X-Mas List, With Love and XOXO

It was only natural, probably written in the stars: the Christian spirit of giving, the tradition started by the three wise men bringing gifts to the newborn Christ, expanded  to include making one’s own personal wish list: gifts you would like to receive. And since the spirit-tradition does not begrudge anyone from participating in the routine, but in fact encourages every one, of every faith or no faith  to participate, because it is good for the economy whose wheels don’t turn without the happy masses buying lots of things, it’s a win-win.

For that reason—the universal spirit of giving and getting—I am not even slightly embarrassed about publicly posting my personal little wish list (or sharing the news that I have bought stuff to give to others in the coming days), even though I am not a Christian or a member of any other faith.

My experience with the Christmas gifting tradition is probably like most others in Middle Class America. There would be a “big”thing (toy, bicycle, jewelry, or, in more recent decades, electronic devices–iPad, or phone, or XBox or 55” flatscreen–and several smaller, less expensive gewgaws and novelties tucked in large ornamental stockings, sometimes hung from a fireplace mantel. My wish list this year is just one big thing from which several small goodies can be gleaned. The only way this is possible is what I am asking for is not something material, or store-bought, or even the thoughtful love-labor of some talented artisanal  acquaintance; but a recognition, understanding, appreciation, and sharing of a concept in scheme of human relations, how people join together to make agencies and governments for maintaining order and improving the general well-being of their populations, theoretically, toward maximum freedom for individual citizens  along with the greatest flourishing for the greatest number of them.

This progressive and positive  form of politics was born in the 17th Century, the time of the Reformation and Enlightenment, when the avant-garde began breaking free from Middle Age traditions of feudalism and Scholastic thought, and began pioneering new ways to observe the world from new empirical scientific  and  philosophically rational  perspectives.

Religious influence, once domineering all phases of public and private life, began a slow and steady decline. The rise of capitalism may have also contributed to this decline, as its driving force of profit-making was not a good fit with a fundamental anti-materialism message at the core of Christianity.

On the matter of formulating principle for the new, democratic, and liberal body politic, philosopher Richard Rorty, in the essay “Religion as Conversation-stopper”, points out what he call a “Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious…This compromise consists in privatizing religion–keeping it out of the public square..” and

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty…(1)

The wisdom of this trade-off becomes apparent when Rorty explains how interjecting religion, as a moral or scriptural foundation for making or discussing policy becomes, at miniumum, a “conversation-stopper”, or worse, an “argument-starter.” The interlocutor with  religion tries to have the last word and seal his position against possible challenges. But this easily invites an opposing foundational and equally irreproachable retort, be it from a different religious a or secular/rational viewpoint, and thus a new argument emerges over principles rather than the issue at hand. The principle “to limit the conversation t0 premises held in common” ends up as the only pragmatic alternative.

This is just another way to look at the “Wall of Separation” between the State and Religion that Jefferson and his fellow founders had the foresight to build into the law of the land. Allowing the foundational dogma of one religion to underlie legislation favors one privately held belief (it could as easily be a private “hobby”, says Rorty) over another, and undermines the guiding goal of pluralism. Adherence to pluralism also helps prevent a “tyranny of the majority,” be it religion or other non-common premiss. The pie graph representing a theoretical total amount of political influence, with the center point as a hub for spokes radiating from it at different angles results in different sizes of opinion-influence in  a majority-rule-all diagram, where the 49% would control all:

pie graph

And the same amount of influence represented in the pie divided by chords, criss-crossing and intersecting; representing differences and similarities at the areas of overlapping. This is a better representation of the idea of pluralism:

chords in circle

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That would be my big thing under the tree. Good old-fashioned classic liberal pluralism (and maybe the end of capitalism). Non-material, no-cost, no exploited Global South labor, and no carbon footprint. It’s just a matter of education. Free also would be the smaller stuffers in my tinseled-out red stocking, including, among things yet dreamed of,

  • The end of laws permitting discrimination based on fundamentalist religious scripture
  • Repeal laws giving religiously-based theories of the origins and development of life on Earth equal stature with academically accepted scientific theory in public schools
  • The elimination of well-funded and influential webs of lobby groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum in this state, and the huge semi-clandestine American-based organization but internationally powerful International Christian Leadership, a.k.a. The Family.
  • Revisit federal and state tax code relating to churches and ministries and statutes concerning non-profits v. beneficent non-profits, administrator and pastoral salaries.
  • Require no religious tests for admission into the United States, strict interpretation of the 14th Amendment.
  • Have the United Nations enter into discussions with the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church with the purpose of affecting major changes in its policy on contraception. It is currently an impediment to reducing STDs and slowing the population explosion, particularly in Africa.

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As I lay down the night before Christmas, and just before  visions of sugarplums danced in my head, I was startled back to wakefulness with the thought of the young woman, the tired Syrian refugee, turned away at the shore of the American Inn, pregnant, and….did it….could it be…did our fearful, mostly Christian leaders just turn away…who?

 

(1) Richard Rorty, “Religion as Conversation-stopper,” Philosophy and Social Hope. ( London: Penguin Books, 1999)

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Humanism Goes to Church

 

Mr. Alan Wolfe helps coordinate the “First Tuesdays: Spirituality in the City” speaker series and acts as the liaison between the guest speakers and a the co-sponsorship of The Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church and several other Catholics entities. Now in it’s seventh season, guests from diverse religions, human interest groups, and prominent leaders in local government and business are chosen to “initiate conversations about their spiritual traditions and address the theme ‘Spirituality in the City’.” We met up with Mr. Wolf at the front steps of the grand 160-year old Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church—with it’s Moor-influenced architecture of onion domes and pointed arches—less than a block off Canal Street in the Central Business District of New Orleans. He shuttled us down a pedestrian alley between the church and the adjacent Lenes Hall, the parish center for the church where the group meets.

Scrolling through the list of past speakers, one finds representatives from Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish traditions; journalists and authors, including Jason Berry, Bob Marshall, and John Barry; and local celebrity chefs Leah Chase and John Besh. Tuesday, December 1, the bar for diversity was set a bit higher, even by the liberal standards of the Jesuits. 

“We had a speaker from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation a while back,” Wolf told me after Tuesday’s presentation, “but this was the real deal.” The “deal” being the presentation of a humanitarian, ethically positive outlook on life based on naturalism rather than traditional theology, gods, or laying claim to an ethereal spiritualism, courtesy of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (NOSHA).

NOSHA President Charlotte Klasson and Membership Coordinator Beth Deitch spoke on the theme “Humanism: Ethical, Secular and Good for Everyone” in a coordinated tag team effort before a group of about 30 there for the midday talk and light lunch affair. Beth started by defining terms: Humanism, naturalism, consequentialist ethics—all fitting together in overlapping  meanings and nuance, and building on a comprehensive outlook on life through the “self-aware moral agent” that the human is. Charlotte gave the audience a brief history of NOSHA from its beginnings, its affiliate groups, and its function as the only local organization of its type for people sharing a non-theistic, naturalistic worldview. She stressed the importance of being vigilant about church and state separation issues, and pointed out Harry Greenberger’s (NOSHA President Emeritus) multiple ‘secular invocations’ at city council meetings to balance the typically Christian bias at that part of the meeting agenda.

Beth referred to cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker’s recent  book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s thesis, that, in spite of appearances, violence in the world is decreasing, could  be traced back to the tradition of the Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th Century Europe and America, which held as axiomatic that there are knowable truths in the world, which, when discovered through the scientific method and rational thinking, would lead to an increasing improvement of the human condition—and less violent behavior—over time. This is a foundational concept of secular humanism.

During a brief Q and A segment at the end, several of the typical concerns about a godless world were brought up by thoughtful listeners. One questioned how humans could have been the basis of their own positive ethical behavior. A: The primary motivation of survival has shown us that cooperation and altruism are necessary for maintaining and propagating life. Another question from a priest in the audience was how values of good and evil, right or wrong can emanate from the naturalistic materialism that humanism claims—a problem Kant had, he added. A: The problem of consciousness remains unsolved, and the solution to the question lies in the theory of consciousness itself. (And besides that, our consequentialist ethics are “at 180s” with Kant’s categorical imperative, or universal and unswerving morality Kant thought could be  derived from rationality.)

Maybe the most relevant question—at least as it related to the theme of “Spirituality in the City”—came from a dapper man near the front, who wanted to know if humanists have anything they call spirituality. “The term is problematic,” said Deitch, as the ambiguity between spirituality being something that comes from some real but intangible spirit, which we reject, or if it is something more like a sense of awe or wonderment, a magical or enchanted mental state. Apparently he had been unmoved by an earlier partial reading of Carl Sagan’s ode “Pale Blue Dot” which, for many, stimulates an awe that comes from man’s realization of his insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps the observation of theoretical physicist/cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, though not quite as lyrical, but no less poetical, which invokes a sense of wonderment by a reversal of tack, placing man as a shining product of the grand scheme of the universe, his bodily makeup the result of elements manufactured in solar furnaces, and then spread by the exploding aged stars and spread as elemental fertilizer to create untold diversity in the cosmos.

And maybe when it is shown that spirituality is possible without spirits, numen, genies or poltergeists or gods, will we better appreciate the “real deal.”