The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

When Voltaire wrote “Candide” he produced one of the greatest satires ever committed to paper by any author of any nationality at any time.  (As I wrote that sentence, my “spellcheck” immediately flagged this title as a possible misspelling so I guess the programmers behind Windows Live Writer are not familiar with the work.   This oversight makes a sad statement about the breadth of what we in the United States euphemistically call education).

If you are not familiar with the work, Voltaire, one of the great thinkers of the “Age of Enlightenment” broadly attacks the institutions of his day.  Those include both religion and government, among others.  The protagonist in the book which bears his name begins life with an optimistic view of the world but begins to encounter the reality which is our mortal existence – experiencing one misfortune after another.

The book is Voltaire’s caustic response in rebuttal to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ conclusion in his earlier work, “Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil”, that this is “The Best of all Possible Worlds.”  Empirical observation leads Voltaire to conclude that nothing could be further from the truth.

Leibniz struggled to find an explanation for the existence of evil.  He came from a devout Lutheran background.  How then, did one explain the allowance of a “good God” to permit the existence of so much that was foul and offensive to the Creator?

Voltaire, himself a deist although not affiliated with any particular religion, made the statement, “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.”  Those who are atheists believe, of course, that is exactly what happened.

It is probably fair to say that those of us living at any time in history believe that things were better way back when.  As we move along the time curve linearly we have an ever-widening time framework to which we may point in defense of that assertion.  In the mid-eighteenth century when “Candide” was written, religion still held a powerful sway in Europe and throughout much of the rest of the world.

But let us consider the growing irrelevance of religion to many Americans.  This is, perhaps with the notable exception of Islam, a development which is hardly unique to us but seems to be a growing trend worldwide.  Science seems to be doing its job in debunking “the old myths” quite nicely.

Well, where are we in the absence of God?  How do we behave when there is no Supreme Being to judge us for our deeds and our misdeeds?  What is there to hold us accountable for our actions?  Why should we not do everything to gorge ourselves on activities that we consider pleasurable, without worrying about the consequences or concerning ourselves about those whom we might hurt in the process of satisfying our lusts?

Not surprisingly, the answer to those questions is that we are where we are today.

In the absence of “Divine law” we have attempted to fill the gap of accountability with law made by man.  But mankind is obviously flawed, motivated more by self-interest than fairness and it is so with those who pass laws to which we are, at least in theory, bound.

Laws, whether of Divine or human construction are inherently punitive.  I do not know of one law on the books which rewards people for good behavior.  And, of course, there are those, realizing that unlike a Divine being who is omniscient and omnipotent and never let’s anything go unnoticed, human governments are far less capable of punishing offenders, so they consciously engage in unlawful behavior believing they can get away with it.  Often they are right.

When the Founding Fathers addressed the subject of religion in our Constitution, specifying that we were free either to accept or reject it in whatever form it might take, they did so with a reason.  At the same time they proclaimed that all men had a right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, they also recognized that old Christian religious principle that men had the power of “free will”.  Only within a society which maintains the rights of the individual above those of the state can people truly be free.

I believe a compelling argument can be advanced which suggests that by condemning our religious beliefs to the trash pile of irrelevancy we have replaced God with Mammon and entrusted ourselves and our children to rulers whose only interest is their own agenda – and that in ever increasing amounts.

At one point, we looked to God to save us from calamities – even those we had brought on ourselves.  Those of us who were Americans, whether we believed in a Supreme Being or not, still had the Constitution to which we could turn and which helped us sleep comfortably at night.

But the continuing erosion of the Constitution has now threatened the security of even the most ardent atheist who believes in individual freedom.  And it should not surprise anyone that our government, in order for it to seize all authority to itself, has turned to attacking the one remaining thing in its way which still influences some men’s lives and their actions – their religious faith.

There is no clearer example than the penalty imposed on religious institutions which do not comply with the terms of the Affordable Care Act although those requirements are in direct conflict with their tenets.  This administration has little concern about and no respect for the concept of “Separation of Church and State” – which makes it a new theocracy under the head of a very mortal President and an equally mortal and moribund Congress.

Now those who are atheists may shout – “At last.  We’ve thrown over old demon mythology and religion.  Reason has triumphed.”  But I would contend that atheism, as much as Christianity or Buddhism or Judaism or Islam is itself a religion.  It’s merely one without a head.

In the absence of religion, we have an ever growing, ever more encroaching College of Cardinals and a Pontiff whom we call by political names.  And if it is true that, “Power corrupts”, we are hastening to the day when the corruption will be absolute – in this or any possible world.

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Comments on: "THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS" (14)

  1. Some day I’ll really take a record of this: “If atheism is a religion, then not playing football is a sport.”

  2. Superb. This might well be the best account of where we are, how we got here and why that I have read, anywhere.
    And when are they going to add the “I absolutely love this” button

  3. Humans arguing the color, size, perspective, or (gulp) even the existence of God(s) is a little (ok, a lot) like measuring the water content of the universe with a thimble. In other words, endlessly pointless.

    If you surveyed ten individual people who had somehow grown up, all alone, somewhere deep in the Amazon rain forest, or the Kalahari desert, or perhaps on one of Jupiter’s moons, how many of them do you suppose would have determined that there is no god? 1 god? 2 gods? 3 gods? etc., or perhaps not even given the matter any thought at all? And of those who believed that such a transcendental being did exist, how many do you think would have assumed that entity to be a him, or a her, or an it?

    And then the big one:

    How many of those who would admit to giving serious thought to the concept–and having formed a solid belief as a result–would likely (or readily) accept that a conventional Christian, or Jewish, or Islamic interpretation of that ‘special being’ was axiomatically more legitimate (and thus more believably compelling) than their own?

    (I suppose this is where I should admit that I personally find the subject of carpentry far more engaging than assessing the relative meaning and/or merits of comparative theocracy.) 😉

    • You are quite correct that arguing the concept of something that is essentially unprovable is, by its nature, an exercise in futility.

      The irony of it all is that those who reject the concept of religion yet believe in the American concept of self-determination as defined in the Constitution, might do well to consider that they ought to come to the defense of their fellow citizens who hold a religious view – as a matter of ultimate self-preservation.

      “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege as well.”
      – Voltaire

      • “The irony of it all is…” Exactly.

        But a meaningful resolution of any cultural dynamic that inherently fosters disrespect (if not outright hostility), will probably require a ‘next step’ in evolution. Because while some (if not most) people are fully capable of grasping the value of ‘behaving’ in an ‘understanding’ way, not many (if any) can alter their mindset enough to ultimately ‘feel’ that way. In general, moral values can be understood, and consciously ‘practiced,’ but are seldom (if ever) fully assimilated in a visceral kind of way. It is the taking of that ‘next step” that we generally associate with becoming a Saint.

        In the meantime, religion can (and quite often does) play a very important role…by not only defining moral behavior (e.g., the Ten Commandments), but also by repetitiously ‘sermonizing’ (driving home) the importance of behaving accordingly (e.g., “do unto others as you…” or otherwise you’ll go hell).

        Some people don’t need a God, a holy book, or a preacher to drive home the cultural importance (which includes self-preservation) of moral behavior. But most do. And I’ve always been very thankful that we have many individuals and organizations who help fill that role. And no matter how silly or cartoonish some of the ‘teachings’ (to a non-believer) may seem to be, they nonetheless help prevent a lot of otherwise unmanageable ‘intolerance.’ (The current ongoing episode of the ‘Arab Spring’ being a case in point.)

  4. Your statement, “Voltaire, himself a deist although not affiliated with any particular religion, made the statement, “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” Those who are atheists believe, of course, that is exactly what happened.” is exactly right, at least it is for this atheist. Most people need someone to blame when things go wrong, or when some horrific deed occurs to minimize the notion that we are each both vulnerable to and capable of such things. Most people need someone to forgive them for things they’ve done that only they know about – some secret shame and it is comforting to confess privately to some non-existent being that is somewhat similar to a child’s imaginary friend. People are very flawed and many are naturally violent and others are capable of extreme violence under certain circumstances. I always found it intellectually sad to see a man come back from patrol having just killed enemy soldiers go to confession for absolution only to go back on patrol later that same day and perhaps kill again. The mind is stronger than that when given a chance to absorb reality – it is the folly of mysticism that keeps us intellectually weak and chronically engaged in lying to ourselves.

    It is for the reasons above that man’s “self-interest” motive is often devoid of the essential preceding term, rational. Bernie Madoff stole and hurt many people some say selfishly out of a sense of self-interest. But Madoff admits to spending his time waiting to be caught; constantly in fear that his charade will end and he would be exposed. He may have had a lavish life, but it was far from comfortable or comforting. His activities and his subsequent fears and anxiety demonstrates anything but rationality. In the end, he was caught as he imagined and lost his liberty from that point up to his death. Is that the consequence that one would expect by following one’s rational self-interest? Was his action selfish or irrationally reckless? Worse yet, he lost his wife, his relationship with one son and the is responsible for the suicide of his other, eldest son. Was the brief period of extravagance and fame worth the price to be paid? Hardly. Madoff was a victim of pragmatism and criminal altruism disguised as selfishness.

    Our founders created the U.S. Constitution upon which to build laws intended to establish and maintain rules of conduct and civilized behavior. The laws to be written, by constitutional definition, had to put individual rights, particularly, property rights, first an foremost in consideration in order to be approved. As to God, the founders do mention God and Creator, but they also mention in the Declaration of Independence “The Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” implying that some, at least, believed that we derive our own sovereignty at birth and hold onto that right until death or until we tread upon the rights of others in order to deny them their sovereign rights to exist or to pursue whatever happiness is in their interests.

    I have no doubt that many of them would like to have the term “men” apply to slaves in order to free them from their chains and grant to them the same sovereign rights as they claimed for themselves, but the politics and social upheaval that would have created at the time of the nation’s birth makes that a much longer discussion for a different time. For similar reasons, women were denied their rights well into the 19th century and some claim that they are still being stripped of their sovereignty under religious dogma even now. I can’t disagree. We still live in a world where the rule of law is being bent by the desire of a new age Christendom where the politicians answer both to the people and the church and the church, immorally, only answers to they mythical sources of good and evil.

    As to atheism being a religion without a head; you may have a point from some; particularly those who feel the need to organize and fight every religious symbol placed on public property. I happen to think the goal is worthy but that some of the means used are hardly appropriate or dignified. However, when you consider that women die from a denial of an abortion and that children are forced into the world to be raised by a parent (or parents) who resent them and who are likely to mistreat them and raise them to be immoral, violent, and ignorant solely due to religious influences on the law that dominate science, I understand the desire to rush as much as possible into the courts to strip religion of its anti-liberty influence as possible.

    For example, religionists believe that life begins at conception, but science shows that conception leads initially to a clump of cells that have the potential for growth that is not dissimilar to the potential for growth of a clump of cancer cells. More importantly, science can prove beyond a doubt that such a life cannot survive outside of the mother’s womb prior to a certain date and even then, must require the assistance of advanced technological equipment to even have a chance. It is important to remember that it wasn’t that long ago where women were denied access to simple birth control such as diaphragms and are not engaged in a battle for access to birth control as part of their insurance coverage – not because of the rule of law, but because of the influence of religious dogma and their mystical whimsy.

    Man was born a savage and is no more than a savage in a suit today. Society as a whole has been transformed and we get along for the most part because we have to or because the law demands it. However, when cultures clash, the savagery reappears and the acts of some could be considered even more savage than those committed during the stone age. Religion has no right to stand above reason and so long as it does, we will have violent whim worshipers and clashes between sects and distinct religious organizations. Until reason and science prevail, we will always be surrounded by the silent savage who is always looking for a victim and just waiting for an excuse to act.

    • Thank you, Rick for your thoughtful rebuttal and expression of your beliefs. I respect the time you took and the insight you presented and wish that there were more, on whichever side of the issue, who actually thought enough about these matters to form an intelligent opinion.

      First, let me say that my opposition to abortion is not based on a religious argument. Argumentation on that basis is essentially futile. It is based on a Constitutional one. While it is true, as you state, that one minute after conception we have only a “clump of cells” which could certainly not survive on its own outside the mother’s womb, it is equally true that one minute after birth, the child (whom we would all recognize as such) is equally unable to fend for itself and if left unattended would certainly die. Does that mean that if we do not like the result of this pregnancy (a deformity of some sort as in the case of science’s giving us thalidomide) we are then justified in letting the child die – in its and society’s own best interests? If I were the parent, I would be sorely torn in making that decision. My concern is that under an authoritarian government, anonymous bureaucrats might determine on my “behalf” what is in my and my child’s best interests. If you read through Obamacare, you will see that is exactly the direction in which we are heading.

      As to my Constitutional argument regarding abortion, I believe we would agree that one of the fundmental principles of American justice is that a “person is innocent until proven guilty.” I do not know the exact moment at which an embryo is a “person” – nor does anyone, scientist or cleric. But I do know that most things if left alone will become what they are genetically designed to be. I simply prefer to offer the embryo the “benefit of the doubt” as to when that occurs.

      Regarding women who die because they are deprived of the right to an abortion – I wholeheartedly agree with you that is unconscionable. I would support the practice where there is danger to the mother’s life or health – simply because we are dealing with a “given” versus a “potential”. And as to birth control, while you descry religious mysticism as fantasy, mainstream Christianity has for year’s preached “celibacy” as a virtue – and I have yet to hear of anyone in modern times becoming pregnant or being the cause of a pregnancy who practiced it faithfully. However, for those of us who are are less than perfect – which includes us all – I believe that preventive birth control measures are far preferable to the consequences which we have been dealing with in this discussion.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

      • I am equally thankful for your comments. I suppose in the end, my view of the constitution is that for one to be the beneficiary of equal right and equal protection under the law, it must first exist. As a fetus, the life is only a potential; the human character that receives the benefits of liberty under the laws of nature or of nature’s god come, in my mind, with birth; not conception. I think it’s a noteworthy distinction in that if rights come with conception, then it would be possible for a person to sue its mother for any physical or mental defect that arrived at birth as a consequence of smoking, drinking, drugging, etc. So far as I know, such a case has never been allowed to come to trial.

        As an already existing entity in human form, the prospect of having to adjudicate rights is one that should be legally easy, although emotionally difficult, to arrive at. Priority has to be given to the mother, whose entire future [pursuit of happiness] will be affected and as such the decision should remain in her hands. However, because science has told me that with a rare exception that has occurred within a 7-10 day period preceding the window universally agreed upon that prior to this date certain, no fetus would survive even if given the most state of the art technology as a composite of neonatal care. I think the law would be prudent and meet the definition of judicial were it to set that date as the end point at which a woman can choose to terminate a pregnancy. It is at that point, in my mind, based upon what I know of science and the underlying fundamentals of the constitution that the rights bestowed by nature or natures god would have a claim to equal protection under the law. Prior to that date certain, as determined by the objective medical community, the decision to keep or abort a fetus should belong to the mother alone.

        Once a child is born there is both a moral and a legal requirement to care for a child and there is no doubt that the child, as an existent, has the same rights as every other person on the planet – although when it comes to discussing immigration the equality of rights seems to take on yet another difference in priority. It’s the 21st century and I think we are past due to stop using convenience and mysticism as excuses for imposing our will on others, and specifically on those who already exist and those who may or may not.

        I know we will not come to agreement and I offer this additional information only to further illuminate how I came to my positions and why. I try to live my life from point A to point B without varying course because one way is more convenient than another, preferring, instead, to work through obstacles and embrace gifts found or earned along the way without asking anyone to sacrifice on my behalf and refusing to attempts at forced sacrifices by others on me. Life is meant to be lived and part of living is to use a reasoned mind to chart a course of rational self-interest. Another’s decision to keep or abort a pregnancy has no impact on me or my life as my life only deals with what exists and how I can shape what exists to my benefit without impeding the rights of others along the way. Winning is not impeding…winning is the end result each of us hopes for in our separate pursuit of happiness and a pregnant child, woman or victim of rape, incest or a treacherous partner should not be denied their path to happiness except by their own hand or by a just and well reasoned law – not a law that is based upon or considers fables from a patriarchal society.

        I write this looking down on my 7 year old grand-daughter who is home sick from school and who I value as my greatest treasure. My best wishes to you and yours.

  5. Thank you for your response. I gather from it that, were you to accept my definition of when human life began (or rather my offering the benefit of the doubt that it “might” begin at conception), you would agree that my argument of Constitutional protection is valid. Since we don’t agree on the definition, however, the point is moot – even if my logic is sound.

    In respect to your statement regarding law suits – as you know we live in a litigious society. I suspect the only reason none of the cases you posit have been filed is that the trial lawyers don’t see enough money in it for themselves. Now if they could go after those with deep pockets such as Philip Morris or Seagram’s, I doubt they would hesitate if they felt they could make their case regarding birth defects as they have against various manufacturers of certain birth control products.

    I believe that we are granted certain rights under the Constitution. In fact, you cite them as the basis for your argument. But with rights come responsibilities. In certain cases, fulfilling the responsibilities are preliminary to obtaining the right. Consider the case of driving a vehicle. I have the right to do so – but only because I have fulfilled the responsibility of attaining legal age; passing an eye, written and road test; obtaining insurance on my vehicle; and paying a fee to the state to issue my license. Whether the right or the responsibility comes first is essentially irrelevant to the argument – but in all cases I believe that rights carry with them responsibilities.

    We are many years down the road from having a conversation about whether or not “sex education” is an appropriate subject in our schools’ curricula. I believe it is – as do most school districts. Even where it is lacking, a sufficient amount of information is available in your average “PG” movie. I suspect that there are very few who have attained their mid-teens who are unaware of the process of how babies come into being. If you accept that thesis, then any pregnancy which occurs that is unwanted comes from a willful abdication of the personal responsibility which might have prevented it. (Forcible rape and incest are, of course, exceptions).

    You argue that it is not your concern what others do as their behavior doesn’t affect you and yours. I believe that if in any way the termination of a pregnancy is subsidized by the taxpayers as a general group, it does affect both you and me because we are being asked to pay for someone else’s poor judgment. Setting aside any religious or moral objections to the procedure, there is a decided economic effect on all of us because of the one million or so abortions that are performed in the United States each year, many are paid for at the expense of unwitting taxpayers. If I am not allowed the privilige of objecting on religious grounds, I believe I still have the right to object on economic ones. Of course, the alternate is that there is a vast array of exceptionally dumb women who get pregnant, go into Planned Parenthood and say, “Whoops, I just don’t know how this could have happened to me.” I doubt you would want to advance that argument.

    We live in an era where it is profitable to claim to be the victim. Whether it’s our parents, our school, our neighborhood, our economic status, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation … I doubt I’ve made even a dent in the list of excuses that have been conjured up. The mind set is (and has been) so widely advanced that we have had jury awards such as the one in Florida where the plaintiff (victim) sued McDonalds for providing the coffee she ordered and paid for, placed the hot beverage between her thighs and then drove off, spilling the product on herself. As I recall, she received an original award of $3 million. Although I am not a proponent of euthanasia, I suspect that both she and the jurors might have done society a great justice by agreeing to the procedure. This is merely one example of stupidity raised to its highest power – and there is an awful lot of that going on in America these days.

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