Sunday, December 12, 2004

Sunday Reading

We had our first real “cold wave” come through yesterday. I put that in quotes because our low temperature here in Miami this morning was somewhere around 54 degrees, and our high today will be somewhere in the high 60’s or so. When I was a kid in Ohio, that was a pleasant day in June. But it does clear out the air here and reminds me that we do get seasonal changes here.

Another seasonal change is, of course, the onset of Christmas. The jingling bells and the red ribbons were on the air right after George W. Bush approved his last message, and the fact that it we do not have snow glistening in the lane doesn’t mean we don’t get hit with all the winter wonderland crap; you should see that Santa’s magical village that runs for nearly a mile along the Palmetto Expressway south of here. The message that gets lost is the one that was conveyed, however, by the angels in the Nativity story; “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” While we are ass-deep to a tall Swede in conspicuous consumption, we are sorely lacking the peace and good will. And that gives us a reason to work for both.

A couple of articles point out the efforts we need to make in achieving good will. Once that’s accomplished, peace may yet come. Michael Kinsley looks at how the divisive issue of gay marriage may end up uniting people, and John Horgan puts his tongue firmly in his cheek to advocate disunity among the faithful to find alliances with the faithless.

  • Michael Kinsley:

    Gay marriage is on the verge of joining abortion rights on the very short list of litmus tests that any Democratic candidate for national office must support. Not gay rights, but gay marriage, or at least “civil union,” which is an unstable half-step that is bound to turn into the real thing. Some say that this just illustrates how far Democrats and liberals have drifted outside the mainstream. But the mainstream, and even the right, are not far behind. Gay civil union, itself a radical concept from the perspective of just a few years ago, has widespread support outside of liberal circles. The notion that gay relationships should enjoy at least some of the benefits of marriage (hospital visitation rights being the unanswerable example) is probably a majority view. And even the most homophobic religious-right demagogue feels obliged to spout — and may well actually believe — bromides about God’s love of gay people.

    Today’s near-universal and minimally respectable attitude — the rock-bottom, non-negotiable price of admission to polite society and the political debate — is an acceptance of gay people and of open, unapologetic homosexuality as part of American life that would have shocked, if not offended, great liberals of a few decades ago such as Hubert Humphrey.

    This development is not just amazing, it is inspiring. American society hasn’t used up its capacity to recognize that it harbors an injustice and it remains supple enough to change as a result. In fact, the process is speeding up. It took African American civil rights a century and feminism a half-century to travel the distance gay rights have moved in a decade and a half.

    This is also scary, of course, because there is no reason to think that gay rights are the end of the line. And it’s even scarier because these are all revolutions of perception, as well as politics. That means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans — but don’t claim to be great visionaries — are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious — and we just don’t see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong. [Washington Post]

  • John Horgan:

    With the presidential election over and the holidays upon us – a religiously charged political season followed fast by the most religious time of the year in an overwhelmingly religious nation – unbelievers may be feeling a bit beleaguered. To cheer themselves up, they might visit the virtual home for a group called the United Universists.

    Founded last year by a few brave souls in Birmingham, Ala., the Universism movement “denies the validity of revelation, faith and dogma” and upholds science as our most reliable source of truth. The Universists are asking atheists, agnostics and other infidels to join them in their effort to counter the influence of religious zealots in our culture. Since the recent election, the Universists have posed this question on their home page in large type: “Who will fight for the faithless?”

    Good question. Obviously neither major political party wants to associate itself too closely with unbelievers – and understandably so, given polls showing that Americans are even less likely to vote for an atheist for president than for a homosexual. But as an areligious person myself, I’m intrigued by the notion of unbelievers banding together to increase their political clout, perhaps by speaking out on issues like sexual freedom, abortion, stem-cell and cloning research, and prayer in schools.

    There are more of us heathens out there than you might guess. According to the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which tracks religious diversity in the United States, the number of people with no religious affiliation has grown sharply over the past decade, to as many as 39 million. That is about twice the number of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Episcopalians combined.

    Not surprisingly, a slew of organizations – including older ones like the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Atheists and newer ones like the Universists and the so-called Brights – are competing for the devotion of the godless. The Universists, who claim to have enlisted 5,000 members so far, are especially feisty and shrewd at self-promotion. In September they took to the streets of Birmingham to protest Alabama’s ban on the sale of sex toys, and last week they organized an online chat with Sam Harris, author of the anti-religion polemic “The End of Faith.”


    My main objection to all these anti-religion, pro-science groups is that they aren’t addressing our basic problem, which is ideological self-righteousness of any kind. Obviously, not all faithful folk are intolerant bullies seeking to impose their views on others. Moreover, rejection of religion and adherence to a supposedly scientific worldview do not necessarily represent our route to salvation. We should never forget that two of the most vicious regimes in history, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, were inspired by pseudoscientific ideologies, eugenics and Marxism.

    Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed students’ criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their errors would he banish them from class.


    Instead of banding together, maybe we unbelievers should set an example by going in the opposite direction. We should renounce all “isms” – that claim to speak for our most profound personal beliefs. Or rather, since we seem to be headed in this direction anyway, each unbeliever could create his or her personal ism, perhaps with its own name. Since Universism is taken, I’ll call mine “Horganism.” You can revile it, admire it, or ignore it, but you can’t join it. [New York Times]

    Meanwhile, if you’re still insistent on doing some Christmas shopping, I have a little list…

    Football picks: The Dolphins play the Broncos in Denver. Wow, talk about being torn between two choices; I live in Miami but spent eight years in the Denver area during the Elway era. My gut tells me that the Broncos will prevail. The Lions play at Green Bay. That could be interesting; the Lions aren’t as awful as they used to be, and the Packers are stumbling. Too bad I won’t get to see it.