The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

S.C.A. - Part III

This is Part 3. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. This part deals with a political organization that works on church/state separation issues, so if discussion of these issues leaves you inclined to attack strawmen and insult blog writers, do us both a favor and skip the damn entry.

…so far we have my father, the Society for California Archaeology, the Student Conservation Association, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. Now onto the next S.C.A. with which I have become affiliated – the Secular Coalition of America.

Interestingly, my willingness to pitch in with this S.C.A. is partially linked to my experience with a previous S.C.A. – The Student Conservation Association. As I described, my time on the Air Force Base left me feeling rather disturbed at the degree to which that particular government agency was in the hands of a particular brand of hard-right wing Christianity. This coupled with my growing unease at the Bush administration’s willingness to cater to the same group, and the realization that both members of congress from both parties seemed to want to follow suit in order to gain votes.

Now, so that the easily-offended or presumptious don't assert that I hold a position that I do not hold, I'll discuss my concern a bit more thoroughly. Beginning with the 70’s, the group that has become known as the Religious Right – a minority group within Christianity, but one that has been very active in using political rhetoric and targeted voter drives to push their particular agenda - became active as a political force. Their effectiveness is well open to debate, and they have been used by politicians at least as often as they have used politicians (and arguably, the politicians have typically gotten the better of them). However, they are tenacious, and had managed to get some traction with the Bush administration - things such as the presidents regular discussions with a particular set of religious leaders, the Office of Faith Based Initiatives (which has proven to have a rather questionable track record), and the push to have laws passed that allow medical providers to refuse care for religious reasons* all come from this rather weird alliance.

Whatever their political gains or losses, the loosely-associated group of people, churches, and political groups known as the Religious Right have been very effective in promoting the notion among much of the population that they ARE Christianity. This is, of course, bunk. As with any huge number of people, there is so much variation amongst Christians that the notion that one particular sub-set or agenda can represent all or even most of them is absurd. However, the various entities comprising the Religious Right have nonetheless been so successful in branding themselves as the “defenders of Christianity” that even some Christians who disagree with them feel that they still have to vote in a particular way in order to remain “real” Christians (I have no idea how many Christians end up feeling this way, but I do know that it is not uncommon, based on conversations I have had with a large number of Christians who have made statements to that effect). This has also had the effect of convincing many non-Christians that Christians are generally judgmental, legalistic, hypocritical, and weirdly obsessed with the sex lives of others. Needless to say, such misconceptions run counter to the interest of the majority of Christians.

Concurrent with the appearance of the religious right as a political force, secular groups also began to appear. Contrary to the claims put forth by many of the more vocal Religious Right individuals and organizations, the secular groups have generally been both reactive and one step behind their opponents.

Like many people, I had stopped believing in any religion long ago, but paid religion itself little mind until the early 2000’s. Many folks would cite the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as the catalysts that got them to be more critical of religion. This was not, however, the case for me. While I can not claim that they had no impact, what really hit me was the reaction from many of the vocal and politically active Religious Right groups and people AFTER the attacks.

To be certain, the majority of religious groups did not engage in divisive and needlessly inflammatory behavior in the aftermath**, but many did. We saw blame placed on everyone from Muslims at large to atheists to feminists to gays, with the accusers all conveniently ignoring the very real intersection of politics with history with economics with a particular brand of religion that actually caused the events. And what I began to notice was that I was seeing many examples of prominent would-be theocrats using these events, with varying degrees of success, to try to forward their own agenda. It is fortunate, perhaps, that they usually attached themselves to tried-and-true politicians who would use their support to get elected and then not follow through on their promises, either real or implied.

This caused me to become more concerned about church/state separation. One doesn’t need to be much of a student of history to know that government establishment of religious orthodoxy, whether through force or simply favoritism, tends to cause problems not only for the non-religious, but also for the religious that do not fall within that orthodoxy. And as most religious people don’t fall within the rigid orthodoxies that governments have often demanded, it is best for government to not endorse one for the benefit of everyone (the exception being the rather weak and milquetoast national churches of modern Europe, which were themselves often quite vicious before their de-fanging in the 19th and 20th centuries – look up the history of England if you doubt that). My experiences on the Air Force Base and the concurrent proseletyzing scandal at the Air Force Academy crystalized this concern, and led to me thinking more seriously about the nature of our politicl system.

Around this time, the next S.C.A. – the Secular Coalition for America – formed. It works as an umbrella organization for church/state separation organizations, and was able to put a lobbyist (now two) on Capitol Hill. Contrary to what many pundits like to claim, the S.C.A. is not anti-religious – in fact it spends a lot of time working with overtly religious groups that are in-touch enough with reality to see the necessity of enforcing the establishment clause – but it does actively lobby against government-enforced or government-espoused religion.

Like any political group, they take positions that I disagree with from time-to-time, or they choose to fight battles that I think are silly or inconsequential. However, the majority of the time, they do what I believe to be the right thing. Also, the S.C.A.’s model of working with religious groups to achieve common ends for the common interest is one that I think other secular organizations could learn a good deal from.

So, I support this organization with donations and, more importantly, by writing to my congressional representatives when issues that I feel are important come up. The ultimate value of this is simple – when the only people speaking out on issues are from the Religious Right, that’s who the elected officials tend to support. When people, religious and non-religious alike, who oppose those views speak up, we have a good chance of preventing poor policy.

So, check out the S.C.A., and while we’re at it, here’s the lobbyist, Lori Lippman-Brown, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert – trying to tempt him into illicit sex no-less!

...and in episodes 46, 53, 59, 68, 81, 89 of Skepticality she is interviewed.

While I can not claim to be completely satisfied with the S.C.A.'s work, I do think that they are doing a good job and that they tend to be realistic in their approach. I am, overall, supportive, and whether you are religious or not, you should check them out - odds are that if you have a good grasp on history and politics, and are reasonably intelligent, you'll also appreciate their work.

*No doubt somebody is going to start telling me that medical care providers should be allowed to refuse certain procedures and treatments based on their beliefs. In most professions, I would agree, but because medical care providers are often in shorts supply AND have very specialized knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere and difficult for the layman to clearly assess AND because we as a society invest them with a good amount of authority that most other people do not have AND because the structure of our health care system is such that second opinions can be difficult to come by, well, they are something of a special case, and should not be allowed to withhold, not discuss, or manipulate treatment by anything other than scientific medical standards. This is different than most other professions – including my own – where practitioners are relatively common, the work we do accessible enough for the layman to grasp, we are invested with relatively little authority, and we don’t alter the health or lives of others – and therefore we don’t need to be held to the same standards.

**Although even those who were generally doing good still went to some default assumptions that were, in light of what had just happened, very strange. I recall seeing an interview with a Catholic priest on September 12th. He was being interviewed as he was on his way to the site of the World Trade Center to help out – and admirable activity all the way around – and he was asked why he was going. He stated “I represent the opposite of what happened here. I represent faith.”

Now, he could have said that he represents peace, or that he represents love, or that he represents compassion, and I would have agreed and been right there with him, he was going in a hard time to try to do good and that was absolutely commendable. But faith is the opposite of what happened? Whatever else can be said about the guys who rammed the plane into the building, they absolutely had faith. That faith and conviction was in the service of a murderous and evil cause, but it was, nonetheless, faith and conviction. Faith was an element of what had happened, not the opposite of what had happened.


Evan Davis said...

"I have had with a large number of Christians who have made statements to that effect" The problem with this is the same problem I have with this. Most christians I have spoken with are Californian or have lived a significant portion of time in California. I doubt that the rest of the nation mirrors California.

"No doubt somebody is going to start telling me that medical care providers should be allowed to refuse certain procedures and treatments based on their beliefs." Ok, I'll bite. I understand your point. The problem comes in when it is legislated. At some later point where Doctors are more common and health care is easy to come by will those laws be repealed or will they be considered unchangeable as the US Constitution? On the other hand, I think the other side should be considered. There are some beliefs held by staunch supporters of the AMA that affect the procedures offered (not always good). Should they be restricted as well?

I think we need a proportional representation system. It would fix a lot of these problems.

Anthroslug said...

Howdy, Evan. Are you still down in the L.A. area, or have you begun settling in to your new hom yet?

To address your comments:

1) A) The point is valid regardless of where the Christians live. If the agenda put forth by the political groups doesn't mirror them, then the fact remains that many Christians (Californian or not) are not represented, and yet may still feel that they have to kow-tow to these ideals. B) You make the assumption that I have only spoken with Californians to form my opinion. Yes, I live in California, but I have travelled around, and I have friends all over the country (and most of them are Christians, because, well, most people in the U.S. identify themselves as such), so my sample is broader than you seem to assume. C) Nationally, on a wide range of issues, available information indicates that Christians are increasingly not falling into lock-step with rightist political organizations, indicating that this, again, is a broad pattern and not restricted to California.

To the medical providers:

Would you care to cite a specific AMA practice that is objectionable?

Also, if medical providers were more readily available and ivested with less power (and thus become just another service like plumbers or electricians), then, yes, I would consider revising my position on this. That's why I based my argument on a particular set of premises - if those premises change, I need to re-consider my conclusion. As it is, they are not, and they don't seem to be likely to be in the foreseeable future.

However, it is the people who want to allow the medical providers to limit their treatment based on non-medical (in this case religious) reasons who are advocating for legislation. So, if you are concerned about questionable laws being on the books because they may be difficult to get rid of later, then we welcome you to our side.

Kay said...

“*No doubt somebody is going to start telling me that medical care providers should be allowed to refuse certain procedures and treatments based on their beliefs. In most professions, I would agree,…”

Like say a pastor refusing to officiate at a gay marriage?


Anthroslug said...

Kay: As you may recall from that particular conversation, I did explicitly state that the pastor should absolutely have the legal right to make such a refusal. So, yes.

My personal take on the question of ethics and morality in that situation doesn't change the fact that he should have that legal right.

Kay said...

I remember.


mnsc said...

"No doubt somebody is going to start telling me that medical care providers should be allowed to refuse certain procedures and treatments based on their beliefs."

Well, of course I have to chime in on this as well. How could I resist? ;-)

Let's see, to summarize your argument: the State has the moral authority to abrogate the rights of citizens depending on the needs of the State? It seems to me that government serves the people, not the other way around. The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of our beliefs and livelihoods, within well-known and accepted legal boundaries. When the State requires its citizens to act in a way contrary to their conscience and Constitutional norms, we have left the path of wisdom and begun the dark descent into slavery.

An example: During the Russian Civil War, many former Imperial Army officers were dragooned into the Red Army at the point of a gun. Threatened with execution and the extermination of their families, many had no choice but to fight in a cause that they found morally objectionable. Now, one could argue that they had a skill that:

1) Was in short supply
2) Was specialized knowledge
3) Society had invested them a "good amount of authority"
4) The structure of the army was such that alternatives were hard to come by.

No doubt, the revolutionaries of the time and those elements of society that supported them saw it as the greater good and possibly an argument could be made that forcing these men to serve shortened a war that might have cost many more lives.

Whatever. It's the same old argument: the ends justify the means.

Anthroslug said...

Ahhh, MNSC, I can always count on you to make a strawman argument and a false comparison.

The Russian Civil War? Give me a fuckin' break. You know perfectly well that the circumstances between the modern medical field and revolutionary Russia are so different (not to mention the consequences to medical providers so much less than having their families gunned down) that this is about as alarmist and half-baked a comparison as you can come up with.

Mnsc - while I am happy to discuss these issues, you have rather routinely demonstrated that you would much rather make alarmist claims, attack strawmen, and insult those you disagree with than actually engage in any sort of discussion. For someone who likes to tell others that they are being irrational or that their, how did you put it, "brains have necrotized", you seem very quick to use logical fallacies and questionable comparisons to try to manipulate the people with whom you disagree.

I've grown more than a bit tired of it.

Kay said...

Just because I am curious… when do the ends justify the means…and when do the end NOT justify the means?

And better yet… who decides?

Anthroslug said...

Kay: Good question. I don't think there is a clear dividing line unless we as a society produce one, and that dividing line won't satisfy everyone.

Luckily, contrary to what the "slippery-slope" brigade likes to claim, it's a rare thing that actually comes close enough to where the line is likely to be to force the issue - but it does come up.

mnsc said...

Tsk, tsk, we are all gentlepeople having a gentle conversation, are we not?

There is no straw man here. Was my example extreme? Yes. But how is it any different from the situation you propose? In both cases, the State has denied a fundamental liberty to its constituents.

Here's the rub: a doctor who has paid for his own education and supported his practice within the confines of the law should not be made to perform any action against his conscience. It is the bedrock of civil liberty in this country. I, for one, am not comfortable with an increasingly extreme mindset in our society in which the ends DO justify the means, so long as they conform to a rationally determined "social justice". It smacks of collectivism and all the tawdry consequences that implies.

Kay said...

“the State has denied a fundamental liberty to its constituents.”

I have a question… not trying to start a fight… just a question. The fundamental liberty in question here is the liberty/right to not do something that goes against one’s personal code of ethics or sense of morality… correct?

Because… umm, maybe I am missing something but don’t the needs/rights of the many have to outweigh the moralistic desires of the few? (Few as in some, not as in a teeny tiny percentage). Isn’t that why we have laws? Aren’t laws a Sate Sanctioned sense of moral conduct to protect the most people? So… we can’t make exceptions to state given rights can we… based on one’s sense of moral ideals… right?

Rationally determined social justice seems to be protecting as many of the people as possible within the confines of state sanctioned moral codes. (Grantee these codes can become out of date and have to be revised, -coughgaymarriagecough-)

Anthroslug said...

Mnsc - okay, now you are making a bit more sense. However, given your tendency towards being just plain insulting, don't "tsk" me or anyone else.

And yes, you were attacking a straman with the Russian Revolution example, and I suspect that you are well aware of it.

As to the question of the doctor not doing procedures that go against their conscience - I don't claim this is a simple matter or that there is an easy answer. After all, if you allow a doctor to not perform fertility treatments because they have a problem with the patient's sexual orientation, do you also allow a doctor who has religious prohibitions against blood transfusions to refuse to provide them? Well, of course not. But why not? Is this doctor not also being forced to do something against their beliefs? Where do we draw the line? Based on what you have written, you seem to be arguing for an extreme approach that would cover the doctor who refuses the transfusion, but I suspect that you would not actually support such a case in reality.

While you are correct that a doctor may have paid for their own education and done their own work, they are also entering into a field in which they know before even going in that they will be required to perform procedures by professional guidelines that may not fall in with their own personal beliefs. And this is nothing new - it is a long-standing argument amongst medical professionals. It is only because a particular modern political movement that it has moved into the current public realm.

So, then, what's the solution? Well, we continue to muddle through it as a society. This is a complex issue - more so than you seem to be willing to admit - and it is probably always going to be subject to questions and change, which is to the good. I may change my opinion on the matter and allow for less social responsibility on the part of physicians if someone is able to make a compelling argument as to why I should, but so far, the argument that medical providers should be subject solely to their consciences without any reference to social responsibility doesn't work - it may sound good, but it will lead to chaos just as surely as forcing the medical providers into some sort of goose-step.