Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eternal life: A Weak Vision

Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell by John Shelby Spong
1 of 5 stars

John Shelby Spong is a poor writer and not much better a thinker. I have read several of his books and it is always the same deal. Spong presents unoriginal ideas as his own unique discoveries (when far greater minds have articulated these ideas long before). It gets worse. He congratulates himself for his "great knowledge" of science and history and then proceeds to explain science and history in a superficial and often factually inaccurate way. This book is no exception, as we see the arrogant Spong brag about how much he knows and then make false claims like saying Newton understood that his science undermined supernaturalism. Spong apparently never bothered to learn that Newton was interested in alchemy, Bible prophecy, and had puritanical religious views.

Even worse: Spong presents the history of religion as an outright self-deception in which human beings torture and persecute each other, all to protect themselves from their fear of death. In Spong's world religion is nothing more then a hateful, cruel, and oppressive tool wielded for nothing but destruction. Spong does this in every book, and he once again shows that he has no understanding of history whatsoever. This one sided negative portrait of religion is just plain silly, and Spong - who claims to be so learned and well-read - should actually know better. Spong clearly sees himself as superior to the great theological minds of the past. In order to keep up this illusion, Spong weaves an utterly unhistorical narrative in which all thinkers in Christian history hold the views and posses the intellectual acumen of Fred Phelps and John Hagee. Anyone who has ever read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, or other great “doctors” will see instantly that Spong's portrait of past Christian thinking is uniformed and foolish.

Spong's positive conclusions are not much better. He argues that God is "not an external being 'out there'" but "the ground of being, and source of love." I agree with that assessment. Unfortunately Spong NEVER explains what these terms mean and leaves us with language designed to give us the warm fuzzies, but lacking any substance. For instance, Spong tells us that God is "our true selves" or the "depth of our self-consciousness," but says nothing whatsoever about what that might mean or how this works. He appeals frequently to Paul Tillich but seems incapable of understanding Tillich’s ideas or his arguments. Many Christian thinkers, for several centuries now, have rejected the supernatural conception of a person-like deity. But this does not stop Spong from presenting this as his own unique discovery. Even more disturbing, and unlike other thinkers with similar views, Spong offers no argument for his “discovery” or any real explanation of what it means.

Spong next discusses Meister Eckhart, and it is clear he does not understand the Meister either. He presents Eckhart as a man who discarded all doctrine and creed in favor of "feelings" about "the God within," this is a superficial and silly reading of the great mystic and only shows, once again, that Spong is incapable of anything but shallow readings of past thinkers. The mystics, for Spong, point us to an "eternal life" which has "neither heaven nor hell."

Finally, after an autobiographical chapter in which he portrays himself as a great hero who has overcome the narrow and ignorant religious past, Spong finally states his conclusion. It is very weak. Spong tells us that we "participate in eternity" because we are one with everything and our self-consciousness goes beyond space and time. This is an impersonal immortality in which the "essence" of what we are - our knowing and our loving - is essentially eternal. Furthermore, all though there is no "place" where we will socialize with those we loved and knew in life, our essences are interdependent and so we are eternally part of each other just as we are part of God.

This conclusion is not unreasonable. I believe something like it myself. But Spong offers no clarification of his position and no argument for it. He does not tell us how this differs from personal immortality except to say there are no heavens and hells where rewards and punishments are delivered. Does any memory survive? Personality? Spong does not say. And why should we believe something like this "eternal life" is real? Spong simply seems to think we can "feel" the truth of his claims. That is not very convincing.

Far better minds have argued for this impersonal "eternal life" on far better grounds. And these thinkers don't share Spong's conceit, nor his shallow understanding of the past and past thinkers. I recommend Paul Tillich, Rudolf Otto, or even J. A. T. Robinson over this dismal effort.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

The case for Vegetarianism

First full disclosure. Strictly speaking I'm not a vegetarian. I eat Seafood, eggs, and dairy. I don't eat poultry or beef, and my eggs and dairy are free-range, local, and organic, but still, more strict vegetarians and, of course, vegans might say I am not "really" a vegetarian. I am what is sometimes called a Pesci-Vegetarian (I eat fish and other seafood, but no other meat).Now to the argument.

I begin with a negative claim: I do not think it is always morally wrong to eat animals. It is natural and some groups of people (e.g. Eskimo living in the Alaskan wilderness) must eat animals to survive. It seems to me, however, that we have good reasons to refrain from eating some animals.

The special features that human beings possess are typically regarded as giving them special moral status. In philosophy we call this "personhood" and speak of those who have these properties as "persons." The relevant moral features for attributing personhood to a being are: Self-awareness, rational decision making, and the ability to think abstractly.

Some animals appear to have these faculties, perhaps not to the degree that we have and exercise them, but they have them to a degree. For instance, there is good evidence that Chimps, Dolphins, and some Whales have these capacities and are therefore "persons"

Of course most of us don't eat these particular animals - although they are often hunted and killed for human use - so it may not mean much. But we don't eat Dogs and Cats either (at least not in Western cultures) and pigs are as intelligent as dogs so why do we eat Pigs? We regard Dogs as too smart and too lovable to eat, if pigs are comparable on both these points, then we have no rational ground for eating pigs. If we lived in an environment where we had to eat meat to survive and pigs were the the only - or one of the few - animals we could kill and eat, this would be perfectly understandable. But we live in a technological society where we can live in full health and receive full nutritional value without eating Pigs. So what then is the case for eating them?

There is, in fact, a good case against eating mammals in general. The late Carl Sagan argued convincingly in The Dragons of Eden that "love seems to be an invention of the mammals" (67). Given the fact that mammals give live birth and their young need an extended period of care by their parents, love is an evolutionary necessity that begins with mammalian life.

We humans place a great value on love. We consider it the most wonderful thing we can experience, the meaning and value of our life. Many even declare that "God is love." Clearly the ability to love is something quite remarkable. Of course, lower mammals don't "love" in the strict sense. The argument is that the genesis of love is present in the mammals. Mammals also have the highest intelligence of animal life.

Most mammals certainly don't qualify as persons, but the qualities of personhood are present in most of the mammals we eat; albeit in a rudimentary and primitive form.

As I said before, none of this would be a problem if we had to eat mammals to survive or to be healthy. But we don't. There is extremely strong evidence that a vegetarian diet is not only healthy, but healthier than a carnivorous diet.

None of this of course applies to poultry. And I have no argument against eating poultry in principle. We must remember, however, the cruel treatment of animals in commercial factory farming.

The following video is typical of Factory farming (Warning there are graphic images here):

This to me is the main argument. Eating animals is not, at least for me, a serious moral failing. But the cruel, brutal, and painful way factory farms treat animals is absolutely horrifying. I think we have a moral duty not to support factory farms. Of course, one could buy all ones meat from small local farms that treat their animals with far greater compassion. In fact, this is what I do with my eggs and dairy and for this very reason. But many cannot afford this. And I still think my argument that we should avoid eating mammals because of the level of their intellect and their capability of feeling love (at least at some level) holds even for well treated mammals.

Finally, it follows from this that we cannot morally kill animals to wear them as fur or leather either. Many people have a gut reaction to all of this. They hold that we simply have a right to eat animals, to treat them however we want, and to use them for whatever purpose we see fit - no matter how cruel our treatment of them. In response I ask some questions, what are your arguments for this? On what grounds do you believe we can torture animals by forcing them into horrible living conditions? On what grounds do you bestow on human beings the right to freely abuse other creatures?

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bishop Gene Robinson takes Obama to task

In this clip Bishop Gene Robinson explains why Obama's understanding of "inclusiveness" is misguided. The Bishop also shares his thoughts on health care reform and the public option:

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Robert Reich calls for action

In this brief video, Robert Reich explains the public option and why he believes it is essential to real reform. He ends with a call for action.

Please act everyone! Call, write, tweet, and email your representatives. March, rally, spread information! Do everything you can!!! This is a chance for something real in health care reform we cannot let it slip away.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Healing of America: Book Review

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book on Health insurance coverage that I have ever read. Anyone who wants to understand what is wrong with the current system of health insurance in the United States and what the genuine options for reform are must read this book.

The well-known facts of the troubles with our health care coverage are here: Millions uninsured, millions more under-insured, homes lost and personal bankruptcies endured even by the fully insured, premiums rising three to four times as fast as wages, more and more claims partially or wholly denied by health insurance companies, and our GDP being eaten up by the huge costs of our private health care system.

Unless one is ideologically blind or simply radically uniformed, these facts are well known, well documented (Kaiser family foundation, various Harvard studies, Commonwealth, WHO, CBO) and all too real to millions of suffering Americans. What is less well known is how other countries provide better insurance companies.

No other country spends anything like what we do on health care. Despite this, nearly every other industrialized country has better outcomes; longer life-spans, more healthy years after 60, less infant mortality, and better treatment for chronic ailments and they do all this while providing basic health care coverage to every man woman and child in their country.

This is where Reid's book makes its best contribution. In the United States both Liberals and Conservatives frame the debate as a contest between "socialized medicine" and our current "free-market" health care system. Liberals point to the abuses of a private-for-profit system and argue that we must have a single-payer system, a system in which the government pays all the bills (though doctors and hospitals are still private). Conservatives rage against this, fearing long waits, rationed care, and diminished quality.

Reid demonstrates that this debate between single-payer and free-market approaches creates a false dilemma. There are a number of ways in which other nations provide universal and affordable health care. Some of these countries use single-payer and some do not. The facts are clearly against the conservative claim that the free-market is best for health care coverage. But equally the evidence strongly suggests that a single-payer is not necessary for universal coverage and quite possibly not even the best way to provide it.

Reid travels to a number of countries: France, Switzerland, Japan, The United Kingdom, and Canada. Each of these countries has better health care outcomes than the United States, covers everyone, and pays far less than we do. But here is the twist: They do not all use "socialized medicine."

The UK is closest to a socialized system with their NHS. This system does have problems with funding and sometimes results in long wait times for elective surgery. But it reports higher satisfaction than the American system. likewise, Canada offers a single-payer model in which doctors and hospitals remain privately owned and operated but the government acts as the sole insurer. This system too has better outcomes than the United States. There are, however, real problems with limited resources, long waits for elective procedures, and underfunding.

A better model is found in France and Germany. Both countries use something called the "Bismark" model. This model relies on private doctors, private hospitals, and even private insurance. But the private insurance in France and Germany is nothing like its American counterpart. In these countries the government controls prices that doctors and hospitals charge, insurance companies are required by law to cover every claim sent to them, and are non-profit social businesses; they don't make money for CEOs and investors. Furthermore, Employers are required by law to cover their employees and everyone is legally required to buy insurance.

France and Germany have far better health outcomes than the United States (and even than England and Canada) for far less costs. Even better, France and Germany have shorter wait times than not only Canada and England, but also the United States. Everyone is covered and patient satisfaction is very high. This is what happens when the profit motive is removed from health care.

Reid concludes with a moral case for Universal and affordable health care. It is, he argues, simply a moral duty for a society to cover all its members. A civilization that allows only those who can afford it access to care is neither democratic or fair. If we wish to fulfill our moral duty we must recognize the right of all to affordable health care.

Reid did a documentary on the same theme as this book for Frontline. It is well worth seeing and can be found in its entirety here

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Reclaiming Labor day

Labor day is nothing more than a day of grilling burgers, drinking beer, and - for may - not even getting the day off work. This is very sad. Labor day was originally a celebration of the labor movements. Organized labor greatly improved conditions for working people.

Not too long ago, workers worked 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week, year around. They had no workman's comp, no overtime, few holidays, no pensions, no benefits, no unions, no minimum wage and many worked as children before the labor movements abolished child labor.

Labor day was supposed to be a reminder of what workers achieved and a reminder of the importance of their rights. Sadly, no one thinks of these things any more when they celebrate labor day.

The following video from The History Channel on the origins and meaning of labor day is very informative. In it, we learn a little about the labor movement and how hard many working people fought for more humane working conditions.

If you look around you this labor day, you will find that the day has lost its meaning. Many Americans work on labor day (hardly fitting for a day in honor of workers' rights), and the dignity and rights of working people are not even thought about, let alone celebrated.

Labor day was meant to provide national recognition for working people: living wages, caps on hours, 2 days a week off, overtime, workman's comp, unions ... the great achievements of the labor movement are what we need to remember. Sadly, we live in a time where giant corporations and their tools in Washington have long been at work crushing unions, making sure wages don't go up too much, and undoing the rights of working people everywhere.

This Labor day, let us do more than light up the BBQ and drink cheap beer. Let's return power to the labor movement. Let us stand up together and demand that Washington listen to working people and not merely obey their corporate masters.

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bill Moyers to Obama: "You are a weakling and a coward."

In this video clip Bill Moyers says, more clearly than any yet have, what is wrong with Barack Obama. In short, Mr. Obama is a coward. He is too frightened of Republicans, big corporations, the media, the "tea-baggers," and even his own Party. Mr. Obama is going to compromise away the lives and prosperity of the American People.

Here is Bill Moyers' video essay:

Remarkable! Bill Moyers is the most honest man in journalism and I thank God we have him. Barack Obama was elected largely by the efforts of liberal groups and the support of progressive members of congress.

But now, according to White House sources, Obama is going to drop his support (weak as that has been) for the public option and scold liberals who say they won't vote for a bill without a robust public plan. In short, Obama is going to complete what has so far has been the central tendency of his Presidency, he is going to throw those who elected him under the bus.

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