Sunday, August 30, 2015

Religion and Irreligion: Friends or Foes?

Atheists, agnostics, and other people who profess no religious faith have often been criticized, ostracized, ridiculed, discriminated against, and belittled.
Especially in recent years such people have begun to fight back. Some of that fight has been rather hostile towards religion.
The writings/talks of the “new atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—are strong attacks on religion and belief in God. (I have read at least one book by each of these.)
But a milder form of irreligion is developing. One key spokesman for this movement is Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, a not widely-known but highly-rated school in California.
This month I sped-read Zuckerman’s Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion (2012) and read more carefully his Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (2014).

The latter will be discussed at the September meeting of Vital Conversations here in the Northland (of Kansas City) with Helen Springer as a guest resource person.
Helen is the Executive Director of Oasis, a secular “church” in Kansas City. Their website, which you can access with this link, says, “Here, you’ll find a retreat—an oasis of sorts—for Agnostics, Humanists, Skeptics, Atheists, Freethinkers, Deists, questioning Theists and the like.”
Those are the kind of people Zuckerman writes for or on behalf of.
Although he seems a bit caustic at times (but those of the majority always have to be careful in criticizing the statements of those in a discriminated-against minority), Zuckerman writes mostly in an irenic manner that suggests irreligion and religion can be friends rather than foes.
The secularists he writes about are mostly, like he himself, highly moral people who would rank rather high on Maslow’s scale of self-actualization. On the other hand, the religious people he refers to are mostly narrow-minded conservatives/fundamentalists or hypocrites.
There is little, if any, recognition of the irreligious people who are self-centered, ill-willed, insensitive individuals and detrimental to society.
It is not hard to see that there are good, moral secularists such as those he mentions and such as he himself doubtlessly is. But it is also not hard to see that there are some (many?) secularists who are not so good or moral.
It is also not hard to see that there are some (many?) religious people who are like the unattractive individuals or groups he mentions. But there are also many religious people who do considerable good in society.
To his credit, though, early in the book Zuckerman writes,
Admittedly, secular men and women don’t outshine their religious peers in every way. For example, when it comes to generosity, volunteering, and charitable giving, secular men and women fall short, with religious people being more likely to donate both their time and their money (p. 22).
What he says about Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of Good Without God (2005), is something I can appreciate.
In reading the pages following Epstein’s introduction, though, I thought that humanism is probably right in much that it affirms and wrong in much that it denies.
Surely a clearer both/and viewpoint is not only possible but also definitely desirable.
Religious humanists can, and do, work on all the problems of people in this world that secular humanists do. Thus, healthy religion and healthy irreligion can, and should, cooperate as friends; they don’t have to be foes.
Moreover, the limited worldview of secularists should not be touted as superior to the broader worldview of those with mature religious faith.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Is Gov. Huckabee Right?


To be fair, since earlier this summer I wished Sen. Lindsey Graham a Happy Birthday (here), I am now wishing ex-Governor Mike Huckabee a Happy Birthday.
Huckabee celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday, and as I said in the article about Graham, in some places (such as Japan and other Asian countries) one’s 60th birthday is considered especially momentous.
I am writing this, however, mainly to question one of Huckabee’s recent assertions. We all know that he is very much on the political right. But is he right (correct) in all he says about the highly controversial matter of abortion?
During the August 6 Republican presidential debate, Huckabee declared, “I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”
And then in stringent criticism of Planned Parenthood, he stated, “It’s time that we . . . protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick.”

The Constitution is quite clear in affirming personal rights: part of the Fifth Amendment states, “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
And Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment says, “No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It is by no means clear, however, when “personhood” begins. How does Huckabee “clearly” know that personhood begins at conception?
If he were a Catholic, he might claim to know that because it is the Church’s dogma. The Catechism of the RCC states, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person(2270).
But Huckabee is a lifelong Southern Baptist, and not long before his 16th birthday the SBC adopted a resolution that expressed support for abortion in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

In a 1974 resolution, the SBC adopted an official position that “reflected a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion is murder.”
And Foy Valentine, the executive director of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission at that time, was particularly vocal in his support of abortion rights.
I was a SB missionary in Japan in those years, so I was not at the 1971 and ’74 annual meetings of the SBC. But I would, no doubt, have voted for the resolutions had I been there.
What does Huckabee know about the beginning of personhood now that Baptists didn’t know then?
What new scientific, or other, discovery in the last 40 years clearly substantiates the claim that a human zygote or embryo is a person, qualifying for protection under the Constitution?
None that I know of.
Even though I disagree with many (most) of his political and some of his ethical views, I am serious in wishing Gov. Huckabee a Happy Birthday. I affirm the sanctity of his life—and of all persons who have been born, as he was 60 years ago yesterday.
But I still insist that he is not right in his beliefs about when personhood begins.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Iran: 1953, 1979, and Now


Iran is much in the news these days, mainly because of the conflicting views about the “Iran deal,” which is highly touted by the Obama administration and highly trashed by most Republicans—and some Democrats such as Senator Schumer.
And most people remember well, and with great negativity, the events of the Iranian Revolution in 1979—and the Iran hostage crisis when 52 Americans were seized and held for 444 days.
The latter was particularly a bitter pill for President Carter: it was perhaps the decisive reason he was not re-elected for a second term. Most of you will perhaps recall that the hostages were released as President Reagan was being inaugurated in January 1981.
But not so many people now remember what transpired in Iran back in 1953.
On August 15 that year, exactly eight years after the surrender of Japan, the U.S. began to determine the fate of another country. That was the start of Operation Ajax, the coup d’état orchestrated by the CIA against the democratically elected prime minister of Iran.
That prime minister was Muhammad Mossadegh, and his story is told in Christopher de Bellaigue’s notable book Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup (2012).
Perhaps few now remember Mossadegh. He was, however, widely known 65 years ago—so much so that he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1951, chosen over such outstanding personages as General Eisenhower and General McArthur.
The 1953 crisis in Iran developed, not surprisingly, because of oil. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was an English firm—the first company to extract petroleum from Iran, beginning in 1908 when Iran was still called Persia. (The year after the coup, the company’s name was changed to what we know it as today: British Petroleum or BP.)
The strong dissatisfaction with Mossadegh as the political head of Iran was primarily because of his drastic act of nationalizing the oil company that was so lucrative for Britain, but which seemed exceedingly unfair to most Iranians.
President Truman refused to approve the U.S. action to overthrow Mossadegh, but soon after President Eisenhower took office, the plan was approved and executed that summer. The pretext was the necessity of combatting a possible Communist takeover of Iran.
Two powerful brothers were behind the planning and implementation of the coup: John Foster Dulles, who was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA. (The new airport on the Virginia side of Washington, D.C., which opened in 1962, was named for the former.)
Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, was the head of the CIA’s Middle East Department and charged with carrying out the coup. His undercover activities and details of the coup are well told in journalist Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003).
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the Shah (king) of Iran beginning in 1941, but his direct rule came mostly after the 1953 coup. According to Kinzer, in the 1960s and 1970s he “became increasingly isolated and dictatorial. He crushed dissent by whatever means necessary” (p. 196).
Strong dislike of the Shah’s cruel rule fueled the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Much of Iran’s current hatred of the U.S. can be traced back to the CIA sponsored coup in 1953 and to the Shah being put in power then. As Kinzer concludes, “Operation Ajax has left a haunting and terrible legacy” (p. 215).
The “Iran deal” will, we hope and pray, be the beginning of an improved relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Significance of August 15

It goes without saying that for me, personally, today (August 15) is a very significant date, for this is my birthday.
Little did I know, though, growing up as a boy in rural northwest Missouri that August 15 is one of the most significant dates in Japanese history and also an important date for the Roman Catholic Church.
In Japan, August 15 is usually referred to as shusenbi (“end of the war day”), although since 1982 it has been officially designated by the Japanese government as “the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace.”

In the U.S. September 2, when the signing of the surrender document aboard the USS Missouri occurred, is considered V-J Day. But it was on August 15, 1945, that Emperor Hirohito announced on radio to the startled and grieving Japanese public that Japan had accepted the terms of surrender included in the Potsdam Declaration of July 26.

In classic understatement, the Emperor told the Japanese citizens, who were hearing his voice for the first time, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage.” (Even then, the Emperor’s speech was not a direct broadcast; it was replayed from a phonograph recording made in the Tokyo Imperial Palace a day or two before.)
For centuries before that fateful day in 1945, and long before it was made a Church dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven had been celebrated on August 15. That is the event by which Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” according to the Catholic Church, and it is still a “holy day of obligation.”


Doubtlessly, it was by intention that Ignatius Loyola and his six friends in 1534 formed the Society of Jesus on August 15. Then, exactly fifteen years later, Francis Xavier, one of the seven original Jesuits and the first Christian missionary to Japan, first set foot in that country.

In the book about Takashi Nagai that I mentioned earlier this month, author Paul Glynn tells about the 400th anniversary of that event being celebrated by Dr. Nagai and other Christians in Nagasaki on August 15, 1949.

And in his book Bells of Nagasaki, Dr. Nagai tells of going to the dawn mass on August 15, just six days after the bombing, in celebration of the Feast of the Assumption (p. 77).
On November 23, 1945, there was a memorial mass for the more than 8,000 Christians who were victims of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. Dr. Nagai gave an address to those who had gathered by the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral.

In that notable speech, Dr. Nagai said, “On August 15th, the imperial edict that put an end to the fighting was officially issued, and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15th is also the great feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is not for nothing that the Urakami Cathedral was consecrated to Her(p. 107).

(That Cathedral, which in 1945 was the largest church building in Asia, was called St. Mary’s Cathedral in English.)

Last Sunday most Christians and many others all across Japan thought deeply about the tragic events that took place in Japan 70 years ago this month and about the end of the war on August 15.

Let us join with them, and people all around the world, to remember that today is an appropriate day for mourning the war dead—in all countries—and praying for world peace.