Monthly Archives: December 2013

Due Process and Freedom of Thought

Here is a paradox that went undiscovered for all but the last hair’s breadth of human history: the innocent will never be safe unless the guilty are protected.

That’s due process of law. To ensure that as few people as possible are wrongly convicted, we trust a process that occasionally lets the guilty go free — sometimes people we know are guilty. Maybe all the evidence was there, but it was illegally obtained. Maybe the suspect was caught in the act, but was not read his Miranda rights. Maybe we know the suspect would collapse under questioning, but our constitution gives him the right to decline to testify.

It can be maddening to watch a trial play out this way, but those of us who are privileged to live in enlightened societies would not have it any other way.

We have learned that the process itself is far more important than any individual outcome. As much as we might long for an enlightened despot who could set injustice right with a wave of his scepter, we have learned at least one lesson of history: We would sooner trust our fate to millions of ignoramuses than to any one person. Even ourselves.

Freedom of thought goes hand-in-hand with due process. We have come a long way from the time when Jesus’s prosecutor shouted, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?” We recognize that people have a right to their opinions.

What does that mean? Does it only mean, “I disagree with you but uphold your right to think as you please?”

We do well if it means much more than that.

To grant someone the right to his opinion entails that we still regard him as a fellow human, fully worthy of compassion and respect, even if we think his opinion is wrong or immoral. The alternative — to regard him as less worthy than ourselves — is to annihilate his humanity. If we mentally grant someone a right to an opinion, but then mentally destroy his humanity, what progress have we made?

To properly value freedom of thought also means that we do not harbor any wish for scepter-waving. If you were sovereign over the world and could wave a magic scepter to make everyone agree with you, would you do it? I hope not. I hope you would use your superpower to cause everyone to engage in civilized but vigorous debate. The debate itself is more valuable than anyone’s opinion.

To echo the opening thought of this meditation, wisdom will be silent unless every fool is allowed to speak.

We freethinkers want people to grant us permission to pursue truth on our own terms. Due process demands that we grant the same freedom to them, from the bottom of our hearts. We must have the courage to maintain that stance even when we are convinced they are heading in the wrong direction.

recently I wrote about my admiration for Pope Francis. Some are surprised that I, an increasingly progressive atheist, could extol the head of one of the most reactionary religions on Earth. It’s easy. Although I disagree with him on many important issues, I admire the fact that he uses his scepter to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion. To me, that is even more important than his specific opinions. And once I allow that someone can differ from me and still be a human worthy of respect, I discover that Pope Francis qua human is a pretty good one.

Do you have someone in your life whose opinions bug you? If so, maybe valuing the debate and the person more than his opinions will make you happier.

Paying it Forward at Starbucks

I got an early start this morning and decided to stop by Starbucks and write a blog post. What I had planned to write about went out the window as I stood in line.

As the man in front of me reached for his wallet, the barista told him that someone had left a gift card with $250 on it to “pay it foward” so his coffee was covered.

Later, while I was sitting in the shop, I would overhear that Mr. Pay-it-Forward has been doing this every Christmas for years, and that there’s actually a second person in town who does the same thing.

The customer in front of me, whose purchase would have amounted to about $5, was moved to add $40 to the gift card. I saw other people do what they could to keep the pay-it-forward momentum going, either tipping more generously than usual or adding to the card.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. Yes!

Pope Francis: Style and Message

What do you think about Pope Francis? Is the first pope ever to utter the words Who am I to judge? really someone new, or is his warm, humble style only a new cover on the same old book of hidebound doctrines?

Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica had this to say (quoted in a wonderful New Yorker piece by James Carroll):

Style is not just the cover of the book. It’s the book itself! Style is the message. … This is what the Gospel looks like.

In my evangelical Protestant days, nothing was more important than the content of the Book. Getting it right was literally a matter of eternal life and death, for salvation depended on right belief.

I am transfixed by this new pope. Surely he believes all the traditional, Catholic dogma, but his head and heart are totally occupied with love and compassion. His style truly is his message.

Pope Francis

It seems to be his only message. For the leader of a religion, he is remarkably unconcerned with advocating for its more abstract tenets. He must believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, the primacy of the Catholic Church, and all the rest, but you’d never know it. He is totally engaged with loving the poor and the marginalized, and calling the whole world to do the same.

I’m not the first non-believer to love this pope. Heck, a writer on Richard Dawkins’ website comes just shy of making him honorary atheist. If a lot more Christians were like him, one of my big reasons for leaving the faith would never have come up.

As it is, when I read about the pope’s latest simple but dramatic gesture, tears come to my eyes and I realize I have a lot to learn about style and message.

Vladislav Tornovoi and the Homosexual Threat

On May 9, 2013, in the Russian town of Volgograd, Vladislav Tornovoi was raped and mutilated with beer bottles and then beaten to death with a brick. One of his friends confessed to killing him because Vlad had allegedly disclosed he was gay.

How can this sort of thing happen in the twenty-first century? I can only observe that the crime took place amidst an increasingly anti-homosexual climate in Russia.

Also in 2013, Uganda is coming close to passing “one of the most punative anti-gay measures in the world” — a law that is known as the Kill the Gays Bill because an early version mandated the death penalty for repeat offenders.

Russian president Putin casts his anti-homosexual campaign in moral terms. In this he has the support of the head of the Russian Orthodox church. Uganda is a Christian country and a plain-text reading of certain Bible passages (e.g., Leviticus 20:13) would seem to place their proposed law squarely in the center of God’s will.

However,  I would like to propose to my morally conservative and Christian friends another way of looking at this. I’ll introduce it with a parable that I heard more than once in evangelical circles. The original meaning of the parable pertained to dating behavior, but I will suggest how it could apply here.

A wealthy man wanted to hire a chauffeur. His house was sited high on a mountain, and was only accessible by a narrow, treacherous road. He told each prospective chauffeur that if he could demonstrate great skill driving on that road, he would get the job.

The first candidate drove up the mountain maintaining a distance of only three inches from the down-mountain edge. “Not good enough,” said the wealthy man.

The second thought he could do better. He piloted the car a mere two inches from disaster all the way up. “Sorry,” said the man.

The third was so skilled that he could maintain a distance of less than an inch from the edge all the way up and down. “You’re not the man for the job,” said the rich man.

The fourth man drove the car slowly and as far from the edge as possible, both up and down the mountain.

“You’re hired,” said the employer. “You’re the only one I trust to keep me safe.”

Intolerance is like trying to drive close to the edge. We think we can participate in an intolerant sub-culture without any real harm, but that may not be true. In Russia and Uganda (and, yes, in the United States), we have seen how a climate of intolerance can lead to murder.

I now pose a question to all pro-life Americans: Which do you think is the greater threat to life: homosexuality or intolerance? In light of your answer, where should we focus our energy?

If you’re still not sure, you might want to watch another video:

For the chilling result, skip to here.

If There’s No God, Then Where Did All This Come From?

When I made my exit from evangelical Christian faith, my friends’ most common objection was, “If there’s no God, then where did all this come from?” I heard this again recently, so I thought I’d write about it.

The first-cause argument for God has a long history, dating at least from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It seems persuasive:

  1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. (Also put as “Something cannot come from nothing.”)
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

How could anyone object to that?

As it turns out, we can and should object to each of those steps.

1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. I 

Not true. “Something” comes from “nothing” all the time. In A Universe from Nothing, physicist Lawrence Krauss explains why “nothing” is actually an unstable state (chapter 10). In fact, taking the admittedly non-intuitive, but experimentally proven principles of quantum mechanics to their logical conclusion, it is entirely possible that our entire universe arose from nothing.

2. The universe began to exist.

That five-word sentence hides two assumptions that can slip right by us.

First, scientists are increasingly convinced that it is incorrect to speak of “the” universe. Our universe may well be just one in an infinite set of universes — the multiverse. Universes may give birth to one another in a chain that extends to the infinite past — a chain that did not “begin to exist.”

Second, even if our universe is the only one, it does not make sense to speak of its beginning, as if there was a time before it existed. From the Big Bang arose not only space, but time. As Stephen Hawking says, to speak of anything before the Big Bang is like speaking of a point that is more south than the South Pole.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This conclusion of the syllogism is already in doubt because its premises are suspect. However, let’s grant the conclusion anyway: the universe has a cause. Would that lead us to the traditional God of Western culture? Not necessarily, for the following conclusions are equally valid.

  • The god who created the universe died in the process, like a woman who dies in childbirth. God used to exist, but no longer does.
  • A committee of gods created the universe.
  • God created the universe, and then let it run based on Laws of Nature. God does not care about what rules you live by, does not answer prayers, and does not offer salvation to humankind.
  • God created the universe not for us,  but for black holes. After all, there are many more black holes than people. We are just an accidental byproduct.
  • A natural process that we have not yet discovered created the universe.

When trying to prove the existence of God, the Argument from First Cause has a lot of emotional appeal. Upon closer examination, it does not get the job done.