Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- March, 2002

One Nation, Under God, Divisible

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

Published in The Democratic Underground, March 26, 2002
The Smirking Chimp, March 27, 2002

Adapted for inclusion in Chapter Twenty of Conscience of a Progressive.

  It is such a great blessing to live in this free country!
You have the right to worship God in your way, 
And I have the right to worship God in His way.

(Source Unknown)

What are we doing from morning to night, but setting up our own fancies as a measure of all heaven and earth and saying, each in his own dialect, Whig, Tory, Radical, Papist or Protestant, "When it pleases Heaven to open your eyes, you will see as I do."

Charles Kingsley


"Who are you to disagree with God Almighty, the Creator of the universe?"

That daunting rebuke was thrown at me more than thirty years ago by an evangelical minister, as I argued on "the Long John Nebel" radio talk show, in New York City. It was neither the first nor the last time that I was so challenged. No doubt, most of us have heard such a rebuke, and more than a few of us have spoken it.

I believe that the point at issue was the doctrine of salvation through acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's personal savior. It could just as well have been the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy or creationism.

My reply, as I recall, was "it would never occur to me to disagree with God Almighty, were I assured that I was hearing the voice of God Himself. But all that I am hearing at this table, Reverend, is your voice. And as we both know, there is no shortage of individuals who totally disagree with you, and claim that they, not you, are preaching God's eternal truths."

History provides an unending chronicle of ruthless suppression of "your error" in behalf of "God's truth" (the latter in exclusive possession of "me and my faction"). "My way" (i.e. God's way) "or no way!" We see this today in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia.. 

And now we see it in the United States. 

The harbingers are abundant and clear. For example, in the abortion controversy, the "pro-choice" position (which has never advocated mandatory abortions) is opposed by "pro-life" advocates (who insists upon forcing women to continue pregnancies they wish to terminate). Conservative Christians have repeatedly attempted to prevent the teaching of evolution in the public schools, while it never occurs to the scientist to forbid the teaching of creationism in the churches. (Scientists have, however, successfully resisted the attempt to introduce creationism into the public schools as a "science," which virtually all scientists and the Courts agree it is not). Finally, the Lord's wrath, we are told, will be loosed upon our country if we do not restore prayer in the public schools, thus requiring, once again, that some children hear or even utter prayers to a Deity that they and their parents do not recognize. 

About sports, musical and artistic tastes, and even politics, individuals can amicably "agree to disagree." After all, the other fellow is a human being like ourselves, and equal before the law, and who's to say, he may just know something that we don't.

But when it comes to matters of religion, the other fellow, we are told, is not simply disagreeing with "us," he is at odds with the Lord God Almighty Himself, and his soul is in danger of hellfire. And that sort of "error" has no rights.

Few pause to consider that "the other fellow" just might have a mirror-image view of things, whereby he is confident that he holds that ticket to Paradise, while the rest of us are unwitting minions of Satan.

And it is just this kind of bifurcation of humanity into two groups the "enlightened elect" ("our" group, of course), and all those others that sanctions wars and ethnic conflicts and which, if we are not all duly cautious, might turn this blessed nation into an Ulster, a Kosovo, or a West Bank.

A belief that the Lord God favors our religious community above all others, can lead to some truly bizarre, and, I suggest, morally outrageous, beliefs and behavior. Examples are abundant in history, literature, and even the current news reports. However, I prefer to state a case from my own experience.

I was raised in an authoritarian-exclusive Christian religion (never mind which). One of the practices of this group was a regular recitation of "faith-promoting stories" of God's personal blessings upon the "True Believers." One day, when I was in my early teens, a very intelligent, well-educated corporate attorney, a man of absolute and uncompromising faith, told us of the time that he was scheduled to present a report to his company. On the night before the presentation, as he was hard at work on the report, and with about a half-hour of work remaining he ran into a "wall" of fatigue. Desperate, he fell to his knees and prayed the Lord God to help him. He reported that a great peace fell over him, and that he was led to understand that if he retired immediately, he would awake refreshed in the morning with the energy and presence of mind to complete the assignment. So great was his faith, along with his wish not to disturb his wife, that he didn't set the alarm clock, and sure enough, he awoke early and completed the report "as promised."

Everyone in the congregation was duly impressed and their faith validated by this story.

And then, I began to reflect on it. By back-dating to the approximate time of this divine intervention, I figured that it was contemporaneous with the time that millions of European Jews were being led into the Nazi gas chambers a time when mothers and fathers were praying to the Lord of Israel to spare, if not themselves, then their children.

Tragically, as we all know, these prayers were unanswered. Even so, I was asked to believe that at that same time the Almighty Creator of the Universe saw fit to deliver, like a night clerk at a motel, a wake-up call to our worthy friend, for the greater good of his employer. 

This was not the message that the Lord gave to Job "out of the whirlwind."

Due, in part, to such "faith-promoting stories" as this, my childhood faith soon began to unravel, and I eventually went off to college to become a philosopher.

I submit that such tales are not atypical of "true believers" of exclusive religious organizations. For example, Pat Robertson claims that the power of prayer altered the path of a hurricane that was headed toward his home and college. He did not explain why the individuals victimized by this holy diversion, deserved their suffering and losses. Similarly, Jerry Falwell proposed and Pat Robertson agreed that the 9-11 attacks were manifestations of God's displeasure at the United States for its tolerance of the abominable gays, abortionists and the ACLU. And yet, most of those in the twin towers that fateful morning were not gay, were not patrons of abortionists, and were not card-carrying members of the ACLU. Neither were their bereaved families. Falwell has not told us why these individuals were deserving objects of the Wrath of God.

The mind-sets of a Falwell or a Robertson are not dissimilar from those who are capable of strapping a bomb to their belts and walking into an Israeli marketplace, or (to balance the ledger) willing to assassinate an Israeli Prime Minister on a mission of peace with his Palestinian neighbors.

Please understand that I fully acknowledge that the Nazi Holocaust was an atrocity unparalleled in human history. Moreover, there is no ethnic group (including my own) that I respect more than the Jewish people, who have contributed to world literature, art and science to a degree far out of proportion to their numbers.

But at the same time, I recognize that the Palestinians are among the most highly educated and cosmopolitan of Arabic nations, who have occupied their land for centuries since, and before, the scattering of the Jewish nation in 79 AD. Moreover (as few westerners are aware) it was the Arabs who preserved Ancient Greek philosophy, and who made significant advances in science and mathematics, while my ancestors in Northern Europe endured the poverty and ignorance of the Dark Ages.

Finally, those who take Biblical authority more literally than I do, should be reminded that The Lord's (alleged) covenant to Abraham promised the land of Israel to "the seed of Abraham," which included through the lineage of Hager and Ishmael, the Arabs. (Cf. Our "The Holy Land" and "Warriors of the Lord").

To a neutral observer who affords Christians, Jews and Moslems equal respect for their devoutly held religious views, a fair resolution of the strife between the Israelis and Palestinians seems quite straightforward. The Holy Sites in Jerusalem should be administered by an international body, with representation within by members of each religious group. Unfortunately, with both sides of this conflict believing, respectively, that God favors their cause (and with each side supported by like-minded allies far beyond the borders of the region), no such reasonable resolution is in sight, and this dreadful conflict appears to be fated to continue indefinitely.

Finding no lesson from the history of religious conflict nor guidance in Constitutional law and precedence, the Bush II administration now proposes that federal funds be directed to "faith-based" (read religious) agencies (read churches). No state "establishment of religion" involved, they tell us. I am dubious. No doubt, more applications for government largesse will be received than can be granted. How will the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology fare in competition with the Southern Baptists? The moment a choice is made (by a government agency, of course) religious "recognition" and preference will be manifest. And so, under this "Big Government" system, the needy faithful will be cared for, provided they associate with an "approved" "faith-based agency" (i.e., church). Those in need who are atheists, agnostics, "cultists," or simply believers who choose to march to the sound of their own drummer, must move to the back of the queue. Whereupon protests will result, and the nation will be religiously divided.

Far better that we follow the good advice of those who wrote and ratified the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The way out of civil and international strife is as simple as it is unlikely. It consists of the acceptance by a "critical mass" of the public and its leaders of just two elements:

  • Acknowledge that someone, somewhere, has a contrary religious or philosophical belief, which he or she embraces with a fervor and certainty equal to, or possibly even greater than, your own. (In fact, such individuals number in the billions, and they are everywhere).

  • And then entertain a possibility, however remote to your credulity, that this other individual just might be right and you wrong or even that all of us frail mortals are mistaken in at least some small degree about our fundamental religious convictions.

That much accomplished, then we can proceed with our lives, firm in our convictions, but tolerant of others and willing in principle to alter our beliefs in the face of superior evidence and argument.

An enduring facet of Judeo-Christian morality calls this "humility," and regards it a virtue.

Philosophers of science call this falliblism.   It is a firm foundation both for scientific investigation and for civil peace. And it should suffice for enlightened religious faith.

After all, "what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)


Copyright 2001 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .