Monday, January 28, 2013

Religious Discrimination in Tennessee

A facebook friend recently brought to my attention that in seven states, it is illegal to serve in a public office if you’re an atheist. Do I really need to go into how wrong this is? I want my state officials to reflect my political goals; for the most part, I don’t care about their religious values. There are good atheists who would benefit the state. Furthermore, atheist citizens have the right to better or muck up the government just as much as theists. 

The states that ban atheists from serving are Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and my home state, Tennessee. I was extra-disappointed and outraged in Tennessee's law, because instead of just blatantly discriminating against atheists, it added a clause requiring a specific religious belief, making it even more discriminatory than the others:
Tennessee, Article 9, Section 2:No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”

To serve in Tennessee, one has to believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. I think whoever wrote this didn't intend to exclude Christians, but that's why there should be no religious threshold in American politics. Essentially, because of my religious beliefs, I am banned from office in my state. An afterlife of rewards and punishment implies that I will earn whatever I receive after death. But I believe in a little thing called grace, which means what happens after death is not a direct reflection of my actions.

I’ll start with reward. No one can earn Heaven. Most Christian denominations believe that all humans are sinners, ineligible for Heaven. Only grace can get us there. Christ came and opened the gates of Heaven for those who believe in Him. Now, maybe Heaven can be seen as a reward for belief, but even then, it is a disproportionate reward. It is much, much better than we deserve.

Now, punishment. I hold the view that Hell is the absence of God, not physical torture. It is coldness, loneliness, hopelessness. Yes, I think Hell is bad, and I don’t want to be there, but I don’t think it is punishment of earthly actions, just as Heaven is not reward of good actions. Hell is the consequence of rejecting God. Also, no one is sentenced to Hell; it is a self-chosen state. As C. S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Someone can do very, very bad things but sincerely repent to God and wind up in Heaven instead of Hell. This would fly in the face of a theory that the afterlife is the ultimate reward/punishment justice system.

Of course, this is all speculation, as we cannot be certain of the hereafter.  If we knew for certain how eternity worked, there would be no difference in faiths and no atheists (or perhaps we’d all be atheists). The afterlife is not some post facto justice system. Honestly, the closest Christian idea of a reward/punishment afterlife might be purgatory, where a soul must be purified before entering Heaven. This could possibly be viewed as temporal punishment for one’s actions. But I really, really doubt the writers of Tennessee’s Constitution meant that belief in purgatory was a requirement for public office. And if they did, they’d still be wrong because it would still be religious discrimination.

Earthly governments should be concerned with earthly order and justice and leave personal ideas of eternity alone. Moreso, no one in America should be denied the right to serve in government based on his religious (or non-religious) beliefs. Despite the Puritans’ best efforts, America isn’t a theocracy. The American experiment resides in the belief that Puritans, Catholics, atheists, deists, Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, and anyone else can come together and form a functioning society. Frankly, I’m now more inclined to vote for an atheist now, just so this law can be challenged and hopefully struck down.

Friday, January 25, 2013

My Pro-life Philosophy

Today in Washington the March for Life is taking place. Every year, hundreds of thousands protest the Roe v. Wade decision. [I think it’s interesting to note that the woman in the Roe v. Wade case, Norma McCorvey (“Roe”) has since converted to Catholicism and is an active pro-life speaker.] For 40 years, abortion has been legal in the U.S. I don’t want to get into numbers or a debate about viability or compromises about abortion being alright in one circumstance but not another; the politicizing of the issue just makes me sad. There have always been abortions, and I won’t pretend that an overturn of Roe v. Wade would put an end to abortions in the U.S. Protesting the Supreme Court decision is really about protesting a culture that legitimizes such an act. 

In turn, the only way to truly end abortions is to transform the culture into a society that values and embraces all life. This isn’t done through clinic-closing legislation and calling women sluts. I think a lot of pro-life people have vilified the other side so much that they no longer remember that the “others” deserve just as much love as anyone. The only way pro-life can win the culture is if the pro-life movement practices what it preaches: compassion, charity, and justice for all lives. We have to show that we mean it when we say that everyone has value.

Pro-life means I believe that everyone has the right to live. It isn’t promised that that life will be easy or healthy or happy, but everyone has the right to existence. Pro-life is often presented as anti-abortion, but pro-life means an entire philosophy that is much larger than that. Pro-life means preserving life at every step, not just in utero. It means being against genocide, infanticide, homicide, and suicide. It means condemning abortion, as well as the death penalty and drone strikes. It means working together to insure the inalienable right to life and to make that life as rich as possible. It means helping the poor, feeding the starving, healing the sick, comforting the hurting, freeing the enslaved, and seeing value in every single person, regardless of sex, ethnicity, religion, age, beliefs, or even deeds.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Does God Need with a Starship?

I’m a sci-fi nerd. With my interests in sci-fi and religion, I often think of God in the big picture: the vastness of the cosmos, the beauty of the galaxy, the expanding of the universe. With that, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that the following conversation as come up several times lately: how compatible is Christianity and the discovery of life on other planets?

To me, it seems rather obvious to assume there is sentient life elsewhere in the universe. It's estimated that there could conservatively be 12,000 civilizations in this galaxy alone. Statistically, it’s just rather likely that we're not the only ones here; the universe is an inconceivably big place. Plus, if we’re the universe’s only shot at intelligent life…well, that paints a rather grim hope for the universe.

But aliens aren’t in the Bible! I’ve heard it protested that the Bible doesn’t mention other species, that humans are God’s people alone. The Bible doesn’t say that; the Bible doesn’t say a lot. The Bible tells the story of humanity's relationship with God. It is not the definitive edition of All There is to Know. A story about Humans isn’t going to mention Bajorans or Betazoids. Assuming there are other people out there, their relationship to God is going to be a completely different story. 

And that’s why although I believe in the Truth of my faith and in the existence of aliens, I don’t believe Christianity can extend beyond Earth. We cannot assume that anyone besides humanity can obtain salvation the way humans do, or that they even need saving. C. S. Lewis, in Perelandra, presents a world that is still in pre-Fall state. I can assume that the Creator of the Universe created other beings, and I can assume that He loves them, but I don’t think I can assume much else. While I’m sure some would interpret “proclaim to all nations” as including new worlds, I just don’t think we need to send missionaries to Qo’noS. God and whatever species is out there have their own relationship, their own story. The foundations of Christianity (Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Passion) may not be applicable to them.  We didn’t need another species to deliver God’s message to us, and they won't need us to deliver God’s message to them. It doesn't mean we can't exchange theological ideas, or that we can't learn more about God from one another. It's just that salvation is not dependent on finding others "out there."  Salvation was brought "down here" for us, where we could reach it. God spans the universe, but he is also a personal God who will meet us where we are and give us what we need.

God is everywhere, forging and mending relationships with his creation, and I think that includes a lot more souls than just humanity. Maybe Christ has appeared in some way to millions of other planets. Or maybe not. Maybe we’ll never meet another sentient species and these questions won’t matter. Or maybe we will. Personally, I find the possibilities fascinating. And I also find it comforting to ask such questions and come to the conclusion that whatever is found in the final frontier won’t shake my faith. True faith questions and doesn’t crumble under the answers; faith stands alongside discoveries and exploration.

(Bonus interweb points to anyone who recognizes the movie quoted in the title.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 59)

1. I live in Tennessee, so when it snows, people go a little nuts. Fortunately, everything shuts down at the rumor of accumulation, so I get to stay home in my pajamas watching the pretty flakes from my window.  And we actually got accumulation, which around here is a BIG DEAL. Make fun of Southerners for not knowing how to drive in snow, but at least we appreciate it with the giddiness of 7-year-olds.

2. I attended all my morning classes (night class canceled due to snow), and it looks like this semester is going to be a lot of work. But this is possibly the last time I’ll have to take 15 hours at a time, so I feel like there is a light at the other end of this long tunnel. 

3. I never remember my calculator on the first day of classes. This has happened every single semester since going into accounting. My brain just can’t process that I’m in classes that require math.

4. I actually have some good ideas for blog topics. Hopefully I’ll churn some out this weekend, otherwise schoolwork will prevent me from actually writing them until…who knows.

5. I’ve been suffering through some rough seasons of Star Trek: Voyager on Netflix. I was rewarded with some great season six episodes, and then another great episode from season seven that I watched yesterday afternoon. “Critical Care” looks at the injustice of a healthcare system that prioritizes patients based on how much they contribute to society instead of the medical need. It really made me sad because it hit so close to home. A person should receive the best treatment a country can give, regardless of job. No one should have to choose between housing foreclosure or cancer treatments; no one should avoid the doctor because of insurance bureaucracy; no one should lose their access to medical care because they lost their job. It’s one of those issues about which I don’t care about the arguments. To me, it’s black and white: if someone is sick or injured, the community should do all they can to help.

6. In one of my dreams this week, a villain from a former dream turned out to be a pretty cool dude, and after trying to kill me, we hung out a bit. I love when my dreams have reoccurring characters and awesome sequels. I really need to get back in the habit of recording my dreams.

7. I keep myself entertained before Mass with thoughts like this. (Don't worry: I only tweet after church.) I really think sacrilspeck should be a word.