A Philosopher's Blog

Another Christmas, Another War on It

Posted in Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2013
Christmas gifts.

Still not a crime. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many Americans, I grew up with many Christmas traditions: the tree, the Advent calender, decorations, and candy canes. While I am not particularly religious, these traditions still hold great meaning to me and I still think back fondly to Christmases past. However, there is a Christmas tradition I am not fond of. This is, not surprisingly, the yearly claim that there is a War on Christmas.

Listening to certain pundits, who are mainly denizens of Fox news, one would get the impression that those that celebrate Christmas have been forced to hide in ancient catacombs under the shopping malls to avoid being thrown into the arena where they would be cuddled by liberal, vegetarian lions of ambiguous gender.

On the face of it, to claim that there is a war on Christmas in America would seem to be prima facie evidence that a person is either joking, epistemically damaged or insane. After all, Christmas trees are displayed openly. People boldly wish others a merry Christmas and are not arrested. Christmas stockings are still hung from the chimney with care, rather than being hidden away in some secret corner. You can test this yourself: boldly go to a store that sells cards and ask for Christmas cards. Approach a police officer and ask her if you can report people for celebrating Christmas. Go to the mall and loudly proclaim that you are there to buy Christmas presents. Decorate your yard and your house for Christmas. Eat a candy cane in public. Then report in the comment section what happened.

The fact that Christianity does not get to be the official religion is not proof that there is a war on Christmas. The fact that non-Christians are not compelled to engage in Christmas activities is not proof there is a war on Christmas. The fact that religious tolerance and diversity is respected is not evidence there is a war on Christmas. The fact that some people do some ridiculous things regarding Christmas does not show that there is a war on Christmas.

As happens every year, the folks who (pretend to) believe in a war on Christmas point to problems involving Nativity scenes on state property. As I have written before, I rather like Nativity scenes: When I see one, however tacky it might be (one had flamingos lined up to adore the baby Jesus) I will pause and look at it, remembering days gone by. As such, I have nothing against Nativity scenes. However, I do agree that religious displays should not occur on state property.

Not having religious displays on state property (that is, the property of all the citizens) is not a war on Christmas. After all, not having the state actively endorse a specific faith is not an attack on that faith. If the state burned Nativity scenes as part of a public display, then that would be a war. Having a general ban on religious displays is not a war on religion but rather a refusal to exalt one faith above any others. That is an important part of allowing freedom of (and from) religion.

It is also important to note that manger scenes are not banned from anywhere else. If you want to turn your entire lawn into just such a scene, then you are free to do so. If your church wants to put up a massive manger extravaganza, they are free to do just that. And some do. If it is nearby, I will go see it. Even if it includes flamingos. Actually, especially if it includes flamingos.

Defenders in the imaginary war on Christmas also point to the use of “happy holidays” as a sign that Christmas is under attack. The obvious reply is that this is actually a holiday season. While Hanukkah is over, there are still holidays left such as Three King’s Day and New Year’s. The other obvious reply is that wishing people happy holidays when one does not know their faith (or lack thereof) is a sign of respect and inclusiveness.

I have no objection to someone wishing me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah-I usually assume that the person is expressing good will towards me. I’m especially fine with it when the person is giving me a gift at the same time. But, honesty compels me to say that Christmas gifts generally put Hanukkah gifts to shame-not that I did not appreciate the dreidel and chocolate coins, Dave.

That said, I can see how people who are not Christians might find being relentlessly wished a Merry Christmas a bit off putting, especially if it is not done with the spirit of the season but issued as a challenge of faith. Fortunately, that does not happen all that often.

It has also been pointed out repeatedly that schools now have winter breaks rather than Christmas break. I do admit that even now it still sounds odd to be on winter break. I still use the term Christmas break because old habits die hard and, for me, I am on Christmas break. However, not everyone who attends state universities is a Christian and state universities are not supposed to endorse any specific faith (private religious schools are another matter). This is, however, not an attack on Christmas anymore than not calling it Kwanzaa break is an assault on Kwanzaa.

The self-styled protectors of Christmas also lament that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. However, it is not clear just how much Christ has been a part of Christmas. Much of the Christmas mythology and trappings are pagan in origin. Also, when you throw in the gross commercialization of the holiday, that would seem to have done a great deal to take the Christ out of Christmas.

While I would really like an Xbox One for Christmas,  I’d also like the pundits to stop making up this war on Christmas. While it no doubt appeals to the base and creates that warm feeling of righteous indignation in some, it is completely contrary to the spirit of Christmas, namely peace on earth and goodwill to all. Ironically, it is the pundits that are waging a campaign against Christmas. So, ironically, I suppose they are right after all.

As a final point, if there is a war on Christmas, this is a war Christmas wins every year. Merry Christmas.

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Corporations & Religious Freedom I: The Contraception Thing

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2013
English: A typical contraceptive diaphragm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As this is being written, there are almost forty for-profit companies suing the United States government over the requirement in Obamacare that health plans include coverage of contraception. The basis for the lawsuit is that the requirement is a violation of religious freedom.  The company Hobby Lobby has attracted the media’s attention in this matter, serving as the “poster corporation” for this matter.

In the case of Hobby Lobby,  CEO David Green and his family claim that their and Hobby Lobby’s freedom of religion is being “substantially burdened” by being compelled to provide insurance that would cover “morning-after pills” and IUDs for employees who wanted such them. The Greens claim that these specific types of contraception prevent implantation of fertilized eggs and are thus equivalent to abortion, which they regard as being against their religious beliefs. There are also those who oppose contraception regardless of the type on religious grounds.

The legal foundation for this challenge is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

From a moral standpoint, this exemption does seem acceptable if it is assumed that freedom of religion is a moral right. After all, there should be a presumption in favor of freedom and the state would need to warrant such an intrusion. However, if it can do so properly, then the imposition would be morally acceptable. The stock example here is, of course, limitations on the right of free speech.

From both a moral and legal standpoint, there seem to be two main points of concern. The first is whether or not a for-profit corporation is an entity that can be justly ascribed a right to freedom of religion. The second is whether or not such the contraceptive coverage imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. Obviously, if a corporation cannot be justly ascribed this right, then the second concern becomes irrelevant in this context. However, since it is a simpler matter, I will address the second concern first and then move on to the main point of interest regarding corporations and religious freedom.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that those bringing the lawsuit are sincere in their claim that contraception is against their religion and that this is not merely cover for an attack on Obamacare. I will also assume that their religious belief is about the use of contraception.

On the face of it, being compelled to follow the law would seem to not impose any substantial burden in regards to such a belief. After all, those impacted by the law are not required to use contraception. This would, of course, be a clear imposition on their freedom (religious and otherwise). They are also not required to directly give their employees contraception. This could be seen as an imposition by giving them a somewhat direct role in the use of contraception.  However, they are merely required to provide a health plan that covers contraception for those who are exercising their freedom to choose to use said contraception. As such, the burden seems minimal—if it exists at all.

It might be objected that to be forced to have any connection to a means by which employees could get contraceptives would be a significant imposition on the corporation. The rather obvious reply to this is that the corporations pay employees with money that can be used to buy contraceptives. So, if an employee would use contraception, then she would most likely just purchase it if it were not covered by her insurance. In cases where the contraceptive medicine is being used for medical reasons (as opposed to being used as contraception) the employee would probably be even more likely to purchase it (which raises the question of whether such use counts as using contraception in a way that would violate these religious beliefs).

As such, if a corporation can insist that health care plans not cover contraception on the grounds that they would be forced to play a role in situation in which an employee might get contraception by means connected to the corporation, it would seem that they could make the same claim in regards to the paychecks they issue. After all, paychecks might be used to acquire all manner of things that are against the religious views of the corporation’s owner(s). This is, of course, absurd and would be a clear violation of the rights and freedoms of the employees.

As such, the second issue is easily settled: being compelled to offer insurance that covers contraception is not a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of corporations. In my next essay I will turn to the more important issue, namely whether or not for-profit corporations are the sort of entities that can justly be ascribed religious beliefs (and thus be entitled to religious freedom).

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The End Time & Government

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2013
Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Michelle Bachmann seems to have claimed that Obama’s support of the Syrian rebels is a sign of the End Times:

“[President Barack Obama's support of Syrian rebels] happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. [...] And so when we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; that these days would be as the days of Noah. We are seeing that in our time. Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”

While Bachmann’s political star seems to be falling, she is apparently still an influential figure and popular with many Tea Party members. As such, it seems worthwhile to address her claims.

Her first claim is a factual matter about the mundane world: she asserts that Obama is “willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists.” This claim is easy enough to disprove. Despite some pressure (including some from Republicans) to arm the rebels, the administration has taken a very limited approach: rebels that have been determined to not be terrorists will be supported with defensive aid rather than provided with offensive weaponry. Thus, Bachmann (who is occasionally has problems with facts) is wrong on two counts. First, Obama is not sending arms (taken as offensive weapons). Second, he is not sending anything to terrorists.

Now, it could be objected that means of defense are arms, under a broad definition of “arms.” Interestingly, as I learned in the 1980s when the debate topic for a year was arms sales, “arms” can be defined very broadly indeed. If Bachmann defines “arms” broadly enough to include defensive aid, then Obama would be sending arms. However, this is rather a different matter than if Obama were sending offensive weapons, such as the Stinger missiles we provided to the mujahedeen when they were fighting the Russians.

It could also be objected that Obama is sending arms to terrorists. This could be done by claiming that he knows that what he sends to Syria could end up being taken from the intended recipients by terrorists. This is a reasonable point of concern, but it seems clear from her words that she does not mean this.

It could also be done by claiming that Obama is lying and he is, in fact, sending the aid to actual terrorists. Alternatively, it could be claimed that he is sending the aid to non-terrorists, but intends for the terrorists to take it.  While this is possible (Presidents have lied about supplying arms in the past), actual proof would be needed to show that he is doing this with will, knowledge and intent. That is, it would have to be established that Obama knows the people who he is sending the aid to are terrorists and/or that he intends for terrorists to receive these arms. Given the seriousness of the claim, this would require equally serious report. Bachmann does not seem to provide any actual evidence for her accusation, hence there is little reason to place confidence in her claim.

While politicians tend to have a “special” relationship with the truth, Bachmann seems to have an extra-special relationship.

Her second claim is a factual matter about the supernatural world: she seems to be claiming that Obama’s alleged funding of terrorists is a sign of the End Times. While I am not a scholar of the end of the world (despite authoring a fictional version of the End Time), what she is claiming does not seem to be accurate. That is, there seems to be no reference to something adequately similar to Obama funding terrorists as a sign of the End Time. But perhaps Bachmann has access to some special information that has been denied to others.

While predictions that the End Time is near are common, it does seem to be bad theology to make such predictions in the context of Christianity. After all,  the official epistemic line seems to be that no one but God knows when this time will come: “But of that day and that hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” As such, any speculation that something is or is not a sign of the End Time would be rather problematic. If the bible is correct about this, Bachmann should not make such a claim–she cannot possibly know that something is a sign of the End Times or not, since no one can know (other than God) when it will occur.

It could be replied that the bible is wrong about this matter and Bachman can know that she has seen a sign and that the End Times are thus approaching. The obvious reply is that if the bible is wrong about this, then it could be wrong about other things–such as there being an End Time at all.

Interestingly, her view of the coming End Time might help explain her positive view of the government shut down. When asked about the shutdown, she said “It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” While Bachmann has not (as of this writing) claimed that this is also a sign of the End Times, her view that the End Times are approaching would certainly provide an explanation for her lack of concern. After all, if the End Time is fast approaching, then the time of government here on earth is fast approaching its end. Bachmann does seem to think it is on its way.

Weirdly, she also seems to think that Jesus will handle our retirement–which is presumably a reason we will not need the government. She says, “Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.” This seems to be saying that people who believe the End Time is coming, such as herself, will worry that they will not be able to enjoy their retirement. This seems oddly reasonable: after all, the End Time would certainly clash with the sort of non-end-of-the-world retirement our parents enjoyed. But, oddly enough, she thinks that people who know Jesus will be able to have that retirement, apparently with Jesus providing the benefits rather than the state.

As might be imagined, the fact that Bachmann is an influential figure who apparently has some influence on politics is terrifying enough to itself be a sign of the End Time.

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Splitting Marriage: Theological Unions

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 3, 2013
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my short book on same-sex marriage I make the suggestion that marriage be split up into different types. I thought it would be  worthwhile to write a bit more on this subject. While this suggestion might be regarded as satire (a rather inferior modest proposal) and I do tend to be a bit sarcastic, this is actually a serious proposal that I believe would solve some of the problems associated with the marriage issues.

While the acceptance of same-sex marriage has become mainstream in some Western countries, there are still those who strongly oppose it. While it is tempting to simply dismiss such people as mere bigots, it does seem worth considering that their values should be tolerated. Of course, even if a set of values should be tolerated on the grounds of the freedom of thought and belief it does not follow that those who have such values have the right to impose these values on others. In the case of those who oppose same-sex marriage, the fact that they consider it against their values does not entail that they have the right to make their values the law of the land.

Since nearly all (or all) of the resistance to same-sex marriage is based on religious beliefs, it is also worth considering the importance of the freedom of religion. While this is a sub-freedom of the more general freedom of thought and belief, it does seem worth considering religious freedom separately,  if only for historic reasons. Interestingly, some who oppose same-sex marriage contend that making same-sex marriage legal imposes on their religious freedoms. However, this is obviously not the case. Making same-sex marriage legal does not, by itself,  infringe on a person’s religious freedom. After all, the legality of same sex-marriage does not require that people get gay-married against their will (which would be a violation of  freedom).

It could be contended that the legality of same-sex marriage could violate a person’s religious freedom in that a person opposed to same-sex marriage who had some sort of official capacity involving marriage in some way might thus be required to recognize the legality of same-sex marriage. For example, a justice of the peace in a state where same-sex marriage is legal would be required to recognize the legality of same-sex marriage. As another example, the clerk who handles marriage licenses in a state where same sex-marriage is legal would also be required to recognize its legality. This is, of course, not unique to same-sex marriage. In the United States, officials refused (and sometimes still refuse) to accept marriage between people of different ethnic groups (typically a black person marrying a white person).

On the one hand, cases such as these can be seen as violation of a person’s religious freedom. Using the justice of the peace example, if Sally’s religious belief is that same-sex marriage is an abomination in the eyes of God, then compelling her to marry Jane and Denise would thus seem to violate her religious freedom. After all, she would be compelled to act contrary to her religious beliefs.

On the other hand, these cases can be seen as not violating a person’s religious freedom. After all, having religious freedom is rather distinct from having the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on other people. In the example, Sally would be imposing her religious view on Jane and Denise rather than exercising her freedom of religion. By not marrying another woman and by regarding such marriages as abominations, Sally would be exercising her freedom of religion.

This can be countered by insisting that Sally’s religious freedom is being violated. After all, as a justice of the peace she is required to act contrary to her faith and she should have the freedom to refuse to do so.

The obvious reply is that she does have the freedom to do so. She can quit her job as justice of the peace on the grounds of her faith. To use an analogy, suppose that Velma believes that eating pork is a abomination on religious grounds. If Velma works at Betty’s BBQ Pit, it is not a violation of her religious freedom for Betty to expect her to serve barbecued pork to the customers. Betty can exercise her freedom by quitting her job and getting one at Paul’s Porkless BBQ Pit.

A counter to this could be based on the argument that a person who regards something a seriously violating their religious views would be wrong to simply walk away. Rather, they should refuse to allow it to occur. Going back to the analogy, suppose that a law was passed allowing human slavery again. If Velma was working at Betty’s Slave Auction and she opposes slavery on religious grounds, it would seem rather problematic to claim that Velma should simply quit. Rather, she should surely try to get the law changed. To avoid any confusion, my point here is not to draw a moral comparison between same-sex marriage and slavery. Rather, the point of using slavery is to use something that should be seen as obviously wrong and that should not be tolerated. To those who oppose same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage is regarded as being something that is obviously wrong and that should not be tolerated.

The sensible reply here is to contend that same-sex marriage is not wrong. That is, that the religious people who oppose it on religious grounds are in error. Interestingly, the same reply has been given by the defenders of slavery, namely that it is not wrong.  Thus, a key part of the matter would involve sorting out the morality of same-sex marriage.

The easy and obvious way out is to note that legalizing same-sex marriage does not inflict any meaningful involuntary harm. In contrast, something like slavery obviously does inflict harm on people. As such, while a person would be right to prevent others from engaging in the practice of something like slavery, the same does not hold in the case of same-sex marriage. Even if same-sex marriage were wrong, the fact that it generates no harm to others would seem to entail that those who oppose same-sex marriage have no grounds on which to claim an obligation to prevent others from engaging in the activity. While saying “I have a moral right to stop you from practicing slavery because you are harming others” seems right, saying “I have a right to stop you from  marrying someone of the same-sex because it is against my religion” seems mistaken.

Thus, those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds do not seem to have adequate justification to deny others legal marriage (that is, the legal relationship recognized by the state). However, the appeal to religious freedom might still be able to provide legitimate grounds for religious groups denying others a certain type of marriage. The key concerns are, of course, what sort of marriage this might be and what might warrant religious discrimination.

Obviously enough, a religious group does not have a legitimate right to deny other people the legal right to marry because the marriage is against their religion. However, voluntary religious groups (like other voluntary associations) do have the right to set certain rules for their members. For example, a tabletop gaming group can set rules about what expansion books are allowed in the game. As another example, a track club might define the rules for their grand prix. As a fourth example, a couple that is “going steady” might set rules about their relationship, such as it being monogamous. These rules are based on the beliefs of the members and typically have no legal status. For example, if Sam is “going steady” with Ted, Sam cannot have Ted arrested simply because he went on a date with Sally. Such rules are often used to help define the identity of the group and set what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable behavior (such as playing a dragon as a character). Provided that such rules are voluntarily accepted and not harmful, there is certainly nothing wrong with groups having such rules.

Turning back to the main issue of marriage, it seems reasonable to allow voluntary religious associations to have their own rules for marriage, just as it is reasonable to allow gaming groups to determine whether they require their members to dress in character (as an elf wizard, for example). However, just as gaming groups do not have a right to impose their views on others (making everyone dress up as fantasy characters, for example) neither do religious groups. As such, the marriage rules of a religious group cannot have legal status. However, they can be voluntarily accepted by the members of the group.

This, as I have said before, could be called a “theological union.” It would be a religious marriage as defined by the religious group in question and could have all the rules and requirements that the group wishes to accept (subject to the law, of course). However, the marriage would have no legal status at all-that is, it would grant no legal rights nor impose any legal obligations.  So, for example, one church could forbid same sex theological unions while another could embrace them. People who do not agree with the theological unions of a group would be free to leave the group to join or create another that suits their values. Just as people can do so in other theological matters, such as whether or not women can be priests. Naturally, a couple that gets a theological union can also get a legal marriage (a civil union) that would give them all the legal rights and obligations as defined by the law.

Since these unions would have no legal status, there would be no discrimination in the legal sense and thus the specific rules of a religious group would not generally be a matter of concern for the state. This would respect religious freedom by allowing people to define their theological union rules as they see fit, without interference from the state. It would also respect the freedom from religion-that is, the right not to have other folks’ religion imposed on you. So, religious people who oppose same-sex marriage can say “if you are part of our religion that rejects same-sex unions, you cannot get same-sex theological unioned” but they cannot justly say “same-sex marriage is against my religion, so you can’t get a civil union that provides legally defined obligations and rights.”

This approach seems quite sensible, since it respects religious freedom while also protecting people from religious based impositions on freedom.

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Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2013
Same Sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an important part of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), specifically  the part of the law that denied benefits to same-sex married couples. The court also ruled 5-4 that the supporters of California’s Proposition 8 (that bans same-sex marriage) did not have the standing to appeal the existing ruling against the proposition. Thus, the court left intact a ruling by a lower court that the proposition is unconstitutional. The court did not, however, make any ruling about the proposition itself.

In the case of DOMA, the court ruled against Section 3, which is the section that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The legal basis for this ruling is that this definition is a violation of the the Constitutional right to equal protection under the law.  Justice Kennedy, who cast the decisive vote for the 5-4 ruling, noted that “the federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” He also added that the law imposed  “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

While this ruling is being lauded by advocates of same-sex marriage, it is important to note that it obviously does not make same-sex marriage legal throughout the states. However, it does certainly provide a foundation for legal arguments in favor of same-sex marriage. After all, Kennedy makes it clear that the statute disparages and injures those it targets and the same principle can, obviously, be applied to other such laws.

That said, it is important to note another key aspect of Kennedy’s claims. While he clearly notes the pernicious nature of the statute, he does so in the context of how the statute is an attack on the authority of the states which legalized same-sex marriage. As such, he is putting forth a principle with two key components. The first is focused on the personhood and dignity of the people in same-sex married couples. The second is focused on states’ rights, specifically their authority to pass laws regarding marriage.

In the case of DOMA, the two principles are in harmony: DOMA violated the legal authority of the states that had passed laws permitting same-sex marriage and this law certainly seems to have been aimed at disparaging and injuring citizens. However, there is the question of which principle should be given priority when they are in conflict. That is, would the authority of a state override the equal protection clause in this case or would the equal protection clause hold?

The ruling on Proposition 8 sheds some light on this, given that the decision apparently allows each state to set its own marriage policy. This would seem to indicate that the states have the authority to pass laws that would ban same-sex marriage. However, these laws would certainly seem to run afoul of the equal protection clause and would seem to be inconsistent with Kennedy’s reasoning in the first principle attributed to him. One way to reconcile the two would be for states to have the right to pass laws that allow same-sex marriage but lack the right to pass laws that would deny same-sex couples equal protection and rights under the law. This, obviously enough, would seem to imply that same-sex marriage should be legal in all the states. However, this discussion is rather speculative and can, no doubt, be easily countered.

As might be imagined, these rulings were not met with joy by all Americans and there is still opposition to same sex marriage. For example, Austin Nimocks, who is a lawyer with the rather ironically named Alliance Defending Freedom, said that “marriage – the union of husband and wife – will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers.”

Nimocks seems to be wrong on almost all counts. Marriage is rather obviously neither timeless nor universal. It could be special, but that all depends on what is meant by the term “special.” While children certainly do need parents, there is no necessary connection between children having parents and the sort of “traditional” marriage being put forth by Nimocks.

While my own view of same-sex marriage is extensively developed in  in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will say a bit about the matter here.

Not surprisingly, I agree with the striking down of DOMA and agree with Kennedy’s view that the law disparages and injures citizens. I also agree that the law was a violation the authority of the states. As such, I regarded DOMA as a violation of both individual and collective rights.

I will add, however, that I think that much of our trouble with marriage stems from the fact that we have clumped together various relationships under the term “marriage” and we fail to properly consider that these relationships are quite distinct. In my book, I argue that marriage should be split into at least three categories, namely the legal marriage, the theological union (religious marriage), and the loving marriage. The concern of the state and the laws would be limited to the legal marriage, which is defined by all the various legal and economic aspects of current marriage (such as divorce, insurance, inheritance and so on). The legal marriage is just that, a legal contract, and would be open to consenting adults.

Those who value the religious aspects of marriage and see it is a matter involving God (or whatever) can have their theological unions that are handled by the appropriate religious authorities. This union would have no legal status and, as such, would allow for as much discrimination as desired. This would allow people to protect what they regard as the sanctity of marriage while also preventing them from denying other people their rights.

Those who see marriage as a matter of love would have their love unions that would also have no legal status whatsoever. They could, of course, involve personal promises and all sorts of romance. Naturally, a person could engage in all three marriages (perhaps with the same person in each case).

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Review of Manuscript Found in Accra

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2013
English: Davos (Switzerland) - The Brazilian w...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manuscript Found in Accra
Paulo Coelho
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
190 pages
$22.00 Hardcover

Paulo Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, a book I have not read—although I have read some of the works it imitates. His latest work, Manuscript Found in Accra, is classified as fiction while clearly endeavoring to convey philosophical and religious ideas to the reader.

The author uses the device of the found manuscript—that is, the fictional content of the book is presented as being from a manuscript from the 11th century which was found by chance. Coelho creates a fictional backstory for the finding of the manuscript. He also crafts a fictional backstory for the creation of the work: in 1099 the crusaders are about to invade Jerusalem. A wise man, known as the Copt, is asked various questions by the people who have remained in the city. These questions and his answers are written down by one of those present and the manuscript is hidden for safe-keeping, only to be discovered centuries later.

The work is clear and well written (or, more accurately, well translated by Margaret Jull Costa) and is thus an easy read. While the book has 190 pages, it should be noted that the work is double-spaced, the question for each section appears on its own page (with a following blank page) and the margins are robust. As such, the work is also a quick read.

While I am a professional philosopher, I did endeavor to read the book from two perspectives. The first, obviously enough, is that of a professional philosopher. The second is that of a casual reader.

From my casual reader perspective, the work proved to be an interesting light read. While the author does not go into any real depth, the presentation of Big Ideas in a casual manner does provide some light entertainment and, more importantly, did get me thinking about the ideas raised. As such, I liked the book and can say that it would appeal to those who enjoy the presentation of Big Ideas in the context of fiction.

From my professional philosopher standpoint, the work also proved to be an interesting light read. The author borrows heavily and obviously from various traditions such as Taoism and Christianity and there is not much in the way of original thought here. The author also clearly seems to be trying to imitate the Socratic Method by presenting the Big Ideas in the context of a discussion. However, the intellectual rigor and depth of the full Socratic Method is absent—this is casual conversation with some Big Ideas and not a serious philosophical examination of values. The author also seems to have been influenced by Confucius’ Analects in that there is a wise man speaking his words of wisdom (without any supporting argumentation) to listeners and these words are written down by one of the followers/students.

The comparison to Confucius seems especially apt since the author is employing a method commonly used by the classic Eastern philosophers, namely appealing to intuitions and engaging in storytelling. This is in contrast with classic Western philosophy of the sort done by Plato and Aristotle: rigorous argumentation and in-depth analysis. However, the practice of philosophizing by storytelling has gained considerable traction in contemporary Western philosophy, although it is often dismissed on the obvious ground that telling stories is not a substitute for argumentation.

Since the work is being marketed as fiction, it is certainly tempting to simply say that the lack of argumentation and intellectual rigor is not a big deal. After all, while these things are expected in a work of philosophy (Big Ideas require equally Big Arguments), the standards of fiction are far weaker in this regards. Crudely put, while a philosopher must prove her points, the author of fiction must merely tell a good story. Thus, the question would seem to be whether or not Coelho tells a good story. While there is nothing exceptional about the work, a decent story is told reasonably well. However, Coelho (or at least the folks marketing his book) have the view that it is more than just telling a story for the amusement of the reader. Rather, the book is cast as presenting Big Ideas.

Looked at this way, the work could be seen as engaged in the philosophical method of the appeal to intuition. An intuition is a blend of how one thinks and feels about a matter prior to reflection. Crudely put, it is sort of a “gut” reaction. Naturally, a “gut” reaction is not an argument for a claim. An argument is when reasons are provided in support of a claim.

In the case of an appeal to intuition, the goal of the method is to “motivate” the reader’s intuitions so s/he accepts the claims being presented. This makes the method a blend between persuasion and argumentation.

It is an argument to the degree that the goal is to support a position by providing reasons. It is also persuasion in that the goal is also to get the audience accept a view because the author has presented something that appeals to their intuitions. That is, the goal is to make the audience feel as the authors wants them to feel so that they will think as the author wants them to think. A major weak point of this method is that intuitions are obviously intuitions and not the result of reflection and argument. Because of that fact, this method is strong and effective with people who share intuitions, but tends to be weak and ineffective with people who do not share the same intuitions.

The Big Ideas presented in the book do have intuitive appeal, mainly because they are Big Ideas that have been presented elsewhere (sometimes with arguments backing them up). Naturally, those whose intuitions match these ideas will find the book appealing while those who do not will probably not.

Overall, if you are looking for a light read that dabbles in telling stories about Big Ideas, you will probably like this work of fiction. If you are looking for something with philosophical depth, then you will want to keep looking.

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Death & Fear

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2013

The_Myth_of_PersecutionAs mentioned in the previous essay, Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution got me thinking about the notion of the good death. Her mention of Socrates and discussion of the stories of martyrdom reminded me that a considerable part of the Apology is about death and why it should not be feared.

In her book Moss makes an interesting argument in which she endeavors to show how the death of Socrates and other ancient philosophers shaped the later Christian martyrdom. One similarity worth exploring further is the idea that the philosophers and Christian martyrs face death bravely. To use the most famous example, Socrates faced both his trial and death with considerable courage. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, a lack of fear. Since Socrates, unlike most martyrs, presented a detailed case supporting his view that death should not be feared, his story makes an excellent point of focus.

Socrates gives multiple arguments to support his claim that death should not be feared. I will present a summary of each as well as commentary.

Socrates first argument, which I will call the ignorance argument, runs as follows: As Socrates sees it, “no one knows if death may be the greatest good” and hence if someone fears death, they are making an error. This error, for Socrates, is to have the mere pretenses of wisdom—believing that one knows something he does not.

Socrates, who well known for his claim that his wisdom amounted to knowing that he knew nothing, claims that he does not know about death. He does, however, claim that he knows that he should not fear or avoid a possible good (which death might be). Rather, he should fear and avoid a certain evil—in this case, injustice. Thus, Socrates two main reasons here for not fearing death are that 1) he does not know if death is good or evil and 2) he fears injustice as a known evil and will choose death, which might be good, over being unjust.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As might be suspected, the Christian martyrs would not, in general, lack the fear of death for the reason that they accepted their ignorance of the matter. As Moss notes in her book, the generally held view was that martyrs were guaranteed not only heaven, but also premium treatment. However, the Socratic influence can, perhaps, be seen in the notion that the Christian martyr stories often involved the martyr facing the same choice as Socrates, namely giving up his principles to avoid death. Like Socrates, the martyrs elected to avoid what they regarded as the known evil.

In terms of courage, facing the unknown nature of death would require some degree of bravery. After all, while it could be good, it could also be bad. Socrates does, of course, seem to be assuming that any possible evil of death would be less evil than injustice. As such, it could be claimed that his choice is not a matter of courage—after all, he is merely choosing something he does not fear (death) over something he does fear. He can, obviously enough, be regarded as brave from the perspective of people who do fear death.

Socrates’ main argument as to why death is nothing to fear is his famous dilemma: he claims that “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams. The other option, as he sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal.

Interestingly enough, Ecclesiastes 9:5 seems to match what Socrates: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” There is also the more popular view that the good go to Heaven when they die—where they are, as Socrates said, happy and immortal.

While some claim that Socrates is merely trying to calm his friends, the argument is worth assessing in terms of whether or not it shows death is nothing to fear and also in terms of how this connects to the matter of bravery.

On the face of it, if Socrates actually believed the claims in his own argument, then facing death would not seem to be a matter of courage. After all, facing something that one does not (and should not) fear is not courage. To use an analogy, suppose we are in a house and hear a strange noise coming from the dark basement. If I have no idea what is down there in the dark, then it would (or could) be brave of me to go into the dark to find out what made the noise. However, if I believe the noise is being made by my husky pursuing a cat, then it would be no braver of me to go into the basement than it would be for me to eat some ice cream—after all, I would believe that I was not facing anything bad.  As such, if Socrates believed that death was really nothing to fear, than facing it without fear would not be courage.

As should be obvious, Socrates can be easily accused of presenting a false dilemma. After all he offers two alternative when it is easy enough to imagine post-death experiences that are very horrible indeed, such as Hell or a Hell like place where people are unhappy and immortal. Such fates would presumably be something to fear. What would be needed is, of course, evidence that only good things can happen to the good. Naturally, Socrates clearly believes that he is good, just as the martyrs are presented as being good.

Socrates does, of course, make exactly that claim. Near the end of the Apology he says, “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.” While he is aware that he has been sentenced to death, he does not regard this as a harm, since he is sure that he has not been “neglected by the gods” and, famously, his little voice did not stop him from choosing the course he followed.

Not surprisingly, a similar view is held by the martyrs—at least as they are generally portrayed in the stories. That is, in the stories they receive a proper reward for their martyrdom. If a martyr knows or at least believes that death is actually a great gain, then choosing death or accepting death are not acts of courage. After all, if I choose ice cream or accept a bowl of it, I am not thus a brave person.

The obvious reply is, of course, that the process of death tends to hurt—especially the deaths that the Christian martyrs are said to have experienced. As such, it could be argued that they had physical courage in that they were willing to face the pain that stood between them and their reward. Going with the ice cream analogy, I could (perhaps) be called brave if I had to win my ice cream by enduring some modest amount of pain (after all, I am just getting ice cream and not Heaven).  Then again, perhaps enduring some discomfort for a gain is not courage at all, but merely a desire for gain that is stronger than the pain.

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Review: The Myth of Persecution

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2013

The_Myth_of_PersecutionThe Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom
Candida Moss (WebsiteFacebook page, and Twitter account. )
$25.99 Hardcover
308 pages

In her book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss argues for her claim that the early Christians created a myth whose legacy still impacts the world today.

She begins the book with the story of the December 31, 2010 murder of Mariam Fekry and this sets the stage for the discussion that follows. Mariam, a Coptic Christian, was cast by some as a martyr and the bombing that killed her was presented as an attack on Christianity itself.  This attack, some claimed, warranted divinely sanctioned retribution. Moss contends that this way of thinking is grounded in the myth of persecution and she spends the remainder of this book examining this subject.

Moss’ main claim is that the commonly held view that “Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs” is simply untrue. She spends much of the book endeavoring to support her claim.

She starts her argument by considering martyrdom before Christianity and tracing its likely influence on the Christian views of martyrdom.  Naturally, she notes that there was no ancient word for “martyr” but makes an excellent case that the concept was well understood even in the ancient world.

As a philosopher, I found her analysis of the deaths of the philosophers (most notable Socrates) interesting. I Candida_Mossdid, however, find her assessment of the death of Socrates problematic in some ways (such as her claims about his philosophical views). On the whole, however, Moss does a reasonably good job tracing the likely influences on the Christian concept of martyrdom from the ancient world. This is, of course, not new—philosophers have noted the connection between Socrates (and Plato) and Christianity for quite some time (some thinkers referred to them as being “Christians before Christ”). However, Moss does a good job focusing on the specific connection as it relates to martyrdom (rather than, for example, metaphysics).

Moss then shifts to examining the pagan and Jewish martyrdom traditions and connects the dots between the pre-Christian martyrs and the Christian martyrs. Her approach is quite sensible: she looks for relevant similarities between the stories of the non-Christian martyrs and the stories of the Christian martyrs and uses these similarities to support her claim that Christians borrowed heavily in creating their stories of martyrdom. While this sort of approach does have its weakness, she does a reasonably good job making her case. After all, if the Christian stories significantly replicate the tales of the earlier non-Christian martyrs, then this suggests a clear influence. It also provides evidence that the Christian stories are, at the very least, embellished with details from the older stories.

After considering the non-Christian influences, Moss then turns to making a direct case that persecution is a myth. She does this by considering the available evidence and takes it to show that the Christians were not, as a matter of fact, persecuted in the manner that has become the received view. She notes that from the death of Jesus to the time of Constantine Christians were only sporadically subject to the attention of the Roman authorities and that this attention was not consistent in terms of its harshness or lack thereof. That is, the Roman Empire did not engage in what would legitimately count as persecution of Christians.

Moss then focuses on the six allegedly “authentic accounts” of the first Christian martyrs, such as Polycarp and Felicity.  One of her methods in assessing the plausibility of these accounts is to look for anachronisms such as attacks on heresies that post-dated the story or references to traditions that did not exist at the time when the story allegedly took place.  Another method she employs is to look for errors in the stories in regards to what we now know about Roman society (or details that are inconsistent with likely behavior). While these methods do not provide complete support for her case (after all, such inconsistencies could be explained away), they do lend credence to her claims.

Another important method she employs is what can be regarded as an argument by definition. That is, she considers what would actually count as persecution and examines the available evidence to see if the treatment of Christians would count as persecution rather than prosecution.  She carefully makes the case that although some Christians were sometimes subject to brutal punishments this does not entail that they were persecuted. A key part of making this case is arguing that the Christians who were prosecuted were treated in such a manner not because of a campaign of persecution against Christians as Christians. Rather, it was because the specific Christians in question acted in ways that were punishable under general Roman law (like refusing to accept the authority of the Roman officials).

Obviously enough, this approach is only as good as the historical data used to make the case. As such, a potential weak point lies in the fact that our information about this time is far from complete. Of course, this is also a problem for those who would claim that Christians were persecuted—they, too, have to draw on limited resources and engage in speculation. However, the weight of the evidence (at least as presented by Moss) seems to favor the view put forth in the book.

Moss heads into the end section of the book by arguing that the notion of Christianity as a persecuted faith was manufactured almost entirely in the fourth century and later. Interestingly enough, this was when the faith was doing quite well. Moss claims that the reasons for the development of the myth included the desire to have a rhetorical tool against heretics (having a martyr praise the orthodox and condemn the heretic was the equivalent of a celebrity endorsement and condemnation) as well as to provide the equivalent of a horror story to entertain the faithful.

While the majority of the book makes a reasonable strong case for Moss’ thesis, the end of the book is somewhat disappointing. In fact, it almost feels as if it were hastily tacked on in an attempt to make the book more relevant to today and to appeal to a more diverse audience.

Disappointingly, Moss moves rather too quickly through her short examination of the legacy of this myth. While she does briefly note some of its harms (such as how it enables powerful Christians to claim that they are being victimized and thus feel justified in refusing to tolerate their critics), this section is more of a lost opportunity than a significant success.

While I do agree with her assessment of the matter, her case is not particularly strong. She spends a significant portion of the last section involves a personal anecdote about overhearing two students condemning a nine year old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather.  While I do understand the rhetorical power of an anecdote, such an appeal to anecdotal evidence is at best logically weak. It is not for nothing that the appeal to anecdotal evidence is a classic fallacy.

If the anecdote had been backed up by more significant evidence of the effect in question, then her case would have been considerably stronger—after all, this is an academic work rather than a discussion of her personal experiences. It also has the unfortunate potential of creating the impression that she is relying so strongly on an anecdote because she lacks solid evidence.

Moss ends on an optimistic note that revealing the myth as a myth will help undo its legacy. Somewhat ironically, she makes a strong case against her optimism in the preceding chapters by noting how eager some people are to embrace and employ the myth.  Perhaps the greatest irony is, of course, that those who give her case due consideration are already reasonable people while those who most need to be “cured” will probably just regard the book as a work aimed at persecuting Christians.

Overall, I found the book informative, well-reasoned and approachable. I would certainly recommend the tlc_tour_hostbook to anyone who would like to consider a rational case aimed at exposing the myth of persecution.

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Are Christian’s Persecuted in America?

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 11, 2013
English: Persecution of the Christians

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m currently reading Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution, which will be available March 5th. I’ll be posting a review of the book on March 6th. This book has, not surprisingly, got me thinking once more about the idea that Christians are persecuted in America.

I invite the readers of this blog to present their answers to the following questions:

  1.  What is persecution (in this context)?
  2.  Are Christians persecuted in America?
  3.  What evidence is there for your view?

Naturally, I’ll present my views on this matter.

Persecution, in this context, would involve the widespread, active, systematic and persistent mistreat of Christians merely because they are Christians. Persecution, by its very nature, seems to require that the persecuted be victims of a more powerful group or groups.

Given this general definition, it would seem clear that Christians are not persecuted in the United States. While Christian groups might not always get what they want (such as a ban on same-sex marriages), this hardly counts as persecution.

In terms of the alleged evidence for persecution, proponents of this view claim that Christians are denied the right to pray, that states forbid the display of Christian symbols on state property (like the nativity scene), that there is a war on Christmas and so on. However, these claims are often unfounded (such as is the case with the alleged war on Christmas) or exaggerated. In any case, this is a factual matter and can be settled by empirical research.

In terms of the evidence against persecution, the majority of Americans claim to be Christians and the nation that is awash in churches. If Christians were persecuted it would seem odd that so many people would profess to a persecuted faith. Even more strange would be the claim that  a minority of non-Christians would be able to persecute all the Christians. Of course, it is not impossible. After all, South Africa’s majority black population was cruelly oppressed by the minority white population. However, we do not see a powerless Christian majority in America that is being subdued by a powerful minority of non-Christians. Powerful and influential leaders, from the President on down, claim to be Christians. Churches with great wealth and influence abound. Christian business people, academics, scientists, lawyers, police, soldiers and other professionals abound. It is especially odd to see powerful Republican politicians and pundits speak of being persecuted for being Christians, given the fact that they are powerful and influential and thus exactly the sort of people who are not being persecuted.  If all these Christians are being persecuted, they do not seem to show signs of this persecution and to allow it to happen in the face of their power, influence and wealth would show an amazing ineptitude on their part. There is also the obvious question of the identity of the persecutors. That is, who has the power to persecute the Christian majority of the United States? No one, it surely seems.

As such, there seems to be no evidence of widespread, active, systematic and persistent mistreatment of Christians in the United States. The fact is that Christianity is the dominant faith. There is also no war on Christmas.

This is not to say that some Christians do not feel persecuted. However, this often seems to be caused by a distorted perception of reality (like the war on Christmas) or by the belief that a failure to get what they want (such as prayer in schools) is a form of persecution. That is, they are mistaking frustration for persecution.

There are, of course, places in the world were Christians really are persecuted. However these places do not include the United States.

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Merry Christmas!

Posted in Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 25, 2012
Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world didn’t end, so I will wish you a Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone is with the people they love and that the day is filled with peace and joy. For those that do not celebrate Christmas, peace and joy to you as well.

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