Category Archives: Religion

Monday’s Mtg: When Is War Justified?

It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.

But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us.  Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he  offered no apology for the atomic bombs.  Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis.  That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.”  And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.

The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force.  As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?

Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality.  I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
  2. Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
  3. Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
  4. Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much?  Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
  5. You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention?  What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
  6. 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

CivCon Mtgs on War:  What causes modern warsISISDid we have to drop the bombs on Japan?

Just War Theory basics:

  • An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
    Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
  • Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.

Obama and just wars:

  • Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
  • The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.

Emerging Issues:

Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?

 

Advertisements

Monday’s Mtg: Are There Any Universal Religious Principles?

Let’s call this one another “David bites off more than he can chew” topic. I got the idea from reading a wonderful little book – Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World. The American Buddhist author gently defends religion from both fundamentalists and atheists by arguing that the world’s major religions are compatible with modernity. She says that, stripped of their archaic baggage and recent fundamentalism, the major global religions have plenty of room for tolerance, human rights, social justice, and democracy. Great book.

Still, upon further reflection, I think we have to be a little careful here, for two reasons. First, “Are there any universal religious principles,” begs a lot of questions. When is a principle a religious one? When people or doctrines say it is? How do we know a value or principle isn’t a product of something else, say, evolutionary biology or psychology or socialization? Similarly, how much universality is enough? When a principle is common to all/most/many/certain faiths? What about modern or still-contested ideas, like church/state separation or human and LGBT rights? Can they be both recent and controversial and justifiable by ancient religions?

Finally, the idea I originally had in mind would ask: Universal principles about what? About God’s existence and nature? About whether some truths are revealed rather than empirically-verifiable? About how to lead a moral life, or treat other people (ethics)? About sex and family, murder and war?  Do any of us know enough about world religions to compare them so?  Not eye.

A second reason to be cautious in the way we generalize about universal religious values is that a lot of people are not very cautious when they do this. We are all aware of the “Islam is inherently evil” tidal wave being surfed by Donald Trump and religious Right’s insistence that upholding LGBT civil rights violates their religious freedom. But, progressives can be lazy, too, like when they say all religions are deep down the same. I agree with the scholar I linked to below tat says this trivializes religion. Also and as Jim Z. can attest, whether human rights principles are universal values or a Western invention being imposed on developing countries is a big issue these days in its own right.

Anyway, below are a few articles that make claims about the universality of religious values, plus some simple statements of faith from a few well-known religions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Universal Moral Values?

Universal Religious Principles?

Some specific (but simple) faith statements –

Next Week: Fixing our juvenile criminal justice system.

Monday’s Mtg: From Bundy to Black Lives – When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?

Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:

  • Black Lives Matter;
  • Occupy Wall Street;
  • Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
  • Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
  • Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
  • Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.

Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).

The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc.   As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.

Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually.  But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media.  Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.

My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
    a.  Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
    b.  When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
  2. CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
    a.  How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
    b.  Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
  3. PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
    a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
    b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
  4. RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
  5. LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
    a.  What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
    b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:

Justifications:

  • MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
  • Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
  • Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:

Building grass roots political movements

Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy.  Jim Z. will guide us!

Monday’s Mtg: The Sources of Islamist Radicalism.

In a new century of dizzying changes, the Middle East remains the world’s most unstable and destabilizing region. More than a dozen large and strategically important countries were frozen in time for half a century by their cruel, post-colonial autocrats and the corrupt, hypertrophic states they created to cling to power. A great thaw is inevitable and can only be welcomed. Despite the violence and disappointments of the aborted Arab Spring five years ago, the Ancien Régimes’ days are all numbered. The urgent question we will consider on Monday is what will replace them?

The consensus I read is that, at least for a while, the heirs to power in many of these nations will be “Islamist” political parties.  Islamism, or political Islam, refers to the philosophy that the legal and political systems in a Muslim country must be based on Islamic principles. Obviously, since no society ever agrees on exact religious principles, there is no single Islamist set of beliefs or unified movement (despite the dreams of Al Qaeda and ISIS). Each country has multiple, competing Islamist parties and/or social movements that represent different philosophies, sects, ethnic groups, and societal interests.

Are any of them compatible with democracy and a peaceful foreign policy? Well, so far the most radical and even revolutionary and terroristic Islamist movements have gained the strongest positions. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and – most hideously – ISIS and other Al Qaeda offshoots in Syria and parts of Sunni Iraq. And let’s not forget the crusty old radical Shiite regime in Iran and the new one we created in Iraq, or the radicalized messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, there is hope. More moderate Islamist political parties are sprinkled throughout the Middle East. Most notably, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won elections in Turkey for a decade, mostly in a democratic manner. Still, I’m not sure any one is confident that Islamist political parties can become or remain democratic – especially in the traumatized, divided, and chaotic nations they will inherit all over the Middle East.

So, I thought we could start with the most basic and probably most important question: What are the sources – the causes – of radical Islamism?  I’ll open with some brief remarks on (1) the main strains of radical Islam, and (2) conventional wisdom on the main drivers of that radicalism. I hope we can discuss the role religion plays in spurring Muslim radicalism without getting stuck in the stupid gear that our political system is stuck in, “Is the Islam religion itself the sole cause of radicalism and terrorism, Y/N?” Islam plays a big role, sure. But, what role, why, and what else contributes?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:   The Supreme Court and the 2016 election. 

Monday’s Mtg: Conservatives’ Religious Freedom of Conscience Movement and the Culture Wars

Happy Religious Freedom Day! January 16 commemorates the adoption in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a pioneering law protecting religious faith and practice. Since then, the contours of and limits to religious liberty in our country have, like all other constitutional rights, evolved.

Since the at least the 1960s, state laws often have allowed people to claim an exemption from some secular laws in some circumstances based on their personal religious objection. Conscience clauses are common in education (opt-outs for vaccinations and sex education), health care (refusing to participate in abortions), and in other areas.

I had us discuss this topic in 2013 because conservatives had begun a political campaign to expand the scope of what they term ‘religious freedom” laws into new areas, like marriage equality and LGBT rights. I timed our meeting to coincide with oral arguments in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court case. In that case, the owners of a big craft chain store argued that their first amendment religious liberty included the right to disobey the Obamacare mandate to cover all effective forms of contraception in its employee health insurance plan.

A few months after we met, SCOTUS ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor. The Court’s reasoning was…innovative, to say the least. It said that the religious freedom of the companies’ owners extends through the corporate veil, all the way to the earned benefits of its employees. Hobby Lobby had the first amendment right, the Court said, to dictate which forms of contraception its health care plan would pay for, solely on the basis of its owners’ personal religious beliefs. Progressives immediately grew suspicious that SCOTUS had opened the door to new corporate abuses of power and/or new ways for conservatives to ignore law they didn’t like.

Don’t worry, said the Court. This ruling really is a narrow one. It applies only to “closely-held” companies and only to the specific forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby’s owners believed were immoral. If in the future other claimants tried to use this decision to make more outlandish religious claims – outlandish in the Court’s eyes, I guess – SCOTUS would not be receptive.

Well, guess what? In March 2016, SCOTUS will hear a new case in which a religious non-profit employer wants out of the Obamacare contraception mandate, too. The Court might use its ruling to open the religious conscience exemption door even wider – perhaps much wider. And it’s not just the Supreme Court. Since Hobby Lobby, congressional conservatives have introduced the First Amendment Defense Act and the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, both designed to protect conscientious religious objectors to federal LGBT laws. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio cosponsored both these bills and Donald Trump just said he would sign the latter. On the state level, GOP-controlled governments have tried to enact similar laws.

You see my motive for this topic revisit. Maybe all of these efforts to expand religious conscience laws to protect lost culture war battles will fade away or be contained by ether the courts or public opinion. (Maybe some are even sensible – we shouldn’t dismiss the whole idea of expanding conscience clauses out of hand, IMO). But, I doubt it. I think conservatives’ conscience clause/ religious freedom movement is major a new frontier of our 21st century culture wars.

On Monday, I’ll open our meeting with a little more info on what conservatives have planned in this area and a bit of the reasoning supporters and opponents use.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What is a religious conscience clause and what is its moral and constitutional justification? Historically, what were their limits?
  2. How did (or, did) the Hobby Lobby ruling change the limits of religious conscience?
  3. How do conservatives want to expand this part of the law? Do their ideas have merit?
  4. Is DavidG wrong: Are conservatives not going to keep the pedal to the metal on this issue?
  5. Are there other ways to split the baby on these tough moral questions; e.g., more federalism, or defining the limits to religious exemptions in a single, federal law?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Solutions to California’s Water Woes (yeah, yeah, it’s raining).

Monday’s Mtg: How Does a Cult Differ From a Religion?

For your holiday consideration we have this interesting topic idea of Bruce’s.  At last week’s meeting on the Cold War we all got to talking about cults a little bit and it and I began to get a sense of how hard it is to sharply delineate cults from religious sects. In 10 minutes of discussion, I think I heard a half dozen or so different definitions of a religious cult, such as a sect that:

  • Changes or ads to Christian scripture. (Lace said this is many evangelicals’ definition of a cult);
  • is centered on a single charismatic leader rather than on ideas or theology;
  • enriches its leader(s) in a corrupt fashion;
  • has plenty of ideas, but bizarre ones;
  • isolates members from the broader society and shuns ex-members; and
  • Is itself shunned by the mainstream.

Sounds reasonable to me.  Except those characteristics helped to define many of our major faith traditions at one time or another.  Were they cults?  If so, what made them stop being cults?  If not, what is the difference between and IHOP, the one described in the last link, below?

This week’s links are pretty basic, a few definitions of a cult I found in the few minutes of research I had this Christmas week. Peruse them if you have a chance and I hope to see a good number of you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is China destined to be our adversary?

Monday’s Mtg: Is God a Human Invention and a Still-Needed One?

This is Filip’s first topic idea and he will run the meeting if I can’t make it back in time from out of town. We have discussed atheism several times in the past. (Here, for example.) But, I like Fil’s wording because it cuts to the heart of atheism’s challenge to religion: That people believe in God because they want to, based on some psychological or biological need.

Many of you all are practicing atheists, if that’s not an oxymoron. So, no need for me to set up the topic idea, either here or on Monday. Instead, I’m taking this week off after all of the recent long, complex topics and weekly intro posts lately. I’m sure it will be a great meeting,, like all of our religious-themed ones are.

Still, out of habit, here are a few readings on the subject of the basic arguments for and against God’s existence, plus a few dealing with one author’s idea of what needs a human-created God might fulfill for society. It’s a pretty good read, IMO.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Who is to blame for Iraq and Syria?

Monday’s Mtg: The Sermon On the Mount – What Does It Mean?

I’ve been wanting to talk about the Sermon on the Mount for a while. No matter what your religious views, this sermon by Jesus as chronicled in Matthew 5-7 arguably is the most influential ever recorded utterance by a human being. I think it’s commonplace to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the core statement of Christian values and Jesus’ main guidance to Christians on how to live and act. I feel that our group’s discussions of religion are always at arm’s length. We focus on historical and structural factors that influence the action of religious people, but never on their actual avowed beliefs. So, this should be interesting.

But, very hard. They’ve been debating what Jesus meant in his sermons for 2,000 years, obviously. Even the simple, straightforward language of the Sermon on the Mount gets complicated in the interpreting. Opinions differ even on who Jesus’s advice was meant for, much less what he meant. It will help us to know a bit about the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and when and how and by whom the Gospels were written. But, no one “knows” for sure what Jesus meant in every respect, of course.  Differences in interpreters’ denomination and faiths lead to different interpretations, too.

What could we ever add to all that? I propose we all start by reading the Sermon on the Mount. It is not long and I’ll bet some of us never have red it or haven’t in years. Beyond that, I’ve found a little bit on the historical context of the Jesus movement and the world he lived in.  And, I’m going to skim through a book I once red on the subject, What Jesus Meant, by the Catholic historian Gary Wills. (See links for a review of it).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What is the Sermon on the Mount? Who wrote it (in Matthew) and what’s in it?  How sure are we that it is faithful to what Jesus said?
  2. Context: How does knowing the historical context of the Sermon help us to understand what was meant; e.g., the Jewishness of both Jesus and his audience, conditions in ancient Israel, etc.?
  3. Meaning:
    1. Was it meant to be taken literally, or does it use figures of speech?
    2. Was it presenting a minimum requirement, or a picture of perfection?
    3. Were its commands timeless, or for a specific period?
    4. Did it extend the Law of Moses, or entirely replace it?
    5. Was it for everyone, or only a chosen group?
  4. Politics: Is there a political message? Was Jesus a political revolutionary, or is that inaccurate?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  What Is Intelligence?

Monday’s Mtg: Will Pope Francis Transform Catholicism?

We first talked about Pope Francis in June 2013. Just a few months after he was elevated to the position. That meeting focused on the many problems facing Catholicism. In the pre-meeting post, I listed them as the:

  • Need to reconcile Church doctrine and practice with the modern world without alienating Catholics in traditional societies that now make up the bulk of Church membership.
  • Loss of moral authority stemming from the worldwide sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.
  • De-Christianization in Western countries, especially in Europe and especially among young people.
  • Loss of authority over American Catholics.
  • Shortages of priests, nuns, and other church officials.
  • Challenge in developing countries posed by other religions, particularly evangelical Christianity.

Certainly, no single pope could be expected to turn the tide against many of these long-term, structural problems. Also, the pope has limited freedom to make bold changes even if he wants to do so (opinions vary on how much fundamental change Francis really wants). Francis is constrained by the Vatican bureaucracy; the global network of Cardinals, Archbishops, and other Church officials; and public opinion of multiple laities all over the world.

Despite all of these obstacles, this pope has made a lot of bold moves and excited a lot of people with hints of broader reforms. I thought we could discuss some of these moves and what might and might not be coming.

I’ll try to sum up Francis’ biggest and most controversial actions to pen the meeting, assuming I’m able to do the reading. I think the Vatican is a great example of how hard it can be to make international organizations – even one that is not democratic – work.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What have been Pope Francis’ biggest changes?
  2. How have others centers of power in the Church responded to Francis’ moves, and what does that say about the difficulties he faces?
  3. What changes has Francis signaled that he will NOT make?
  4. What will American Catholics think of Francis’ new-ish direction?  Will it go far enough for them?
  5. The Catholic Church’s center of gravity is moving from Europe and North America to the global South. How will that change the Church? How does that constrain and empower Francis?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  The Changing Definition of Whiteness.

Monday’s Mtg: Will Atheism Ever Become Popular in the USA?

Ho, ho, ho! Just in time for Christmas, I thought we would tackle a question that probably is on the minds of one minority of Americans this time of year: Atheists. Will atheism, or at least agnosticism, ever become common in this country?  How about just socially acceptable? The usual argument that it will be is pretty familiar to you, I imagine. As societies get richer and better-educated, they tend to grow more secular. To most atheists, this is because the need for supernatural answers to life’s questions declines as people get more ecucated and feel more in control of their lives, so the need for religion declines along with it.

Maybe.  But, doesn’t this kind of assume not only that religion is bunk – that there is nothing out there that calls to us, we just imagine it – but also that religion’s only appeal to us is magical?  What about its ethical appeal?  And, if the relationship between wealth, education, and religion is so straightforward, then how do we explain why the United States is still so highly relgious compared to other rich countries?   It sounds like we need to ask some other questions here.

DIUSCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Why are people religious in the first place?  What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?
  2. What causes societies to grown less religious over time?   How do they change as a result?
  3. Why have Americans resisted the secularization that has overtaken other countries?  Is it cultural factors?  Economics?  Inertia?  Events?  Why are Millennials so much less religiousa than older generations, even than the Baby Boomers?
  4. What would we gain and lose by secularizing like Europe has?  Will it realy be all good?  Will we grow even more socially and politically-divided than we are now?

LINKS (only a few, due to my computer crash)

Next Week:  Should Euthenasia Be Legal?