Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

Malevolent Hope and The Desire To Burn Things Down

Anger

Fresno Bee, September 6, 2020

This is a season of malevolent hope. Hope is usually positive. So this may seem strange. But the desire to see enemies suffer is common, as is the urge to burn things down in pursuit of power.

We see malevolent hope when Republicans imagine benefiting from civil unrest. Kellyanne Conway said last week that “chaos and anarchy” are good for Trump’s re-election.

Another example showed up this week when the president told his supporters to vote twice to test the electoral system. If the system is broken, Trump gets extra votes. But if chaos ensues, after Trump voters are charged with the crime of voting twice, this reinforces Trump’s claims about a broken system.

Democrats may have their own form of malevolent hope, perhaps secretly hoping that a vaccine does not appear until after the election. Republicans are already accusing Democrats of wanting to block the vaccine. Conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey claims that the Democrats “wish failure” on every COVID-19 breakthrough.

It is obviously wrong to wish for the worst as a bridge to the better. It’s cruel to desire more disease. It’s evil to cultivate chaos. It’s perverse to encourage criminality and felonious voting.

But malevolent hope is as common as greed and envy. When a relationship sours, you hope your former lover suffers. When a rival is winning, you wish he would fail.

Good people realize this is wrong. Such thoughts ought to be repressed. Wicked wishes can give birth to evil deeds.

Politics often slips down this devilish slope. Terrorists actively seek to make things worse. They attack in order to provoke a backlash. Once the backlash occurs, they say, “see, I told you—those guys are oppressive.” A different example comes from Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag was burned. The Nazis blamed the Communists and soon seized power.

Malevolent hope often includes a story about a savior. The jilted lover imagines himself swooping in and consoling his miserable former love. Political partisans believe that when things get bad enough, their candidate will save the day.

This narrative also appears in apocalyptical faith. Plagues, pestilence, and war are signs of the end times. Does this mean that the faithful should hope for these horrors? That question is a recipe for theological heartburn.

Malevolent hope is connected to gloating. To gloat is to take joy in your enemy’s misfortune. Ancient warrior cultures encouraged gloating. It’s not enough to kill your enemy. The warrior also disfigures his enemy’s corpse and dances on his grave.

Some ancient sources condemn this. The Bible’s book of Proverbs warns against envy, pride, and gloating. One verse says “don’t gloat when your enemy falls and don’t rejoice when he stumbles.” Jesus went even further. He told us to love our enemies.

That may be too much to ask. A basic concern for the common good would suffice. To hope that things get worse actively encourages pain and misery. We should want our rivals to succeed in business, politics, and even in love because we want happiness to spread.

To the jilted lover we say that if you really loved her, you should hope she finds joy in her new relationship. And patriots should want peace, justice, and prosperity regardless of who is in the White House.

But we are jealous and greedy. And we tend to fight evil with evil, violence with violence. Malevolent hope grows out of selfish pride and a zero-sum view of the world.

This is corrupt and self-defeating. It is simply wrong to wish harm upon others. Peace and prosperity require cooperation, solidarity, and concern for the common good.

It is difficult to remember this lesson of common decency in a world that has grown ugly and angry. But common sense tells us that if we hope things will get worse, they probably will. It is easy for things to fall apart. Holding them together is difficult. Creating something better is harder still.

For things to improve, we need positive hope. Benevolent hope affirms human creativity. It keeps open the possibility of enemies becoming friends. This is the kind of hope that grows from love and wants joy to spread. It is a hope that builds instead of burns.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow. 

Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.

To Mask or Not to Mask

To mask or not to mask

The CDC has called for Americans to wear masks.  But some people still don’t get it.  Donald Trump refused to wear a mask when he visited a mask factory this week.  “Live and Let Die” blared in the background. 

Mask-wearing is an ethical no-brainer.  If masks help us avoid further outbreaks and quarantines, we ought to wear them.  Masks also show respect for vulnerable service workers like clerks and cashiers who must daily confront the wheezing masses.  And by slowing the contagion we support nurses and doctors overwhelmed by the sick and dying. 

A mask is a symbol of solidarity and compassion.  It says to other people that you care enough about them to try to prevent them from getting sick.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “You know how you show love?  By wearing a mask.” 

But masks have become a polarizing symbol.  According to a recent poll, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear them.  Those with more education are more likely to wear masks.  Black Americans are more likely to wear them than whites.

Skeptics and libertarians have warned that masks are a sign of government overreach and even tyranny.  Officials in Oklahoma and Ohio backed away from mandatory masking after public outcry.  In Flint, Michigan, a security guard was murdered for trying to enforce a mask requirement.

One Ohio lawmaker, Nino Vitale, went so far as to declare that his Christian faith prohibits him from wearing a mask.  He said that God made us in His image and that to cover the face is to obscure the visage of God.

Some backlash is understandable.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  But most don’t bristle at similar regulations such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”  When the national anthem plays, people take their hats off.  Kids can’t wear racist, gang, or drug-oriented clothes to school. 

And of course, public nudity is prohibited.  Although even this is contentious.  Men go topless.  But women may not.  Some women have protested against this double-standard

Perhaps the libertarian backlash against masks should extend to a refusal to wear clothes.  One could even imagine a religious point similar to Representative Vitale’s.  The entire human body is made in the image of God.  Perhaps we should show it all off.

The deep question is what counts as the authentic face or body.  People shave, cut their hair, and get their nails done.  Which version of your body is the one created in the image of God?

The issue of masking uncovers questions about bodies, identities, and cultural norms.  Not too long ago, people freaked out about Muslim women’s veils and headscarves.  And masks have been banned in the past, when associated with criminal activity.

The mask controversy exposes the social construction of reality.  Veiled women, bandits, and surgeons all cover their faces.  But the meaning of the mask depends upon cultural norms and the purpose we have for masking.

It is not easy to draw clear lines here since life involves a whole bunch of masking. We routinely put on masks in order to create or alter our identities.  Some, like the President, do it with make-up, a fancy hair-do, and a business suit.  Others get plastic surgery.  Professionals put on their “game face” at work, along with a uniform.  We change our demeanor when we hang out with friends, go to church, or go to a funeral.  Life is a complex masquerade. 

Existentialist philosophers have often wondered about the reality behind the masks.  Does the person remain the same behind the masks and under all of that make-up?  Or are we simply the masks we wear and the roles we inhabit?

This brings us back to the current issue.  In a pandemic, to wear a mask (or not) is to make a statement about who you are.  Whether you wear a mask or go bald-faced you reveal what you value and what you believe. 

Some apparently prefer to live and let die.  They walk barefaced and proud among the masked masses, believing that liberty trumps public safety.  But others emphasize solidarity with those who suffer.  They compassionately conceal their faces, so that others may live.