Friday, November 2, 2007

Religion and Politics

In a recent email concerning Denish D'Souza's article, one of our members said:

Can we afford to live by the rules and regulations of some stone-age desert people who had less knowledge and understanding of the world than a 10-year-old has today (geography, physics, biology, etc.)? And lastly, can we afford to be ruled by people who claim that god told them what to do, (invade Iraq, for example)?

Joel responds:

Although as an atheist, I'm skeptical of those who lean too heavily on communication with a god, I grant respect to their beliefs. It is true that President Carter got us into a mess in the Middle-East (and elsewhere) by virtue of his pacifist religious beliefs. However, as with George Bush, this was based upon religious values, not based upon direct communication with God. Talking to God is not the same as holding a two way conversation. One can ask for enlightenment or with help fighting personal demons, as Carter claimed he did when he fought against "sinning in his mind."

The so-called religious right has no monopoly on religious principles which may have an impact on public policy. The religious left is extremely powerful even if the media do not demonize them with those words. The Quakers whose creed is based upon their reading of the words of Jesus concerning turning the other cheek, are devoted to pacifist activities and public protest. I note that President Clinton sent his daughter to a Quaker (Society of Friends) school and that Governor Michael Dukakis was trained at a Quaker school. It is seldom that one will not find an American Society of Friends involvement in war protest, gay rights marches and death penalty vigils. Activists (and presidents) on both the right and left deserve our respect for their values even if we don't agree with them.

One may argue issues without pretending that there is no basis for discussion, because one's opponent is some kind of nut who hears the voice of God in his or her head. If our media were not so biased, we would hear more about the political activities of the Society of Friends, and we would recognize that religious pressure groups have influence on both sides of the aisle. (We were fortunate in our philosophy club to have a talk by a member who went to a Quaker school as well as a member who was active in constructing telephone trees for the purpose of activating protests at a moments notice). Is this an interference of religious belief in politics or a natural expression of people of like values in public affairs?

With respect -Joel


Ira Glickstein said...

Did President George W. Bush claim he had heard directly from God?

I found three published versions of what Bush supposedly said to Palestinian leaders Shaath and Abbas:

VERSION #1: Direct quotes of what God said to Bush "I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,' and I did. ... I feel God's words coming to me: 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.' And by God, I'm gonna do it."

VERSION #2: Paraphrase of what God told Bush "God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."

VERSION #3: God merely "inspired" Bush "God inspired me to hit al Qaeda, and so I hit it. And I had the inspiration to hit Saddam, and so I hit him. Now I am determined to solve the Middle East problem if you help. Otherwise the elections will come and I will be wrapped up with them."

These quotes are the victims of multiple translations. Bush said something in English, a note-taker recorded them in Arabic, Shaath or Abbas, reading from the Arabic notes (or, more likely, from their own memories) spoke them in Arabic, and then they were re-translated to English and published in newspapers.

As far as I know, there is no tape recording of Bush saying those exact words, and the Palestinians are not the most reliable sources.

A better source is Bob Woodward, who claims Bush, after giving the Iraq invasion order, said he prayed "that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty ... I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will. ... I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray that I will be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then of course, I pray for forgiveness."

And then you get the YouTube version:, which, like the email Joel quoted, reduces the matter to a myth that "God told me to invade Iraq".

I don't know exactly what Bush told the Palestinian leaders. He was trying to get their cooperation and, understandably, was appealing to their religious convictions and sharing his. Though I doubt it, he may even have quoted God's words. More likely, he simply said "God inspires me" and the Palestinians, via the translator, may have added "God's words" in quote marks.

Ira Glickstein

PS: In the previous main Topic, I (Ira) wrote "...the idea came as if 'God' had shouted it in my ear". Had I spoken that line, without the visible "scare quotes" around "God", and had my remarks been translated to Arabic and back to English, God knows what people might have had me saying or believing.

PPS: Let me be clear. I did not and do not hear the voice of God in my head! I do get inspirations whose exact source is not clear to me, as I assume all of you do. I know these inspirations come from the workings of my own sub-conscious mind. When I say or write "...the idea came as if 'God' had shouted it in my ear" I am merely being dramatic.

Ira Glickstein said...

Steve has given me permision to share a recent email exchange I had with him:

Steve Wrote:

I've read your blog comments, and those posted by Joel, with great interest. You raise a good point about the reliability of translations of Bush statements suggesting that he is directed by God.

But Bush also said that he believes God wants Iraq to be free, which suggests that he really does believe in a personal God directing him as Commander-in-Chief of the Iraq war.

This raises the larger issue of whether politicians suffering from the God delusion should be trusted with presidential powers.

I'm glad you read the Richard Dawkins book and would be interested in your additional comments.

I've also read God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, which is even more negative and atheistic than The God Delusion. Recent works (which I have not read) by Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett also may be of interest.

Richard Dawkins wrote, in The God Delusion:

"The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason."

I wish more commentators would distinguish between belief in deism and theism when discussing belief in God.

Ira replied:

Thanks for your thoughtful email comments about the Blog and I am happy you are reading it.

I believe Bush, like the majority of Americans, has a literal belief in a personal God, even if you and I do not. Anyone with such a belief would naturally think that God favors their rightful actions.

If there was a God interested in human affairs, would not He or She want Iraq (and all other countries) to be free?

As for your suggestion (echoing Dawkins) that those who have a literal belief in a personal God should not be allowed to hold high office, do you (and he) not believe in REPRESENTATIVE government? Would you establish an ELITIST ruling class?

One of my heros, William F. Buckley, wrote that he would rather have the government run by the first fifty names in the Boston phone book than by the political science faculties of Harvard and Yale! Of course, fortunately, that is not the choice voters are given.

However, would *you* like our government to be run by the political science faculties of any college? It would be a disaster!

As I've said in the Blog, the Iraq war is mostly about OIL

However, Bush (and I) believe the best way to assure this vital commodity for us and other westernized countries would be to westernize the Muslim Middle East, to the extent possible.

Given the relatively advanced state of Iraqi literacy, their supposed relative lack of sectarianism (at least prior to the war), and their potentially great oil resources, that seemed like a great place to plant something like democracy and start a chain reaction in the Mid East.

Thus, Bush was not lying when he spoke about spreading democracy there. It was (and still is) a terrific strategic move. Although I am discouraged, I still believe it may succeed!

Bottom line: Keep your eye on the OIL and use democracy (or something like it) to topple fundamentalist Islam.

The quote you reproduce from Dawkins about " act of intellectual high treason" also caught my eye when I read it. I think it is an irresponsible charge worthy of Ann Coulter (and I said so in a posting to the Blog, see I wrote:

"He [Dawkins] acknowledges Einstein's pantheistic God and quotes Hawking and others who use the term 'God' in that vein. Dawkins then makes an incredible charge (worthy of Ann Coulter :^) when he says (p19): "... Deliberately to confuse the [metaphorical God of the physicists and the God of the Bible] is, in my opinion, AN ACT OF INTELLECTUAL HIGH TREASON. [EMPHASIS added]"

I [Ira] am a pantheist in the Spinoza/Einstein/Hawking tradition. Our God is more than a "metaphorical" one. It is a force for general improvement of life forms and civilization and understanding and so on. Through natural means (evolution and natural selection of genes and memes) it has brought forth human life and society and a general improvement in conditions on Earth.

Dawkins states (pg 141) "Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement."

Part of that general improvement has been and continues to be the memes that support the larger society. Of all those memes, the idea of a personal God who cares for us and punishes those who "sin" and so on has been the cement that holds societies together.

Nature and societal evolution would not have invested so much in religion and the human brain structures and costs to society to support the "God delusion" unless religious faith was absolutely necessary to the larger "goal" of cumulative, continual improvement Dawkins cites.

Thus, the pervasive belief in a personal God is subsumed by my belief in a Universal God. Spinoza says that God has multiple aspects, of which we humans are privileged to view only two (1-"extension" - which is space and matter and energy, and 2-"thought" - which is spirit and ideas and religious faith). There are many, many aspects of God we cannot see, and, for me, that includes a belief that may not be literally true but is extraordinarily important, the idea of a personal God.

For me, pantheism subsumes deism and theism and any and all belief systems that generally pave what Dawkins calls the "cumulative one-way street to improvement." I have trouble distinguishing the "God" inherent in each of these belief systems. True, some give a peculiar name (or names) to God (or gods) and all add details that are critical to them but of no real consequence to me. Rather than draw a line around them and include them OUT, I'd rather draw a line around me and them and include them IN.

The animals in Aesop's Fables are not literally real or true to life -- BUT, the truths they teach are far more real than even the most accurate historical accounts. In that way, they *ARE* TRUTH COMPACTED INTO FICTIONAL ACOUNTS.

Steve replied:

This is close to my belief in The Creator. However, I'm doubtful that He intervenes to improve conditions on Earth.

[Posted by Ira with Steve's permission]