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Category: Religion and Spirituality

Musings on Abortion

Apropos of the big news of this week — the leak of what is presumed to be the Supreme Court’s position (if only in draft form) that it will overturn Roe vs. Wade and return the issue of abortion to the state legislatures — here are some excerpts from the chapter on Abortion in my book, American Conservative — Reclaiming Conservatism From the Right (2016).

A snippet from the conclusion:

An embryo or fetus with the higher cerebral functions not yet engaged – pre-sentient and without the consciousness from which may eventually emerge self-awareness and free will – has the potential to become human not the quintessence of humanity.  In my areligious worldview, with no faith in some revealed and ancient catechism to instruct me on whether or not a soul exists independent of corporeal sentience and on when such a soul might manifest, I cannot justify surrendering to government unfettered authority over a palpable liberty that already exists in the defense of some ineffable essence that may yet come to be.

And yet, I must agree with the religious conservatives – not out of any theological insight but out of a humanist and libertarian respect for human dignity – that such potential for ineffable essence has value.  And, therefore, I equally cannot countenance the view that discarding such potential is an act utterly without moral import.  Nor can I countenance the view, extreme but seemingly common on the far “left” and particularly among the feminist fringe, that such ineffable essence somehow suddenly and miraculously materializes at the emergence from the birth canal and not an instant before.

It seems clear, to me at least, that at some point, after the cerebral cortex begins functioning and prior to full-term birth, the potential of a human fetus transforms into the quintessence of a human baby.  It seems equally clear that by exercising one choice – to carry a pregnancy to that point of quintessence – a woman, herself, circumscribes other choices including, in particular, the choice to have an abortion thereafter.

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Why is it about religion at all?

They are sitting in judgement of people’s requests and, before they judge those requests, they want everyone to do something that, it appears, they care a great deal about. It is implied, then, that, if someone refuses to participate, the judgement might go against them because they refused to participate — or, at least, that the presumption would be against them.

The town council has, in effect, set up the appearance of a precondition to an affirmative judgement. What the precondition is should not matter; and a ruling on whether that precondition is acceptable should have nothing to do with whether that precondition was religious or secular.

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Scientific Faith?

Last November, The New York Times published a piece by Paul Davies in which he took on the attitude of superiority with which secular scientists (his model, apparently, was those like Richard Dawkins, whose recently published book advocating atheism was one of several that sparked a firestorm between believers and non-believers) treated matters of faith. Some of his criticism hit the mark but I thought he went over the top when he claimed that science, itself, is an edifice built on faith — a faith in the scientific method and a presupposition that there are, in fact, physical laws underlying and explaining the way things behave.

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A Question of Nation

The chaos we are seeing — on the ground and in our own thinking — reflects the dissolution of the “nation” into more fluid and less tractable identities and spheres of interest. Al Quaeda is not a country and yet, in many circumstances, it seems to define and control a “nation” of people who pledge it their loyalty. Iraq was not Al Quaeda but were they really distinct — two “nations” apart — or were they both part of the larger Arab — or was it Islamic? — “nation” to which both claim allegiance and from which the “clash of civilizations” is arising? Is the UAE a country allied with the United States, or is it a culture allied with Arabia or with Islam?

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Why the Christian Right Feels Persecuted?

In May of 2005, The New York Times ran a story — as part of a series of stories on “class” issues in America — about efforts by the Christian right to increase their presence on Ivy League campuses as the number of evangelicals and religious conservatives attending those institutions increases. The article focused on one group, the Christian Union, which was founded to provide a counter for committed Christians to the secular pressures and hostility to faith they encounter in the modern academic environment — and, yes, to provide support for communicating and spreading their faith to the wider university community.

Although the Times article was neither fawning nor fretful — was in fact pretty fair and thoughtful –some of the responses they chose to publish as letters from readers reminded me how often self-defined ‘liberals’ defeat themselves by making the claims of the fundamentalist right about religious persecution and ‘liberal’ intolerance seem legitimate. I wrote this letter to point that out.

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The Bible In The Jury Room?

In March of 2005 the Colorado Supreme Court voided the death sentence for a murderer on the basis of the fact that a juror during the penalty phase — when the decision of what sentence to impose was being debated — had copied down a verse from the book of Exodus and quoted it during deliberation.

The law is clear that jurors are not allowed to consult outside sources or use information that was not presented at trial during a jury deliberation, so the fact that a juror consulted the Bible and wrote down a verse suggests that perhaps the Court was technically correct in upholding a narrow legal prohibition. Of course that this was a deliberation over punishment — a moral question — rather than over a determination of fact and law might suggest that such prohibitions are overly narrow if they limit moral debate.

And of course under their ruling it is not entirely clear that the prohibition would have held had the juror merely cited the verse in question from memory rather than consulting the source; the law cannot prohibit the application of cultural and educational background we bring to jury service, and many Christians (and not a few heathens) could have provided that citation as a matter of course. Further, in Western culture, the Bible is so ubiquitous and so identified with moral perception it is inconceivable that its moral lessons would not be debated and applied in such a deliberation, regardless of whether or not a specific verse was quoted or even referenced. Recently the Supreme Court of the United States prohibited a particular application of the death penalty (to those who were minors when they committed their crimes) based not on specific Constitutional principle but on a common understanding of the current moral atmosphere — including citations of legislative preferences from selected foreign countries and from selected individual states. Is consideration of Biblical principle, or principle from hundreds of secular philosophical sources which underlie so much of Western thought, any less relevant or permissible to the application of law, and particularly of punishment? I would hope not.

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