Regardless of whether one believes that our desire to be good comes from God or from our evolutionary past, Humanists and theists can work together to build a more just society. They can work together to help alleviate poverty, hunger, and suffering. They can work together to protect and sustain our planet. And, together, they can find happiness and fulfillment in the effort. –
My Hartford Faith & Values blog is up – and I’m not saying nice things about Bill Nye’s decision to debate Ken Ham at the Creation Museum.
A group of Hartford Area Humanists recently met in a member’s home on a snowy morning for a group conversation about death and bereavement. This gathering was part of Hartford Area Humanists’ ongoing discussion on “Rational Spirituality.” While many Humanists eschew any mention of spirituality, dismissing it as supernatural “woo-woo” unworthy of serious discussion, others embrace spirituality as a natural human phenomenon that is not dependent upon anything supernatural. These “rational spiritualists” seek to live a happier and more fulfilling life by exploring the deeper aspects of being human.
Sandy Hook Elementary School. Image courtesy of HartfordFAVs
It was no coincidence that we discussed death and bereavement on the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings. Tragedies such as Sandy Hook raise difficult questions for Humanists. In the weeks after Sandy Hook, New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman pointedly asked “where were the humanists?”, noting that, while Humanist and other secular groups raised money and held anti-gun rallies, there was no visible Humanist presence offering solace to the victims’ families. Atlanta Page, a Christian blogger writing in Examiner.com, declared that Humanists have nothing to offer the bereaved in the wake of such tragedies, arguing that only faith in a loving God and belief in an afterlife can sooth those facing the otherwise unbearable grief of lives taken too soon. Ms. Page argues that, while the Humanist stance that people should find meaning and purpose during our lives may be work well when celebrating the end of a long and rich life, that approach is inadequate in responding to the tragic and violent death of children.
Implicit in the accusation that Humanism has nothing to offer the bereaved is the assumption that the Humanist worldview is not an effective way of dealing with tragedy.
Thousands of protesters gathered yesterday at Wal-Marts throughout the country. They targeted our largest retailer on the busiest shopping day of the year to make a point: there are not enough hours in the week for many Americans to earn a living wage at the low wages paid by many companies. Wal-mart earned about $17 billion in profits last year, yet the average Wal-Mart employee requires about $2,000/year in public assistance. Taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart’s payroll, because they are not paying workers a living wage.
Yes, the minimum wage needs to be raised. But, that is going to take time in the current political climate. In the meantime, consumers should support businesses that pay their employees decent wages. Companies like Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Quicktrip have won recognition by paying higher than industry averages. They have proven that paying a living wage can be a profitable strategy, because there is less turnover and better performance when employees are paid and treated well.
Wages will rise when more businesses realize that paying a living wage is good for business. And, more businesses will get that message when consumers spend their money at stores and restaurants that that treat their employees fairly. We have Fair Trade certifications for coffee and chocolate. Why not a “Fair Wage” certification for businesses? The cost of a drive-through lunch wouldn’t be that much higher if the folks who prepared were paid a few bucks an hour more than a typical McDonald’s employee. In Connecticut, the Wal-Mart protesters focused on a store in Avon because, according to one of the organizers, “this is a fairly wealthy area of the state, surrounded by wealthy towns, and these are a lot of people that have financial choice to shop somewhere else.”
Many consumers do have a financial choice on where we shop It would be a great help if we had better information so that we could meaningfully exercise that choice. Fair Wage Certification would help consumers separate the Costcos from the Wal-Marts.
While I truly miss Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” columns in the NYT Sunday Magazine, I do enjoy reading Chuck Klosterman’s contributions. I chuckled at the advice he gave to a concerned Hawaiian who was concerned that his wishes for good weather were harmful to local farmers. Pointing out that the writer’s desires have no impact on the weather, Klosterman advised, “What happens solely inside your mind is not cause for ethical alarm.”
By contrast, our conduct can and does have an impact on climate – and the ethical implications are profound.
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Legal Center is threatening to sue public schools that are participating in a program run by Frank Graham’s “Samaritan’s Purse” group to collect toys and distribute them to needy kids. Nothing wrong that that by itself – that is praiseworthy and noble. But, the gifts come with a string – the kids are given “Pledges to Christianity” to sign. Worse yet, the parents and kids that donated the gifts were often in the dark about the Christianity Pledges.
Isn’t it ironic that Frank Graham named his group “Samaritan’s Purse”? In biblical times, the Samaritans practiced their religion differently and were despised by the Jews for being different. The whole point of Parable of the Good Samaritan is that people of different beliefs are worthy and capable of doing good.
Starting this month, I will be writing for the Hartford Faith & Values blog. My first contribution, which is today’s lead story, discusses efforts by Humanist groups to help establish SMART Recovery meetings in Connecticut. SMART Recovery is a science-based program that has been demonstrated to be effective in combating alcoholism and substance addiction.
I just returned from the National Consumer Law Center’s Annual Consumer Right’s Litigation Conference. I am the managing attorney of a small consumer protection law firm, and this conference gives me an opportunity to compare notes and share ideas with other consumer advocates from around the country. Every year, I return with fresh ideas and a new enthusiasm for my work. Like most of my colleagues, I went into this area of law practice so that I could help injured consumers who have been aggrieved by improper business practices. The conference serves as an annual reinforcement of our mission to fight for economic justice.
This year’s conference did not disappoint. The speakers, which included three United States Senators, were inspiring, witty, and informative. The programs were well presented and designed. I even presented my own talk on the Ethical Implications of Limitations on Human Memory and Perception, which the attendees all swear was much more interesting than it sounds! Perhaps I will present it as part of our firm’s new Webinar Series. By all accounts, it was a great conference.
Yet, this year, I became quite aware that my perspective of civil litigation differed from the perspective of most of the speakers. When they speak of their work, they use metaphors of war. Litigation is a war. Depositions are battles. Car dealers, debt collectors, and their attorneys are enemies who must be destroyed.
At our firm, when we handle a case, we don’t think of ourselves as combatants in a war. We are view ourselves as problem solvers. Our objective in advising a client and planning a litigation strategy is to obtain the best result. Sometimes, that result means taking a calculated risk in going to trial. Other times, it means maneuvering the case in such a way to get the best possible settlement. Other times, it means minimizing the clients’ risk and obtaining a swift resolution. So, we use different metaphors. We strategize our moves, we work with opposing counsel, we solve dilemmas, we build a case by putting together disparate pieces. For us, fixing a client’s problem is like playing a “game” or solving a “puzzle.”
In their classic Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that the metaphors we use can shape our experience and impact our outlook. If we view litigation as a war, then we are more likely to perceive actions by the other side as an “attack,” and we are more likely to “retaliate” or plan a “first strike”. Such attitudes only increase acrimony and make resolution more difficult. Resolution is more easily obtained when attorneys view disputes as problems to be solved.
I suppose that others will perceive my rejection of war metaphors as an indication that I am “weak” and unwilling to “fight.” What they fail to realize is that I am not waging a war. I am playing a game of wits. Fans of George R.R. Martin will know that, when playing such a game, it is better to be “smart” than to be “strong.”
I believe that such an approach is preferred by consumers who seek a lawyer because they have been injured and want to be made whole. They don’t want a fight; they want their problem to be solved. Sure, it is sometimes necessary for disputes to be decided by a trial. We are not afraid of that – we love playing games and solving puzzles! Deciding whether and how to proceed to a trial requires craftiness, creativity, intelligence, and reason. Testosterone is not particularly helpful in that setting. This is a game where wise attorneys will set aside their bellicosity.
Metaphors of war do a disservice to our civil justice system, which requires attorneys to act as professional officers of the court. Such metaphors do an even greater disservice to those who have fought in real wars. Violating consumer protection laws is serious business, but lawyers who “combat” these violations risk virtually nothing compared to our servicemen and servicewomen who risk everything. Combat is the most serious business of all, and metaphors of war have no place in civil settings.
Happy Veterans Day to those who have known the real thing.
Yesterday, I was honored to be the guest at Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT to present the sermon. The topic was “How Humanists Are Good Without God”. About 180 people were present, including a nice contingent from Hartford Area Humanists. It was a wonderful experience for me, and the reaction from the Congregation was quite positive. Quite a few mentioned that they had not previously understood what Humanism was about.
Below is the text of the written version of the sermon. This is quite a distance from what I actually said. I hope to get a recording of the actual sermon soon.
Steve Ahlquist deserves major kudos for his efforts in helping to win marriage equality in Rhode Island. I’m proud to say that my daughter also played a part by working the phones prior to some key votes.
Steve’s recent blog post suggests that the Catholic Church (and other religious interests) gambled and lost by fighting to preserve the equivalency between state-sanctioned marriage and the traditional religious sacrament. He argues that the churches could have protected the meaning of “marriage” if they had advocated for a separation between the religious concept of marriage and the government concept of civil union. We could have had a civil-union system in which all couples enjoyed all of the legal benefits traditionally extended to married couples. If couples desired the “marriage” label, they would be free to have it bestowed upon them by their choice of clergy (or humanist celebrant), without any state involvement. Religious organizations would be free to extend or to limit sacramental marriage consistent with the tenets of their faiths.
When the issues of gay marriage and civil unions first rose to the forefront, I advocated for such a system, because I believed that the government had no business being in the marriage business. Very few agreed with me. The churches went for broke by fighting to preserve “marriage” as a state-supported sacramental rite. Advocates for equal rights became invested in the word “marriage”, and they are winning the day.
Not wanting to give up this valuable bit of confusion between church and state in our laws, conservative, anti-LGBTQ churches decided on an all or nothing strategy. They would fight for one meaning to the word marriage. The distinction between civil and religious marriage was collapsed. In defining the word marriage so precisely they gave up the opportunity to tease out two meanings, one secular and one religious. If, as those on the losing side of this battle proclaim, the word marriage is being redefined, it’s because they never really fought for the word.
Instead, they gambled with the word, betting that in the end the word would still mean what it had evolved over time to mean: a religious sacrament enshrined into law. If the word marriage really had such a high value, religious institutions should never have gambled with it. They should have moved to protect the word, by working to pull it out of the law books. Instead, they gambled and they lost.
Marriage from this day forward has a primary, firmly secular meaning that speaks to equality and a secondary, dare I say lesser, religious meaning that still potentially enshrines prejudice. Instead of fighting for a secular and fair society, religiously motivated marriage fundamentalists fought for theocracy and religious privilege.
The religious opposition feared that the extension of marriage to same-sex couples would change the nature of the institution. Steve Ahlquist agrees that the meaning of the term marriage has, indeed, changed. What else should a church expect when it seeks to have the state’s imprimatur on its sacraments?