether the seven-word ban is a result of Trump’s petulant desire to get his hands on an easier read—not that anyone thinks for a moment he’ll actually read the CDC report—or his acquiescence to the manipulations of people like Stephen Miller, the remarkably under-investigated wizard whirling the bells and whistles behind Trump’s curtain, no one can say. The most terrifying aspect of the straight-jacket this latest outrage places on scientists is the mentality behind it. Words that describe troubling issues are to be eliminated, as if banishing the word somehow banishes the issue.

These are manipulations of a tyrannical dictatorship, not the supposed world leader in freedom of thought and expression. The very idea of banning certain words from anything violates the fundamental concept of our nation and the stated protection of free speech enshrined in our First Amendment,  facts that are no doubt incomprehensible to this moronic president and the one-track extremists behind his agenda.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denialism

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender