Religion in the News

userpic=chanukah-christmasI gotta think about something other than the shutdown, so here are a few religion related items that have accumulated in the links list. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these floating around FB:

And speaking of close-mindedness… but then again, enough on the shutdown.


Unexpected Byproducts of Change: Water, Atheists, He/She, Bookstores, and Tide

userpic=pacific-coast-routeToday’s lunchtime news chum brings together a collection of articles, all loosely related by being unexpected byproducts of change:



Government Involvement in Religious Practices

userpic=needlepointA few days ago, a former next-door neighbor alerted me to an article that he believed was representative of unwarranted government intrusion in our lives. Now, that’s not a surprise as Steve holds right-wing/tea party political views. We enjoy discussing politics (even though he’s wrong, but then again, he thinks I’m wrong 🙂 ). I try not to convince him that he’s wrong, other than the occasional documented correction. I find it very important to read and see outside my bubble, and to at least try to understand where the other side is coming from. For those that don’t do it, it is well worth doing.

In any case, reading the article got me thinking. The gist of the article, with much of the slant filtered out, was covered in the LA Times today. Essentially, the situation is this: Hobby Lobby, a privately-owned crafting company, is refusing to pay for medical coverage (per the Affordable Care Act) that covers the emergency contraception pill, because providing such coverage goes against their Christian beliefs. The right has picked up this story, using it as an example of how the government is trying to dictate against religion.

First and foremost, I should note that I think the government is often too Christian. Why else would I have to spend vacation days for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but forcibly have to take Christmas or Easter off? So I have no problem with the government making decisions independent of a particular religious stricture. Study after study has shown that providing birth control saves money in the long run, and it does not hike the cost of insurance. Further, it creates an environment where all children are wanted by their parents, which is a good thing for preserving the family.

Hobby Lobby is objecting to paying for coverage for emergency contraception, claiming that such contraception violates their religious views. A few questions here. First, if Hobby Lobby is heavily Christian, why aren’t they restricting hiring to people who agree with their views and will not use such contraception (answer: because that is probably illegal)? Why aren’t they requiring employees to at least agree to restrain from having unprotected sex out of marriage? (answer: because they can’t interfere in the private life of an employee) So they are trying to exert control in the only way they can. However, this control imposes their religious position on an employee, which is discriminating against that employee’s right to practice their religion. Who’s rights should predominate: the employer’s rights, or the employee’s rights?

I personally believe that Hobby Lobby should provide the emergency contraception insurance. They should also be confident enough in their hiring practices that the people they hire wouldn’t use the particular coverage, making the issue of whether there is coverage for it a non-issue. However, if Hobby Lobby is choosing to hire people who do not share their beliefs, they should not be imposing their religious beliefs on those employees. The employee must be able to freely exercise their religion. It is not Hobby Lobby providing the pill; they are providing the insurance, and the insurance is providing the pill. For all Hobby Lobby knows, the dollars that paid for that pill came from some other employer.

Whether the government should mandate such contraception as part of coverage is a different question. Assuming that the government can dictate minimum capabilities to include in all coverages (which is probably a form of consumer protection), their goal in doing so should be practices that increase the health care of all Americans, while lowering overall health costs. That benefits Medicare. Government also has an interesting in ensuring that families do not have more children than they can afford, for such unwanted children often end up on public assistance. It is in the Government’s interest to reduce the number of people on public assistance. Government should not be making the decisions of what to cover based on the beliefs of one particular religious group over the beliefs of a different religious group. That’s showing preferential behavior towards a particular religion, and is essentially enshrining those religious beliefs as government protected religion. That goes against the freedom of religion position in the Constitution. However, I can also see how the employer would view this as the government dictating something that goes against their religion. I think that happening for a small percentage of employers is the price we pay for living in a pluralistic society. If the employer doesn’t like that price, they can move their operations to a country where there is a state religion.

I’ve written before how I believe that a God who imposes moral laws would want people to consciously choose to follow those laws, even when faced with temptation. That’s what I understand Judaism to say regarding free choice and free will. If morality is dictated, then the mitzvah (I have no good word for the opposite of sin) of choosing to do right is impossible. We should be teaching people that they have the responsibility to make the correct and moral decisions, not abrogating them from the responsibility of doing the right thing.

[Yes, I acknowledge there are some slippery slope arguments here. I think those will exist in any moral discussion, and thus reiterate this is my opinion.]

As for me, this puts Hobby Lobby in the same camp as Chik-Fil-A. I do not wish to provide profits to a company that behaves in this fashion. Others may differ, and decide to support Hobby Lobby. That’s their choice. That’s what makes America great.


Doing it Right, and Doing It Wrong

(I meant to write this up yesterday at lunch… and today at lunch… but life got away from me)

Yesterday, I had reason to go onto the Air Force base. As I’m walking across the quad, what do I see but a portable sukkah. The Jewish group on base had set up a sukkah for those service and civilian personnel to be able to observe the holiday of Sukkot. This is something I truly admire about the services. For the most part (yes, there are some exceptions) they take what is the law and follow it. The services respect freedom of religion, and that’s great.

I thought about this when I read about the behavior of some Christian groups in Israel. Groups like Daystar and TBN have set up offices in Jerusalem and are actively attempting to convert Jews to Christianity through the ruse of “Messianic Judaism” (a variant of the better named “Jews for Jesus”). This is on top of the article I read a few days ago about Christian TV, which is beaming anti-Muslim and “convert to Christianity” messages into the Middle East.

I’m sorry folks, but this is doing it wrong.

One of the things I appreciate about Judaism is that there is no active missionary effort. Judaism accepts that there may be multiple paths to God (and in fact, all it asks of other paths is a common set of guidelines, not conversion to Judaism). I think that the folks that subscribe to the notion that one must convert to their religion in order to be saved are creating a lot of the problems that the world has seen (cough, crusades, cough, inquisition) or is seeing today.

Just my 2c.



Belief in God, and Its Impact on Society

For the last couple of weeks, my mind has turned to God. Not anything particularly religious, mind-you, but the question of why we believe in God in the first place. As I pondered the subject, I could see two reasons for it.

First, a supernatural being provides an explanation for existence of the world. Our universe needs to come from somewhere, and to those lacking in scientific knowledge, God is as good as an explanation of anything else. Of course, there is disagreement on the actual mechanism, and I think many would agree that creation stories are just that — stories — used to illustrate larger points. Today, I don’t know of many people that believe in the literal creation stories (although there are, surprisingly, some); some hold on a modified version that the initial whatever that created the universe had to come from somewhere. Do we need God to explain the creation of the universe? Probably not; recent scientific findings (such as the recent Higgs Particle) indicate that the universe can indeed come from nothing.

So if we don’t need God to create the universe, why have the notion of God. I’ll posit that there is a more important reason to need the concept of God — as moral authority. Just like we need our parents as a moral authority to “lay down the law”, God serves a similar purpose. God provides the mechanism to reward good and punish bad for whatever moral system a particular society chooses to invent. Without this authority, people would succumb to their animalistic nature and just do what is best with them, and to hell with everyone else. God provides the authority to say — if you do right, you will be rewarded in some way, and if you do wrong, you’ll pay for making that choice. I think this notion of God is universal across the various religions, whether you see God as an old man on a throne or the determinant of your karma. Does this mean God actually exists? I’ll argue that’s irrelevant to the question; as long as we agree on the authority, that’s what is important.

This, of course, begs the question of what is right and wrong? Are there larger and smaller rights? If we look at the Torah, traditional thought is that all commandments are equal. But is that true? This is a debate that is playing out in the political arena, where some politicians place more importance in telling people what they can and can’t do (such as same-sex marriage or abortion) and others place more importance on doing good for society. Alas, we have no evidence that there is a God who punishes; it may happen, but those who are rewarded or punished have never come back to confirm it.

I was thinking about this again today as I read the papers over lunch. In particular, I was reading an article about the Republican and Democratic divides over society (in particular, the approaches to Catholicism from the two VP candidates). The Republican view seems to be moving to the Ayn Rand side of the argument overlain with certain moral precepts: it is our responsibility to look out for ourselves first and foremost; the only one responsible for our success is ourselves; government serves a minimal role in this process; and we select particular moral precepts from our religious doctrine to enforce on everyone. The particular moral doctrines were what we should “not” do: what government shouldn’t do, what people shouldn’t do. In many ways, this is a view from the turn of the 20th century (the time of Taft): government should stay out of the way; people should be the ones responsible for their success or failure; and government has the responsibility to impose morality (think prohibition). The LA Times has a nice editorial cartoon on this.

The Democratic view, as I see it, is actually the more “Christian” view: care about people first, do good for others and make society better, wealth for wealth’s sake is a bad thing, one should use wealth as a way to make society better. In doing this, they are making different selections about what God wants us to do. Politically, their view is reflective of the “Great Society” of the later 20th century: the approach taken by FDR, JFK, LBJ, and even folks like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The focus is on how to do good — how to be more accepting — how to be more accommodating. The only religious precept they seemed to want to enforce was the notion of doing good for others; each individual’s religion was free to dictate to that individual other moral aspects.

With the recent VP choice of Mr. Ryan, this distinction is becoming stronger. I think we need to be asking ourselves what our moral authority wants us to do: it is more important to do good for others, or is it more important to do good for our personal interest? Where do we want society to go in general?

It is important to remember this is not about the debt. Both sides want to reduce the debt (and trust me, you don’t want to pay off the debt completely). It is about what our priorities should be and what type of society we want.

[And if you want my opinion, I don’t believe we should return to the era of the Robber Barons, where power was concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, and where the financial goals were the exploitation of people and rules to gain more power. Your opinion may differ.]





The Friday Cleaning of the Links

Friday lunchtime. Time to clean out the accumulated links that don’t fit anywhere else:


Your Favorite Denomination

Since it’s Sunday, and I have no interest in the Super Bowl, I should probably write about religion. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article titled “Where have all the presbyterians gone?”. The article was discussing the fact that the fastest growing segment of Christianity are non-denominational churches; those affiliated with a particular denomination are having trouble. It’s not just Christianity in this boat. Judaism has it as well: The Jewish Journal had an article last week on how the Conservative movement is combating the shrinking numbers affiliated with Conservative. I know that URJ is facing the same issue, and the issue is of concern to numerous congregations. I don’t know if this is happening is Islam as well: I don’t know if Islam has formal movements that mosques are affiliated with.

Why has this happened? The article on Christianity claims it is due to an increased focus on evangelicalism. The certainly wouldn’t explain it for Judaism. It think it is more a desire for freedom: the freedom to worship as the spirit moves you, without the mandates of a particular specific doctrine. But I’m curious what you think? Do you see yourself as part of a particular movement or doctrine? Do you just view yourself as generically Christian/Jewish/whatever, attending a non-denominational or pan-denominational service? Do you consider yourself non-religious, perhaps culturally associated with your religion at best?


Three of Two

Some selected news chum linkage, organized in three groups of two links each, covering animal science, pet peeves, and “are they still needed?”:

  • Animal Science. Under this heading, we have two stories, both concerning household pets and water. The first asked the question: How does a cat drink water? The question isn’t as easy as you think, because cats and dogs can’t create suction with their mouths, and can’t pour water in. It turns out that whereas dogs are crude, cats are clever. The second link asked the question: How do dogs spin dry? The answer is: very fast and very efficient. In fact, they are so efficient that the approach may show up in your washing machines.
  • Pet Peeves. Two stories related to pet peeves. The first is one that always seems to rile people: grammatical pet peeves. The second I found more interesting: The Pet Peeves of Waitrets. This had some things I didn’t know, such as: “When your server has brought the check to the table and the guests decide to split the tab there is always one or two people who insist on paying cash and the rest will use their cards. This is not a problem by any means. What IS a problem is that guests don’t seem to understand one major, basic thing. The cash that is presented to the server is applied TOWARDS THE BILL. Then the cards split the remainder. At this point, those who have paid with cards will only tip on what they have had charged to their cards. This results in the server receiving a 10% or less tip which actually winds up costing the server money.”
  • Are They Still Needed? Two stories in this category. First, according to Catholic Bishops, more exorcists are needed. Who woulda thunk that demonic possession was on the increase, except perhaps in the newly elected Congress? What may not be needed are the printed White Pages—Verizon is filing a request to drop them. My favorite quote in the article: “Anybody who doesn’t have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway”