A Matter of Perception / Why People Who See the World Differently are Wrong – A Lunchtime Post

userpic=aughhIn a recent discussion in response to my Facebook post on Starbucks Red Cups, a very rationale friend of mine wondered by people became religious fundamentalists. I responded back that I didn’t know, but noted back “Well, lots of people have beliefs. But some people have beliefs that can be challenged or modified, and some are so convinced that they are correct that they won’t accept any evidence that contradicts their beliefs.”. While reading through my RSS feeds over lunch, an article came across with the intriguing title “Why you often believe people who see the world differently are wrong“. The article, which appears to be a transcription from a podcast I need to explore, explores what shapes our perception that we see the world as it truly is, free from bias or the limitations of our senses (which is termed “naive realism”). Naive realism leads us to believe we arrived at our opinions, political or otherwise, after careful, rational analysis through unmediated thoughts and perceptions. In other words, we think we have been mainlining pure reality for years, and our intense study of the bare facts is what has naturally led to our conclusions. As such, we can’t understand why others don’t think the same way. In fact, on most emotionally charged issues, there is no objective perspective that a brain can take, despite the fact all the people on each side of any debate believe their side is the one rooted in reality.

Here are some interesting quotes from the article:

…since you believe you are in the really-real, true reality, you also believe that you have been extremely careful and devoted to sticking to the facts and thus are free from bias and impervious to persuasion. Anyone else who has read the things you have read or seen the things you have seen will naturally see things your way, given that they’ve pondered the matter as thoughtfully as you have. Therefore, you assume, anyone who disagrees with your political opinions probably just doesn’t have all the facts yet. If they had, they’d already be seeing the world like you do. This is why you continue to ineffectually copy and paste links from all our most trusted sources when arguing your points with those who seem misguided, crazy, uninformed, and just plain wrong. The problem is, this is exactly what the other side thinks will work on you.


When confronted with people who disagree with your estimations of reality, even after you’ve pushed a bunch of facts in their faces, you tend to assume there must be a rational explanation for why they think and feel the way they do. Usually, that explanation is that the other side is either lazy or stupid or corrupted by some nefarious information-scrambling entity like cable news, a blowhard pundit, a charming pastor, or a lack thereof. Since this is where we often end up, they say what usually happens is that our “repeated attempts at dialogue with those on the ‘other side’ of a contentious issue make us aware that they rarely yield to our attempts at enlightenment; nor do they yield to the efforts of articulate, fair-minded spokespersons who share our views.” In other words, it’s naive to think evidence presented from the sources you trust will sway your opponents because when they do the same, it never sways you.

This is something I see happen continually on Facebook and other discussion forums. It is a very important thing to understand, and in many ways, it explains arguments with both fundamentalists and Republicans quite well 🙂 . I will have to go listen to the full podcast.

P.S.: Mental Floss has published an article on NPR’s new Podcast finder, earbud.fm. What’s interesting about this is that is it curated: the editors don’t just list good podcasts, but they recommend specific episodes as entry points for that podcast (and often, that’s not the first episode). I’d say I need to explore it, but I’ve already got more podcasts coming in than I have time to listen to. There’s loads of good stuff out there.


Why Freedom of Belief Is So Important

userpic=schmuckThe response to my post of yesterday regarding Starbucks, the Red Cups, and Christian Privilege (at least on Facebook) has been tremendous, if not a little off-point: over 83 likes, over 33 shares, and lots and lots of comments. I was thinking about it over lunch, and about the movement in our country by some Christian groups to bring God more into the discussion, to have laws that are more in-line with biblical teaching.

To me, that is the absolute wrong thing to do, and will destroy what is special about America. I understand the fears behind the laws, especially as these folk see Islam rising in other countries, and they see more and more people with strongly different beliefs. I understand they are scared and that they believe there is a “war on Christianity” — an attempt to wipe out Christmas and other holidays.

C’mon. Retailers will never let that happen.

Seriously, however, what keeps America strong and special is precisely its freedom of belief, and freedom from government imposed belief. I do not believe that any other country has this. Everyone in America has the right to their beliefs (or non-beliefs) and to observe them as they see fit. If the government does things right, it will not force a belief on you, will not prevent you from holding your beliefs and worshipping how you will, and it will ensure that one person’s beliefs do not infringe on another’s beliefs. It is on this latter point that we have been failing miserably of late, falling into the Christian notion of “If I believe an action is a sin, not only do I have to not do it, I have to prevent you from doing it as well”.

By strongly ensuring that every individual can believe as they wish, and does not have the right to impose their belief on anyone else, we keep this country strong. We not only ensure that people are free to practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, FSM, atheism, or any other belief system, but we ensure that any belief system cannot take over the country. Enforcing Christian morals and practice on non-Christians through law or policy is just as bad as in Islamic countries, where Islamic morals and practices are enforced on non-Muslims through law or policy.

So, tying back to yesterday: I don’t care what designs are on Starbucks cups. They are free to observe — or not observe — holidays that occur during the winter season as anyone else, in whatever fashion they want.


Seeing Red for a Different Reason

userpic=schmuckEarlier today, I posted the following comment in response to one of the many responses I have seen to the Starbucks Red Cups this holiday season. If you don’t know about this latest skirmish on the “War on Christmas”, the skinny is this: Starbucks, this holiday season, is using plain red disposable cups with their green logo. Many Christians are up in arms about this, seeing it as yet another attack upon Christmas. One response going around (the one that I shared to start my commentary) seethed about the upset in a very good way, noting: “Because, seriously, do you think Jesus would rather we remember his birthday by putting it on a coffee cup that’s going in the trash? Or would he rather we remember it by no longer treating one another as disposable?” [By the way, that commentary is well worth reading]. However, much as I agree with what was said, I saw a deeper issue, and thus I posted the following:

I keep seeing this going around, with various messages: either from Christians upset at Starbucks, or people asking whether Jesus would care about a red cup. What I see, however, is a presumption that infuriates me. Why do we assume a business must venerate Christmas? After all, we’re in a country where there is freedom to practice your religion. In fact, we see devout Christians going to the courts for the right to practice their religion, even when it trods on the rights of others. We’re also in a country where there is no official national religion. So why are we getting upset at a business that might choose not to even tangentially observe a Christian holiday. I’m not insisting that the cups be blue and white. I’m not insisting that they be the colors of Kwanzaa. I don’t care what color they are (I use a refillable mug). Starbucks has as much right to make their cups devoid of holiday symbolism as In-n-Out has of printing bible verses on each cup (which they do). The hidden “Christian Privilege” in this country is amazing. Observation of any religious holyday is a personal matter, not something to plaster on cup. … or be upset if it isn’t there.

The subsequent discussion has been far ranging, with many agreeing, and many not seeing the Christian privilege in this country. If you don’t see it, try looking at things from the someone who is not Christian, and especially who is not of an Abrahamic faith (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) or Atheist. In fact, the number of likes and the discussion surprised me — I have no idea who reads what I write. But there is a strong notion in this country that businesses are expected to do something to observe Christmas and that everyone is expected to hold “Christian” values — and that expectation bothers me in a country that is so proud of its heritage of having freedom to worship. [Of course, that emphasis is actually new. Just look at the history of Catholics in America. I never knew that at one time, the most popular novels were exposes written by nuns.]


Death, Dying, and Resurrection

userpic=tombstonesRecently, the newsfeeds have brought stories of death, dying, and resurrection. None of this is particularly in the religious sense, but it is all interesting in a secular way:

The Dead

  • The Army Green Service Uniform. Those who have worked with the DOD know how to read uniforms: blue for the Air Force, green for the Army. Those days are numbered: The Army Green Service uniform is going away. Specifically, as of Oct. 1, the “Green Class As” are no longer permitted for wear. From 1902 through World War II soldiers wore an olive and/or khaki/tan combination of some sort. But then the Army wanted a sharp, classic and dignified look to distinguish soldiers in a postwar era. Enter the Army Green Uniform in 1954. The dark green color (“shade 44”) was a throwback to the distinctive color for rifle units back in Revolutionary times, and was recommended to the Army by scientists and fashion experts. What is replacing it? Would you believe “Army Blue”? The new ASU’s blue color represents a nod to the first century-plus of the Army, from the Revolution to the Civil War and Spanish American War. The blues became standard issue in 2010 and from there quickly became the most popular service uniform.
  • The Card Catalog. The last manufacturer of cards for the card catalog drawers has decided to stop making the cards. The library cooperative, which created the world’s first shared, online catalog system back in 1971, allowed libraries to order custom-printed cards that could then be put in their own analog cataloging systems. Now, according to the cooperative, it’s time to lay a “largely symbolic” system that’s well past its prime to rest. Cross off another learned skill from your youth you no longer need.
  • Tap Cards. Specifically, expired TAP cards. TAP (Transit Access Pass) is the system used in Southern California for paying for transit. Stored value is loaded on a card, and used on a bus or train. So far, so good. The problem is: those cards expire, and that expiration date is not printed on the card. You can only discover it when you register the card in the system. Further, there are no easy ways (other than calling customer service) to transfer the stored value off of an expired card. The potential windfall accrues to Metro.  According to LA Weekly, It’s estimated that expired TAP money adds up to a whopping $2.7 million. Metro says that about half of those expired Tap balances will be transferred by customers to new cards, leaving the transit agency with $1.3 million dollars in unclaimed money.
  • Your Pilot. Recently, the news was filled with reports about a flight that had its pilot die mid-flight. Although it sounds scary, it really isn’t a problem. After all, there are multiple qualified pilots on every flight.  But that’s not why the extra pilot is there. Commercial flying has always been a team effort, and the main reason for having two pilots is because the business of flying a plane is difficult and often complicated. Contrary to what everybody seems to think, planes do not “fly themselves,” and even a two-pilot cockpit often becomes a surprisingly busy place.
  • US Airways. On Friday, the last US Airways flight will touch down in Philadelphia. This will mark the end of an airlines that included carriers with such well-known reputations as Alleghany, Piedmont, USAir, America West, and of course, PSA.  In fact, it reunites PSA with the remains of AirCal (which American swallowed) and Reno Air.

The Dying

The Resurrection

  • Reel to Reel Tape. We’ve all heard about the rebirth of vinyl. Next up: Reel to reel tapes. I had a small reel-to-reel when I was young, and made tapes of music before I got into cassettes. But we’re not talking the 3″ reels. We’re taking professional quality tape. Further… the verdict is in: tape sounds better than vinyl. Period. Not the cassette tapes of Walkman era, of course. Not those 8-track bricks from the land of shag carpet supervans either. That crude tech is an insult to tape, the same way Velveeta is an insult to cheddar. The real vinyl killer turns out to be reel-to-reel tape. Played on unwieldy machines that conjure visions of ABSCAM sting operations and Boogie Nights bachelor pads, R2R tape is the latest retro-trend for hi-fi geeks and design fetishists who curate their living rooms like a MoMA exhibit.  (yes, that is pasted from the linked article)
  • Georgia’s Stone Mountain. If you recall, during the recent confederate flag kerfuffle, there were calls to destroy the images of confederate generals carved into Stone Mountain. That didn’t fly, but there is the next best thing: Adding Martin Luther King Jr. to Stone Mountain. Georgia officials decided Sunday to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the site of a Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain, Ga. There was mixed reaction. The Stone Mountain Memorial Association, with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s approval, plans to build a tower with a replica of the Liberty Bell just beyond the carvings of Confederate heroes Gen. Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis, and Gen. Stonewall Jackson to celebrate Mr. King’s reference to the site in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
  • Perl. Many of you know that I’m Perl’s Paternal Godparent and the first user of Perl (Larry, Mark, and I all carpooled together to SDC when it was written).  After many years, Larry has just unveiled Perl 6. I guess that means I may need to learn it. I still pretty much just use Perl 4 or Perl 5.



Two Lessons Learned at a Street Fair

userpic=sheepToday, I worked at a booth at the Granada Hills Street Fair for our congregation. In discussions with the patrons there, I heard two very important messages that have stuck with me:

  • I had a couple of people mention a one-time bad experience they had — one time where they weren’t quite as welcomed as they could have been. Now, I know having gotten to know the congregation that this isn’t typical, and that given the chance, people are warm and welcoming. The lesson: Treat every encounter as if this is your only chance to make someone feel welcome. It might be. If you don’t, that one off greeting you give, that one time you talk to your friends instead of welcoming the newcomer — it might be the one thing that makes a great person walk away instead of becoming a member. It may also destroy the one chance you’ve got of meeting and learning about someone really neat.
  • We had someone in their early twenties come up to us and ask: What do you have for us? Someone who is single, young, and with no kids. We didn’t have a good answer. If we want Jewish continuity, if we want young people to continue participating in congregation life, we need a good answer. We can’t wait until they join with their kids — for that is too late (especially as people wait longer to have kids). We need to provide that authentic connection to the young singles. Hint: The answer is not in being a matchmaker service. Not all young adults are looking to find their mate, or their mate in a synagogue. Matchmaking happens best when it comes through other interests. We need activities that bring college and graduate level youths in because of their interests, because of their learning, because of their spirituality. Something that is authentic and challenging and is something they can’t get elsewhere. Something, by the way, that is very hard to figure out. What did they do in the past? Matchmaking. That solution isn’t the answer today.

Why post this here? After all, isn’t it the dirty laundry from my congregation. The answer is: it isn’t. I would bet that these two areas are problems for almost every congregation — for every congregation has that guest they’ve turned off, that newly-minted post-grad who doesn’t see something for them as a single with no kids. They are something we all need to find the answer for.


“That Kind” Takes the Cake

userpic=sheriffjohnRecently, over on Facebook, I’ve gotten into a discussion with some of my more devout friends about the recent court case in Oregon. You may be familiar with it: This is the case where the former owners of an Oregon bakery have been ordered to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused a wedding cake. The large amount was for pain and emotional distress. The bakers had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the wedding cake for the lesbian couple. The court decision was based on the fact that Oregon law bars businesses from discriminating or refusing service based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot turn away customers because of race, sex, disability, age or religion.

The discussions on Facebook at times has been heated. To many of my devout friends (by that I mean folks who hold strong scriptural Christian views as well as Orthodox Jewish friends), this is a case of the courts impinging on the freedom to practice their religion, or upon their freedom of speech. To many of my more liberal friends, this is a case of Oregon simply enforcing their anti-discrimination laws. The whole recent issue of same-sex marriage has highlighted the tension that exists between these three legal concepts, and Facebook discussions do not easily permit a suitable exploration of the issues. As this issue is swirling in my head, I request your indulgence to do so here.

Lets start by looking at some constitutional amendments:

  • First Amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Next, there’s the Oregon law:

  •  659A.403 Discrimination in place of public accommodation prohibited. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age if the individual is 18 years of age or older. [A public accommodation is defined to include “Any place or service offering to the public accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges whether in the nature of goods, services, lodgings, amusements, transportation or otherwise.” but to exclude “An institution, bona fide club or place of accommodation that is in its nature distinctly private”]

Let’s start by exploring whether baking a cake is an exercise of religion. To my interpretation, free exercise of religion is a personal matter. What I wear. What I worship. How I worship. My ability to do that exercise stops at the point where it starts to infringe on someone else’s exercise or beliefs. Same sex marriage is actually a good example of this: Some believe it is not within their religion, others believe that it is. Within my church, I don’t have to do such marriages; I should not be able to prevent those that believe in it from doing it. To do so would be to impinge on their free exercise of religion. In the case of a public business refusing to bake a cake, even with a message on it, that’s impacting someone else. It is not preventing me from going to my church, worshiping my deity. It is trying to impose my view of what is proper, based on my religion, upon someone else. As I’ve said before: My freedom to exercise my religion stops when it impinges on someone else ability to follow their beliefs.

Here’s another way to look at it: In general, my religion should not care what the heathens do; my religion should only care about what I do and what I need to be a good and righteous person/get into [Heaven-concept]. Imposing my religious morality upon the heathen is imposing my religion upon the heathen, and preventing their ability to freely exercise their heathen religions (damned that they may be for doing it). [Unfortunately, the Christian majority in this country far too often wants to do just that to us “heathens” (non-Christians), and the first amendment exists to make it clear that they can’t]

What about freedom of speech? After all, what is on a cake is a message. Perhaps the producer of the cake didn’t want to deliver the message. This would be similar to a private publisher refusing to publish a letter to the editor because they did not want to appear to be condoning the form of speech in the letter. Such refusal is legally allowed — we don’t require all letters to the editor to be published, and permit hateful comments on news articles to be deleted. I think this might be a plausible argument … depending. Whether it really applies in this case depends on information we do not have, such as whether they attempted to order a plain wedding cake with no message, no topper, no decoration indicating it was a same-sex marriage after the original cake with a message was refused (the LA Times article did not say). If they did, then then only “speech” would be their delivering the cake, which could be accommodated by having the cake be picked up by the people that ordered it. The mere presence of a cake, with no attribution, provides no speech on behalf of the baker. Further, even if the cake was baked with a message, if there was no attribution to the bakery, there is no speech by the bakery. Lastly, there is nothing that could have prevented the bakery from requiring a disclaimer to be present on every cake they sell: “Any message on this cake does not represent the views of the owners and management of xxx bakery.” Put it on every cake, and everyone is equal.

Lastly, let’s consider “equal protection of the laws” and the Oregon discrimination law. When is a particular refusal discriminatory? I think a good test would be to substitute “that kind” or “them” — if that is your reason, you’re being discriminatory. For example, “I wouldn’t rent a room to “that kind”” or “I wouldn’t bake a wedding cake for “that kind””. If by “that kind” you are referring to a protected class under the laws of the nation or state, you’re being discriminatory. Just as “I won’t marry them because of their skin color” doesn’t work, “I won’t marry them because of their sexual orientation” doesn’t work. Going to the previous paragraph, if they had refused to allow the couple to pick up a plain cake, that would have been discriminatory. Refusing to pick up a cake with a message depends on attribution; without anything connecting the bakery to the cake, it is likely not freedom of speech and thus discriminatory.

What happened here? According to the LA Times:

When Aaron Klein was told there would be two brides, Rachel and Laurel, he responded that he was sorry, but the bakery did not do wedding cakes for same-sex couples because of his and his wife’s religious convictions, according to the report.

Based on the knowledge at hand, it appears the court made its decision based on the fact that the bakery was a public accommodation, and they did not provide equal privileges based on sexual orientation. We’ve shown that free exercise of religion doesn’t come into play here (as the baker’s decision impinged upon the couple’s exercise). Freedom of speech might have come into play — the article says nothing about the message requested for the cake or how the cake would be presented at the ceremony. For those who believe they should have just gone to another baker: if the issue was simply freedom of speech or freedom of religion, you would be right. If the issue was discrimination, you would be wrong. Consider the analogy of the south in the 1960’s, and a restaurant refusing to serve blacks in defiance of the civil rights laws. The black patron should not be told to just go to another establishment; under the law, they have the ability to use any public establishment of their choice. That is what seems to be the case in Oregon: The law says they can use any public accommodation. If the accommodation does not want to follow the Oregon law, they should either move to a different state or become a distinctly private organization (e.g., only members can order cakes).

Note: This simply goes to the question of whether the action appears to be legal or not. It doesn’t go to the amount of the damages for emotional suffering. Quite often, those amounts are set by the judge or jury to send a message to other groups: is this a slap on the hand (minimal damages) or something to be prevented in the future (major damages). It appears this judge and jury went for the latter. To my point of view it seems excessive, especially in light how how the public reacted to this before the decision:

The bakery’s car was vandalized and broken into twice, he said. Photographers and florists severed ties with the company, eventually forcing the Kleins to close their storefront shop in September 2013.

To me, the vandalism was uncalled for, and should have been taken into account in the damage calculation.

[Update: It appears the damages were the norm, and were partially because the bakery owners indicated they would continue to publicly discriminate against gays.]

[Update 2: It is clear after reading this the damages were justified. The bakers doxxed the couple, subjected them to harrassments and death threats, and almost lost them the foster children they were trying to adopt. They also made clear that the refusal was because they were gay, and they clearly knew they were in defiance of the law.]

Do I think this was the right legal decision? Yes. If you are a public business, you agree to serve the public even if you find it distasteful.† Just as it would be wrong for an innkeeper in Oregon in 2015 to refuse to rent a room to an unmarried couple or to a gay couple (right, they’re just roommates 😉 ), it is wrong for a business in Oregon to refuse to serve gays because they are gays and doing what gays do. A business cannot impose their morality upon their customers. Was it acceptable in the past? Yes, and many forms of discrimination from the past are not acceptable today (such as discriminatory housing practices). Did it force the bakery or the bakery owners to send a message that they approved of gay marriage? Only if any message on the cake was accompanied by information about who produced the cake — and even then the issue could have been sidestepped through a disclaimer. This was discriminatory because there were options and ways for the business to have served the customer without implying they personally approved of the ceremony, and their refusal to serve the public like that makes it clear that it was solely because of their sexual orientation (disclaimer: at least based on the facts as I know them). [† Similarly, it is wrong for a government employee to refuse to take a Federal action because it disagrees with their religious beliefs. When you become a Federal employee, you make an oath to follow Federal laws. If you can no longer abide by that oath, you must resign.]

This case illustrates well the impact on the devout, who are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side they have an unchanging scripture, which they view as the word of God, unerring and eternal. It dictates particular societal norms, and prohibits what is perceived to be abnormal behavior. On the other side they have secular society which has an ever morphing definition of what is normal and acceptable — what was clearly unacceptable 50-60-100 years ago is now acceptable today (be that same-sex marriage, living together, children outside of marriage, interracial marriage, premarital sex, etc). The choices for the devout are not pleasant. They can attempt to find a loophole or interpretation that permits what they view as sinning. It has been done in some cases, but can’t be done in all. They can grouse about how the changes in society are preventing their exercise of their religion and their ability to impose what they view as normal morality on everyone. They would be right, but they would also be forgetting that freedom to exercise your religion has the implication that others have the freedom to exercise their religion and beliefs as well, even though you might not like it, and even though you believe your God will condemn them for their behavior. Lastly, they can isolate themselves into communities of the like minded, where the problematic issues just won’t raise their nasty head unless an interloper in the community forces it (and communities mores and pressure make that unlikely). This has been done before with numerous Orthodox, Amish, and Mennonite communities, and I’m sure there are many devout Christian communities that may do the same thing.

I also recognize that this has many faith communities up in arms. Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, and devout Muslims all see this as a perversion of God’s word. But the key underlying fact is: this is not a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. It was founded by Deists, and there was no intent that biblical laws would govern. There is no government approved religion; government is secular and reflects the overall morals of society — which change over time. Much as the devout may believe that same-sex marriage will lead to the destruction of the world per God’s word, secular government doesn’t give that word authority. In fact, if someone tried to hold a particular scripture as “the authority” for our laws and decisions, I’d point out that such an action is essentially establishing a religion — it establishes one religion’s scripture and interpretation over another’s. If one wants a particular casting of God’s word to have such authority, a religious state with a state religion must be created. Although some would like that, history has shown that it is not very good for those on the short end of the favored religions. The tension we have in America between the secular and the devout is not perfect, but it is head and shoulders better than other systems. The reality (which is often forgotten) is that the devout will not use same-sex marriage, and the urge to have “God’s word” be “America’s word” is really an agenda to have a state religion with everyone subservient to the same scriptures. The better attitude for the devout is to let same-sex marriage be for the heathens that want to use it; they will get their punishment in the end (per the devout’s beliefs). For the devout communities, there should be no temptation.

Lastly, I’m sure you’re wondering what I think about same-sex marriage. My answer is that I don’t. If they want to recognize a commitment and call it marriage, it has absolutely no impact on my marriage. As for the government dictating it: as long as the government makes a distinction between “married” and “single” in any law or regulation (tax filing, social security benefits, etc.), there needs to be a common definition of what constitutes a marriage across all the states, otherwise confusion reigns. The government’s dictate only applies to government organizations and government officials. No house of worship is required to conduct such ceremonies or recognize the status from non-religious ceremonies (which is what we have now: there are sects within Judaism that won’t recognize marriages performed secularly or by different movements, especially if there was a halachic Jewish marriage before and no halachic Get).


Religion’s Influence in America

userpic=levysAs I sit here and eat my lunch, the headline in today’s LA Times screams “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more“. The article notes that only about three in 10 Americans see the Obama administration as “friendly to religion.” About four in 10 rate the administration as neutral and another three in 10 call it unfriendly. To me, I find the article infuriating. Here’s why.

We don’t have freedom from religion in the country; we have freedom of religion (and I consider atheism to be a religion as well — religion is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven without the use of miracles). Every individual in America has the right to practice whatever religion they wish, and to let it influence their lives and behaviors as they wish. Churches have the right to speak out as they wish (as long as they don’t endorse specific candidates). So, if religion is losing influence, it is because we the people have chosen to make it less influential. The government has nothing to do with it.

But, you say, there is a war against Christmas or against Christians. Sorry, there isn’t. You can personally be as Christian as you want. Wear your cross. Wish me Merry Christmas. What appears to be a “war” is one of two things: a government institution attempting to not show favoritism of one religion over another (as the constitution prohibits establishing a state religion), or bureaucrats going above and beyond to be “fair.”

Before you claim there is a war, put yourself in a minority religion’s shoes: I’ve had miss about 5 meetings scheduled by others, including an award lunch, because they were scheduled for this Thursday (which, if you look at your calendar, is Rosh Hashanah). But do they miss meetings because someone schedules them on Christmas or Easter?

Further, the same people that bemoan religion losing influence are equally quick to condemn those areas where religion has undue influence — especially when that religion isn’t theirs. Look at the fears of Sharia (Islamic Law) or the areas with Orthodox Jewish law. Alas, in American, fears of religion losing influence are actually fears of Christianity losing influence (which doesn’t even consider the fact that the type of Christianity often pushed by those wanting it to have more influence is not the type of compassionate Christianity this non-Christian believes Jesus would have taught).

For all the arguing about whether religion has influence, the truth is: religions still have a lot of influence. We all have a common moral code that eschews murder and encourages honesty. We all strive to make lives better for the poor, to help the hungry, to heal the fallen, to care for the widow and orphan. We all work for a society that emphasizes love and emphasizes that children should be raised in a loving family. These, my friends, are universal qualities found in all religions — I know them to exist in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What no longer has influence is intolerance driven by religion, or arbitrary punitive codes anchored in practices from ages ago.


Repent, and Ye Shall Be Saved

userpic=soapboxWhile eating my lunch today, I was reading the LA Times, and saw an article about how Donald Trump had purchased another golf course. This got me thinking about Donald Trump pulling a Donald Sterling, and how Sterling was banned for life from the NBA. This, in turn, got me thinking about our punative culture. For as much lip service as we give to religion, our attitude in the US seems to be: make a mistake once, and you’re branded for life.

Consider: Sterling clearly made racist remarks — wrong, misguided, and every kind of stupid. But the actions that were taken in response provide no ability to Sterling to ever recover — even if he was to sincerely learn from his mistake and change his ways, there’s no undoing the ban. Similarly, for those that commit any level of sex crimes — even if they were very young — there is no opportunity with the way our society brands and ostracizes such offenders that they could ever change their ways and be trusted. I’m sure you can find numerous additional examples: politicians are still held accountable for stupid statements and behaviors in their youth. We put many people in jail, and then brand them as “once-in-jail” for life. You can’t escape the permanent record.

All this from a society that is actually one of the most religious ones around. I know that both Judaism and Christianity  teach — in fact, they emphasize — the ability to sincerely repent from one’s wicked ways. They teach that one can move from leading a life of sin, and be reborn on a good and spiritual path. I believe the teachings are that if one is on that path sincerely, the past is the past. Yet for all the religious talk, we’re not doing that.

Was society always this way? I think not. Look at George Wallace. Once he was an ardant racist and segregationist. Later in his life, he recanted those early beliefs, and changed his ways (and was viewed differently).

I want to be clear that I’m not defending the behavior of Sterling or sex offenders. Rather, I’m raising the question of repentance: can one truly repent in front of society (and, if one believes, in front of God), what is the motivation for repentance if society refuses to accept it, and whether we can be as religion-centered as we claim if we eschew the notion of repentance in practice?