070829 – Wednesday – Starbucks insights

I go most mornings down to the local Starbucks and several of us chew the fat there over what ever we’ve got going for the day or what ever we’ve been reading or doing. It’s casual and, as a group, we’re a pretty diverse collection. Some of us are strong liberals (like myself) while others are equally staunch conservatives.

We’ve had a few discussions along the fault lines that divide us and they’ve all been done with respect and tolerance on both sides even though in many ways, we’re worlds apart in what we think is important and right. But, for the most part, we steer into blander subjects like motorcycles, travel and what the weather’s up to. The group is heavy on folks who ride Harley Davidson motorcycles and I come in for a lot of good natured ribbing for the 700cc Honda I often bring to the party with the milk-carton strapped onto the back.

Last night, my son and I watched one of the three parts of Christiane Amanpour’s CNN special, “God’s Warriors”. This part focused on the Christian faith while the other two parts will focus on Islam and Judaism.

I couldn’t avoid the strong recognition that things have changed here in the US and that the Christian faith (or at least the more activist portions of it) have become a major force to reckon with. The days of a quiet and taken for granted separation between church and state are gone. This part of the show traced the rise of Christian militancy here in the US and interviewed many of the central figures in the Christian political activist movement.

So, over coffee this morning, I mentioned to everyone (AJ and Ed at the time) that I’d watched the show and I went on to disparage the increasing influence of Christian militancy on the country and the consequent break-down of the separation of Church and State.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a preaching to the choir situation.

AJ, who is fairly conservative in his views and very keen student of history, expressed the view that the seculars have been pushing the Christians back and back in this country for many decades now and that the current rise in Christian militancy is merely those same folks standing up to reclaim what was theirs originally.

I replied that this country was founded on the idea of being religiously neutral as a reaction to the kinds of abuse that folks were leaving behind in Europe when they came here. AJ replied that if you read all of the founding documents, you will not find this view expressed there anywhere. I then mentioned that Thomas Jefferson had written that a strong wall needed to be erected between the church and state and AJ replied that this was written by Jefferson in a personal letter at the time and was not part and parcel of the official goings on during this country’s creation. Clearly, the man was well read.

We continued on for a bit and it became clear that as AJ saw it (and perhaps it is true), what the colonists were on about was not being religiously neutral with, say, respect to Hinduism or Islam, but only with respect to the other various flavors of Christianity that were about at the time. After all, many of these folks had come from the state imposed tyranny of the Church of England and wanted the guaranteed right to practice whatever form of Christianity they saw fit.

So, according to AJ, the issue of Christianity vs. other faiths was never on the table in the days of the founding fathers. The issue was always about tolerance for the other flavors of Christianity which were about.

AJ went on to say that each of the thirteen colonies expressed these protections differently and each perhaps favored the flavor of Christianity which was most dear to their hearts and that all of this can be read in the original founding documents of the various colonies.

I’m not much of a debater because I’m afraid I listen to the other folks points far too much – though I like to think that this quality improves the probability that I’ll get down to the real truth where ever it lies – rather than just getting better and better at defending my own position.

Well, at this point, I was pretty well stalled in this conversation because I thought AJ had some good points.

Somehow, from there, we went on to discuss science and how the Christian right seems to feel free to pick and choose what it likes from among the fruits of science. I mentioned the absurd (to me) image of folks discussing how arbitrary the ‘truths’ of science are while talking to each other on hi-tech cell phones sitting under electric lights in temperature controlled rooms.

AJ launched into the idea that all of the dating that supposedly supports the theory of Evolution is based on circular reasoning and is therefore useless. Apparently, he’d read a discussion about the limitations of carbon dating methods and felt that since the method couldn’t go back very far, how could we really claim to know that, for example, a specific rock was a billion years old?

I pointed out that there were many other dating methods that were able to yield dating results over very different spans of time. I don’t think he was very impressed and seemed to me to feel that it was all a put-up bunch of stuff to make evolution seem plausible.

But in the end, I think we were all left with the main theme of the discussion being that today’s Christians are just taking back the territory that the seculars have pushed them out of in recent decades.

After I left I mulled all of this over. The view AJ expressed about whether or not this country was ever originally and intentionally religion neutral seemed good to me. Indeed, in the world of the 18th century, it is hard to imagine Christian people extending freedom, compassion and equality to other non-Christian faiths – they were still struggling with each other mightily. But the business about picking and choosing among science’s products for the ones you feel conform to your world-view seems, and has always seemed to me, to be a profoundly bogus view.

AJ is a history buff and that got me to thinking about using history to trace the relative explanatory powers of natural science vs. the church from the time of the Enlightenment forward until now as a way of explaining why it might be considered natural and right that secular explanations of the world should be gaining in ascendancy over time.

Back when the Enlightenment was just a gleam in Roger Bacon’s eye, the Church owned the acknowledged power to explain virtually everything. But, as natural science gained traction, many things which had always been the domain of the church to explain – began to have alternative explanations. These new explanations never seemed to supplant the old ones without struggle. Witness the church’s condemnation of Galileo’s heliocentrism in 1616 as contrary to Scripture.

Newton’s genius

But, over time, the trend has been increasingly clear and one-way and that which the religions claim to explain has given way again and again to the explanations born of natural science.

I think someone could and should (LA?) write a great coffee table book which would go back and examine all the many many places since the Enlightenment where something new like the steam engine came along and all the church pundits spoke against it as the seed of the devil and the certain destruction of society and morality if not stopped.

What I’m talkin’ about…

Over and over again, we survived the unsurvivable. And over and over again, the church had to slowly give ground to science and its explanations of how the world worked.

But all of this takes place over decades. Few people today remember the dire predictions that attended so very many of the advances given to us by science. We are, most of us, mired like a fly in our own time. My generation remembers the dire fears that accompanied long hair and the advent of the birth control pill. The resistance to acknowledging that black people should have the right to ride where ever they want on the bus and sit down at any sandwich counter in the country.

I think an awful lot is forgotten. It would be hard, maybe impossible, to find a passionate conservative today who still agonizes over whether or not the sun goes around the earth, or whether the advent of the steam-engine is a terrible thing. No one defends the idea that smallpox and such arise from ‘bad humors’ in the evening air. Historically (hysterically), the conservatives scream and defend the old ways and then they lose and forget what they thought was so important when the world doesn’t end – and then do it all over again. And all the while, the shift from religious explanations to seculars ones advances relentlessly – if you look at it all over the decades.

But, the wheel turns and now we’re faced with certain destruction if it is actually proven that man is just another animal evolved just like the rest and that regardless of whether or not a Deity of some kind created it, this world has evidently been here for several billion years.

So I think I can see why secular explanations and opinions are slowly sweeping history along with their insights and convictions. It’s because the secular view is most closely aligned with the revelations of science. And as science claims dominion over explaining more and more of the existence around us and religion cedes more and more, the secularists are simply acceding to the obvious.

If someone tells me that women have to kowtow to men because it says so in the Bible but science says that for all practical matters we are equals, I know which way I’m going.

If someone puts this coffee table book together … can I write the forward?

2 Responses to “070829 – Wednesday – Starbucks insights”

  1. I find the following at http://www.slate.com/id/2157314/fr/rss/

    As to the invocation of Jefferson, we know that when he and James Madison first proposed the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom (the frame and basis of the later First Amendment to the Constitution) in 1779, the preamble began, “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Patrick Henry and other devout Christians attempted to substitute the words “Jesus Christ” for “Almighty God” in this opening passage and were overwhelmingly voted down. This vote was interpreted by Jefferson to mean that Virginia’s representatives wanted the law “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” Quite right, too, and so far so good, even if the term Mahomedan would not be used today, and even if Jefferson’s own private sympathies were with the last named in that list.

    also http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions45.html
    in Jefferson’s own words

    “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

    Also at http://nobeliefs.com/jefferson.htm

    But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

    -Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

    Some confirmation of that quote from that radical rabblerouser George Will


    Well-read fundamentalist Christians arenevertheless not well-educated. They may be well mannered, well intentioned and kind, but they nevertheless have a way of cherry-picking evidence. The point of view advocated by your acquaintance was held by a relatively small minority of the founders, and he should not believe otherwise in the face of the evidence.

  2. Dennis says:

    Ah, I was wondering if there was more to this story. Thanks for your input and the links, Michael – much appreciated.