Have you ever noticed that there has never been a massacre between atheists and agnostics. And no pantheist has ever gunned down a pandeist because of a theological dispute. That kind of behavior is reserved for people of religious passions, and especially those of the Abrahamic tradition: Christians, Muslims and Jews. Christians murder Muslims and Muslims murder Christians. Historically, just about everyone has murdered the Jews. Now, with the creation of the state of Israel, the Jews are finally returning fire. It’s not just the main branches of the Abrahamic faiths that murder each other; within the main branches there is more internecine warfare, with Catholics murdering Protestants and Protestants murdering Catholics, Sunnis murdering Shiites and Shiites murdering Sunnis. Non-believers, we don’t murder anyone. At least not for their lack of belief.
Depending on the day or the time of year or my mood, I could alternatively be described as an atheist, an agnostic, a pantheist, a pandeist, an antitheist, an apatheist, a nontheist, a freethinker, a secular humanist, or a scientific rationalist. But for the purposes of this essay, let’s just call me an atheist. I recognize that “believing” in the big bang is an answer that begs a question. What caused the big bang? All I know about God and the Universe is that, whatever they are, they are much too complex for my tiny brain to comprehend. That’s what I know about God and the Universe. And that’s about all.
If you have a personal relationship with God, this essay is not intended to sway you from that position. It would be silly if it were. I can’t even persuade my Republican friends that the overheated rhetoric of right-wing talk wing radio is not conducive to a national conversation on important policy issues. Not only don’t I want to dissuade you from your belief, but a part of me envies you and the comfort that it brings you. I just can’t join you there.
There are many people these days who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I’m not one of those people. It’s not that I don’t feel things, sometimes very deeply, or that don’t I don’t occasionally have a connection to the mystery, mostly when I’m in the full flight of improvisation. Personally, I have a lot of affection for Christmas and the meaning that it has for my family. I admire the ideals that Christ represents, or is alleged to represent. I respect the tradition of charity and social activism within Christianity and especially the Catholic Church. Some good works have been done in the name of Christ. And then, some really bad things have been done in His name. We can begin with the Crusades and the Edict of Expulsion and continue from there. The list of crimes that have been conducted in the name of Jesus are too numerous to recount. It would also be kind of pointless. I don’t think anyone with a reasonable awareness of history would dispute this.
Christianity is famously a proselytizing religion. The word itself literally derives from the Greek language and the efforts of early Christians to convert Jews to their new religion. It has it’s origins in the “Great Commission,” recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus commanded his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world. Non-Christians may not realize how much our entire Western culture is permeated not only with Christian values, but also Christian iconography. If you don’t believe me, go ask a Jew.
The entire month of December is devoted mostly to Christmas. Notwithstanding the teeth-gnashing over at Fox News, there is no annual “War on Christmas” and there has never been one. In December Christmas is just about everywhere and everything. Of course, this version of Christmas has very little to do with Christ. It’s mostly about shopping, and rituals we’ve adopted from early Paganism, such as the Christmas Tree. And while we’re on the topic, what does the Easter Bunny have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus? Hares, I’ve read, were widely believed to be hermaphrodites, being able to reproduce without loss of virginity. The practice of coloring eggs is apparently related to the blooming of flowers in spring as a fertility symbol. But I digress.
The Problem with Constitutional and Biblical Literalism
What did the Founding Fathers think of net neutrality? If you know the answer to that one, you’re a lot smarter than I am. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Constitutional Literalism. At the time that the Constitution was ratified in 1788, we lived in a completely different world. For example, the Founding Fathers were not, on the whole, opposed to slavery. The notion that women should have the vote was preposterous. And the Internet was entirely inconceivable. The problem with taking an archaic document literally is that the context changes. We’ll never know what the Founding Fathers thought of net neutrality, nor does it really matter. In Constitutional interpretation of this sort, we have to derive the essence as best we can and apply it to the question at hand.
If Constitutional Literalism is difficult to negotiate, then Biblical Literalism is exponentially more problematic. With the Constitution, we at least know who wrote it, and it’s one document written in a language (English) that we can still understand. What about the Bible? The first problem we encounter is that there are different versions of the Bible. There is, for example, the Hebrew Bible, which consists of a different set of books from the several Christian Bibles. The first Christian Bible didn’t even appear until 331 AD, and it was a distillation of various authors writing in different languages, including Aramaic, Koine Greek, and ancient Hebrew. A Latin version was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 383 AD The first translation into English didn’t appear until 1535. There have been different translations of the Bible ever since.
The translations of the Bible, such as they are, have produced a document rife with a multitude of contradictions. To cite just one example, “With God all things are possible” (MAT 19:26); “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (LUK 1:37); and “The LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron” (JUDG 1:19). Biblical contradictions are so numerous that there have been documents published with names like “1001 Biblical Contradictions.” It’s not necessary to list them here. Biblical contradictions are like shooting fish in a barrel; they’re so numerous and in many cases so obvious that it’s not even sporting.
The Old Testament begins with five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy – that make up the Torah. This is the story of Israel from the creation narrative to the death of Moses; these books apparently reached their present form in the “Persian period” of 538-332 BC, and were authored by a multitude of writers who had the political control of the Temple at that time. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings followed, forming a history of Israel from the Conquest of Canaan to the Siege of Jerusalem; there is a broad consensus among scholars that these originated as a single work (the so-called “Deuteronomistic history”) during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC. The two Books of Chronicles cover much the same material as the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic history and probably date from the 4th century BC. Of the remainder, the books of the various prophets were mostly written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. The “wisdom books” date from between the 5th century BC and the 2nd century BC, with the exception of some of the Psalms. The authors of all of these books are unknown and multiple, and it’s clear that most of these books have been edited, if not just rewritten, to serve various political objectives. The process by which scriptures became canons is equally complicated, and accounts for the many different Old Testaments which exist today. The books of the Old Testament were mostly written in ancient Hebrew, although a few were written in Aramaic. The New Testament was, as already discussed, written primarily in Koine Greek. All the books were translated into Latin at the time of the publication of the first “coherent” Bible, the “Vulgate” Bible commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382 AD.
Jesus himself most probably spoke Aramaic. The writers of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were not contemporaries of Jesus. The earliest Gospel, that of Mark, was believed to have been written around 70 AD, or more than a generation after Jesus died. Mark is believed to be Mark the Evangelist, although even this is not clear; he probably wrote in Greek while living in Syria. The other gospel authors wrote even later, and are generally believed to have derived their work from Mark’s gospel, from oral traditions, and potentially from an unknown written source of Jesus’ sayings, known as the “Q Source.” In case of the Gospel of John, there may have been multiple authors who wrote at three distinct time periods, with the book not reaching its final form until 90 to 100 AD The Gospel of Matthew was probably written in Aramaic or even Hebrew, although the version we know was translated into Koine Greek.
The most commonly used rendering of the Bible in English is the “King James” version, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. This was the third translation into English to be approved by the English Church authorities, after the Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII, and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. King James gave the forty-seven scholars who performed the translation instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England, and its belief in an ordained clergy. The “King James” version itself became rife with errors because of misprints and variations among the printed texts, leading to a renewed effort to standardize this translation. Consequently, scholars at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge embarked on a decade long mission to produce a definitive version, which in 1769 emerge as the “Standard” text.
Needless to say, the modern English translation of the Bible is problematic in all kinds of ways. But in addition to the linguistic problems, there are serious issues of context. In truth, we know very little about the time that Jesus lived in. And even less about the time of Abraham, Moses, and the other Biblical prophets. It’s not that there aren’t historians who know a lot; it is us, the laypersons, who are ignorant. We simply don’t have the tools or knowledge to understand the various stories of the Bible or the parables that Jesus told.
A Very Short History of the Abrahamic God and his Prophets
Yahweh (also, “YHWH” or “Jehovah”), the God of ancient Israel, who became the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus and the God of Mohammed, is a deity who “emerged” from a region in the south of Canaan. He was an especially capable War God. When he first entered into public consciousness – probably around 1300 BC – Yahweh had to “compete” with a Pantheon of other regional Gods. Initially he was considered to be the consort of Asherah, the Semitic Mother Goddess of ancient Canaan. Because he was a War God, he was not regarded as being particularly good at agricultural abundance or fertility; this is why the Canaanites (later Israelites) continue to worship other Gods as well. Yahweh did not become the God of all Israel until the Exodus, which some have speculated may in actuality be the story of a peasant uprising.
As depicted in the Old Testament, Yahweh is jealous, petty, and insecure. Loyalty is prized above all other virtues. To cite just one of many examples, Yahweh tests Abraham – the Patriarch of the “Abrahamic” religions – by forcing him to promise to sacrifice his only son. Yahweh relents in this demand only when Abraham already has his knife in his hands. Subsequently, Yahweh enters into a covenant with the people of Israel in which the greatest (and some might argue only) sin is disloyalty. This God is vengeful and capricious, and shows no mercy to the enemies of Israel. As the Bible progresses, Yahweh mellows slightly and becomes a bit more compassionate and a little less unrelenting. But fundamentally, disloyalty is still the greatest sin in the eyes of the Lord.
The first of Yahweh’s great prophets is Moses. Whether Moses actually existed as an actual human being is debatable; most likely, he is a composite of historical figures, much like a character in a historical novel. Nor has the Exodus been clearly connected to any Egyptological chronology. The stories related to Moses may be based in events that happened over time, but again, they are likely to be composites. If Moses actually existed, he probably lived around 1200 to 1300 BC, or around the time that Yahweh was first recognized as a God.
The second great prophet was Jesus, the putative son of God. We really don’t know much about the historical Jesus. We know three things for sure: that he was baptized, that he was crucified, and that in-between he had a ministry. The ministry didn’t last very long – maybe three to four years. Jesus did not write anything down himself, and although this is not known for sure, he was probably illiterate. Nor did any of his contemporaries write anything down about his ministry. Nothing formal was written down until at least a generation after his death, beginning with the “Synoptic” Gospels. These Gospels tell us much about what Jesus is believed to have taught. I personally view Jesus as kind of a precursor to Mahatma Gandhi – a prophet for the dispossessed, practicing a brand of non-violent political activism – but that’s a totally subjective interpretation based on far too little reliable information and my personal biases. In truth, Jesus can be said to have a complex legacy. We know, for example, that while he taught much about justice and compassion, Jesus was not opposed to slavery. He also believed in eternal damnation, which earned him the eternal disapprobation of Bertrand Russell, among others.
If we don’t know that much about Jesus, we know relatively more about the third great prophet of the Abrahamic tradition, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, (or “Mohammed”). For one thing, we know that he was born 570 AD. We even believe to know the exact date of his death, on June 8, 632 at the age of 62. We know that Mohammed had thirteen wives, and we know all of their names. More significantly, we know when he received his first revelation, and that the book that he would eventually author – the Quran or “Recitation” – was dictated over 23 years by Mohammed to various scribes. We know that the process of “writing” the Quran is closer to what today would be considered “channeling.” We know that Mohammed united the Arab tribes of his time and that, in 622, Mohammed migrated with his followers to Medina. (By the way, the name “Allah” derives from the name of pre-Islamic pagan Meccans, and originally referred to their creator deity. For all practical purposes, in the Islamic period it is a different name for the same Abrahamic god previously identified as Yahweh.)
Returning to Christianity, if we don’t know that much about Christ, we know a good deal about the Church that grew up in his name. The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic sect, occurring during the lifetimes of the Twelve Apostles and known as the “Apostolic Age.” What followed was the “Ante-Nicene Period” (literally meaning “before Nicaea”), which bridged the divide between the Apostles and the First Council of Nicaea on May 20, 325 AD in what is now Turkey. Christianity had gained favor in the Roman empire after the conversion of Constantine the Great, who reigned from 306 to 337 AD. It was Constantine who issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed tolerance of all religions throughout the empire, including Christianity. And it was at Constantine’s behest that the Council convened. The most important question that the Council addressed was the deity of Jesus Christ himself: was Jesus a man or was he a God himself? The council also articulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
One of the ironies of Christianity as a “monotheistic” religion is its tripartite nature: the doctrine of the Father (Yahweh), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. I have yet to read an explanation of the Holy Spirit that allows me to understand what it is and how it is supposed to function. The doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons or “hypostases”; the three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature.” Each entity is God, whole and entire, and yet they are distinct from one another in their relations of origin. As the Fourth Lateran Council declared, “it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The Trinity is considered to be a “mystery of Christian faith.” I don’t know about that, but it certainly remains a mystery to me.
Through the patronage of Constantine and subsequent emperors, the “Catholic” (or “Universal”) church developed a large following. The head of the Church was the Bishop of Rome, later to be known as the Pope. The first great schism in Christianity occurred when the Eastern Orthodox communities split from the Catholic Church because of by ecclesiastical differences, theological disputes, and the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the followers of Michael Cærularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who eventually returned the compliment, and ex-communicated the followers of the Pope.
The second great schism was the arrival of the Protestant (or “Protesting”) reformation, through the persons of Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546), John Calvin (10 July 1509 – 27 May 1564), and Ulrich Zwingli (1 January 1484 – 11 October 1531). Also contributing was the political separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1536. The initial catalyst for the reformation was Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses.” Although it was only one of 94, the central and most controversial thesis was Luther’s opposition to the Catholic practice of selling “indulgences,” which involved the remission of temporal punishment for sins which have already been forgiven. In other words, indulgences were granted by the Catholic Church after the sinner had confessed and received absolution; they were granted for specific good works and prayers. Following the excommunication of Martin Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the writings of John Calvin in Switzerland were influential in northern Europe. These theological disputes led to significant warfare, including the German Peasants’ War of 1524–1525 in the Bavarian, Thuringian and Swabian principalities; the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648 in most of Central Europe; and the Civil War of the 1640s in England.
In the 20th century, Protestantism, especially in the United States, was characterized by accelerating fragmentation. The century saw the rise of both liberal and conservative splinter groups. Although the doctrines of Protestant denominations are far from uniform, some beliefs extending across Protestantism are the doctrines of sola scriptura – which maintains that the Bible (rather than church tradition or ecclesiastical interpretations of the Bible)is the primary and supreme source of binding authority for all Christians – and the doctrine of sola fide – which holds that salvation comes by grace through faith alone in Jesus as the Christ – rather than through good works. Over the years Protestantism has split into the major denominations of Adventists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Calvinists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians. Within those major denominations there other dozens of individual churches, many in opposition to each other theologically.
Finally, not to be neglected entirely are the uniquely American churches, including the Mormons, (or Latter Day Saints) which began with the visions of Joseph Smith in upstate New York during the 1820s, and the Christian Scientists, developed by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), based on her reading of the Bible and her personal experience, and described in her book Science and Health (1875). I’m excluding from this discussion religions like Scientology, which is not based in Christianity, but the fantasies of L. Ron Hubbard.
Heaven, Hell and Other Myths
According to a 2005 Barbara Walters ABC News Special, nine out of ten Americans literally believe in heaven and hell. That figure is astounding. At least it’s astounding to me. I know this is going to offend some of my God-fearing friends, but heaven and hell is a child’s concept. This is the ultimate example of what psychologists call “black and white” thinking. Under this doctrine, you can be a mass murderer but still get into Heaven if you just repent and accept God; or, you can be the Dali Lama and suffer eternal damnation regardless of what else you’ve done in your life, simply because you haven’t accepted Christ as your personal savior. Not to put too fine a point on this, but an all powerful God could have generated as many offspring as he chose. To give up Jesus was no real sacrifice for God. Conversely, that Jesus had to suffer the agony of crucifixion and ask God why he has “forsaken” him should prove that Jesus was no God.
Recently, when the tragic events happened in Newtown, many people comforted themselves with the belief that all those innocent children who were mercilessly assassinated by another armed-to-the-teeth psychotic blowhole somehow found their way to heaven (even though several of them were Jewish). Unfortunately, my friends, that is no more likely than that the 9-11 hijackers who flew the planes were greeted in the afterlife by seventy-two virgins. While I have every sympathy with these comforting beliefs, the fact remains that they are equally improbable, which is to say, almost totally impossible. You’re more likely to win the Powerball lottery than find an idyllic after-life, and we already know how likely you are to win the Powerball lottery. Angels are equally as unlikely to exist as Heaven or Hell. It’s not that we may not have an experience of them; many people do. But by now it should be clear that our minds have an infinite capacity for self-deception. That has already been proven scientifically to those who are interested enough to inquire.
My “transformative” religious experience, if I can be said to have had such an experience, was at the age of five when my cousin Lutz first introduced me to the concept of infinity. No matter how large a number you can think of, you can always add “1.” No matter how far out in space you are, you can always go a further. No matter how long you’ve been dead, you’ll continue to be dead forever. That concept totally freaked me out – to be dead forever. It was traumatizing to a five your old, for sure. I still haven’t completely resolved the trauma, but comfort myself with the notion that being dead will be a lot like what it was like before I was born, which didn’t seem that traumatic. Some scientists are now arguing that time is circular. “Forever” isn’t a concept I can grasp, anymore than I can grasp the concept of God. What I know is only this: I have no assurances of an after-life, so whatever I want my life to be, I had better make it a good one in the life that I know.
Marx famously said that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” (Die Religion . . . ist das Opium des Volkes). No doubt people seek comfort in religion for obvious reasons. The whole spectrum of “new age” practices appears to be a colossal exercise in communal self-soothing. Ironically, these practices seem not to soothe, but to enrage the Catholic orthodoxy, which must see them as some kind of intrusion on their domain. In 2003, the Roman Catholic Church published a 90 page document entitled “A Christian reflection on the New Age in 2003,” after a six-year “study.” The document criticizes practices such as yoga, meditation, feng shui, and crystal healing. According to the Vatican, “euphoric states attained through New Age practices should not be confused with prayer or viewed as signs of God’s presence.” In this view they were joined by the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Public Policy Consequences of Certain Kinds of Belief
It wouldn’t matter much to me what somebody believes except as it intrudes into the political arena. The truth is that beliefs have consequences: in the United States, in particular, evangelicals have hijacked a large part of the political agenda. Ever since the days of the Moral Majority political debate has been defined largely from the right side of the political spectrum. With that in mind, let’s review some of the public policy considerations that have been impacted by Conservative Christian belief.
First, there is prayer in school. The question was essentially settled by Abington School Dist. V. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), the case that made Madalyn Murray O’Hair famous. In Abington the the Court ruled that the sanctioning of a prayer by the school amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Personally, prayer in various institutions has never offended me, as I’m not insecure about my atheism. When I was working as a Vista volunteer in North Carolina in 1980-81, a lot of meetings began with prayers. I didn’t mind, as long as they didn’t ask me to lead the prayer, because I didn’t really know any prayers, not even the Lord’s Prayer. I know, I know, the Lord’s Prayer is not long, but then I’m not a Christian. On the other hand, I can also understand why the parents of non-religious children might not want to have their school days open with a prayer, since to do it in schools and especially with grade school children is clearly a kind of Christian indoctrination.
Second, on the question of nativity scenes and other religious installations, I really believe this is a non-issue. As far as I’m concerned, there can be as many nativity scenes and other religious installations on public land as people want. Public spaces can also use symbols of Jewish worship and whatever Muslims’s use for religious iconography – I confess I don’t even know what they use. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.
Third, with respect to the question of teaching creationism in science class. This is where things quickly get silly: only in this country would people seriously advocate teaching creationism in science class. Why not just teach the Norsk and Roman creation myths in science class? Or the creation myths of Native Americans? These have as much scientific validity as the book of Genesis, and some of them are much more elegant. Nor is “intelligent design” – the cleverly-named offspring of the Discovery Institute – any more deserving of an appearance in science classes. It’s not that one couldn’t make an argument that some aspects of evolution are guided by forces that are more than just random; it’s just that this is not the argument that intelligent design makes. To those people who don’t believe in evolution I say, then don’t use antibiotics. Because antibiotics cannot exist without evolution.
This brings us to the question of whether there is an inherent incompatibility between religion and science. The argument is complicated and depends, of course, on the religion we’re talking about. Buddhism seems to be the major religion that is most compatible with science. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has written a book called “The Universe in a Single Atom.” In it, he wrote that “[m]y confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation.” He later added, with extraordinary candor that “[i]f scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”
The religious traditions which seem the least compatible with science are, ironically, the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Stephen Jay Gould, the American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, proposed the thesis of non-overlapping magisteria” which, briefly stated, is that science and religion each have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and these two domains do not overlap. This might be correct under certain circumstances, but it’s clearly not correct when creationism wants to masquerade as science in the classroom. The intellectual pursuit that religion does overlap with, it seems to me, is philosophy. But like religion, philosophy is not science. In the end, Christian creation myths should be taught where all creation myths should be taught, which is in comparative religion classes.
Gay marriage is the next issue impacted by Conservatives in the Abrahamic faiths. I firmly believe that in the not too distant future we’re going to look at gay marriage just as we now look at antimiscegenation laws. As in, what was all the fuss about? However, opponents of gay marriage find credence for their opposition in the Bible, even though the Bible has no explicit interdiction of gay marriage. What the Bible does have is passages like Leviticus 18:22, which says “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.”
Of course, Leviticus also says “The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness” (18:7 ); “The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness” (18:8 ); and “The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover (18:9 ).” Leviticus then goes on to recite about a half dozen other people whose nakedness you can’t uncover. This may be part of the reason why so many of us are so hung up on nudity in this country. And, lest we forget, eating shellfish is also an “abomination” cited by Leviticus: “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat” (11:9); “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you” (11:10); and “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you (11:12). This is the problem with taking the Bible too literally. There is a parody website called “www.godhatesshrimp.com“ that makes this point better than I can. If you’re going to use scripture to justify social policy, then you had better be careful what you ask for.
Last November, Massachusetts had a ballot petition that would have allowed medically assisted self-administered suicide for patients with only six months left to live: in effect, it would have legalized a kind of assisted suicide. Not the Dr. Kevorkian kind – to have the medical doctor administer the lethal dose – but rather it simply would have allowed doctors to write prescriptions for doses that the patients still had to self-administer. There were plenty of safeguards in the legislation, including the requirement that a doctor certify the medical probability of death and that the patient be referred to a psychiatrist to make sure he or she doesn’t have a “treatable depression.” Even so, the Catholic Church opposed it, and because of their influence in the Commonwealth, the measure was narrowly defeated.
Why does the Catholic Church care if certifiably terminally ill patients want to end their lives early? Because of Christian thinkers of the early and late middle ages like St. Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354 – 28 August 430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 7 March 1274) who deemed that suicide was a sin. I don’t care what these ancient, ancient men thought 739 and 1583 years ago respectively, and I’m not Catholic. And yet, their thinking is intruding on my political rights in 2013. These “Saints” were writing and thinking long before the discoveries of Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 27 April 1521), the first to prove that the world is not flat, and Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543), the first to articulate that the Earth actually rotates around the sun. What they might have thought of medically-assisted suicide is as relevant to me as what the Founding Fathers might have thought of net neutrality. I don’t care.
Which brings us, finally to Abortion. This is the Rubik’s Cube of social policy and religion. Let me begin by saying that I was once part of a program called the Public Conversations Project. The Project gathered together three people who were pro-choice and three who were pro-life and put them all in a room together for a “mediated” conversation, without telling anyone who in the room was pro-choice or pro-life. I came to realize that my pro-life friends are as sincere as can be, and that they are animated by the belief that at the moment of conception, a human being with a human spirit has already been created even if, at that point, it is simply a collection of undifferentiated cells. This is not a belief that I share. But when a fetus being becomes a human being is a truly tricky question that has no easy answers.
About five days after fertilization, a human egg becomes something known as a “blastocyst.” At that stage, the human blastocyst consists of about 70 to 100 cells. For the sake of comparison, there are more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. When an egg is fertilized, it is not yet a human being. When the baby comes out approximately nine months later, just about everyone would agree that it is a human being, albeit a small one. Somewhere in that time period the transformation has occurred. The Supreme Court, in its landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), decided to draw that line at the point of “viability,” which was at that time the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. In short, the state’s could not prohibit abortions in the first trimester – although they could be regulated – but they could prohibit abortions after the first trimester.
Now, “viability” is a moving target. As the boundaries between when life begins and when life ends have become more and more fuzzy because of advances in Western medicine, these kind of questions have become harder and harder to deal with. The Catholic Church doesn’t draw a fuzzy line, however. They believe that at the moment of conception a human “spirit” is also conceived and that we have, in effect, a fully realized human life. The basis for this belief goes back as far as the Didache, or the teachings of the Twelve Apostles in the first or second century after Christ. In this belief they are joined by most evangelical religions. On the pro-choice side, we have not dealt adequately with the question of when a fetus becomes a human being. On the pro-life side, they have not dealt adequately with the fact that the fetus is growing inside another human being, the mother. While we may not want to admit it, until a baby is born, it’s essentially in a kind of parasitic relationship with the mother, it’s host. Like the baby, the mother has rights, which are largely ignored by the pro-life side.
Last but not least, ther is the question of Stem Cell Research. Because embryonic stem cells have the ability to differentiate into almost any type of cell, they are incredibly valuable in current medical research. They will be invaluable in future medical treatments. Embryonic stem cells are derived from the previously discussed blastocysts, the “inner cell mass being separated from the trophectoderm,” the cells that would differentiate into extra-embryonic tissue. Most of these stem cells are culled from unused embryos that were produced as part of the in-vitro fertilization process, but will never be implanted into a womb. These embryos will be destroyed regardless of whether they’re used to harvest embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are so important because, at this stage of their cellular development, they can differentiate into almost any type of bodily tissue. This means, among other things, that instead of having to transplant organs from dead donors, embryonic stem cells will eventually be used to grow healthy human organs for implantation without having to involve donors.
President Bush signed a stem cell ban in February of 2001, limiting research to non-embryonic stem cells. This order was renewed in July of 2006 until overturned by executive order of President Obama in March of 2009. Subsequently, in 2011, a United States District Court threw out a lawsuit that challenged the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, with three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals stating that embryonic stem cell research did not violate Dickey-Wicker Amendment rules that had been used to limit such research. As long as there are anti-choice Christians out there, embryonic stem cell research, no matter how rewarding, will always be a target.
Although religious requirements for political office in the United States were unconstitutional on the national level of the federal system since the ratification of the articles of the Constitution in 1788, state requirements for political office were not entirely abolished until 1961, when the Supreme Court of the United States rejected a provision of the Maryland State Constitution requiring all public officeholders to declare a belief in God. This is the case of Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961). Nevertheless, as various polls have established, it’s still true today that most Americans would rather elect a woman, a Jew, an African-American, a gay man, a lesbian woman, or even a Mormon before they would elect an Atheist to be President of the United States.
Even to this day there is a strong bias in favor of “faith.” It is a concept that is, for the most part, universally acclaimed. But what is faith other than a belief in something for which there is no proof? If a Christian doesn’t believe in astrology, they have no faith in astrology. But no one criticizes them for that. On the other hand, not having faith in the Christian God has somehow become a virtual disqualification to be elected to positions of political power in the United States. From my perspective, this formula is ass-backwards. It’s atheists that we should be electing first, because they are the most likely to make rational and dispassionate political decisions.