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56 posts categorized "Sunday Sermonette"

April 29, 2007

Sunday Sermonette: Rejecting the "moderate Muslim" label

Asma Khalid has a thought-provoking essay in AlterNet entitled "Why I am Not A Moderate Muslim."

In this passage, she puts her finger on what has always bothered me about using the term "moderate Muslim" to describe followers of Islam who embrace values such as democracy, gender equality, and peace:

In the aftermath of September 11, much has been said about the need for "moderate Muslims." But to be a "moderate" Muslim also implies that Osama bin Laden and Co. must represent the pinnacle of orthodoxy; that a criterion of orthodox Islam somehow inherently entails violence; and, consequently, that if I espouse peace, I am not adhering to my full religious duties.

I refuse to live as a "moderate" Muslim if its side effect is an unintentional admission that suicide bombing is a religious obligation for the orthodox faithful. True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to adhere piously to a religion's tenets. [AlterNet]

Khalid's insight applies to other groups as well. It would be insulting to describe members of the United Church as "moderate Christians" compared to Southern Baptists--because the implication would be that industrial-strength Christianity is conservative and that more liberal faiths represent a watering down of the old time religion.

When I first moved to New York, I nearly got into a shouting match with an Orthodox real estate broker who was showing me an apartment in Crown Heights. As I was checking the tile in the bathroom, the guy made some off-the-cuff remark about how Reform Jews weren't really very Jewish.

"No, we just don't agree with you," I snapped.

The thing to remember is that claims of fundamentalism or orthodoxy are positioning statements for brands. We often treat claims of religious orthodoxy as if they were statements of fact rather than rhetorical devices.

Positioning your doctrine as the orthodoxy is a way to marginalize your competition. If we uncritically allow the most reactionary sects to claim the mantle of orthodoxy, we do the work of fundamentalists for them.

April 15, 2007

Sunday Sermonette: Secularism and immigration

Welcome, apostates!

A separate study of 4,000 Hispanics to be released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center found that 8 percent of them said they had “no religion” — similar to the 11 percent in the general public. Of the Hispanics who claimed no religion, two-thirds said they had once been religious. Thirty-nine percent of the Hispanics who said they had no religion were former Catholics.

Hispanics from Cuba were the most secular national group, at 14 percent, followed by Central Americans at 12 percent, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans at 9 percent, and South Americans at 8 percent, the Pew poll found. Mexicans in this country were the least likely to say they had no religion, at 7 percent. [NYT]

Another reason for secularists to champion immigration...

“They come, they adopt the American way, and part of the American way is moving towards no religion,” said Ariela Keysar, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford. [NYT]

I've always been strongly pro-immigration, but I never considered our newest Americans as a source of reinforcements in the culture wars. What a nice dividend.

March 25, 2007

Un-Sunday Sermonette

What the other side is up to: A helpful guide, complete with PowerPoint, to melodies that do and don't praise God.

HT: Amanda.

February 25, 2007

Sunday Sermonette: Oliver Willis

Oliver Willis:

Imagine if you will, a substantial group of regular churchgoing Christians. They are active in their community, they believe in God and Heaven and Hell. Their entire life is about living up to the Word of God, and when they vote that belief is a driving moral force in how their ballot is cast. These Christians are vital to their party, if they stayed home on election day there's no way the party could win.

Surely these people are part of the "values voters" so often courted by the GOP.

Did I mention that they're black. Because, you see, they're Democrats. They are also the religious left nobody seems to talk about when things flare up in discussions about "the religious left" (And yes, the idea of these mythical Democrats who persecute the religious that nobody can ever name stinks to high heaven).

Read Oliver's whole post on black churches and the religious left.

I'm so sick of hearing people complain about how secular Democrats are driving religious people away from the party with our constant believer-hating invective. a) It's not happening. I'm probably one of the more outspoken atheists you'll meet, but I'm not out evangelizing and even if I were, I wouldn't expect anyone but the rankest crazies interpret my attempts to spread the truth as I understand it to be an attack, as opposed to a little friendly competition. b) Whenever political strategists and pundits fantasize wistfully about the wonderful religious left we'd have if it weren't for anti-clerical maniacs like me, they're ignoring the fact that there's already a a vibrant powerful religious left in this country that's already working side by side with us secular Dems.

February 18, 2007

Who needs faith?

Nathan Newman writes:

There's a bit of a furor that Mitt Romney declared:

We need to have a person of fiath lead the country.

So what? I disagree with the statement, but it's no different in kind from someone saying they support Obama because they think we need a person of color as President, or saying they support Clinton because it's high time a woman was President. There's no violation of the Constitution for VOTERS to vote their religious beliefs, just as ethnic and racial solidarity has been common in elections without violating the 14th Amendment.

And at some level, why shouldn't a person's religious beliefs be relevant?

Mitt Romney is implying that you can't be a good president unless you're a religious believer.  He's deluded, of course. On the other hand, I'm not surprised or offended by his blithe dismissal of atheists higher office.

Mitt's entitled to support whoever he wants for president--including his own personal, faithful self. He's entitled to run on whatever platform he wants, including the false claim that only the faithful can be good presidents.

It's just kind of a stupid for Mitt the Mormon to start a person-of-faith pissing match. The thing is, most American voters agree that only God-loving folk can be good presidents. Unfortunately for Mitt, a significant percentage of those religious believers regard Mitt's God as fictional and his faith as heresy. Every single person he's running against has a more mainstream faith than he does. So, I'd advise him to tread carefully.

All previous American presidents have at least publicly professed a belief in God. Some of them were good. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between which God they believed in and how good they were at being president.

What really matters is a president's policy positions, not his or her religious identity. An atheist president with Mitt's agenda would still be a bad president.

February 04, 2007

Sunday Sermonette: I don't practice Santaria

I don't practice Santeria, I ain't got no crystal ball...

I don't understand why a Dallas suburb won't give a Santeria priest a permit to ritually sacrifice animals in the privacy of his own home. Actually I'm somewhat surprised that a permit is necessary. Even so, I don't think a city should be required to allow religiously-motivated practices that would be illegal if they were undertaken for secular reasons:

EULESS — Sued by a Santeria priest barred from sacrificing animals in his home, this Dallas suburb has asked a federal judge to dismiss a religious discrimination lawsuit on grounds that making an exception forces the city to favor a religion over secular law.

Jose Merced, 45, alleges that city officials denied him a permit to perform Santeria ceremonies that include slaughtering chickens and goats inside his home, even though people outside would not have been able to see or hear them.

Merced has argued that he doesn't want to break the law but is entitled to practice his religion, which mixes Roman Catholicism with African beliefs and demands blood sacrifices.

But in a motion to dismiss filed Jan. 24, the city argues that a 2000 federal law forcing local governments to show a compelling public interest before limiting a religious practice is unconstitutional, since it intrudes on a state's right to regulate the health and welfare of its residents.

City attorney William McKamie said because Euless' ban on animal slaughter is a health and safety issue, any exception means the city would effectively endorse Santeria over city law.


On the other hand, it's possible that the suburb trumped up a law against in-house animal slaughter just to thwart Santeria practitioners, or that they're just enforcing an obscure law because they don't like Santeria.

Update: I wasn't very clear in my original post. I didn't mean to imply that the Santeria priest has the right to break any laws that conflict with his favorite rituals. On the contrary, I'm tentatively siding with the city in this case because a religiously neutral law should trump religious expression.

However, I also think it's unfair to prohibit a practice that would be permitted for secular reasons simply because it's carried out for spiritual reasons. So, if the city of Euless lets you cut off chickens' heads for food, I don't see why you shouldn't be allowed to do the same thing for spiritual gratification.

Ultimately meat eating and animal sacrifice are in the same category: Gratifying but not essential for survival or physical well-being. If I kill a chicken for food, I'm doing so for my own sensual pleasure. If I'm allowed to kill animals just because I'm aesthetically gratified by chicken parm or leather shoes, surely a priest should be allowed to kill animals to ensure the emotional satisfaction of his human flock.

I know a lot of people disagree with me about the morality of killing animals for food. Yet, even most vegetarians don't support a legal ban on killing livestock. So, in the interest of consistency, I think that it's only fair to let this Santeria priest have the same privileges as a backyard chicken farmer.

If the city has a good health reason for prohibiting ritual slaughter at home, then religion is no defense. If the guy is actually doing something that's potentially dangerous, the city should make him stop. If he's torturing animals or otherwise violating existing animal cruelty laws, he should be dealt with severely. If he's just violating a pure food law that was intended to apply to commercial food producers, then maybe the city should consider changing the law--assuming he's not hurting anyone.

However, if the priest is just slitting some chickens' throats at home and not endangering anyone else, I don't really see a problem with his behavior--especially if the neighbors are allowed to do similar things for their culinary delectation without being harassed by the police.

December 03, 2006

Sunday Sermonette: Ken Starr v. Bong Hits 4 Jesus

hight_life, originally uploaded by Monsieur Haze.

America's favorite moral busybody has shifted his focus from cigars to spliffs. Ken Starr, the former special prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton, is going to the Supreme Court to fight against a student's right to display a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" near (but not on) school property.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the civil rights suit of a teenager from Juneau, Alaska who was suspended after raising his 14-foot "Bong Hits" banner within view of school property.

Ken Starr will be arguing on behalf of the former high school principal who crossed the street, tore down the teen's banner and suspended him for 10 days.

The principal may be liable for damages because she admitted under oath that she knew she her punishment violated students' rights (as outlined in the existing case law).

Starr reportedly agreed to argue the principal's case for free.

October 08, 2006

Supplemental Sunday Sermonette: Being Duke Cunningham

Like a fish out of water, originally uploaded by colodio.

Yesterday I blogged about Duke Cunningham's irate letter to the reporter who exposed his crimes.

The letter was simultaneously outrageous and heart-wrenching.

At first, I gave the Sunday Sermonette to Duke because of his bizarre religious hypocrisy, detailed in the previous post. Then, it occurred to me that this was a good object lesson for a constructive humanist sermonette--Cunningham's letter says a lot about why the unexamined life sucks.

Cunningham says he hurts worse than anyone can imagine. Reading the letter, I believe it. The interesting thing is that he's suffering much more because of his failures of self-reflection than he would if he just admitted to himself that he did something wrong.

The former Republican congressman is now serving time in federal prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes, including $1 million from his best friend of 16 years, defense contractor Mitchell Wade.

Cunningham doesn't see any contradiction between his Christian faith and his refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. I'm not even sure Cunningham is capable of accepting responsibility at this point. He just can't believe that he's anything except a victim.

Ironically, by casting himself as the victim, Cunningham is torturing himself. Perhaps the saddest part of the letter is when Duke denounces his former best friend:

“Wade is the absolute devil and his lawyer is trying to save his donkey,” wrote Cunningham, reflecting his bitterness at what Wade has been telling federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney's Office. “I should have said no to the gifts. For that, I am truly sorry.”


In the letter, Cunningham clearly blames Wade for those transgressions. And, 16 months after insisting that he was not a personal friend of Wade's, Cunningham's letter describes what was once a close relationship.

“He showers you with gifts, he pretended to be my best friend for 16 years. Taking me to his wifes parents home many times. Taking Nancy and I to Sunday brunches with his wife, hunting together at his father in laws Eastern Shore place. Me taking him to a place where I hunt. When I was in town we were together,” he wrote.

If Cunningham were a more reflective person, he might not be writing off his entire friendship as a betrayal. If he could come to terms with his own culpability, he could acknowledge that he and his buddy got busted for crimes they committed together.

In the letter, Cunningham comes across as a quivering ball of inchoate suffering. He feels bad about everything--his crime, his punishment, even his closest relationships. If he thought more clearly and settled on a defensible interpretation of his predicament, he'd eliminate several sources of misery immediately. Sure, if he took responsibility, he'd have to cope with being a bribe-taking Congressman, but at least he wouldn't have to deal with surges of indignant fury and the agony of imaginary betrayal.

Update: Elsewhere in the freethinking blogosphere, Revere offers a an excellent humanist meditation on what we can all learn from the Amish about rationality and forgiveness.

Jailed Duke Cunningham: "I hurt more than anyone could imagine"

Jailed former congressman Duke Cunningham writes a poor, pitiful Duke letter from federal prison:

WASHINGTON--In a handwritten letter to the reporter who exposed his corruption, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham portrays life in prison as an agonizing time of regret, anger and bitterness toward those he blames for his downfall.

"I hurt more than anyone could imagine,” Cunningham wrote from federal prison in North Carolina.

In the letter, the former Rancho Santa Fe Republican lashes out at the The San Diego Union-Tribune, which broke the story on June 12, 2005, but aims his sharpest barbs at one of his co-conspirators.

Cunningham, 64, has been housed in the low-security section of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex since shortly after being sentenced March 3 to eight years and four months in prison. Cunningham pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy and tax evasion charges and admitted accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes in return for helping defense contractors secure federal business.

His comments came in a letter to Marcus Stern, the Copley News Service reporter who uncovered the tainted 2003 sale of Cunningham's Del Mar-area home to defense contractor Mitchell Wade. Cunningham applied proceeds of the sale toward purchase of a $2.55 million mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. Wade bought the Del Mar-area home for $1.675 million and sold it eight months later at a $700,000 loss.

Needless to say, Cunningham blames his former best friend, Mitchell Wade for giving him all those bribes:

If there was any doubt that his long friendship with Wade is over, Cunningham uses the letter to dispel it, blasting the man who provided so many of the bribes uncovered during the federal investigation.

“Wade is the absolute devil and his lawyer is trying to save his donkey,” wrote Cunningham, reflecting his bitterness at what Wade has been telling federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney's Office. “I should have said no to the gifts. For that, I am truly sorry.”

Noting that he “cannot discuss the case,” Cunningham nonetheless said that “90 percent” of the case against him came from Wade, downplaying the role of another of his alleged co-conspirators, Brent Wilkes, founder of Poway-based ADCS Inc.

I think we're going to give the Sunday Sermonette to the Duke-stir:

“I hurt more than anyone could imagine and without my faith your constant cruelty would destroy me,” he wrote.

Cunningham cited his religious faith again when he wrote, “The Lord's Prayer forgive me my debts as I would forgive. My first sin each night is the failure to forgive the U.T. Not just coverage but the brutal two and three pages each week that has nearly destroyed me and my family.”

He warned that the “truth will come out and you will find out how liablest [libelous] you have & will be.”

View the .pdf of Duke Cunningham's letter.

October 01, 2006

Sunday Sermonette: Sinclair Lewis

April 5, 2006, originally uploaded by Grand Lake.

This summer the House quietly passed a bill to prevent lawyers from recovering fees from successful Establishment Clause lawsuits:

The Public Expression of Religion Act - H.R. 2679 - provides that attorneys who successfully challenge government actions as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment shall not be entitled to recover attorneys fees. The bill has only one purpose: to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion.[WaPo]

Since 1988, the government has been picking up the legal tab for people who successfully sue the state for violating their civil or constitutional rights.

It's a very good system to ensure that you don't have to be rich to have your day in court. If the government has violated your constitutional rights, they least it can do is pick up the cost of your suing them.

H.R. 2679 is a brilliant piece of legislation from the Republican point of view. If enacted, it could simultaneously discourage at least three despised groups from clogging up the courts with their tiresome preoccupations: Atheists, religious minorities, and poor people!

Update: Alon Levy posted some excellent talking points against the bill four days ago.