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“Atheists In Tornadoes And Foxholes”: If You Believe Only When There’s An Enemy Army Or A Tornado, You Don’t Believe

If you’ve watched the endless interviews with survivors of natural disasters, you may have noticed that the news media representatives, faced with someone who may be too shocked or nervous before the cameras to offer sufficiently compelling testimony, often do some gentle prompting. “When you saw your home destroyed, were you just devastated?” “You’ve never seen anything like this before, have you?” “Your whole life changed in that moment, didn’t it?” Not everyone who survived a disaster is YouTube clip-ready, so some need to be coached. There was one such interview after the tornado ran through Moore, Oklahoma that got some attention. Interviewing a woman as they stood before the tangled pile of debris that used to be her home and discussed her family’s narrow escape, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?” When she hesitated, Blitzer pressed on. “Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?” She paused for a moment before responding, “I’m actually an atheist.” Awkward laughs ensued.

Blitzer’s assumption was understandable; most Americans profess a faith in God, and there is an awful lot of Lord-thanking after a natural disaster. Atheists find this puzzling, to say the least; if God deserves your thanks and praise for being so merciful as to allow you to live through the tornado, maybe He could have been kind enough not to destroy your home and kill 24 of your neighbors in the first place. But at times of crisis, everyone looks for comfort where they can find it.

It’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I suppose Wolf Blitzer thought the same would be true of tornadoes. But when you stop to think about that old expression, you realize how insulting it is, not just to those who don’t believe in an almighty but also to those who do. It says that the primary basis for religious faith is fear of death, and one’s beliefs are so superficial that they are a function only of the proximity of danger. If you believe only because there’s an enemy army or a tornado bearing down on you, you don’t believe.

Wolf Blitzer will no doubt be more careful next time. And perhaps he’ll learn that those who hold to no religion are a fast-growing group, as many as one in six Americans in most polls, so there’s at least a fair chance that the next disaster survivor he interviews will also be an atheist. Some of those secular folks are becoming more open about it as their numbers increase; for instance, when last week it came Arizona state representative Juan Mendez’s turn to open the legislative session with a prayer, he instead chose an eloquent invocation of “my secular humanist tradition,” including a quote from Carl Sagan. Afterward, Mendez said, “I hope today marks the beginning of a new era in which Arizona’s non-believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers.”

It’s a nice thought, but it may take a while. There are signs of progress, though. Last week, Pope Francis made news around the world when in a homily, he delivered to his flock the shocking news that atheists are capable of doing good. They may not get to heaven, but on this planet they are not necessarily gripped by evil. This was certainly a step in the direction of mutual understanding that his predecessor was not inclined to make; Pope Benedict was aggressively hostile to those who don’t believe in God, essentially blaming the crimes of the Third Reich on atheism.

But I was surely not the only atheist who was a little underwhelmed by Francis’ generosity of spirit. Atheists are capable of goodness? How kind of him to say. If you heard a man say, “You may not believe it, but women can be intelligent,” you probably wouldn’t respond, “What an admirable statement of his commitment to equality—thanks, Mr. Feminist!” But the bar is pretty low for religious leaders; we expect them to hold that all who do not share their particular beliefs are doomed to an eternity of the cruelest punishments the divine mind can devise. We speak of religious “tolerance” as the most we can expect when it comes to the treatment of other people’s religions. But we “tolerate” not that which we love or respect but that which is unpleasant, painful, or worthy of mild contempt. We tolerate things which we’d just as soon see disappear. You tolerate a hangnail.

Nevertheless, we can give the Pope credit for making a start, even if in public life the most vapid expressions of faith will continue to be the norm. Singers will thank the Lord for delivering unto them a Grammy, smiting the hopes of the other nominees, who are plainly vile in His sight. Football players will gather to pray before a last-second field goal, in the hopes that God will alter his divine plan in their favor and push the ball through the goalposts. And presidents Democratic and Republican will end every speech with “And may God bless the United States of America.” As The Atlantic‘s James Fallows has noted many times, this utterly content-free bit of religiosity means nothing more than “This speech is now over.”

I don’t know if hearing that at the end of a speech makes anyone feel more reassured or hopeful about our country’s future. Perhaps it does. But that woman Wolf Blitzer interviewed? The group Atheists Unite put out a call to help her family rebuild their house, setting a goal of raising $50,000. They’re already approaching $100,000. She no doubt feels thankful, but she’ll be thanking her fellow human beings.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 27, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“If War Is Hell, What Is Perpetual War?”: The Question That Lindsey Graham Should Be Asked Every Day

I’ve been staring at Sen. Lindsey’s Graham’s comments yesterday from Fox News Sunday, when he criticized the president’s big counter-terrorism speech, and wondering what it would take to satisfy him that it’s time to declare the Global War On Terrorism over?

At a time we need resolved the most, we are sounding retreat. Our enemies are emboldened all over the planet. Al Qaeda in Iraq is coming back with vengeance, in Libya together. Our friends are uncertain. Syria is falling apart. We are talking about helping the rebels but doing nothing about it. Iran is marching toward a nuclear weapon….

At the end of the day, this is the most tone deaf president I’ve ever — could imagine and making such a speech at a time when our homeland is trying to be — attacked literally every day.

So are the only alternatives for the United States a world free of threats or perpetual war? That would seem to be Graham’s essential argument. And what a forfeiture of national sovereignty he calls for, if we are prohibited from adjusting our national security strategy and returning to a normal constitutional regime so long as one “emboldened” enemy or “uncertain” friend might notice!

The habit, carried over from the Cold War, of waging undeclared wars fought under hazy international and domestic auspices is dangerous enough. The idea that anything other than a permanent war footing invites disaster is an extension of the Cold War “Peace Through Strength” doctrine that in fact rules out peace.

If, as Sherman rightly said, “War is hell!”–then what kind of existence do advocates of perpetual war propose for us? It’s a question that Lindsey Graham should be asked to ponder every time he objects to even the smallest steps away from fear and hysteria.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 27, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Deny Terrorists Their Power”: Terrorism’s Threat Lies Only In Its Psychological Effect

I have not seen the video.

Not saying I won’t, but for now, I’ve chosen not to. To rush online and seek out cellphone footage of two fanatics with machetes who butchered a British soldier in London on Wednesday, to watch them standing there, hands painted red with his blood, speaking for the cameras, would feel like an act of complicity, like giving them what they want, like being a puppet yanked by its strings.

Sometimes, especially in the heat of visceral revulsion, we forget an essential truth about terrorism. Namely, that the people who do these things are the opposite of powerful. Non-state sponsored terror is a tactic chosen almost exclusively by the impotent.

These people have no inherent power. They command no armies, they boss no economies, their collective arsenals are puny by nation-state standards. No, what they have is a willingness to be random, ruthless and indiscriminate in their killing.

But they represent no existential danger. The United States once tore itself in half and survived the wound. Could it really be destroyed by men using airliners as guided missiles? Britain was once bombed senseless for eight months straight and lived to tell the tale. Could it really be broken by two maniacs with machetes?

Of course not.

No, terrorism’s threat lies not in its power, but in its effect, its ability to make us appalled, frightened, irrational, and, most of all, convinced that we are next, and nowhere is safe. Here, I’m thinking of the lady who told me, after 9/11, that she would never enter a skyscraper again. As if, because of this atrocity, every tall building in America — and how many thousands of those do we have? — was suddenly suspect. And I’m thinking of my late Aunt Ruth who, at the height of the anthrax scare, required my uncle to open the mail on the front lawn after which, she received it wearing latex gloves.

I am also thinking of the country itself, which, in response to the 9/11 attacks, launched two wars — one more than necessary — at a ruinous cost in lives, treasure and credibility that will haunt us for years.

Have you ever seen a martial artist leverage a bigger opponent’s size against him, make him hurt himself without ever throwing a punch? That’s the moral of 9/11. The last 12 years have shown us how easily we ourselves can become the weapon terrorists use against us. This is especially true when video footage exists (How many times have you seen the Twin Towers destroyed?). After all, getting the word out, spreading fear like a contagion, is the whole point of the exercise.

That could not have been plainer Wednesday. Having reportedly run the soldier, Lee Rigby, down with a car, having hacked him to pieces with machetes, these men did not blow themselves up and they did not run. No, they spoke their manifestos, their claims of Muslim grievance, into the cellphone cameras of passers-by.

Almost instantly, this was all over television and the Internet. Almost instantly the voices of impotent men were magnified to a global roar. Almost instantly, we all stood witness.

Terrorism uses its minimal power to achieve maximum effect and this is easier than ever on a planet that is now electronically networked and technologically webbed. Our connectivity is an exploitable vulnerability.

But in the end, no, these people cannot destroy us. Can they grieve us? Certainly. But they cannot destroy us unless we help them do it.

Their most lasting violence is not physical, but psychological — the imposition of fear, the loss of security. We cannot control what such people do. But we can control our reaction thereto. So let it be finally understood: From time to time, we will face the desperate evil of impotent men. But the only power they have is the power we give them.

I propose we give them none.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, May 27, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Terrorism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Use And Abuse Of Freedom”: The Elements Of Words That Explain The Mess We’re In

Last week David Brooks had an interesting column about a couple of studies that surveyed key words in a body of writings. (No, we’re not talking about tax examiners looking for Tea Party among applications.) He describes the “two elements” that he found:

“The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

“The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently. The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent. ”

The question I have–and would have tried to answer, had not my attempts to find these studies through google led me to data bases that thwarted my efforts to access the pieces–is this: how did the word `freedom’ do?

One of the biggest changes in my adult life is what has happened to freedom, not just as a word, but as a value. It is, it seems to me, the only value Americans put much stock in. Equality, in which immigrants and labor unions invested so much energy and support and devotion during the first part of the 20th century, now seems a hostage of identity group politics. Freedom is it–it’s what we appeal to for everything, from gay marriage to Wall Street shortcuts to environmental pollution to smoking pot to war (Free Kuwait! Iraqi freedom!) These are the years of freedom triumphant, and boy, if anything explains the mess we’re in, it’s freedom. Try arguing for something in terms of Community, or Sacrifice. Go to Congress and make a case for Majority Rule, and you’ll get an earful from Ted Cruz and Rand Paul about the freedom of the minority to thwart the majority.

More than anyone, Ronald Reagan put us on this path. I can’t imagine a figure who would be able to get us to rebalance our values.

 

By: Jamie Malanowski, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 26, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Renegade Chop Shop”: Five Reasons Ronald Reagan Couldn’t Make It In Today’s GOP

Former Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole slammed the state of the Republican Party over the weekend, telling Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace that the GOP should be “closed for repairs” and lamenting that some of the most famous Republicans would have no chance at becoming party leaders in the Tea Party era.

“I doubt [I could fit in with the modern party],” Dole said. “Reagan wouldn’t have made it, certainly Nixon wouldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”

While Dole’s criticism of his party’s current platform could be debated, his assertion that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have prospered in the current political climate is pretty much unassailable. Here are five reasons that Republicans’ favorite Republican could never fit in with today’s party:

Taxes

Although modern Republicans have posthumously deified Reagan as the patron saint of tax cuts, he actually signed at least 10 tax increases totaling $132.7 billion during his eight years as president, and had raised taxes several times before that as governor of California.

Ideologically “pure” Republicans like Eric Cantor may deny it, but if Reagan ran today, he would completely flunk Grover Norquist’s anti-tax test, and be eaten alive by the Tea Party.

The Deficit

Modern Republicans tend to portray the federal budget deficit as an economic and moral issue of the highest importance — an attitude that Reagan echoed when he declared the deficit to be “out of control” shortly after taking office in January, 1981. Once he was in the Oval Office, however, Reagan began enacting policies that would infamously lead Vice President Dick Cheney to scoff that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Within two years the deficit had nearly tripled, reaching $208 billion, and by the time Reagan left office it was at $155 billion; during Reagan’s two terms America went from being the world’s largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.

In fairness, this is the one position on this list that the right may have been able to forgive. After all, as former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum once said, “We’re all Keynesians during Republican administrations.”

Immigration

Long before Rick Perry’s “oops” heard ’round the world, the Texas governor’s presidential ambitions were already on life support due to his refusal to disavow a law providing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants — a position that got him vociferously booed at a Tea Party-sponsored debate.

If the crowd couldn’t handle that benign position from Perry, they certainly wouldn’t have liked the fact that Reagan granted legal status to about three million undocumented immigrants when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. If you’d like to know what the right’s criticism might have sounded like, look no further than Tea Party representative Steve King (R-IA), who recently blamed the ’86 reform for President Obama’s election.

Israel

Reagan’s complicated relationship with Israel is yet another issue on which he and the Republican Party’s right wing could never have agreed — not after the Reagan administration called on Israel to adopt a total settlement freeze and place its nuclear facilities under international supervision, and sold highly advanced military jets to Saudi Arabia. Not to mention Reagan’s 1985 trip to Germany, where he initially declined to visit the site of a concentration camp but agreed to lay a wreath at a cemetery containing the remains of 49 members of the Waffen-SS. As Haaretz‘s Chemi Salev put it, “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

Gun Reform

Even if Reagan had somehow managed to survive all of the other issues on this list, his support for expanded gun sale background checks and an assault weapon ban would certainly have killed his chances of winning over the GOP base. Although Reagan — who was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 — makes for a sympathetic gun reform advocate, if Republicans can attack Sandy Hook parents, they could certainly have gone after the Gipper.

Plus, the “he only supported gun control because he was senile” excuse wouldn’t work quite as well for an active candidate.

 

By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, May 27, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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