Monday, April 30, 2007

Protection of the MInority

I was reading an article online a couple days ago from the website: The Straight Dope. It dealt with the history of the “freedom of religion” concept when utilized in the Constitution of the United States. Before I had read that article, like many of the people I grew up with, had my own opinions about the subject, particularly whether or not the current application is what this nation’s founders intended.

I was quite surprised.

One of the things I love about the Internet is that for those willing to put in a little work, there is a vast amount of information available that can bring greater understanding and new perspectives. It wasn’t until I finished the article that I began to realize how convoluted the history of the issue is. Should American citizens have the right to be free from religious oppression; free from forced displays of public religious/spiritual practice, free from religious influence; free from religious offense? I no longer have clear answers in my mind to those questions, particularly after reading through some of the reasoning of people who’ve addressed those questions before me.

There is a vocal subset of the population that is extremely displeased with the current status quo when it comes to religion and government. From the lawsuits, protesting religious holiday displays in public areas to the contradictory practice of opening sessions of Congress with a prayer, it is evident that many people are unhappy with how the current legal and political federal stance shakes out. Regardless of what people believe the founder’s intended, a valid query is what the answers to the above questions mean for today.

Whatever you or I believe in regards to religious and spiritual matters, does the Federal Government have any power to force us to practice (or not to practice) some particular organized set of actions? If that answer is no, then many observances (such as moments of silence, singing the national anthem, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance) cannot be mandated, even to individuals holding public office. However, it is valid to question whether the inability to mandate also extends to forbidding the occurance. In other words, because the federal government cannot require observance, does that also mean the federal government is forbidding from putting on the event/occurance? There have been multiple lawsuits alleging that the phrase ‘under God’ in the pledge of allegiance alters the pledge into the domain of religious practice and because of that should be removed. But does not the mere adherence to reciting the pledge itself (regardless of whether or not the phrase is there) constitute a religious-style practice? Should not the entire pledge be thrown out of federalized behavior?

Since the majority of U.S. citizens did little to nothing to actually get their citizenship (being born in the U.S. or children of citizens), the whole Pledge of Allegiance is sort of a secularized pseudo-religious practice. The ‘under God’ phrase just connects it to a particular religion, even removal of the phrase doesn’t change the overall religious undertone. But before one eliminates the pledge, it should be considered whether the primary purpose of elimination of to free the public from religion (religious influence) or to force the federal government to adhere to the ideal of not requiring any religious-style practices. There are already safeguards in place in certain domains: one cannot be forced to fight in the military (even in cases of draft, the alternative to simply be jailed is available); one cannot be forced to receive federally-initiated medical treatment; and one cannot be forced to testify in court against one’s own interests. Adding religion as an additional domain would seem a simple decision. But where does the line between religious, pseudo-religious, and secular-organized get drawn?

I had an acquaintance who once argued that the line was drawn at organization. Any group that had specific, ritualized beliefs and practices and formed an organization to help spread those beliefs constituted a religious organization and all those practices should be avoided by the government. He argued that atheists are exempt because they do not have specific, ritualized beliefs and practices. He further argued that atheists do not form organizations to spread their beliefs and practices. I disagreed.

Atheism is just a strongly a philosophical stance as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or any other religion. While membership in an atheist group may not necessitate church attendance or the giving of money, the raw number of requirements or what they are does not dictate whether or not atheism has a religious structure. Just as Christianity has denominations and sects, atheism has many subgroups with the primary group probably being scientific atheists followed by atheist humanists. And while neither group may assert claims of supernatural access or intervention, both groups do push their own agendas (physical science as the source and purpose of social organization and social science as the source of moral/social authority respectively), and resist encroachment by rival groups. And while there are certainly atheists who have no interest in pushing any social, political, or philosophical agenda, there are just as many religious individuals in the same vein (Quakers and certain Jewish groups for example)

Ultimately, removing all agenda-driven, philosophically-based practices from the government is probably impossible, and potentially disastrous. However a balance must be struck between efforts to protect minority groups from oppression and the agenda-driven attempts of philosophical organizations (whether they bear the banner of religion or not). Should all animals really be given the same rights as humans? Certain secular animal rights groups think so, and advocate eliminating all animal testing (even for medical research). Should the government ascribe to that practice when awarding federal grants? Certain Christian groups believe marriage licenses should only be granted to male-female couples. Should the federal government ascribe to that practice when issuing marriage licenses? I won't pretend to have the right answer for the above questions, but I do think the issue of 'freedom of religion' need to be readdressed.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Photography Galleries Updated

Just a quick note.

I've added eight images to the Prospect Park PhotoGallery. Most of the images are from Summer 2006.

I know I keep saying that I will add more writing to the website's writing section; I still intend to, and have scheduled myself some time to edit the works before I upload them. Hopefully there will be more by Wednesday, April 18th.