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In response to a Facebook post wondering at the uncritical commitment to Israel insisted upon by the American far-right, and their insistence that any wavering from that commitment is “anti-Semitic,” I wrote the following essay:

Being critical of Israel is not necessarily “anti-Semitic,” just as being critical of America is not necessarily “anti-American” (and, for that matter, being critical of any given religious order, movement, or individual, isn’t necessarily an affront to “God”). Israel and America are both nations, more like than unlike others despite the mythologies surrounding them.

Israel and America have had an important strategic relationship, confused and exaggerated by two religious communities that have become overzealously committed to America’s unflagging and unquestioning support of Israel, even to the point of to some extent ceding our own sovereignty to Israel. Those two groups are, of course, the American Jewish community, which has always been overwhelmingly blindly and fanatically pro-Israel (though not without many exceptions, Jews who are first and foremost humanists and are first and foremost concerned with our shared humanity), and,  now, conservative evangelicals, who have their own religious reasons for feeling a zealous commitment to Israel (having something to do with their interpretation of the requirements for the Rapture, as I understand it, rather than any sincere love of Israelis) combined with their own ultra-conservative, ultra-nationalist leanings.

Israel’s history and pre-history are also both critical threads in a complete understanding of the geopolitical landscape into which it has woven itself, and the moral implications of that choice. The one thing that isn’t relevant to anyone but Israelis themselves is their ancient, religious-based claim to the land: Every parcel of land on the face of the Earth has changed hands –far more often by violently imposed than by peacefully mutual means– many, many times over the ages, and the current legitimate claims of one racial/ethnic/religious group that had been in continuous possession of that parcel for about a thousand years prior to the Israeli colonization and usurpation of that parcel had, up until that point, the far superior claim to legitimate rights over that parcel.

So, one thread in the tapestry to understand is the very legitimate grievance of the Palestinians, whose currently and extant ancestral land was colonized by a group of Europeans who decided to call it their own and create a state explicitly dedicated to their own culture and religion on it, instantly reducing the pre-existing inhabitants to the status of second-class citizens. Another thread of the tapestry is the recognition of the strong and compelling push factors that induced that European population to do so, though the legitimacy of those push factors (i.e., a history of violent oppression, culminating in the Holocaust), as horrific and empathy-inducing as they may be, can’t justify colonizing and oppressing another, unrelated, foreign people. (That injustice experienced by the Palestinians, however, does not justify and excuse their own atrocities committed since the establishment of the state of Israel, a lesson to those who forget their humanity in the midst of their commitment to other abstractions.)

But another fact of our geopolitical history is that it is a story of borders drawn and redrawn, populations placed and displaced, by endless series of combinations of militant initiative and gross injustices, so that once some new formation becomes a fait accompli, the injustice of its formation becomes less relevant than the reality of its existence.  No modern nation on Earth can claim not to trace its roots to the military conquest of other peoples and the drawing of lines in the sand based on that conquest (if there are a few tribes scattered about the world, who still have some identity of themselves as a nation, who never occupied land they took from others, they are an exception to the rule defined more by the circumstances they encountered than by some idealized superior moral quality of their own). For that reason, Israel’s right to exist should not be brought into question; the Israelis aren’t going anywhere, and any agenda that insists they do at this point can only become a source of gross inhumanity.

Finally, there is the issue of the Israeli-American relationship and their combined and separate relationships with the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. America quickly recognized Israel’s right to exist, in part to avoid having to absorb millions of European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War II, in part due to the presence of large numbers of Jews in America who strongly favored supporting Israel, in part due to a sense of the inhumanity that had been inflicted on the Jews in the chapter of world history just preceding the establishment of the state of Israel and some generalized debt of humanity to them that that chapter incurred, and, undoubtedly, in part due to recognition of the strategic value of such an alliance. And America quickly formed a strategic partnership with Israel, becoming Israel’s staunchest and invaluable military and economic supporter in return for having a country-sized base of operations and proxy agent in a region of the Earth very much at the vortex of historical geopolitical struggle and conveniently located near the Eastern Communist Block.

This meant that the hatred of the Arab world toward Israel for colonizing and usurping what had been an Arab country became generalized to the United States as well, and, in some ways, raised to a higher pitch against the United States, whose superior wealth and power and secularity all piqued the jealousies and religious animosities of many in that region of the world. America, the rich, secular, militant supporter of the small power that had ensconced itself on previously Arab land, easily became “The Great Satan” in the popular Arab mind (and, yes, the animosity toward America in the Arab world, while far from universal, is very wide-spread).

Our unfailing support of Israel’s own sometimes overly aggressive reactions to their own perceived insecurity has not helped this modern historical animosity between America and the  Arab world. All of this combined with our support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, in order to use them as proxies to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and our choice to leave abruptly once that was accomplished, leaving a tribally-contested power vacuum and a whole lot of very deadly state-of-the-art military hardware and weaponry. As a result of that latter choice, a very bloody civil war ensued in Afghanistan, for whose intensity we were in part correctly blamed, resulting in the establishment of the Taliban, who hated us for all of these reasons involving our relationship with Israel; our secularism, wealth and power; and the deadly and bloody ruin we had set their country up for.

So our support of Israel has come at a high price, a high price that we should have been glad to pay if that relationship really were as morally perfect as some pretend it is. In reality, we incurred the enmity of the Arab world in part by taking a very strong side in a complex regional relationship that required more of an honest broker from what is in fact the global hegemon (The U.S.). (The extent that we failed to be an honest broker can also be exaggerated; our shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has often played a very valuable role in resolving conflicts there, and forging new alliance where enmity had existed, such as between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.) This is a difficult error to correct at this point, but one which we should strive to correct by taking a harder line with Israel, not rescinding our alliance, but insisting on more restraint, accountability, and accommodation from those often wayward allies of ours.

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(The following post is one of my most recent in an ongoing dialogue with some rabid anti-immigrant commenters on The Denver Post comment board to a Tina Greigo column from a week and a half ago. This is the link to the current last page of comments: I am engaging in this “debate” because I think it is important to publish as broadly as possible the contrast between the two opposing positions. The post I’ve reproduced here responded not only to the comment it quotes, but also to comments calling my position ethically and morally bankrupt. Please read it and repost it: I think it hits the nail right on the head.)
haloguy628 wrote: Here you are defending a criminal who sneaked into this country illegally, then obtained falsified passport, which he then used to become the enforcer of the law. Foreign criminal the lawman in the US. Unbelievable, but I am sure that cases like this one will become more prevalent as we seriously start dealing with this illegal invasion.

Actually, I’m not defending him at all (other than to sympathize with the desire to live in a country of greater opportunity, and to recognize that crimes committed for no other purpose than to do so are not the most heinous of crimes imaginable). Nowhere did I make any comment about how the law should treat him. My comments have been, and still are, directed at the prevalent attitude here toward those who have crossed our borders illegally, an attitude emphasizing the alleged horrors of this crime, and the alleged horrors of illegal immigration. That’s not a defense of the law-breaker, but rather an indictment of those who are exploiting it as an occasion for and justification of hatred.

That attitude isn’t rooted in some generic commitment to the law, any law, no matter what it is, because the same posters argue vociferously against those laws that they disagree with (e.g., healthcare reform). When it’s a law you approve of, no further discussion is required (or tolerated). When it’s a law you disapprove of, it’s the product of a socialist conspiracy that must not be tolerated. The end result is that nothing but your own blind ideology can ever be tolerated.

The attitude being expressed here by so many, this particular facet of your overarching right-wing ideology, is rooted in an in-group/out-group dogma, a fundamental belief in the rightness and moral purity of exclusion, a belief that has had many incarnations throughout our history (all of which we recognize as repugnant in retrospect), this being just the most recent one (identical, in fact, to the same nativist outcries during previous waves of immigration, voiced against the Chinese, Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans, in the same way and with the same attitude that it is being voiced here and now).

It may be (or may not be) that some degree of exclusion is a practical necessity. But exclusion never has to be exercised with such a complete lack of compassion and humanity. It is the pleasure you (plural) take in excluding, your zeal to morally condemn and denegrate those whom you are excluding, that is most appalling. If it is the case that we are forced by the practical realities of the world to exclude some from entry into this country, then we should do so reluctantly and with regret, not crowing with disdain for those we exclude, or for those who managed not to be excluded despite our attempts to do so.

As we confront this practical question, of who (if any) must be excluded, and who or how many we can afford not to exclude, we should confront it in the best-informed, most rational way possible, and, if with any bias at all, with a bias against exclusion and in favor of inclusion. We should desire to give opportunity to as many rather than as few as possible. And we should weigh our own interests against our values, recognizing that our relative good fortune in this world is not merely to be hoarded, but, to the extent possible, shared and extended to others.

If the two professional economic analyses I’ve linked to (the only professional economic analyses anyone here has yet linked to), which show that illegal immigration actually yields net economic and fiscal benefits to the state of Colorado, are not perfectly accurate (though I have no reason to believe that they aren’t), then at least we know that the truth is that the costs are exaggerated by some for polemical reasons: In reality, the costs, if, despite the analyses to the contrary are not negative, are at least not so enormous as ideologues arbitrarily insist, while the benefits to humanity are. This is the attitude and the predisposition with which we should confront the practical problem of immigration reform.

To me, there is nothing unethical or morally bankrupt about caring about humanity, even that segment of humanity that cannot legally immigrate to the United States but crosses our border anyway, seeking opportunity for themselves and their children. There is nothing ethically or morally bankrupt about decrying the visciousness of someone who posts “waaahhhh, waaaahhhh, we don’t care” in reference to a family torn apart by our indifferrence to the welfare of these humble, hardworking people. There is nothing ethically or morally bankrupt about expressing disgust at the poster who sincerely opined that we should execute them all (all 12 million of them), a post that received from those outraged by these opinions of mine one passing, parenthetical rebuke by one poster only (apparenty, calling for a massacre twice the size of the Holocaust isn’t nearly as morally repugnant as calling for a sense of humanity toward our undocumented population).

Yes, we have a different sense of morality. And as often as you want to highlight that fact, that’s how often I’ll state my pride in it, and my fervent hope that more of my fellow Americans will discover their lost or misplaced humanity, and share with me the just pride in being, or striving to be, a humane and rational people.

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In my last post (The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without), I discussed the individual dimensions of this classic struggle, a struggle, at the individual and interpresonal level, in which we are all implicated, and in which we all contribute to  both sides. The message, I believe, dovetails with other related posts on this blog (e.g., The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Politics of Anger), a message that emphasizes that we have to build progress on a foundation of reason, humility, and goodwill, rather than on the inflexible assumptions of blind ideology and the continued political treadmill of mutual belligerence.

But as we deal with that fundamentally important personal level struggle, both individually and mutually, the outward battle to implement social policies that reflect the same commitment continues. Our widespread lapses at the individual level aggregate into both angry policies and angry politics, in which some can blithely blame the disadvantaged and their allies for trying to create a more equitable political economy, and in which those who oppose that brutal notion can fail to create an inherently attractive alternative. The question, on the political level, is: What does it take to penetrate the hardening of the heart and shrinking of the mind which informs the historically discredited and transparently unjustifiable political ideology of extreme individualism (otherwise known as “small government”)? One part of the answer, the part that is perhaps most overlooked, involves the personal aspect of the struggle between “good” and “evil” discussed in The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without.

My own personal failures, for instance, have contributed to the weakening of the influence of my arguments, because arguments against the politics of anger are discredited by personal indulgence in anger. Hypocrisy in failing to implement at the personal level what we are advocating for at the social level may not undermine the merits of the arguments, but it does undermine their persuasive force. One cannot effectively advocate for a kinder state and nation while failing to be a kinder person.

We are blessed with extraordinary lives, able to savor the wonders of the world around us, the joys of daily life, the deep emotional gratification of loving relationships, and yet we squander this blessing with amazing regularity. We squander it as individuals, and we squander it as a people. And the two failures are intimately intertwined, though we treat them as entirely separate, or only conflate them when discussing the foibles of elected officials and other political actors.

I am suddenly deeply impressed with the need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, to be as an individual what I am advocating that we become as a people. It’s not enough to do so in the public sphere, in efforts to affect public policy or improve people’s lives. It must also occur in the private sphere, in our daily interactions, in our treatment of those who most challenge our patience and pique our chagrin. If we progressives truly want to help create the world that we envision, then we must work far, far harder at creating it within ourselves first, and, by doing so, establish a far more attractive and compelling force through which to create it in our social institutions. We must model it, exemplify it, demonstrate what joy and strength and tranquility it bestows.

This is by no means advocacy for reducing the challenge to do good to the individual level, as so many on the right try to do, as justification for addressing it not at all. These are two sides of a coin, two aspects of a single struggle: To exercise goodwill in interpersonal interactions while rationalizing political ideological brutality, or to fight for social policies predicated on goodwill while failing to exercise it in interprersonal interactions, are both failures of commitment, and choices that reduce the moral force of one’s professed positions and attitudes. Those of us who claim to be progressives must strive to progress within, without, and together; those of us who claim to be charitable must be charitable not just in how we act in the private sphere but also in what we advocate in the public sphere, not just at the individual level, but at the policy level as well. There should be no refuge in hypocrisy, whether of the left or of the right.

It is clear to me, as it is clear to many others, that the ideology of extreme individualism, the use of the word “liberty” as a justification for public mutual indifference and disdain for the most disadvantaged, the argument that trying to help the poor hurts them (always reducing such investments to mere hand-outs, rather than recognizing that programs to increase opportunities and to provide training cost money as well), the insulation of what’s “mine” from the threat that others might get some of it, define a political position that cannot both claim to be based on any commitment to the “good” (as I defined it in the previous post), and withstand scrutiny at the same time. It is a position maintained by false economic, legal, and moral arguments, justifying an intensely “me-first-and-only” rather than socially responsible commitment. I remain as adamant as ever in that position, which should, by all rights, be a magnet that attracts every human being with any desire to be a reasonable person of goodwill.

And yet it doesn’t. Somehow, people who take offense at being characterized as inhumane for adhering to what is obviously an inhumane political ideology are perfectly insulated from the pressure that that contridiction should exert on them. They have a set of platitudes and ideological certainties that mask the truth, from themselves and for each other, platitudes that simply distort the concept of “liberty” into the concept of “screw you,” and reject the notion that we can or should ever use our agent of collective action, our government, to address the inequities and injustices of life, though few dispute that the most prominent examples of having done so in the past (e.g., abolishing slavery, establishing civil rights laws and protections, establishing schools, etc.) are now indispensable aspects of our social institutional landscape.

The cruelties that invade our daily lives are the same cruelties that invade our political ideologies. The ability to ridicule others for personal pleasure while still imagining oneself to be an individual dedicated to the public good is the same blatant contradiction as the ability to insist that the poor are parasites while still believing oneself to be a reasonable person of goodwill. The challenge we face on either level, be it individual or social, is the challenge we face on both.

I suggest a new progressive agenda, one which is not based just on political advocacy, but also on personal responsibility. Let’s reunite these two sides of the challenge that we have so conveniently separated, and address them as a single whole. Let’s not seek only to implement kinder policies, but, while doing so, let’s strive to implement in our own lives kinder behaviors. It is not just that both are good, and that both contribute to the same good, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that they reinforce one another. Progressive advocates who are striving in their own lives to realize what they are striving publicly to implement will be far more compelling, far more difficult to dismiss, and far more effective than those who leave the two sides of this challenge artificially divided.

Those of us who are truly committed to progressing as a people must also become truly committed to progressing as persons. Let’s turn this movement into the one that can work, and work with any and all others who understand even some isolated aspect of what’s involved to accomplish it. It’s time to break the deadlock, and create a narrative that can’t be denied.

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As the author of a fantasy fiction novel, I carefully avoided the good v. evil dichotomy, because the narratives we use to capture it routinely fail to, reinforcing oversimplifications that are already too thoroughly embedded in our consciousness. Instead, the dichotomy at the center of my mythology was Order v. Chaos, with each being in some ways “good” and in some ways “evil,” but their interplay occupying a more sublime role in the definition of our reality.

However, as I shift my focus from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from analyzing to advocating, the need to define “good” and “evil”  becomes more pressing, the reality that some notion of what serves humanity’s interests v. what doesn’t has to inform both our personal choices and our public policy preferences.

The ways in which I am about to use the word “evil,” and perhaps the ways in which I am about to use “good” as well, may seem exaggerated. The familiar meanings of the words are reserved for more extreme instances, more exceptional degrees. But the point of this essay is to emphasize what an error that really is, that those extreme instances and exceptional degrees are comprised of and catalyzed by all of the small, almost trivial, instances of “good” and “evil” that fill our daily lives and our moment-by-moment choices.

The traditional meanings of the words, and the weight given to what they represent, may also create a false impression that the identification of so much ubiquitous “evil” is oppressive, that it takes life too seriously. This customary reaction to these new, more encompassing, and more useful definitions of “good” and “evil” also has to be revised; the struggle to do “good” and avoid “evil” is a constant of life, embedded in the minutia, and therefore should be taken as much in stride as the struggle to live a healthy life, to earn a living, to be a good spouse and parent and child and friend. We should be able to laugh at ourselves when we fail, even knowing that our failures in this regard make some marginal contribution to the sum total of “evil” in the world. And we should reward our own and others’ successes, as small as they may be, with the acknowledgement due to having truly contributed to ” the good”.

In some ways, we lack the vocabulary to identify the goals that define “the good.” If I say that it is the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human happiness (and thus of acting in ways which contribute to them), someone will say that it is something more than happiness that we seek. So I’ll co-opt a word to encompass that “something more,” including all that it might entail: Well-being. That which is “good” increases the quantity, quality (breadth and depth), distribution, and sustainability of human well-being. In fact, I would say that it involves increasing the well-being, along all of the aforementioned dimensions, of all conscious entities, to the extent that they are conscious.

For those who want to apply reason and goodwill without any preconceived constraints, this creates a very functional focal point. It avoids both the insinuation of mystified abstractions into our morality, and the convenient biases of various “-centrisms,” including anthrocentrism. It takes nothing for granted, but provides a framework through which to discover a morality which serves the well-being of all those who have any consciousness with which to experience it.

“Good” is comprised of all instances of adherence to this ideal, while “evil” is comprised of all lapses. An important point of departure is to realize that we are all some mixture of the two, all defined by some successes in committing ourselves to the ideal of the “good” as I’ve defined it, as well as by some lapses. I, for instance, recognize that my definition of “good” probably recommends vegetarianism, since when large mammals are slaughtered for my dinner, it is an act which ends the well-being of a somewhat conscious creature. But I am not a vegetarian. By my own definition, I am somewhat “evil.”

“Good” and “Evil” are not a dichotomy, but rather values on a continuum, with higher values comprised of and catalyzed by the accumulation of smaller values. Every horrendous act of violence occurs in a context rather than a vacuum, a thousand trivial cruelties having fed into it. Every glorious act of generosity or nobility occurs in a context as well, one built up from numerous small acts of kindness. To reserve the concepts of “good” and “evil” only to the exceptional dramatic culminations embodied in a few, of all the mundane and trivial choices by all of us over the course of our lives, is to disregard the responsibility we all have for both, and the ways in which our mundane daily choices create both.

But this raises another counterintuitive facet of the paradigm of good v. evil that I am advocating, one which is a rather enormous departure from past conceptualizations: “Evil” is not the inexcusable extreme that our religions have tried to make it, but rather the accumulation of mere ordinary lapses. Our traditional conceptualization of evil as the cackling villain who delights in others’ suffering is both too exclusive, and too routinely disregarded as something trivial and acceptable when it in fact occurs (as it so frequently does). “Evil” is nothing more or less than the surrender to our baser natures, while “good” is nothing more or less than the on-going effort to act with more reason, humility, and goodwill instead.

We should not beat ourselves up for our lapses, or beat others up for theirs. But we should hold both ourselves and others responsible for them. They are ordinary, routine, such a pervasive part of our lives that they become normalized, accepted as just the way things are, often even justified as good clean fun. This happens because we do not want to impose on ourselves the oppression of constant recognition that many of our own actions are in fact small instances of “evil,” and so define their evilness out of existence. Or, in some cases, we recognize that it is evil, and delight in it, knowing that we lack either the will or the discipline to alter our behavior, and so instead, to reduce our cognitive dissonance, alter our judgment.

But these choices erase the opposition to “evil” within ourselves, and instead projects all opposition onto others. Instead of being forgiving of both ourselves and others, we perceive nothing to forgive in ourselves, and no need to forgive it in others. Instead of gently holding both ourselves and others to a higher standard of conduct, we hold ourselves only to the standard we have become comfortable with, and hold others to the standard we are comfortable imposing on them, never noticing the double-standards that inevitably ensue. We lapse into in-groups and out-groups, with those defined as “the other” meriting no tolerance, while both ourselves and those with whom we are identifying meriting no criticism (the classic expression of in-group/out-group biases).

These thoughts are inspired today both by the amount of vitriol directed against me in some places (currently only by people who have never met me), some of it deserved and some of it not, and by the amount of vitriol I have directed at others, usually in reaction to provocations of belligerence, but still lapses that can’t simply be defined out of existence. One thing is certain: We should never experience joy in inflicting harm on others, whether we believe they deserve it or not. And the blogosphere has become a place where recognition of that obvious truism has apparently completely evaporated. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the internet, which has accelerated and amplified so many aspects of our existence, has accelerated and amplified this ordinary “evil” as well. It is a breeding ground of our baser natures, and a place where people inflict harm on others with glee, rarely if ever pausing to be ashamed of having done so.

I am not going to become a vegetarian, at least not yet, but I am going to make a redoubled effort not to feed my own inner-demons, not to acquiesce to my own aggressive or defensive instincts in my interactions with others, particularly in this medium which is so conducive to casual brutality. And, in this moment, I feel no anger toward those who have similarly erred, with whom some mutual antagonisms have grown, who take such continual delight in trying to “take me down a peg”.

This is our true shared endeavor: To seek to lift one another up rather than knock one another down. To forgive ourselves and others quickly. To admit to our own errors more eagerly than we criticize or ridicule others for theirs. To take no delight in others’ weaknesses, but rather to help them find their strengths. To be more committed to acknowledging and addressing our own foibles, without losing our sense of humor in the process. To laugh with one another rather than at one another. To refrain from inflicting suffering as a form of entertainment. To sincerely strive to increase the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human (and animal) well-being. To be good, and to help one another be good, in our shared effort to improve the quality of our lives.

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I take the title question from The Economist (, but think it implies a false dichotomy, that religion either is, or is not, a force for good. The truth, fairly obviously, is that in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Making some assessment of net value (whether religion is on balance a force for good) is fraught with difficulties. But exploring the issue reveals valuable insights into which elements of religion, found both within religion and without, contribute to or obstruct the greater human enterprise.

The title question, furthermore, begs the questions of what constitutes “good”, and what constitutes “religion”, issues trickier and more elusive than they might appear to be at first glance, issues whose on-going clarification is among the universe of “good” to be produced or obstructed by better or worse cognitive tools. And it brushes by the issue of whether it makes sense to discuss “religion” as some monolithic institution that can be, or not be, evaluated en masse in any meaningful way. But, despite these complexities, it raises a fundamental question, with broader implications than are immediately obvious.

In reality, religion is at some times and in some ways, on balance, a force for “good”, and at some times and in some ways, on balance, a force for “evil”, assuming some intuitive definition of these two terms. As a generator of, and focal point for, the “emotional energy” (to use sociologist Randall Collins’ phrase) around which societies coalesce, it may be a fundamental form of the cohesive social force which binds us into functioning collectivities. Just as attendees at rock concerts and sporting events, by sharing an intense emotional experience, feel bonded into something larger than themselves, so too (and to a much greater extent) belonging to a religious order creates a constant undercurrent of that same socially binding emotional energy. This is most evident in religious ceremonies that are designed to excite that emotional energy, sometimes ostentatiously, sometimes in a more subdued form.

One can argue, conversely, that while that was religion’s historical role, essential to the primative formation of both tribal socieities and larger civilizations (almost always defined by a shared religion), it is one which is no longer needed in our modern, decentralized, organically coherent social institutional order. After all, there’s no reason to believe that our modern governments, markets, and plethora of functioning secular social institutions would simply evaporate if religion were suddenly removed from the mix. Religion, arguably, is an archaic remnant of an ancient past, persisting due both to its hold over human imaginations and the vested interests that actively perpetuate it, but no longer either a functional necessity or the most useful of available social institutional tools.

But some religions clearly do some things which most would say contribute to the public good. Leaving aside the question of religion’s value in the lives of individual adherents, there is no denying the “good works” that are performed by religious orders. Soup kitchens, charitable activities, and even community social functions all must be tallied on the positive side of the ledger.

These activities are not always unambiguously good, however. Radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories, at least to some extent definable as religious or religion-based orders, do good works in part in order to gain popular support and recruit people to their cause, a cause steeped in violence. Similarly, Israeli right-wing extremists are often also religious extremists, believing that, since the land was given to them by God, they owe the non-Jewish people who were and are living on it no respect or accommodation. Undoubtedly, their good works among themselves reinforce their solidarity in opposition to others.

This is a fundamental paradox about socially consolidating forces: They increase solidarity within a group, which is beneficial for that group, but also increase the emotional strength of the boundaries between groups, which is detrimental to the ability of those groups to cooperate in order to confront intergroup challenges and opportunities. Like tribalism, nationalism, and even racism, religious solidarity tends to foster interreligious antagonism.

We are served best by vertically (and horizontally) non-exclusive, mutually reinforcing social solidarities, in which belonging at one level facilitates rather than obstructs belonging at superordinate and subordinate levels. While some (far from all) modern religious orders make some (far from comprehensive) effort to move in this more functional direction, it is an effort that swims against the historical current of, at least, the three monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). 

This mutual exclusivity has implications for how “good” is defined. To some, “a force for good” is a force which ensures that their own dogma prevails. In such a belief system, it would be the implacable missionary and jihadist zeal that would be considered a force for good, and the move toward tolerance and mutual accommodation a force for evil. In far too many debates with right-wingers, I am quickly cast as a moral and ontological relativist for not accepting that their moral and ontological assumptions are absolute and irrefutable truths.

Those doing so confuse recognition of fallability for relativism, and ethnocentric chauvinism for mere recognition of a an objectively discernible reality. The more subtle and useful perspective is to recognize that there may be moral and ontological absolutes, but that our ability to discern what they are is imperfect. Therefore, we should not confuse failure of others to adhere to our own convictions with a failure to acknowledge the existence of objective reality.

But even leaving aside this war of competing dogmas (with, for instance, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists being remarkably similar and yet completely incapable of peacefully coexisting), discerning what is “good” is somewhat similar to discerning what “quality” means, a topic which Robert Pirsig intriguingly explored in his cult classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a theme I discussed, in reference to moral absolutism, in The Elusive Truth ). Is it better, for instance, to maximize aggregate wealth, or to minimize “the gini coefficient” (the statistical measure of the inequality in the distribution of wealth)? Most (though certainly not all) would probably agree that the maximum good lies in some balance of these two values, though the range of belief of what that balance should be fill the spectrum, with extremists happily ensconced at either pole.

Or, more apropos of religion: Is a greater good served by protecting zygotes from destruction or by helping to expedite the discovery of effective treatments for crippling diseases through embryonic stem cell research? Is a greater good served by preserving the rights of women over their own bodies, or by protecting fetuses from elective abortions? Is a greater good served by ending the discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, or by “preserving the sanctity” of heterosexual marriage? We each may strongly believe we know the answers to these questions, but there is no consensus, and there is no final arbiter to which to turn for the answers as a matter of ontological and moral certainty (though there may be to find the legal resolutions of these disagreements).

Not only is the object (“a force for good”) ambiguous and elusive, so too is the subject. What is “religion”? Most people would say that the defining characteristic is some reference to the divine, by which definition Buddhism is not technically a religion (and Taoism may not be either). But aren’t all-encompassing world views members of some shared category, one which is dominated by religions? Wouldn’t that definition, rather than the reference to the divine, be at least as reasonable a definition? And might that not include most comprehensive political ideologies, including, perhaps, whatever political ideologies you or I consider to be the best and worst, respectively? In which case, some religions, broadly defined, are forces for good, and some for bad, but we’re stuck duking out which is which, not unlike fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

Furthermore, how broad is “the divine” (if we choose to cling to that more traditional definition)? Does it include all that is supernatural or mystical in nature, such as a belief in ghosts, or in ouija boards, or in New Age fads such as the cosmic-energy-focusing power of tin-foil pyramids on one’s head? If not, why not?

As with many things, our traditional categories are less useful for addressing fundamental, underlying questions than we at first assume them to be. We need to break the world down into more essential conceptual elements, ones that do not have such unstable boundaries. And we need to understand those elemental concepts in terms of continua of variation rather than as dichotomous or mutually exclusive categories. So, for instance, beliefs can be more or less dogmatic, or more or less analytical. It does not really matter whether they are religious or not; it matters whether they serve more to liberate our individual and collective genius, or serve more to imprison it.

While there are similarities that are too often overlooked (such as in their shared foundation in a sense of awe), religious and scientific thought in some ways embody this distinction, in that the former is based on “Faith” (the unquestioning and unquestionable certainty of a proposition) and the latter on “scepticism” (the assumption that nothing should be taken to be the truth until it has been demonstrated to be the truth, and even then, only tentatively so, always subject to new evidence and argumentation). And scientific thought has clearly been a very robust generator of useful knowledge. But the distinction can be exaggerated, and the similarities ignored.

Science, like religion, has immutable precepts at its base, such as the belief in an objectively discernible reality, in our ability to discern it, in the validity of the scientific method as a means of doing so, and in the culturally and subjectively independent validity of its products. Or the belief that reality can be reduced to its constituent parts, without biasing the worldview thus created.

And science, like religion, is based in awe, which may be the real essence of Faith. I have faith that there is some coherent, enormous, systemic reality of which I am a part, far beyond my powers of comprehension, but overwhelmingly compelling in its beauty and complexity and subtlety. That is what I call “pure Faith,” a faith that has no object, no icon, no reductionism on which to hang it, though a recognition that, as in science, various reductionisms can be useful tools in examining it. What we call “religions” are to me part of the huge and gorgeous corpus of world mythology, brilliant, subtle, complex metaphors reaching into the heart of that wondrous suchness and rendering it into stories and forms and rituals that make it accessible.

A scientific understanding of the world divorced from that ecstatic, imaginative “faith-based” one would be dry and incomplete. One can analyze a river, its constituent elements and molecules, the dynamics of flow, but still be missing some appreciation of its essence that is captured in seeing that river as mischievous nymphs singing and dancing their way to the sea. Poetry and fiction are not science, but they are a part of our appreciation and celebration of the world in which we live. Religion is the original context of poetry and stories, one whose essence, at least, should certainly be retained in order to continue to generate such expressions of our passion and wonder.

My dad was a devout atheist, and I saw in him the very same error that had so passionately led him to the absolute rejection of the validity of religious belief: Implacable dogmatic certainty. The problem with such certainty isn’t that it sometimes embraces a good idea, and sometimes a bad one, but rather that it always reduces an infinitely complex reality to some oversimplification or another which then becomes impervious to refinement. We can’t help but to reduce reality to manageable conceptualizations, but we can avoid fortifying those conceptualizations against the lathe of new information and insight.

And that is the crux of the matter. The more strongly one adheres to dogmatic substantive certainties, the more their belief system, whether religious or secular, is a force for bad, by crippling our ability to use our most vital resource, our human mind. And the more one subjugates substantive understandings to a combination of an essentially religious humility with procedural methodologies designed to best allow reason to prevail, to best allow the lathe of new information and new insight to continue to carve our substantive understandings, the more that conceptual framework is a force for good.

Even the substantive beliefs about the procedural methodology have to be subjected to that methodology, so that the methodology itself can evolve. In short, we need to be systematically and imaginatively uncertain, in a way which does not increase certainty, but rather increases understanding.

It is not religion, but rather dogma which is the counterproductive force we must seek to transcend. Secular dogmas are as dangerous and destructive as religious ones, and religious channeling of our wonder and compassion is as productive and useful as any other channeling of such qualities.

The Tea Party, though strongly overlapping with Right-wing Christian fundamentalism, is based on a secular dogma of its own, one which includes what has aptly been called “Constitutional Idolatry”, signalling its quasi-religious nature. But what makes it quasi-religious is its dogmatic reductionism, its reliance on oversimplistic platitudes, not some aspect that is overtly religious.

Even dogma in science is counterproductive, and not in short supply. The premature closing of the mind, the embrace of certainties that are not certain, and are not subtle enough to encompass the complexity they claim to definitively capture, is what we must avoid and oppose, in all contexts.

The best force for good is the best blend of the most useful cognitive material from all sectors of thought and action. Religious recognition of the sublime nature of the universe, our imagination and sometimes ecstatic artistic perceptions, our emotional connection to other people and other creatures, our recognition that in a world of competing factual and theoretical claims all of them must be subjected to an impartial procedures for separating the arbitrary from the well-founded and selecting among competing views, are all components of that cognitive concoction which most effectively liberates the genius within us, and thus best serves our long-term collective welfare.

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The Denver Post today published an editorial on the current legal and legislative battles around embryonic stem cell research ( I’m not interested in getting into the weeds concerning the legal interpretation maneuvers required to circumvent the “Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” which prohibits the use of federal funds in any research that results in the destruction of human embryos, or the history of Diana DeGette’s stem cell research bill, twice vetoed by GW Bush. I’m interested in discussing the essence of the issue, and the essence of the two fundamental sides defined by it. This is an issue over “loving life” as a moralistic dogmatic abstraction which condemns conscious human beings to continued suffering, or loving life as the expression of empathy and compassion for creatures that think and feel and are aware of their own existence.

The argument over whether (human) life begins at conception or birth is clearly a semantic game, and clearly dodges the messy functional truth: Human life is a thing in constant formation, even after birth, and, in some ways, even before conception. If we identify the newborn infant as something that is unambiguously a human being deserving of all rights and protections accorded to human beings (something that is pretty well settled at this point), then the messy fact is that that human being comes into existence, as a human being, at some indeterminate point between conception and birth. Regardless of the sophistry employed, the cluster of cells that is a zygote is not a “human being” in any sense that applies to our legal and social structure, whereas (as inconvenient as it may be for people, like myself, who are staunchly pro-choice) the only difference between a late-term fetus and a new-born baby is location (though that locational difference has huge legal implications, and huge implications for what it means to have individual rights).

While I think there is some moral complexity to the issue of late-term abortions, in the final analysis, for both pragmatic and moral reasons, it’s simply not tenable to reduce pregnant women to the legal status of incubators. The bright line, legally, has to be drawn at birth, as it generally has been throughout human history, and as our laws have evolved around. But the complexity that makes that a not completely unproblematic solution simply does not apply to the issue of embryonic stem cells. The embryos involved are not on the newborn side of that indeterminate point in a pregnancy when a cluster of cells becomes a baby. Those embryos are just clusters of cells, in anything other than a mystified perception divorced from the true complexity and subtlety of the real world we live in.

So the question is whether one is the kind of person who loves life in an abstract and dogmatic manner that does not flinch at condemning conscious human beings to continued suffering from paralyzing injuries and diseases that would otherwise be far sooner curable, or the kind of person who loves life as the state of consciousness that makes it so precious, and embraces the sincere empathy of caring about the sufferings and joys that attach to those embued with such consciousness.

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