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What if Religion Were a Force for Good?

November 24, 2012

I usually try to stay out of the territory of anti-theism, but just as a warning, this post will be critical.

But I was just thinking…

What if religions were effective at inculcating positive virtues? At protecting the oppressed/weak/disenfranchised, and more importantly, in getting people to realize that these folks are the people who should be protected?
Like, imagine if the Catholic church were protecting the victims of child abuse rather than covering up for priests?

Like, imagine if Evangelical protestants were speaking out against rape and speaking up for the needs of those who have experienced such terrible acts, rather than insinuating that anyone could have “asked for it” by what they wear or don’t wear, do or don’t do.

Like, imagine if Mormons were the first group to speak out against aversion therapy for homosexuals, rather than having it conducted at the church’s university, BYU. Or if, as proponents of marriage, they were at the forefront of advocating for marriage equality, rather than viewing marriage equality as a threat or counterfeit.

I understand that religions are lived by imperfect people who bring with them their own cultures, biases, hangups, and whatnot. But I just wished that I saw more evidence of religions as forces curbing or moderating people’s hangups, biases, etc., rather than as being the things that more often tend to amplify, enshrine, or inculcate those hangups.

There are two things I really dislike, though.

The first thing I really dislike (at least, in the Mormon context, but this is true of other religious groups) is that I know there are liberal/progressive/moderate Mormons. But what I also know is that they seem a poor fit for their own religion (no matter how much they try to argue that liberalism, or progressivism, or moderation, or whatever is not only not anathema to Mormonism, but a truer living of it)…I don’t want to say that they are good “in spite of” Mormonism, but it definitely does seem that they have a lot of institutional opposition at times (although fortunately, the current church doesn’t seem too keen on excommunicating everyone who disagrees with it.)

…but this also leads into the second thing I dislike.

I dislike that most of what I have just said really just states political differences. Liberalism vs. conservatism. Progressivism vs. conservatism. And across these lines, there are going to be people who see my ideal values as being a step toward chaos and anarchy in a similar way that I see their ideal values as a step toward oppression. In other words, whereas I know some folks (probably the liberal or progressive elements of any religion) will say that the conservative/traditional elements are evidence of people being imperfect…there will be other folks who think that that very much is the point, and that liberalism/progressivism is the imperfection that should be overcome.

How easily we all demonize each other.

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52 Comments
  1. but they aren’t

    history shows that over and over again

  2. Nina, that’s why this is a what if…

    Like, imagine when you found out that someone was religious, that meant that you would see someone who was kind, sensitive, empathetic, etc.?

    Wouldn’t that be cool?

  3. Jettboy permalink

    So far most of what you consider “good’ here is really “evil” to others. Its a subjective question that is by the asking insulting. Maybe you should just accept the fact that religion is by its nature conservative. Therefore, like Nina, it will never be your kind of good. You do realize, however, that there has been religions that are liberal. Therefore, the what if is kind of answered for you. The result is that very few people would be part of that religion or take it seriously.

  4. Jettboy,

    That’s what I mean by the second thing I dislike about this whole what if.

  5. Tony permalink

    I agree with your first part. Religion doesn’t seem to me to make for better people. In fact in my personal experience religion inspires otherwise good people to do wrong.

    I remember once Christopher Hitchens was asked during a debate if he were walking down the street in a strange city and approached by a group of men, would he feel safer knowing that they had just come from a prayer meeting.

    My answer is unhesitatingly the same as Hitchens. No, I would not feel safer. In fact I would feel far more at threat than if they were just some random guys.

    I have no hesitation in stating that I fear religion and the religious. Not because I fear some wrath of God but because I fear the acts of men who believe that no matter what horrors they engage in that they are doing good because it is what they believe it is what God wants.

    I don’t think for a moment that a world without religion would be a world free from fear, violence or evil. But I do know I would at least feel somewhat safer in such a world.

    And that brings me to your second point where I have to disagree somewhat.

    The problem is that you (and often religious people who promote such ideas) are almost suggesting (or at least seem to be suggesting to my perspective. I don’t want to assign motive to you that you may not have but can only relate how I perceive it) that these things are simple differences of opinion, as if we were talking about a difference in opinion about our favorite football team or some abstract fiscal ideas of lowering the deficit.

    It seems to be ignoring the fact that what is being discusses are things that cause real harm to people. Discrimination harms people. Blaming women for being raped harms them. Allowing people to be fired from jobs, kicked out of housing and denied equal treatment because of sexual orientation harms them.

    We can play semantic games about theologically based moral questions all we want, but in the end the difference is that there are real people suffering real harm because some group of people wants to impose their faith based ideas on others.

    Remove the “bad people” vs. “good people” aspect and you still have a very real and demonstrable case of “people hurting others for no good reason” vs. “people just trying to live their lives free from religious oppression”.

  6. The title of this post reminded me of Stephen Fry’s remarks in a debate, taking the stance that “The Catholic Church is Not a Force for Good.” His concluding remarks were:

    The Pope could decide that all this power, all this wealth, this hierarchy of princes and bishops and archbishops and priests and monks and nuns could be sent out in the world with money and art treasures, to put them back in the countries that they once raped and violated, they could give that money away, and they could concentrate on the apparent essence of their belief, and then, I would stand here and say the Catholic Church may well be a force for good in the world, but until that day, it is not.
    [...]
    It’s such an opportunity, owning a billion souls at baptism. It’s such an opportunity to do something remarkable, to make this planet better, and it’s an opportunity that is constantly and arrogantly being avoided and I’m sorry for that.

    and it sounds even more impactful spoken in his British accent.

    His remarks in the debate were geared to the Catholic church specifically — but I think it goes equally well with the general sentiment that so much of human effort and energy gets wasted on doing “religion” [the dogmas, the forms and rituals, the buildings and psalms, the dressing up, etc.], instead of doing the things religion is supposed to be about [bettering human life, alleviating suffering, striving for peace and justice, connecting humanity with the spiritual/divine, etc.].

  7. Tony,

    I often think of the same thing that drives much of your comment — on the one hand, I want to try to see value and nuance in each side, every perspective…but it seems to me (like you point out), that at some point in the day, there is real harm in certain PoVs.

    Especially the things I mention in this post.

    I mean, I have a feeling like the other side would say similar things though…but of course, each side would disagree about what counts as harm, etc.,

    Justin,

    Right. But I mean, i wouldn’t care if people dressed up, performed rituals, etc., if they did these things *along with* helping people…but it seems that wrapped up in the rituals are ideas/beliefs/actions that not only do not help, but actually hurt people.

    • Exactly. It’s like people only have the energy to do one or the other — but no one is doing both. So if we got to pick one — then most theists are devoting energy to the wrong one.

      • Seth R. permalink

        One wonders if you are even paying attention to what LDS wards are doing. They aren’t just dressing up and having sacrament you know.

        • Seth — what about your local ward [in the last month, let's say] has

          bettered human life, alleviated suffering, strived for peace and justice, connected humanity with the spiritual/divine, etc.

          ?

          Though I thoroughly enjoy my ward — I can tell you that we certainly haven’t done the above list anytime recently.

          Maybe yours differs — who knows.

  8. Justin,

    I’m not saying religious folks are doing one or the other though. I’m saying that in addition to many (mostly) harmless rituals, there are active and sustained activities from religious folks against women, gay folks, etc.,

    If you got rid of the latter, I wouldn’t have an issue.

  9. I think we should focus more on the force of good that religion is.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, aren’t you basing the observation in your original post solely on what the news media reports on?

    Is that wise?

    As a general rule, I see precious little on the five o’clock news that is what you would call “stand-the-test-of-time” material. They tend to focus solely on the controversial, the titillating, the scandalous, and the “gotcha” moments.

    Let’s be honest, no one in the news media gave a damn when the LDS Church sent disaster aid to Latin America, Pakistan, Indonesia, New Orleans, etc.

    I frankly don’t trust the narrative you’re presenting here. The Catholic Church has probably been one of the single largest and most effective forces for learning and education in human history. Consider that the next time you see a fun sex-abuse story.

  11. Tony permalink

    I don’t think many people really consider the sex abuse stories as fun.

    But consider that to the sexually abused child all the altruistic gestures made by the church don’t undo the fact that they were molested. It doesn’t heal the scars or undo the emotional and psychological damage done.

    How may good deeds does an institution have to do in order to undo the harm they cause? Can a murderer ever make up for killing another human? No. How does a Church that has been involved in the deaths of thousands if not millions of people over history make up for that? How many people taught to read makes up for one human life cut short?

    Yes, the Catholic Church does some good things, as does the LDS. But so do the Lion’s Club, and the Shriners. But if it turned out the Lion’s club leadership were sexually abusing children no one would say, “yeah, but they do a lot of good too”. Instead the organization would be universally condemned.

    And yet we are talking about churches. The Lions Club, Elks Lodge, Shriners and the like are social clubs dedicated to community. Churches are supposed to be the spiritual guiding lights of culture. The responsibility of Churches is far greater. The actions of their leaders should be under greater scrutiny than some social altruistic organization.

    The sex abuse scandel of the Catholic Church should bring greater concern, condemnation and outrage than with other organizations because the Churches have such a higher place in society. Because they are supposed to be our moral guides. Because the people who run them have accepted an elevated place in society in order to have a greater influence on us, and in doing so have accepted a greater degree of scrutiny and expectations on their behaviors.

    The attempts of religions to shirk it’s responsibilities when their religion is used for bad are shameful. When a religion inspires people to do good the religion pats itself on the back, but when it does bad all we hear is “it’s not the religion’s fault, it is because the people in the religion are human and flawed.” But that’s a sham.

    The leadership of religions aren’t just people. They are leaders. They are moral guides. They are individuals who have taken a position that allows them to have great influence on the lives of millions. They have taken positions that have far less room for human failing. When they fail the condemnation should be greater, not less. Their “sins” should be reviled against to a greater degree, not lessened with the excuse that, well, despite the monstrous acts perpetuated against innocent children, hey, they fed some homeless and taught some people to read.

    To do so is to then reduce religion to the very level of the Lion’s Club, and if you do that then they should have no more private or influence than the Lion’s Club.

    From the perspective of the person on the receiving end of the negativity of religion none of the rest matters.

    A stick can be a great thing. You can use it to keep yourself from falling while hiking or going for a long walk. You can use it as a lever to help lift a fallen tree off someone’s leg. You can use it to fend off an attacker. You can use it to have a fun game of stickball.

    But when someone is using that stick to beat you with none of those things are going to come to the front of your mind. To you that stick just becomes a weapon being used to hurt you.

    Women, gay people, the non-religious, and various minorities of different stripes have all been on the receiving end of having religion used against us as a weapon. Of being harmed by religion, not just in the past but continually today.

    I wish I lived in a world where I could look at a religion and, even if I didn’t believe in it’s teachings or want to be part of it, could still point to it and say “There is a force for good in the world”. I wish I lived in a world where, when I heard the name of a religion the first thought that came to my mind what the help it provided and charity work it did.

    But I don’t live in that world. Because when I hear the names of religions what naturally comes to mind is fear, and anger, and a desire to defend myself. Because to me religion is the thing used to oppress me, to attack me, to take away my rights and justify my being treated badly. I don’t see charitable organizations. I see weapons being aimed at me.

    I really wish I didn’t, but the thing is that it isn’t my imagination. Religion IS being used as a weapon against me. I wish I lived in a world where it wasn’t, because then I could see it as a good thing even if it wasn’t for me. But that world doesn’t exist. Get back to me when it does and I will be happy to reassess my view of religions and pay more attention to the good it does. Right now I can’t see it through the blood in my eyes due to the being beaten over the head with it.

  12. Seth R. permalink

    Actually there’s an interesting study on that Tony – people really do get a pleasure reaction out of hearing terrible stories and witnessing terrible events. It’s why public executions used to be a popular form of entertainment, and rape roleplays are popular in the porn industry. News media knows this and caters appropriately.

  13. Seth R. permalink

    Besides Tony, you are conflating the wrongdoing of individuals with the wrongdoing of the organization. And not all wrongs are created equal either.

    Incidentally, I’m not trying to encourage the sort of analysis a corrupt managing partner of a law firm in a movie described to a young new lawyer:

    “At the end of each day, I look at myself in the mirror and ask – “have I done more good today than bad?” If I’ve done more good, I sleep easy.”

    I’m paraphrasing. But no – I’m not encouraging that sort of calculus. But I am saying that the good as well as the bad has to be considered when we are talking about what people are choosing to be affiliated with.

    And we need to be careful that we aren’t selectively obsessing on pet-issues that are preventing us from objectivity.

    • Seth R. permalink

      And I do see gay marriage as a “pet issue” that prevents some people from having any objective view of the LDS Church. That was what I had in mind.

  14. Tony permalink

    I’m not making any pretext to objectivity. I’m not objective. Why on earth should I be objective? Do we expect the rape victim to be objective? Do we expect the loved ones of the murder victim to be objective? Do we expect the person beaten and oppressed to be objective? No. If you want people to be objective you need to create an environment for them where objectivity is a reasonable position to expect. When someone is being oppressed and attacked objectivity isn’t a reasonable expectation to have from them.

    And you kind of ignored what I said about the responsibility of the people in the institutions. The individuals make up the organization. When the leadership of an organization does wrong it is the organization doing wrong. To excuse the organization with the excuse that it isn’t the organization that did wrong but the individuals, you then must excuse the good because it isn’t the organization that does good, but the individuals. You can’t have it both ways.

    The idea of a pet issue is rather condescending. All issues are someone’s pet issues.

    Are my rights my “pet issue”? No, they are my rights. Are the people trying to take away my rights folks I should consider good because they are helping someone else? No, because they are hurting me.

    Why should I consider the good when I am the victim of the bad? At what point, when you are the target of the weapon of religion, do you decide religion is bad? Does someone you love have to die at the hands of religion? How much oppression do you need to suffer?

    If I raped and beat your wife into a coma, but saved your neighbor from a burning building does that make me a good person to you? I would doubt it.

    Why should I consider the good when those doing the supposed good are doing bad to me?

    As I said, I am happy to consider the good when I am no longer the target of religion. Until then, from my perspective, religion is a force for bad because that is what I experience. If anyone has a problem with that the problem isn’t me, it is the fact that religion is being used as a weapon against me. If you want to change my perspective you first need to change my experience, and that is done by focusing on the bad being done and the one’s perpetuating it, not the person it is being done to.

  15. Seth R. permalink

    Well, as finance clerk, executive secretary, and Elders Quorum Pres. Counselor to various wards, let’s see…

    Paid sister so-and-so’s utility bills (this happened almost every week for several impoverished individuals), moved in a woman who lives on crutches, saved an impoverished family hundreds of dollars in mechanic’s fees when a starter motor failed. Handled all the funeral arrangements so a grieving widow wouldn’t have to. Watched the kids of numerous families in all sorts of situations. Provided several teenagers with the only positive social interaction they get outside of family. Repaired brother X’s crumbling fence. Donated thousands of man-hours to the local food bank. Visited rest homes for the elderly. Counseled married couples with troubled marriages who can’t afford a therapist. Handled all the logistics during a family’s health crisis. Provided a dozen elderly women with basically the ONLY social interaction they get each month. Friendships, support, financial aid, advice – and basically community (you know – that thing we stopped doing in the USA since 1991).

    I had a local Red Cross (non-Mormon) administrator say that the social structure of LDS wards is absolutely crucial to the community and that she wishes everyone else did it.

    Not to mention the adoption services, the Bishop’s Storehouse, LDS Employment Services, LDS mental health services, Boy Scout contributions, constructive youth programs and the list goes on.

    You ever try to lead a ward before Tony?

    You’ll see a lot of things going on in leadership positions that you don’t see as a member who just shows up for Sacrament Meeting and the Gospel Doctrine lesson.

    • Seth R. permalink

      That was a response to Justin, further up in the threaded comments, by the way.

      Sorry for confusing you with him Tony.

    • You ever try to lead a ward before [Justin]?

      You’ll see a lot of things going on in leadership positions that you don’t see as a member who just shows up for Sacrament Meeting and the Gospel Doctrine lesson.

      I’m not a member who “just shows up” for Sacrament Meeting — and certainly don’t attend my Gospel Doctrine class [I thoroughly enjoy teaching primary].

      Did you listen to Stephen Fry’s argument — that I linked to in my original comment [to which you originally replied]:

      The Pope could decide that all this power, all this wealth, this hierarchy of princes and bishops and archbishops and priests and monks and nuns could be sent out in the world with money and art treasures, to put them back in the countries that they once raped and violated, they could give that money away, and they could concentrate on the apparent essence of their belief, and then, I would stand here and say the Catholic Church may well be a force for good in the world, but until that day, it is not.
      [...]
      It’s such an opportunity, owning a billion souls at baptism. It’s such an opportunity to do something remarkable, to make this planet better, and it’s an opportunity that is constantly and arrogantly being avoided and I’m sorry for that.

      ?

      As I said — though his remarks were geared to the Catholic church specifically — I think it goes equally well with the general sentiment that so much of human effort and energy gets wasted on doing “religion” [the dogmas, the forms and rituals, the buildings and psalms, the dressing up, etc.], instead of doing the things religion is supposed to be about [bettering human life, alleviating suffering, striving for peace and justice, connecting humanity with the spiritual/divine, etc.].

      So — you referenced:

      sister so-and-so’s utility bills
      moving a woman who lives on crutches into her house
      saving an impoverished family hundreds of dollars in mechanic’s fees
      handling funeral arrangements
      watching kids of numerous families
      providing teenagers with positive social interaction

      Blah, blah, blah — and a hundred other positive things anyone LDS [or Catholic or Christian person] could point their finger at.

      When the point is:

      What makes religion unique in providing those services?

      How much energy did you spend on other [non- applaudable] aspects of being Mormon — energy that could have been spent on doing more of what you listed?

      Etc.

      • Seth R. permalink

        I would point out Justin that nowhere to you get all those things in one package – except organized religion. Groups may specialize in one service or another – but only in organized religion to you get the whole nine yards.

        Aside from the government, no one else organizes like this.

        They have no motivation to.

  16. Justin and Seth,

    I can’t respond in full, but I predict that Seth will respond to say that it’s not that religion is *unique* in these respects, but that it is an established group that does it…whereas secular folks have to make up and build up new infrastructure for social nets, religions are already built to do that.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Actually, I’d say that secular folk don’t do this.

      They like to talk about doing this. But the reality is usually that they pay taxes, and figure they’re good. Tax payments and an occasional Red Cross donation is about as organized as most of the secular world gets.

      • Seth R. permalink

        Gross generalization, of course. But it seemed to be a trend here, and I wanted in on the fun.

  17. Seth R. permalink

    How much energy Justin?

    I don’t know. How much energy did you spend on the xBox last week? Or on the football game? Or [insert whatever pastime you like here]?

    This is a common secularist gripe leveled at religion. The “oh, you could be feeding orphans” accusation.

    As if there are only two kinds of activity religions are allowed to engage in:

    1. Feeding orphans, and

    2. Worthless stuff

    Whereas the secularist gets away with all sorts of pointless and useless activity in his own life without anyone saying anything about it – religion has to be feeding orphans 24-7, or be accused of wasting social capital.

    It’s a seriously hypocritical double-standard that only works because the secularist doesn’t claim to stand for anything tangible in particular. And therefore, cannot be blamed for anything he does or does not do.

    And incidentally, religion doesn’t have to be unique in doing any of this. I’ll settle for the fact that we’re doing it.

  18. Seth R. permalink

    Incidentally, the Catholic Church could probably sell all its assets right now, and not even make more than a two year dent in the situation in Mali. And the world would be vastly culturally impoverished for it.

  19. If Mormonism were really a collective “force for good” — then we’d have Zion among us.

    As it stands, there is nothing that separates the X-box playing, football game loving secular crowd from the LDS I hear talking about the new Halo game or last week’s BYU match (BTW, you picked two bad examples — for I care about neither of them and have no “pastime”) — except for the fact that the secular doesn’t pretend to be “doing the Lord’s work” when they pay their taxes and volunteer at the local Red Cross. Whereas — the religious act as though their tithes and their church attendance actually accomplish real work.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Typical fundamentalist response.

      Black and white, all or nothing. Either it had better be perfect, or I shall deem it worthless.

      And Justin – I don’t really believe your assurances that you have no pastimes. Not that it matters, I’m sure your sense of outrage doesn’t extend to many organizations with pastimes.

      Oh, but I forgot your second stock-secularist-gripe: “yeah, but we aren’t claiming to be led by God.”

      As if that made any difference. No secularists are not claiming to be led by God. But for all their self-righteous piety, overwhelming confidence in their own rightness, and disdain for the moral quality of those who do not share their positions, they might as well be. Really, all we’re doing is replacing the concept of “God approves of me” with “I approve of me.” With “I” becoming the replacement for God.

      I’m well aware that lack of social accountability has been one of the big sales pitches for secularists recently. But I’m afraid the concept has simply lost its sparkle with me.

      • Oh, but I forgot your second stock-secularist-gripe: “yeah, but we aren’t claiming to be led by God.”

        Seth — FWIW, I’m an active LDS, not a secular/non-theist.

        • Seth R. permalink

          Well, I kind of figured you might be with the Primary calling remark.

          But the set of arguments you are using is, nonetheless, the exact set I hear ad nauseum from the Dawkins.net crowd and the ex-Mormon crowd. So I was trying to address the arguments (and perhaps not succeeding?). I view them as a standard set of secularist anti-religion arguments, although occasionally variants are used by Evangelicals who claim no denomination for use in attacking organized religion.

  20. Tony permalink

    “And I do see gay marriage as a “pet issue” that prevents some people from having any objective view of the LDS Church. That was what I had in mind.”

    To you it’s a pet issue. To us its our lives. If anyone suggested that LDS shouldn’t be allowed to marry, or worse actually managed to pull such a thing off, you would no longer consider marriage equality a pet issue but a major rights issue.

    It’s easy to dismiss the harm caused to other people as their pet issues when it doesn’t directly effect you. Much harder when you are the victim of it.

    So long as you and the membership of your church dismiss the personal (not to mention practical and financial) hurt you cause with such stances you abdicate any right to be looked at objectively. Objectively your church is working to deny me equal rights, and that harms me and people like me. I don’t need to go any further than that. If you want me to go further than that remove that block. Stop hurting people like me and we will be able to move past that.

    In fact stopping same sex marriage is YOUR pet issue. Your pet issue is to interfere in OUR lives. You would rather pursue your pet issue than get the rest of us on board with you to support your other endeavors. Just as religious people made the choice to make that pet issue more important than others when they chose to spend millions to keep loving couples in CA from being able to marry rather than use that money to help people in need.

    That was their choice, and I have every right to judge them and their churches based on it.

  21. Seth R. permalink

    Never has there ever been LESS at stake in a “civil rights” debate than in the gay marriage debate.

    Gays in California weren’t even getting any rights they didn’t already have – nor were they losing any. The only thing that was really at stake in California was whether gays were going to get a symbolic gesture of public approval or not. But that’s really about all there was to it, when you cleared away all the emotionally high-charged irrational babble surrounding the issue.

    It was a far cry from Martin Luther King Jr.

  22. Tony permalink

    The domestic partnership rights in CA are not the same as Marriage rights. For instance they don’t protect partners from having to testify against each other in court. Also, until gay people in CA could get married they had no grounds to challenge DOMA, which does deny equal rights.

    Denying gay people the right to marry was where the emotionally charged irrational babble surrounding the issue was. The pro prop 8 campaign was loaded with lies and fear tactics, telling people that gay marriage would be taught in schools (CA schools don’t cover marriage at all in their curriculum) and portraying same sex marriage as a storm coming to wipe away society.

    If it were just symbolic then why spend so much money and effort to deny it? That is where the lie can be seen. If it really didn’t mean anything then there would be no reason to deny it. Clearly the religious right did think there was something more than symbolic about or they would have spend those millions on helping the needy rather than stopping gay couples from being married.

    Currently I can’t collect on my partner’s social security benefits. I will suffer tax penalties if my partner dies and I inherit all of his assets that a married couple wouldn’t. When I travel to another state any protections I do have (many of which I had to spend extra money on a lawyer to set up) become basically null and void.

    I can’t even travel to visit my family in NC because their recent laws would mean that if one of us got hit by a bus and ended up in the hospital the other would have absolutely no legal rights. Even with domestic partnership in CA our lawyer advised us to establish medical powers of attorney to be safe, but that is generally not valid outside of the state. Married straight couples don’t have to even think about any of this.

    Even when interracial marriage was banned in many states those marriages performed in other states had to be recognized when people traveled to other states. For gay people traveling to another state is almost like traveling to another country. Their basic rights in one state can be completely ignored in another. And as a Californian I can’t even begin to challenge these things because until you can be married in your state and are actively being discriminated against at the federal level you can’t challenge DOMA in federal court.

    It’s not just symbolic. It is practical. There are only two ways that two people who are not related by blood can legally become a family. One is adoption and the other is marriage. By denying gay couples the right to marry you deny gay couples to right to be legally recognized as a family.

    And lets just say that you were right and there was no practical benefit. Say it was just an emotional issue. Denying gay people the right to marry then only hurts us emotionally. You then have to admit that you are just concerned with hurting us emotionally rather than any practical issue (because marriage wouldn’t be a practical issue according to you). Denying same sex marriage then just becomes an exercise in harming people emotionally and keeping people in an inferior place in terms of societal recognition.

    In other words it simply becomes an exercise in mean spiritedness. And that doesn’t speak well for religions and people who want to do that.

    And once DOMA is rescinded then there is definite and real denial or applicable right. And that DOMA is going down is inevitable. It is just a matter of time. Every Federal court that has looked at it as declared it unconstitutional. And every court that has looked at Prop 8 has found it unconstitutional. The best your side can hope for is that the Supreme Court will refuse to hear the Prop 8 case and then the lower courts ruling stands and Prop 8 gets rescinded.

    In the end all you will have done is managed to prevent loving couples from getting married for a few years longer, and wasted millions doing it that could have been used to help people.

    So simply harming people emotionally for a few years may be all you did if your premise was correct, but was it really worth it? Was causing emotional distress to loving couples for a few years worth the millions spent to do it? And you really think I should look objectively at an organization who does such a thing?

    So long as your church does such things it doesn’t deserve to be looked at objectively. It deserves to be looked at through eyes clouded by the pain it caused.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Then reform the domestic partnership laws.

      Bang.

      Problem solved.

      Tony, I’m going to back out of the gay marriage issue at this point and let you have the last word on it – mainly because if I keep debating it, it will hijack the thread. Best wishes.

  23. Tony permalink

    Last word is that we shouldn’t need a domestic partnership law that is identical to marriage. Marriage exists, we shouldn’t need to create a separate category for some couples vs others. Domestic partnerships are not marriages. My spouse and I aren’t business partners. We are a family and that should be recognized. No one has to approve or like it, but under the law we should be considered equal.

    Domestic partnerships will never be the same for that reason.

    Or here is another option.

    Get rid of legal marriage and make all legally recognized relationships domestic partnerships and let marriage be something for churches and other institutions to deal with that have no legal standing.

    Bang, problem solved.

    Somehow I doubt any straight people will go for that because apparently having their marriages legally recognized is important to them for some unfathomable reason.

    • Somehow I doubt any straight people will go for that because apparently having their marriages legally recognized is important to them for some unfathomable reason.

      If you’re counting, I’m heterosexual — and I’d go for that.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Sorry Tony, I’ll just say one more thing – I think you’re right that many religious people would not be happy with the “get rid of marriage option.”

      But I will point out it was an option I was advocating publicly as early as the summer before the Prop 8 election. You can read it here:

      http://www.nine-moons.com/?p=813

  24. I haven’t read the discussion, but I have to say, you are one of the most compassionate thinking people I’ve ever met. In the context of my own understanding of God, it seems to me you and he will have much to talk about together, if you decide that he exists. What a curious irony. I do so like you Andrew.

  25. Everyone,

    So, this conversation has gotten a lot longer since I’ve been at work, so I guess it would be really tedious for me to respond to every point…and you know what? It’s probably best that way…I should be using this time to practice not having the final word on every. single. thing.

    What I want to say, though, is this:

    Seth,

    Great points all around. Thought-provoking and sobering comments as always, and it brings me back to a balanced neutral point…

    There were a few things that struck me.

    To speak of someone’s concerns, pains, problems, etc,. as being a “pet issue” seems like such an incredibly privileged thing to say. It seems like the most clinically straightforward application of the term “heteronormative” to pit gay marriage as a “pet issue” in contrast to an “objective” view of the church.

    That being said, I will admit that from a heteronormative and heterosexist standpoint, the church is a pretty good deal for the people it works for. Your comments about the embeddedness of service in the Mormon life (and comparable embeddedness in many religious traditions vs. secular folks) have given me a lot to think of. And I mean, part of that is to think about my thoughts about the role of government vs. that of charity (e.g., I recognize your counter that many secularists might say, “I paid my taxes, therefore I’ve done my part.” But I think that charity — like all positive externalities — cannot be relied upon to be distributed equitably. So, it seems to me that we should be striving to create a better governmental social network, say, than to be religious.)

    Anyway, I guess one thing that I’ve been coming to in a few conversations recently is that I — and I think, many disaffected folks — tend to be really over-idealistic when it comes to what religions should be able to do. So, I don’t think it’s about focusing on “pet issues” over “objectivity,” but more about unrealistic expectations (even if those expectations were instilled by that religion…but that’s another thing.) But these are unfair standards to hold up to religion, especially for folks who don’t buy into the divine mantle of religion…how strange…

    Bonnie

    I’m sure he knows where to find me, if he decides he wants to.

  26. Yes, I would imagine so. I wonder what that would look like, him coming to find you.

  27. I’m hoping for a road-to-Damascus or Alma-and-the-sons-of-Mosiah experience. Maybe I need to rail harder against everything that’s good and holy for that to happen..?

    • Hmm. Would you be the force for good they were after that happened? I don’t know that I’d be worth a road to Damascus intervention, because I might thereafter spend too much time searching out great chocolate.

      • I haven’t read Joseph Campbell to figure out what the archetypical mythology trope is for this, but I’m pretty sure that’s how a heel face turn works. Becoming a paragon is part and parcel with the intervention…

        at least, that’s what my hardcore calvinist sentiments lead me to understand.

        • Ah, but isn’t the essence of the heel face turn that the depth of character was already within, merely misdirected? And there is little in your compassionate, expansive leanings to convince me that there is anything truly Calvinist about you. I think one’s capacity to become a paragon (completed, perfected) is what invites the intervention, not that the intervention alters the being in any way but facing direction. I will watch with interest for yours.

  28. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, I don’t think you can really rely on government to do the work of charity. And this isn’t because of some Lockean distrust of “big government” or a desire to roll us back to the days before FDR and his “New Deal.”

    Rather it’s simply stemming from an observation that government is always, ALWAYS an inherently de-personalized method of care. We funnel in the taxes, and some remote bureaucrat provides the service. We never meet the person we are helping, we don’t know them. We gain no sense of shared care whatsoever. I dump my cold hard cash in the vending machine, and I don’t even get a soda, so to speak. The soda dumps out somewhere halfway across the country.

    Government is not a community-building enterprise – not the way localized direct charity is. Organized religion allows me to put my money towards things I can see here and now. I look over the congregation on Sunday, and I see friends, neighbors, and personal acquaintances whom I know are the beneficiaries of what I’m doing. The direct beneficiaries. You never get that with government. In fact, you don’t even get any assurance the taxes you paid are even going to something you approve of.

    It’s kind of like Marx’s observations about the alienation of the laborer from the products he produces. The more remote we become from the charitable recipient, the more indifferent we become to them. The more fatalistic as well.

    In this way – the “hearts of men wax cold” to quote LDS scripture. People become Congressional statistics.

    Again, I am not for rolling back Social Security and Medicaid, etc. I’m just saying that de-personalization is inevitable if you rely on government as the primary vehicle for charity. It’s vital to have a comprehensive community-building charitable force in your own locale and to be a part of it. And it’s vital that you do it with other people – not just from your laptop.

    It’s also important that people not be given the wiggle room to simply donate to causes that immediately appeal to them. People should not be indulged in picking out only the hip-est, prettiest recipients at the expense of other community needs in front of them that don’t smell so nice.

    This is why I value the mandatory ward so much. I forces me to associate with people I would honestly never otherwise voluntarily associate with. People with whom I seem to have nothing in common. I think it is crucial that human beings retain the ability to work together with, and value people they don’t particularly like, or don’t wish to socialize with.

    Organized religion simply provides something you cannot get anywhere else, and never will get anywhere else. Dawkins and Hitchens can talk till they are blue in the face. They are never going to even get close to emulating this setup with a group of scattershot secularists with no equivalent unifying purpose.

  29. Seth,

    I’m not saying you can rely upon government to do the work of charity. I’m saying the thing that we call “charity” is a sub-optimal solution to an political/socioeconomic problem of distribution.

    What I’m saying is that the very things that you value in charity — that it is direct, local, personalized — are the very things that make it seem to me to be a sub-optimal solution. For example, in charity (or those who take a charity-ideal view of government), you have the sub-optimalities of “deserts” — you know, people thinking, “Who deserves my money/time/energy/effort?”

    And too often, if we’re going to look at it from a *personalized* approach, then that’s going to end up being, “The people who deserve my money/time/energy/effort are people who I know, or people who look like me, or people who I deem have “done enough” to deserve my support.”

    The ward scenario fits this exactly. You help because you know them. You help because the direct beneficiaries are “friends, neighbors, personal acquaintances.” But here’s the thing: not everyone is part of your ward. Not everyone is part of *any* ward. And even in the ward, there are going to be people who fall through the cracks — either because not a lot of people know that person, or because they don’t “look” like you, or because you deem that they have not “done enough” to deserve your support. (I’m using “you” in a generalized sense.)

    I’ll take one of your lines: “In fact, you don’t even get any assurance the taxes you paid are even going to something you approve of.”

    ^That’s exactly what scares me about leaving things up to charity. That in order for me or anyone to receive your charity, then you have to personally approve of me or what I do or what I think or whatever your criteria is.

    (This is also why I don’t think certain rights should be voted on, but that’s here nor there.)

    If I take you and everyone at good faith, and accept this personalized approach in the best light, then I’m still left with the feeling that it’s suboptimal because you don’t and can’t personally care about others…but even more, you can’t just hope that someone else personally will — because our lattice works of social awareness are not balanced and equal across every subgroup, every subsection, every “issue” or “problem” in the country or world…rather, because of the systemic inequalities in how we are socialized, there are going to — systematically — be people underserved or left out of charity arrangements if we’re just focusing on charity approaches.

    So, you know…I do like what you say here:

    It’s vital to have a comprehensive community-building charitable force in your own locale and to be a part of it.

    and

    It’s also important that people not be given the wiggle room to simply donate to causes that immediately appeal to them. People should not be indulged in picking out only the hip-est, prettiest recipients at the expense of other community needs in front of them that don’t smell so nice.

    But I’d just point out that being in a ward doesn’t mean you’re going to meet all your community needs. Yes, you may be voluntarily associating with people you would otherwise never associate with…but at the same time, there are other classes of people you are creating whom you now will never associate — either simply because of the opportunity cost of being at a ward and in those activities vs. anywhere else, or because of the ideological commitments that will make some causes “pet issues” less deserving of your support. You speak of “hip, pretty recipients” from one vantage point, but Mormonism is going to have its own equivalent of “hip, pretty recipients”.

    I definitely agree with you that:

    it is crucial that human beings retain the ability to work together with, and value people they don’t particularly like, or don’t wish to socialize with.

    And even if religion has helped you to do this in some aspects of your life, I don’t think this can be a solution for people’s tendencies to shy away from people they don’t particularly like or don’t wish to socialize with. And because it can’t be a solution for these tendencies, it ultimately can’t be the solution for the fact that these people tend to be the ones most underserved.

  30. Seth R. permalink

    There were actually two competing themes in my post which I wasn’t sure if you catch.

    1. The need to have charity be to people we actually voluntarily seek to serve – knowing who it is we are serving – avoiding the de-personalization of government redistribution; and

    2. The need to be compelled in a non-voluntary ward to serve and interact with those we wouldn’t ordinarily seek out and choose.

    I was wondering if you’d catch the seeming contradiction. I’ve got to head out the door for now, but hopefully I can get back to you later today.

  31. I think I inadvertently got your point by reading much more into your comment than you had actually written. For example,

    This is why I value the mandatory ward so much. I forces me to associate with people I would honestly never otherwise voluntarily associate with.

    Here, the use of “mandatory” ward and being “forced” to associate captures what you were getting at in point 2 (the non-voluntary ward), but not your first point.

    In fact, as your comments go, I would say that your first point isn’t the need to have charity be for people we actually *voluntarily* seek to serve…rather, it’s just about personal, face-to-face, people-to-people service — and that’s what avoids depersonalization.

    The “voluntary” part is implied, and it’s my main critique. When you have personalized it, then all of your biases get into play — who “deserves” to be served? Who deserves to be interacted with?

    This is, of course, my entire problem with charity. I recognize that charity precisely is to “people we actually voluntarily seek to serve,” and that is why it is suboptimal — because we don’t actually voluntarily seek to serve everyone.

    In my last comment, I wrote:

    Yes, you may be voluntarily associating with people you would otherwise never associate with…

    but looking back, you never wrote that. You emphasize the mandatory and non-voluntariness of the ward. I impute voluntariness in there because I infer that there is nothing forcing you to be a part of the ward or to participate.

    Getting back to your second point…what is the difference between being compelled in the non-voluntary ward to serve and interact with those we wouldn't ordinarily seek out and choose and being compelled in the non-voluntary tax system to serve and interact with those we wouldn't ordinarily seek and choose? Well, it gets back to my above point — the "competing" themes aren't between voluntariness and involuntariness. Your point is about personal vs. impersonal/depersonalized — and unless the government were to mandate community service, then taxes are going to be "impersonal".

    In any case, I don't think the personal can be enough because the personal is going to be a biased/suboptimal distribution. That's an inherent flaw to how charity works.

  32. Seth R. permalink

    Well, the question is – enough for what?

    I’m not suggesting that depersonalized systems are to be replaced with private charitable associations like you find at church. They certainly aren’t “enough” for everything.

    But neither are the depersonalized systems. And increasingly – those are becoming more and more dominant – as the personalized systems wither.

    I see organized religion as one of the last bulwarks preserving this vanishing aspect of society. It’s decline is profoundly disturbing.

  33. I think that organized religion goes in and out of favor…but the places where it has long and sustained decline (e.g., Europe) are places that have pretty good depersonalized systems. (yeah, they also have smaller, more homogeneous populations and some issues with debt these days, but those are different issues.)

  34. Seth R. permalink

    Some people view Europe as a sort of social utopia. I’m not one of them. That continent has some serious problems deep in the bone marrow. And the superficial trappings of materialist success it can display won’t be able to hide them all.

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