Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Same-sex Marriages and Equal Rights

Congratulations to Washington DC for taking a big step forward. Same-sex couples can now get married in DC. Hopefully this step will prompt more states to take the same step.

If the current lawsuit against Proposition 8 turns out favorably - that is Proposition 8 is struck down as unconstitutional - our country will most definitely be moving in the right direction. If only we could get to the destination of equal rights a little faster. Nevertheless, same-sex marriages in DC are a victory to be celebrated.

The only opposition I ever seem to hear against same-sex marriages is a religious-based argument. Among all its flaws is this: the government of the United States is supposed to be secular. We should not base our definition of marriage on any religion because to do so is to violate the secular nature of our government. Basically, it is not the government's concern to say who can and cannot marry based on their gender. There is no reason the government should be allowed to do so, considering a same-sex marriage poses no threat to other citizens or to the citizens themselves. If the only "danger" suggested is based on a religious argument, it is essentially null to the U.S. government (or should be).

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Sad Day in Nigeria

Sunday in Nigeria a horrific event occurred. It is hard to describe how I felt as I read about the massacre of several hundred Christians by Muslim tribes. I do not wish to use what happened here to try to justify atheism or look down on religion. I do, however, wish to say that this is one of the worst things that can come out of a distortion of religion.

While for me that distortion is enough to swear off the tradition altogether, I can only hope for others it is at least enough to be vigilant. I hope that the distortion of two peaceful religions that was the root of this massacre will cause religious people of any faith to be vigilant, to watch for those among them that would have others think and act in such violent extremes as this.

I have often been told that religion has many benefits. When I see things like this, I wonder what type of benefit could possibly outweigh this type of loss. A sense of community and an invisible entity to pray to do not make up for the pointless deaths of so many people. Religion and the religious make me angry for this reason. As I said before, I do not want to look down on religion using the massacre as a jumping off point. It is hard to understand, though, why anyone wishes to be connected to religions. Why does anyone wish to subject themselves to what I imagine is a slippery slope?

Please, do not fall down that slope to violence and prejudice. Please, catch anyone and everyone you can before they fall. Do not dismiss the secular view because it seems to contradict your belief. I wish that more people would take the good points from secularism, as many atheists take good points from religions.

Pragmatism V. the Constitution of the United States

Pragmatism and Constitutionality can often be in conflict. Perhaps there are times when pragmatism seems to be the best policy, but following the Constitution is far more important. My fellow columnist for the Dickinsonian, Drew Robinson, wrote an article about, for all intents and purposes, the power of pragmatism (though the actual title was "The Power of Belief"... excuse me while I try not to throw up).

The article had so many things wrong with it, I had to take a few minutes to calm myself down. Not only did I need to let the anger at what he was saying disperse, I needed to get the jumbled thoughts of the many holes in the argument organize themselves.

To begin, Robinson claims there is a "clearly defined" line of separation between church and state in this country. This is very much untrue. The line is extremely blurry and often crossed. He later uses the words "insurmountable wall" to describe the separation. Again, Robinson is way off track. If the line were so clear, would we have so many court cases about prayer in schools, waiver systems for students who choose not to attend public schools, religious words in our Pledge and our on national buildings, and all other similar issues? No, we would not have those cases because the line would be clear enough not to cross it.

The second hole I see in Robinson's argument: the assumption he makes or takes as given that the two programs mentioned work. He mentions two programs, one is a faith-based abstinence program to prevent AIDS and the other is something about rebuilding Mosques in Iraq. He offers no evidence that the programs actually work, he just assumes that little problem right out the window. I have to ask, why do either of these programs need any faith-based reason at all? We can easily teach abstinence programs without invoking religion (though I would like to see more evidence supporting their efficacy). Rebuilding mosques, to me, does not have to fall under a religious program. Is it not just rebuilding something that was destroyed because of our government? So long as hospitals and other buildings are rebuilt, I think we can rebuild the mosques. Also, do we need to teach abstinence based on faith? Why not abstinence based on reason? You know, the whole you-could-easily-get-AIDS-and-suffer-a-terrible-death type reasoning?

Even if those programs do work, why does that make it okay to ignore a very popular interpretation of the Constitution? That's not to say what's popular is always correct. It is just that Robinson seems to border on saying our government is too secular without ever actually saying it. This branches into two problems. The first is a matter of the principles set down in the Constitution, the second is a matter of a slippery slope.

Religious belief may (or may not) actually be used to solve problems, but in the government of the United States of America, there is a separation between the church and the state. By using any belief in any type of program, the government endorses belief over non-belief. That alienates secular citizens and likely other religions as well, since it is hard to endorse faith without choosing a religion specifically.

On to the slippery slope. If we ignore any part of the Constitution, the door is opened to ignore any other part. If we do it solely based on pragmatism, we risk support for ignoring due process, right to trial, criminal rights, freedom of speech and press, the right to bear arms, and who knows what else? Do I even need to continue? Think about this: if we killed rapists and murderers after their first offense, they could never do it again. Does that make it the right thing to do? If cops shot people before they had a chance to instigate violence, a lot fewer people would die. Does that make it right? (Minority Report, anyone?) If gun control actually worked (from what I know it doesn't), does that mean the second Amendment should be interpreted differently? If torture as an interrogation technique worked, should the Eight Amendment be interpreted to apply only to citizens and only to actual punishment for crimes? (Interrogation, you see, would not be punishment and therefore not fall under the 8th.) I hope I have made my point.

Robinson seems to claim that faith has a unifying power, but I must disagree. As can be seen by the recent slaughter of 500 Christians in Africa by Muslims, faith can be quite divisive. Major changes in several religions would need to occur to make it unifying - namely that they all become one faith and not several. Faith is divisive, it always has been. Christians slaughtered "Pagans", Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other, followers of Hinduism fought with Muslims, etc., etc. Many religions see others as wrong, and not everyone is willing to say, "we are all kind of right, only we are different." People unite under one faith, not different ones, and most "faiths" are religions, religions are different. Faith or belief is not unifying, it divides. Until enough of religion and accompanying beliefs are eliminated and all the faiths become like enough, religion and faith will continue to divide this world.

My last issue with Robinson's article is that it implies that secularists cannot help the world or solve problems. That we need some higher power to make cooperation possible, but every human being was gifted with the power to reason. What needs to happen for cooperation is education and appeal to logic and reason. We can be progressive and secular, I know I am.

The Loss of the Times?

Last Friday I attended a lecture by Dickinson’s Spring 2010 Cogan Alumni Fellow, Frank James ’79. The main focus of James’ talk was his “journey from old to new media” – how he adapted to the changing world of journalism and the ever-growing use of the internet. James touched on the difficult position and decreasing profits of traditional print media companies; he also mentioned the New York Times’ plan to start charging for online news in early 2011. While this was not the main topic of his lecture, it is one that I became curious about.

The New York Times’ plan is a “metered model” – they intend to allow online readers free access to a certain quantity of article before they begin charging for access. This plan comes after a previous attempt at charging for content called TimesSelect; under TimesSelect, specified content was available only if readers paid to access it. According to Chris Lefkow’s article, New York Times executives discuss plan to charge online readers, the Times claims that their research shows “that a sufficient number of users are open to the idea [of paying for content] to make this a viable model.”

How could it possibly be a viable model? If all newspaper-owned online news sources were to follow suit immediately, I would agree that it could be a good idea. However, because the majority of papers are going to wait and see what happens with the Times, there will be plenty of free news sources on the web. What rational consumer would choose to pay to read the New York Times when they could simply read the Washington Post or another big name online newspaper for no charge at all? Unless the consumer has a very strong preference for the New York Times, they will find their news at other websites.

While I think that if all newspapers were to start charging it could be a good idea, I do not necessarily think it would be a good idea. There are many news sources on the web that are not owned by major newspaper companies that would remain free. In fact, the rise of the internet has resulted in a rise of written news sources from non-newspaper companies. For example, the BBC, CNN and ABC all have written news on their websites in addition to videos they post. The Cogan Alumni Fellow, Frank James, works for NPR writing a blog; NPR was formerly just a radio station, but now, to some extent, has written news on their website. Again I must ask, what rational consumer would choose to pay for the New York Times (or another major newspaper’s website) when they could get news from another site for free?

Perhaps it could be said that consumers are concerned about the quality and reliability of their news. This would imply that only the Times (or perhaps newspaper-run websites more generally) has quality news. If quality means writing, it is possible that this is true. If quality means something else, however, perhaps amount of details about an occurrence, I disagree. When it comes to reliability, if there is anyone who thinks the Times is more reliable than reading multiple sources (all of which could be free), that person is wrong. Restricting yourself to one newspaper exposes you to bias in one direction that you may not notice simply because you never get another perspective.

I cannot be sure of the outcome of the Times’ plan; perhaps I have misjudged and people are far less rational than I believe them to be (this would be a sad state of affairs, since I hardly judge humans to be particularly rational). I suppose in the next year the truth will be revealed: can online newspapers charge for their news without suffering a large loss in readership? Whatever the outcome, it will hardly affect people like me who graze for their news from multiple sources. I think I will stick with GoogleNews and the BBC; I am not too concerned about the loss of the Times as a source.