Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ben Stein, Chain Emails, & "Happy Holidays" (Part 2)

Now that you've had a chance to read (in Part 1 of this post) the original commentary and embellished chain email, it is time to turn to my response. Some of my friends and family have already read this, but after receiving yet another version of the Ben Stein chain email, I decided that it was finally time to share. As you will see, my response was written as a direct response to the woman who first posted the chain email to the mailing list. Rather than try to rewrite my response, I've simply removed specific references to her but left the overall tone and message intact:

°°°

I have a number of grave problems with the "Ben Stein this is great..." [some versions are entitled "Ben Stein Food for thought"] email that is being circulated. On most days, I might have just brushed my concerns aside and not worried about it. But at the time that I first read this email, I was trying to figure out how to answer the concerns of my very sensitive then7year old daughter who was upset that she had to listen to "Santa stories" in her public school classroom and who didn't want to make a Christmas stocking in art class [and ironically, the same week that I'm posting this response, I've had to deal with concerns from that same daughter, now 9, who was upset that she was being made to draw images of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the Three Wise Men in her elementary school Spanish class]. It was in this frame of mind that first I received the email bemoaning the absence of God from our schools and public life. Thus, I experienced a visceral response that prompted my original drafting of this essay.

As you will see, the separation of church and state is a major issue for me; perhaps it is simply because I am a part of a religious minority or because I have been on the receiving end of prostelyzation and religious bigotry. In any event, I have long been an advocate for the separation of church and state and even lobby the Indiana General Assembly on behalf of the Jewish community of Indianapolis on church-state issues [and let me reiterate again that what I say on this blog and in this essay in particular I am saying for myself and am not speaking on behalf of anyone else or any agency with whom I am affiliate]. I have no problem with people expressing their faith. Nor do I have a problem if a business elects to follow a religious path or erect a religious symbol. And obviously, I have no problem with a church or other house of worship taking steps to foster its religious viewpoint.

However, I do have a problem when the government becomes enmeshed in religion, especially when the government my government tries to tell me that I must pray, how or to whom I must pray, or which religious holidays or religious beliefs meet with "official" approval (or, conversely, chooses to ignore other equally valued religious beliefs). I have a problem when others are not satisfied with prayer in their homes, churches, or other private places and, instead, feel the need to force their prayer upon me, whether or not I agree with their religious beliefs, especially when they want to force their prayer and religious beliefs upon me through the government. And I really have a problem when people want to force those religious viewpoints upon my children in the public schools. I am old enough to make my own religious decisions; I know enough about religion to know what I do and don't believe; I am not worried about peer pressure; and I am confident enough in myself to stand up and so "no" when asked to do that which violates by sincerely held beliefs. But my now 9year old twins should never have to bow down to public pressure to believe a certain way, be made to feel different or an outsider, or be forced to consider their own religious beliefs all because someone else is not satisfied with prayer in their own home or church. I'm curious to know how comfortable you are that your children would be able to handle prostelyzation from another religious faith, especially if your child were confronted by questions or accusations that go to the core of your religious beliefs or involved questions of religious understanding to which your child had not yet been exposed.

Before delving further into some of the issues raised in the email, however, there are few important preliminary points that must be addressed:

First, the email begins by attributing the text to Ben Stein (and, I must say, that it is getting somewhat tiring having the opinion's of a single Jew thrown in my face, almost as if because one Jew believes a certain way, those of us who disagree must be wrong; I suspect that many Christians would take offense if I were to pick and choose the words of a few particular Christians and use those words to paint broadly the viewpoint of all Christians or to challenge the legitimacy of contrary opinions held by other Christians). Anyway, while Mr. Stein did, indeed, make some of the comments attributed to him in the email, his comments end before the paragraph that begins with "In light of the many jokes..." See Mr. Stein's website for the full text of his comments (which, by the way, differ slightly from those that he actually gave on CBS Sunday Morning).

The email then goes on with a series of other statements and quotations (without recognizing that these statements or quotations were not made or quoted by Mr. Stein). The first of these references an interview between Jane Clayson and Rev. Billy Graham's daughter Anne Graham (Lotz). The email suggests that this interview and Ms. Lotz's response were "regarding Katrina". However, considering the fact that the interview took place on September 13, 2001, it obviously was not in reference to Katrina (but, just as obviously, was in reference to the events of September 11, 2001). Moreover, the statements the email attributes to Ms. Lotz, while close in substance, are not accurate and include far more than what she actually stated [in particular the numerous additional statements noted in blue in Part 1]. For additional information, see She Said He Said at BreakTheChain. One of the dangers of the Internet is the ease with which people can be misquoted, quotations taken out of context, or entire quotations fabricated, and then those mistakes are given a life of their own. Before attributing statements, we owe it both to those whom we are quoting and to those whom we want to influence to check the source material for accuracy. Similarly, before forwarding a chain letter (or email), it behooves us all to check the accuracy of the statements therein; after all, when we send that email we are, in essence, putting our name and reputation behind the content of that which we distribute.

The email also goes on to suggest that "recent events" (such as terrorist attacks and school shootings) began when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (her name is actually spelled Madalyn Murray O'Hair) complained that she didn't want "prayer in our schools". For information on Ms. O'Hair, see the entry for her at Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it is a decent starting point...). In fact, Ms. O'Hair complained of coercive prayer in public schools in the early 1960s! And, by an 81 majority, the United States Supreme Court agreed that it was improper for coercive prayer or bible study in public schools. More information on the decisions can be found on the Wikipedia pages discussing Abbington School District v. Schempp and Engel v. Vitale. It is worth noting that four of the Justices on the Supreme Court that decided those cases were appointed by a Republican President. Yet Ms. O'Hair is somehow being blamed for Islamic terrorists attacking America. Timothy McVeigh, perhaps... but the lack of coercive Christian prayer in American public schools does not seem to be one of the things that has sparked fundamentalist Islamic terrorists to attack America. Generally speaking, we Jews don't believe in prayer in public schools, yet I haven't seen many Jewish children engaging in school shootings or terrorist attacks; nor, for that matter, have I seen adherents to other religious faiths behind the trigger in school shootings, either.

The email next furthers the foregoing argument by suggesting that America is in trouble because we no longer read the Bible in schools and it is the Bible that teaches "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself". I guess, that we are to understand that, if we still taught the Bible in our public schools, we wouldn't kill or steal and we would love each other. First, just because our children don't read the Bible in public schools doesn't mean that we can't (or don't) teach our children not to kill or steal or can't or don't teach them to love one another. And even when children did read the Bible in public schools, bad things happened: Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting or forced them to sit at the back of the bus (and sometimes left them hanging from a tree), but I would be willing to wager that supporters of those laws prayed quite a bit. Murder and burglary did not suddenly start the day that prayers ceased in the public schools; it seems that those societal ills have been with us (and with all of humanity) from the beginning of time, whether or not people prayed (and irrespective of the type of prayer or the deity to which those prayers is offered). It is simply too easy to say that things are bad and to place blame accordingly without empirical evidence supporting the allegation.

Next the email implies that people have been wrong to follow the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock and appears to ridicule Dr. Spock's advice because, according to the email, Dr. Spock's son committed suicide (as if to suggest that if Dr. Spock's own son committed suicide, then Dr. Spock's child-rearing advice must have been wrong). While this suggestion is, itself, almost uncertainly unfair, it is wholly misplaced given that Dr. Spock's son did not kill himself. Rather, Dr. Spock's grandson killed himself after a long battle with mental illness (for more information, see Doctored Spock and the entry for Dr. Spock on Wikipedia).

[I added this paragraph after receiving some of the alternate versions of the chain email that added the text that was not in the original version.] Some versions of the email then proceed through a litany of social issues in the buildup to the general premise that the "world is going to hell" as a result of American society's decisions on those social issues. The authors of the email want us to believe America is in danger and that God is angry because we oppose corporal punishment of our children by teachers and principals, because we support a woman's right to choose and oppose certain restrictions on that right, because we support giving condoms so that kids who are sexually active don't become pregnant or get sexually transmitted diseases, because we support the notion of privacy, especially within the confines of our own bedrooms, because we allow pornography to exist, because we allow child pornography (I'm stumped by this one given that child pornography is not only illegal, but it is not protected by the First Amendment and mere possession of child porn is punishable), and because some segments of the entertainment industry espouse viewpoints that may not conform to mainstream beliefs and practices. I could just as easily turn the entire discussion around and argue that America is in danger and God is angry because we don't take care to properly feed the poor and house the homeless, because we allow children to go without proper health care and make some of the elderly choose between food or medication, because we glorify greed and allow the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, because we use violence rather than diplomacy and include torture as an accepted way of getting information, because we don't uphold our own democratic traditions and allow our civil rights to be trampled, because we are willing to discriminate against people on the basis of their religious beliefs or their skin color or their national origin or their sexual orientation, because we use the airwaves to espouse hate and bigotry and to talk about our political opponents as the enemy, because we allow our environment ("God's green earth?") to be polluted, and because we are egotistical and/or stupid enough to suggest that natural disasters have anything whatsoever to do with human thought.

Finally, the email offers a number of statements that repeat the general allegation that the "world is going to hell" because "public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace".

Which leads me back to the main point. Those of us who feel strongly about the separation of church and state do not suggest, not even for a moment, that children are not or should not be allowed to pray in public schools. Nor do we argue against public "discussion" of God, gods, or religion. Rather, we argue against public prayer. We argue against government sponsorship or endorsement of particular religions or particular religious viewpoints. We argue that our children should not be compelled to pray in public schools and that the government should not compel a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. If a child wants to pray in school, he or she can do so any time, whether on the bus, at recess, at lunch, or even quietly seated at his or her desk. But the government should not tell my child (or your child, for that matter) that the child must pray (and certainly not with a particular prayer or to a particular deity).

And before you say, "but without prayer in public schools, our country has gone to hell", just consider for a moment what you are really saying: Either, you are saying that we, as parents, have failed at teaching values to our children (because, if the schools aren't teaching values and children aren't learning those values, then who else is there to blame but the parents who are not properly teaching and raising their children?) or you are saying that the U.S. should be a religious country in which minority religions are merely tolerated. As to this latter point, remember that the U.S. was initially settled by many people looking to escape religious persecution and bigotry. More importantly, which religious viewpoint should be the dominant one? Assuming that Christianity would be the "national" religion, would that be from a Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, or other viewpoint? Who's interpretation of scripture would be correct? Who would get to pick which prayers are to be said in our public schools?

For that matter, which Bible would we be using? The Jewish Bible (the Old Testament)? The Catholic Bible? The King James Bible? It is worth noting that the different versions of the Bible have very different texts and meanings. Just consider the Ten Commandments, about which so much has been made recently. Many people want the Ten Commandments posted in the schools and courts. But which version would that be? A simple Google search will reveal a number of examples of different versions of the Ten Commandments. Consider simply the commandment quoted in the email that "Thou shalt not kill". The use of the word "kill" finds its way into certain translations, while other translations (in particular those that do not go through an intervening Greek and/or Latin translation) usually use the word "murder" instead (and just consider the difference in meaning between those terms). Or, consider that some versions of the Ten Commandments do not include a prohibition against graven images. Even the Bible itself has several versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). For more discussion of the differences and meanings, see the Wikipedia entry on the Ten Commandments. And which Biblical lessons would we be teaching? I suppose that we should teach how to place a proper monetary value upon our daughters when we sell them into slavery (as permitted by Exodus 21:7). We should teach men how to recognize when a woman is having her menstrual cycle so that we can avoid touching them (as prohibited by Leviticus 15:1924). Perhaps we will need to revisit our teaching of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights movement; after all, Leviticus 25:44 states that we may possess slaves. We will also need to settle once and for all whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the true Sabbath (just when exactly did God tell Christians to move the Sabbath from Saturday [the last day of the week on every calendar that I've looked at recently] to Sunday [the first day of the week]; after all, I thought God rested after finishing creation not before getting started)? Why is this important? Because Exodus 35:2 requires that we put to death those who work on the Sabbath. It seems best that we know which day not to work on and schools would be a good place to teach that. We will also have to be sure that our schools don't serve any kind of shellfish as eating it is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10). I guess, too, that the hippie movement will be forced to make a comeback as our schools should probably teach that trimming a man's hair, especially around the temples, is forbidden (Leviticus 19:27). I am worried about forcing schools to stop playing football, but given that touching the skin of a dead pig makes a person unclean (Leviticus 11:68) it would seem, at bare minimum, to require that we switch to a synthetic ball. For that matter, ham sandwiches and hot dogs will certainly have to go (Leviticus 11:68) and cheeseburgers will be a thing of the past (Exodus 23:19). And I can't wait to see how school dress codes are modified to take into consideration that prohibition against wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread; alas, no more cotton/polyester blends (Leviticus 19:19). And I'm particularly looking forward to the part of the curriculum that deals with the proper way to make animal sacrifices.

And before you say that we don't need to follow all of those commandments from the Bible, please tell me just who it is, precisely, that gets to decide which commandments we keep and which ones we ignore; which commandments still have a place in the modern world and which should be relegated to the past? I don't recall God saying that we get to pick and choose the rules that we want to follow. But then I guess that will be part of the school curriculum as well.

And how are we to reconcile all of this with Jesus' own prescriptions against public prayer:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret....

(Mathew 6:56). It would seem to me that coercive (or even optional, but organized) prayer in the public schools would violate this admonition. But maybe our new Biblical public school curriculum will include proper instruction on how and where and to whom to pray, too.

Perhaps we can settle these questions in the civilized way that Europeans have used over the millennia: War. Consider, for a moment, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which all of Europe was embroiled in a war over competing versions of Christianity (Catholics v. Lutherans v. Calvinists). By some estimates, millions of people died during this particularly bloody war. European history is filled with examples of war over religious doctrine and dogma. The Spanish Inquisition was a particularly pleasant way of addressing religious differences. And don't forget Henry VIII who created an entirely new church just because he wanted a divorce. More recently, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants have seen fit to blow each other up. Christians aren't alone in their use of violence to resolve religious disputes. Just look at the violence between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir, between Muslims, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox in the Balkans, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, if we were to decide that blowing each other up was the best way to resolve our own petty religious differences, then we wouldn't be much different from the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims presently engaged in their own conflict in Iraq in which wholesale kidnapping, torture, and slaughter is apparently an acceptable way to address religious differences.

Consider the following statement from ReligiousTolerance:

Religion is a unique force in society. It motivates individuals to do both good and evil. Historically, it has promoted: an end to slavery, racial integration, equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. It has motivated individuals to create massive support services for the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the broken. Conversely, it has been used to justify slavery, racial segregation, oppression of women, discrimination against homosexuals, genocides, exterminations of minorities, and other horrendous evils.

Religion motivates some to dedicate their lives to help the poor and needy. (e.g. Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa.) It drives others to exterminate as many "heretics" as they can. Consider the mass murders and genocides in Bosnia, East Timor, Indonesia, India, Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tibet, etc.

Religion has the capability to generate unselfish love in some people, and vicious, raw hatred in others.

Americans love to stand up and say how proud they are of their country and the freedoms and liberties that America stands for. Yet, when those freedoms and liberties challenge us, how many of us are still ready to stand up and support the rights of those with whom they disagree? You pray the way you want, I'll pray the way I want (if I want), and we'll leave the schools to teach our children about math and reading and science (and let's not even get started on the whole issue of creationism or "intelligent design").

Do we honestly believe that simply offering a public prayer that conforms to a particular religious viewpoint will suddenly cause all children to be good, that burglars and murderers will suddenly repent, that terrorists will leave us alone, and hurricanes will limit their destruction to Mexico or Cuba? Just think about it: Canada allows gay marriage, but it doesn't appear that God has punished Canada. For that matter Massachusetts also allows gay marriage, but Hurricane Katrina landed far to the south of Boston. So maybe, just maybe, the fact that we don't allow prayer in public schools has little or nothing to do with how God views our country. Or, perhaps, if God is angry at the U.S., it is because we have not lived up to the challenge of always acting as we should when we support dictators, don't give enough money to help impoverished nations, continue to allow the environment to be destroyed, rely upon torture to obtain information, and continue to use God and religion as an excuse for political viewpoints that demonize those with whom we disagree. Or maybe, God just wants us to allow gays to marryY

Just consider my own childhood in which the principal at my public elementary school used a derogatory term to describe my mother after I (a somewhat precocious 5thgrader) expressed discomfort at singing "Silent Night" in the school's Christmas program. When I asked the music teacher if I could simply remain silent during that song, I was given the choice of singing (and not just "mumbling", I was reminded) or quitting the choir. Or consider that Good Friday was a recognized absence for the Catholic children, but Jews had to call in "sick" to be excused for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Or consider that every student at our public high school had to sit through a performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the school choir (and rise at the appropriate moment). I was told that if I did not attend the performance, I would be suspended. When I later asked the music teacher why that particular piece of music was chosen, she claimed that it was due to the beautiful harmonies and not for its religious content. So, I asked her why it was not included in the spring music program and she replied that it "would lose its meaning". I could go on and on with examples of the government, through the public school system, attempting to impose a particular religious viewpoint upon me. It was clear to me, as I grew up, that because I was not Christian, I was different and something less than a full participant in my own country. That is wrong. That is not American. I am no more a guest here than any other citizen, whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Wiccan, or any of the myriad other religions that make up America. And an atheist is no less a citizen than any believer. I am not a guest and my country should not make me feel that I am anything less than on equal footing with every other citizen, no matter my religion (or lack thereof).

And finally, back to Ben Stein. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Stein that it doesn't bother me when people refer to Christmas trees as such. Nor am I particularly bothered if someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas". My wife even likes to listen to some Christmas music (I have allegedly been caught humming "Frosty the Snowman") and our family will occasionally drive around and look at our neighbors' Christmas lights. However, while I am not offended, I do wonder what is so wrong with saying "Happy Holidays" as that term is fully inclusive of all people, of whatever religion (or none the phrase includes New Year's Day and Thanksgiving and maybe even the winter solstice) rather than being exclusive. So, while I have no problem with Wal-Mart deciding that its greeters should say "Merry Christmas" (can anybody explain why Wal-Mart needs to greet me?), I also have no problem giving my business to Target where diversity is welcomed and inclusiveness is valued. That said, I am offended when someone who knows me says "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Holidays" because that tells me that the person doesn't care enough to be considerate toward me. If I know that someone is Christian, I will try to remember to say "Merry Christmas". Otherwise, I usually say "Happy Holidays"; I want to be inclusive and be sure that my greeting is appropriate for everyone (but, I'll acknowledge that when an acquaintance who knows that I'm Jewish wishes me a "Merry Christmas" I am likely to respond with "Happy Hanukkah" if I'm in a bah humbug sort of mood).

Like Mr. Stein, I am not offended by a manger scene. The church on the corner near my home has a lovely living nativity each year. I am, however, offended, when my government chooses to erect a manger scene or allows one to be erected on public property. Why exactly does the government need to erect a manger or to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Don't churches and private homeowners (not to mention stores and businesses) do a sufficient job of that? The hue and cry about the "attack" on Christmas would make one think that those of us who favor the separation of church and state want to prohibit churches and individuals from showing their faith and devotion when that simply is not the case at all. By all means, hang up your Christmas lights, decorate your tree, erect your crèche. Just do it at your home or at your business or at your church and not on government land and do it without government tax dollars. Is that really too much to ask?

I also agree with Mr. Stein that America is not an "explicitly atheist country". I am unfamiliar with that claim. Instead, I believe that America is a country that is (or should be) neutral toward religion. America is not atheist any more than it is Christian or Jewish or Muslim or tied to the earth and ancestor spirit faiths of Native Americans. America is all of those things. America is made up of hundreds of different religions (and of those who have either no particular faith or who don't believe in a god or gods), each of which may be a valuable contribution to the fabric that makes our country (and each of which may also have negative influences as well). But that does not mean that America as a country and through its institutions should show favoritism toward any particular religious belief or form of worship (or lack thereof). To exclude coercive prayer from public life, to recognize that not everyone shares the same religious views and beliefs, to value diversity (and the rewards and challenges that diversity can bring) is not "atheist". But it is American.

Happy Holidays.

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Well, I did warn you that this would be long. If you've stayed with me the whole way, thanks. If not ... well, I guess that you wouldn't be reading this would you? Anyway, as I'm sure you can tell by now, the issues that I discussed above are very important to me and about which I tend to get very exercised.

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1 Comments:

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