Category Archives: Religion

In Defense of Secularism

 

My favorite part of 9/11 (pause) was the Muslim terrorists, when they went to Muslim heaven, which we all know isn’t true.  They can’t be in Muslim heaven because they’re in Christian hell.  Unless they go back and forth, which you can do because they’re both pretend.

~Comedian Dana Gould/”Anything Can Be Funny”

As is so often the case, the theme of today’s post was triggered by the convergence of the following unrelated events.

  • An August 26 New York Times report by Emma Goldberg titled, “The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard?  An Atheist.”
  • Reports, upon the departure of last U.S. military from Harmid Kharzi Airport, of Taliban soldiers shooting their weapons in the air, chanting, “Allah Akbar” (“God is most great.”)

The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. - The New York TimesI became aware of the Harvard University story when a friend and colleague, who also happens to be an ordained minister, emailed it to me and sought my opinion.  My response, as any regular reader of this blog might suspect, “I find this somewhat refreshing.”  A perspective affirmed as I read Greg Epstein’s justification for his appointment to his new post, one in which he is expected “to coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus.”

There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life.

There it was, a focus on universal spirituality rather than membership in any religious movement.  More relevant today than ever.  When the Taliban believe they were commanded by their God to twice rid Afghanistan of foreign invaders.  Or American religious leaders who declare certain candidates for public office are part of God’s plan.  The irony, in this latter instance, being the white evangelical community preferring the least Christian-like option in 2020 over a practicing Catholic who continually draws on his faith.

Please do not take the above as a denunciation of all religion.  If participation in a religious community helps one find the path to spirituality, no argument here.  After all, a religious leader in the Jewish tradition is called “rabbi,” which literally means “teacher.”  But the role of educator and mentor is not reserved for any single denomination.  The same can be true of any priest, pastor, minister or imam.  The question associated with Harvard’s choice of Epstein as chief chaplain is whether he can serve that same function without the trappings of a church, synagogue or mosque.

To answer that question, look at a principle of religious faith which transcends one’s choice of religious affiliation, belief in something greater than oneself.  For many that “something” is belief in a divine presence.  For the atheist or agnostic, that “something” needs to be more tangible.  One’s community.  Human rights.  A mission with an external purpose.  Something other than one’s own well-being or acquiring power.  There is no dearth of available alternatives.

However, as a devout agnostic, my personal spiritual journey must also be one of continuing questioning and discovery.  In that vein, I often find atheists as frustrating as those who are convinced their religious testament–old or new–is the literal word of God.  Especially since so many before them watched (assuming there is an afterlife) their absolute religious tenets become literature (Bulfinch’s Mythology) or their deities displayed as mere works of art relegated to museums.

In Genesis, Abraham is portrayed as the father of monotheism.  As the story goes, he refused to accept the fact an idol, easily destroyed by humans, had divine power.  How is that any different from questioning whether an omnipotent, compassionate God would tolerate genocide, innocent children dying from cancer or a global pandemic?  In 1988, on a flight from Dallas to Honolulu, I sat next to Victor Stenger, a physicist and author of Not By Design: Origins of the Universe.  Stenger, who died in 2014, continued to pursue this theme in later books such as God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007) and God and the Folly of Faith (2012).

Victor Stenger (1935-2014) - Atheism's Arguments Against God? - YouTubeAs Stenger explained to me, the existence of humanity on earth without divine intervention was not only possible, it was mathematically probable considering the infinite number of galaxies, stars and planets.  However, it also explained both the biological and sociological shortcomings of mankind.  The probability of a perfect world with no disease, where everyone gets along with each other, though possible, is exponentially less likely.  As I recall our conversation, I realize why I could never fully embrace his atheist views.  In a universe with so many possibilities, there still remains that slight possibility there is a divine presence that is responsible for creation though not quite the way it is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson admits, “I know HOW the big bang happened.  I just don’t know WHY.”

Maybe this explains Harvard’s counterintuitive choice of Epstein as chief chaplain and why a institution of higher learner is the right place for this “experiment.”  If I were Epstein, I would begin my first conversation with the other religious leaders on campus as follows.

To paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the beginning of the second Iraq war, “You go to life with the world you have, not the world you might want or wish to have.”  It is why a university has two roles as it trains generation after generation to address the reality of an imperfect society.  We of the spiritual community can help these adults in training find purpose.  The academics train them to be doctors, scientists, politicians, historians and artists, giving them the tools to eliminate, or at a minimum ameliorate, the negative consequences of the imperfect world in which they were born.

In closing you might wonder if Epstein’s appointment is one more example of elite “woke” liberalism of a university president or board of trustees.  It is not.  Epstein, who has served as humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, was the unanimous choice of his peers.  It suggests students who are seeking a different form of spirituality are not the only ones having second thoughts about their religious upbringing and training.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

BAD Dogma!

Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

~John F. Kennedy/September 12, 1960

Question #1 du jour:  Have you ever wondered why American voters in 1960 were so concerned about a Catholic becoming president?

On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted (168-55) to clarify whether the church should prohibit politicians who support abortion rights from participating in the holy sacrament of communion.  Although not mentioned by name, the vote was seen as directed at President Biden who, throughout his career, has had to reconcile personal views with political stances on issues which pit him against Catholic doctrine.  You could not follow this story without coming upon a variation of the following response to the bishops’ action.  “The church has no right to deny Biden communion until it denies communion to pedophile priests.”  True, but not the core issue.

During the 2012 vice-presidential debate, Biden explained his position as follows.

I accept my church’s position on abortion as what we call de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews. I just refuse to impose that on others.”

The American bishops, in their communique, are saying just the opposite.  Perhaps they overslept and missed the seminary class on the synoptic gospels.  You know, the one where Jesus says, “Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22.21)  Ironically, a majority of Catholics agree with Jesus.  According to a 2020 survey by Pew Research, 56 percent of declared Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.  Instead of punishing those who share this opinion, the bishops should honor Biden’s example of making personal choices consistent with Catholic doctrine regardless of national policy.

Vice President Mike Pence calls off Florida appearances | BlogsEqually ironic, many protestants, especially white evangelicals, who feared papal influence over American politics seem to turn the other cheek when it comes to their own denominations.  Consider the most recent example.  On the same day the bishops raised the communion question, former vice-president Mike Pence was called a traitor and heckled during a speech at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference in Orlando.  In response, Pence declared, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.”  For someone who wants to be the next president, you would think “being an American” should appear somewhere on that list.  Imagine the outcry if JFK had opened his 1960 campaign speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, “I am a Catholic, a liberal and a Democrat in that order.”

Question #2 du jour:  Why are “former Catholics” the fast growing religious denomination in the United States?

One day earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated how a unanimous decision in one’s favor can actually be a major loss for the same party.  The plaintiff in the case was a Philadelphia-based Roman Catholic adoption agency with which the city refused to contract because Catholic Social Services (CSS) refused to work with same-sex foster parents.  The opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, focused on the establishment clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution, pointing out the local government’s actions violated CSS’ free exercise of religion.  The Court does not rule 9-0 unless the constitutional principle on which the case is decided is on solid ground.

How could this then be viewed as a loss for the Church?  Because it again exposed what may be the single most significant fallacy in the Catholic modus operandi, the dogma of papal infallibility.   I do not mean to offend Catholics, but consider the following description of papal infallibility in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Papal infallibility, in Roman Catholic theology, the doctrine that the pope, acting as supreme teacher and under certain conditions, cannot err when he teaches in matters of faith or morals.

Sorry, but the term “supreme teacher” conjures comparisons with autocrats like Kim Jung-Un.  Or reminds me that our own country was governed for four years by someone who claimed he never made a mistake.

The recent Court decision is just the latest example of the conflict between allegiance to an individual and the teachings which are the core tenets of Catholicism.  On one hand, the Church preaches that the gospel is the divine word of God delivered to the people by his only son Jesus Christ.  Yet, nowhere do the gospels refer to discrimination against same sex couples.  In fact, one could argue it says just the opposite.  “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26/King James Bible)

So where did this ban against same-sex foster parents originate?  Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality are contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  A tome with such a formal title must date back many centuries if not millennia.  Hardly.  It was commissioned by John Paul II in 1986, drafted by 12 bishops and cardinals and personally approved by the Pope on June 25, 1992.  I hate to keep making analogies, but how is this different from the Florida Board of Education proposing a Catechism of American History in response to the 1619 Project which will eventually be blessed by Pope DeSantis?

What does this have to do with an 18 percent decline in Catholic affiliation over the past two decades?  Rather than looking to the Church for moral guidance, more and more Americans are relying on their daily experience.  And attitudes toward the LGBT+ community is the clearest example.  The Church’s attitude toward homosexuality is contained in the 1992 Catechism.

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

In contrast, a June 8, 2021 Gallup report documents an increase in support for same-sex marriage from 27 percent in 1997 to 70 percent today.  Support among young adults, age 18-34, is 84 percent.  To paraphrase FDR, “The only thing you have to fear is what the Church teaches you to fear.”  Instead of familiarity breeding contempt, in this case, it promotes acceptance.

A CAVEAT

The Catholic Church is not unlike many corporations who believe their own propaganda and are mired in old ways of doing business.  In response, you often hear a CEO suggesting  “it is time we return to our entrepreneurial roots.”  Academic management research suggests changing the culture of a large organization takes years if not decades.  This is one area where the Church, because of papal infallibility, may have an advantage.  In the right hands, absolute authority could accelerate change.

Pope Francis Tells Catholics to Confess Their Sin Directly to God Instead of Through a Priest During Coronavirus Pandemic | BCNN1 - Black Christian News NetworkDespite pushback from conservative bishops and cardinals, Pope Francis has challenged some traditional teachings from the past.  For example, he acknowledged even atheists can go to heaven (that’s a relief).  He has promoted economic justice and challenged corporate greed and trickle down economics.  And just this weekend, he cautioned the American conference of bishops about their rush to judgment on who is worthy of communion.

During a strategic planning exercise during my time at the Ewing Kauffman Foundation, I asked to see the file of Mr. K’s handwritten notes on which he based the charity’s endowment.  It gave me an entirely new perspective about his intent and how I should approach my own work.  I imagine the Catholic Church might have the same epiphany if it went back to their founding entrepreneurs’ original notes.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

Moby Schtick

 

They think me mad–Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and–Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer.

Captain Ahab/Moby Dick

My God, they were frightened of Muskie and look who got destroyed–they wanted to run against McGovern, and look who they’re running against.

Deep Throat/All the President’s Men

Two books, one published in 1851; the other in 1974, written nearly a century and a quarter apart.  Two books, one a metaphor for obsession; the other a documentation of obsession.  Two books, about men, both engaged in pursuing their respective white whales.  And in the end, two books which chronicled these men’s preoccupation with destroying a perceived enemy, only to become the victim of their own vindictiveness.  Two books, in which the protagonists, Captain Ahab and Richard Nixon, are both Quakers.

undefinedWhy is this last factoid relevant?  As suggested in Jimmy Breslin’s chronicle of Nixon’s rise and fall How the Good Guys Finally Won, the author wonders if the 37th president of the United States might have survived Watergate if only he had been raised a Catholic.  Breslin’s thesis is grounded in his subject’s inability to confess his sins.  Breslin’s evidence begins with the disclosure the Watergate burglars are connected to the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP).  Imagine if Nixon had transformed the Oval Office into a public confessional following the arrest of G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, et. al.  “Forgive me fellow citizens for I have sinned.  In my exuberance to continue in office, I may have said things or sent signals to my campaign that led to extra-legal actions.  I take full responsibility for my behavior and assure the American people I have instructed those involved this is unacceptable.”

I would argue Nixon’s own Quaker background, in it’s own way, should have been equally enlightening.  Quakers believe every human represents a somewhat different kind of trinity consisting of body, soul and spirit.  It is the conjoining of these three elements which makes each person whole.  And Moby Dick, perhaps more than any Quaker text, explains how separation of soul and spirit led to Ahab’s madness as he obsessively pursued his white whale.  He recognized the source of his obsession, the loss of part of his body during his initial confrontation with the behemoth.  But was never able to accept it and move on.

Nixon’s losses, the presidency in 1960 and the California governorship in 1962, though not physical left an equally lasting scar.  He would not allow anyone, especially Edmund Muskie, another New England Catholic reminiscent of John Kennedy, to reopen the wound.  Like Ahab, the separation of body and mind from spirit prevented him from understanding a tarnished victory was no victory at all, and in the end, would lead to his political self-destruction.

Which brings us to 2019 and Donald Trump.  One might forgive Nixon for not seeing Ahab’s fate was a metaphor for his own.  One was fiction.  The other was real.  What’s more, Moby Dick is a primer on whaling as much as it is about Ahab, much in the same way Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full provides more information about horse breeding than any non-equinophile needs to know.  In contrast, All the President’s Men could easily have been titled What Not to Do When Running for President: A Step-by-Step Manual.

What makes the Trump/Biden narrative more intriguing is the fact the former vice-president was merely a surrogate for Trump’s true white whale (or dare I say orca since the original marine mammal in this saga was only half white).  When he finally presented his long-form birth certificate, Barack Obama humiliated Trump, exposing him for the liar and conspiracy theorist he still is.  From that moment in July 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy he was always running against Obama.  He never talked about Hillary Clinton’s time as first lady or senator from New York.  In fact, those were the days when the Trumps and Clintons socialized and Trump financed her campaigns. All of his attacks related solely to her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state.  The emails.  The conflicts of interest between her cabinet responsibilities and the Clinton Foundation.  And although he prevailed in the electoral college, he railed at the thought another member of Barack Obama’s inner-circle had again humiliated him by winning the popular vote.

Having defeated Obama’s secretary of state, Trump fully expected a victory in 2020, presenting himself as the alternative to the progressive wing of the Democratic party personified by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC.  But Trump was never one to let sleeping dogs lie.  When a dormant Joe Biden emerged from the depths following Charlottesville, Trump no longer thought of 2020 as a chance for more tax cuts, judicial appointments or railing against immigrants.  Although Biden’s name was at the top of the ticket, Trump viewed it as one more chance to chip away at the Obama legacy.  As had been the case with Ahab and Nixon, this obsession separated his body and mind from his spirit resulting in the madness that led to both impeachment and defeat at the ballot box.

At an October 15th rally in Pennsylvania, Trump told the crowd, “Can you imagine if you lose to a guy like this?”  MAGA nation probably thought he meant Joe Biden.  But in Trump’s mind, it was the same white whale it had always been, Barack Obama.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

The Road to Damascus

 

For those unfamiliar with the business case teaching method, it is grounded in similar training in medical and law schools.  Students are presented with the facts surrounding a management decision, analogous to intern rounds or moot court.  They analyze the situation and recommend a course of action.  From a grading perspective, there is no single right answer.  Assessment is based on the extent to which a student’s preferred option is supported by the facts.

Teaching case method is particularly rewarding if you have the principal, e.g. owner or executive, in the classroom for questions and answers following the Socratic debate over the possible options and analysis.  In one case during my years as a professor of entrepreneurship at Miami University, a student proposed a solution which had never crossed the business owner’s mind.  In response, the head of a product marketing company told the student, “I sure wish you had been there at the time.”

About Us - Johnsonville Foodservice

One of the most popular and illuminating cases about business management is “Johnsonville Sausage Co.” written by Harvard professor Michael J. Roberts.  Owner and CEO Ralph Stayer (photo) is faced with a decision whether to take on a new customer despite the current lack of production capacity.  While addressing the opportunity, Stayer has an epiphany about his management style.  Previously he considered such judgments to be executive prerogative.  However, in this case the decision process was more inclusive, from which he realized his history of micromanagement was holding the company back.

I never had the privilege of Stayer’s presence in my own classroom, but Harvard produced a video of questions and answers in one of Roberts’ classes.  During the give and take, the following exchange occurred.

STUDENT:  At what point did you become so enlightened?  Pre-1980, it seems like you had a pretty authoritarian shop there.  And now it appears you are diametrically opposed to your previous management style.  What caused your shift?

STAYER:  It’s a great question.  It really is.  I was on the road to Damascus and lightning hit me.  Knocked me off my donkey.  And when I came to, I was enlightened.

[Class laughs]

For those unfamiliar with Stayer’s reference to Damascus and the donkey, it is attributed to the conversion of Paul the Apostle described in The New Testament.  Prior to the crucifixion, Paul had been among those who persecuted early Christians.  On his way to Damascus, Paul (then known as Saul the Pharisee) was blinded by a light from heaven and heard a voice which asked why he would persecute the Lord.  Once in Damascus, his sight was restored after which he was baptized and became a follower of Jesus.

Why, this morning, did I choose to school readers on the likes of Ralph Stayer and Paul the Apostle?  Because modern day epiphanies do not require being thrown from a donkey by a bolt of lightning or hearing unseen voices.  More pedestrian omens serve the same purpose.  For example, following a heart attack, the patient makes significant lifestyle changes in diet and exercise.  Or the announcement by one’s own child to being gay precipitates a change of heart about marriage equality and LGBTQ rights.

Which brings me to 1:45 a.m. this morning when the news broke Donald and Melania Trump both tested positive for COVID-19.  As an agnostic, I cannot believe this was an act of God.  With adequate contact tracing, epidemiologists can pinpoint the source of transmission. Like any compassionate individual, I wish the first couple a quick and complete recovery.  But that does not stop me from questioning whether the White House responds to this medical event as a conversion opportunity.  Will Trump’s own experience deter him from further ignoring the experts and putting his own personal political fortunes ahead of the nation’s well being?

The choice is simple.  Trump can either be Paul the Apostle.  Or the jackass from which Paul was thrown.  As with any crisis, one can hope for the best, but must remain prepared for the worse.

POSTSCRIPT

Trump “psychophants” have flooded social media with calls for Joe Biden to immediately suspend his campaign while Trump is in quarantine.  How ironic this comes from the folks who have spent the last six months suggesting, just because blue states have had to lock down, there is no reason for red states to follow suit.

Or imagine the situation where one restaurant ignores CDC guidance and is closed down by local officials.  Under the above “Trump campaign principle,” all complying restaurants and bars should also suspend operations.

In which case, I have no doubt the Proud Boys would all come to D.C. armed to the hilt to “Liberate The Dubliner.”  For those unfamiliar with this Capitol Hill landmark, should you ever have the occasion to be on the corner of North Capitol and F Streets, stop in and order the fish and chips with a stein of Guinness.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Divine Assassin?

Chadwick Boseman, ‘Black Panther’ star, has died

(CNN) —Actor Chadwick Boseman, who brought the movie “Black Panther” to life with his charismatic intensity and regal performance, has died.

Boseman has battled colon cancer since 2016 and died at home with his family and wife by his side, according to a statement posted on his Twitter account. He was 43.

Folks, this is going to be short and bitter sweet.  I may say things which some will find highly offensive.  And, as always, I do not expect anyone to take my view as gospel.  My purpose is only to share a raw and honest emotion in a difficult time.

In several recent posts, I have joked about current events that made we wish I believed in a divine presence.  For example, one can hope that Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s fall from grace was a sign from God.  I hoped He was telling us, “Being a hypocritical conman in my holy name will only be tolerated for so long.”  Maybe karma really is a bitch.

But when I woke up this morning to the above item at the top of my Google News feed, I realized these brief moments of appreciation for the possibility of a sacred father, even in the name of irony or humor, only last so long.  While others turn to their faith to get them through the hard times, my lack of reliance on religion is what keeps me sane.

If I believed in a divine spirit, this morning I would asking him, “WTF?”  It is hard enough to imagine a compassionate God who watches from the sidelines as men of ill-will take down African American advocates of racial equality and social justice.  I will never understand how James Earl Ray and Byron de la Beckwith fit into some grand spiritual design.  By eschewing belief in God, I have the freedom to accept there are more earthly forces that generate such hate.  Forces, as a less than divine being, I can push back against.

Which brings me back to Chadwick Boseman.  If this were part of a divine plan, it was executed with a maximum of cruelty.  Consider the timing of Boseman’s death.  On August 28:

  • Emmett Till is murdered in Mississippi (1955)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (1963)
  • Thousands gather at that same spot to remember King and black victims of police brutality (2020)
  • The NBA refuses to conduct business as usual in support of the Black Lives Matter movement (2020)
  • Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day (2020)

Add to that list the anniversary of the death of an actor who introduced generations of young black men and women to James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson.  And helped spread the spirit of “Wakanda Forever” to a global audience.

Rest in peace Chadwick.  I do not understand why you were taken at such a young age.  And while I hope some day there is a cure for the disease which randomly attacked you, this morning, I am comforted in my belief there is no supreme being who thought depriving the world of your talent, at a time when it was needed more than ever, was a good idea.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP