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Civilitas

John F. Kennedy on Our Common Interests

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So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all
inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

John Siracusa on Bureaucracy

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By this point in my life, I’d also had enough experience with government, corporations, and academic bureaucracies to understand what happens to organizations as they get larger. The middle-managers and empire-builders start to take root. Each problem results in a new guideline or process meant to prevent the problem from ever occurring again. Metrics are added, because managers can’t manage what they can’t measure. Individual incentives shift so far from the stated corporate goal that they actively work against it. Intrinsic motivation wanes. The ability to do truly great work all but disappears.

Roger Ebert on Kindness, Happiness, and Politics

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Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

A Plea for Civil Disagreement

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We interrupt this broadcast for a rare excursion into contemporary politics, but only to make a broader plea. Last night, here in the U.S.A., the Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a very controversial health care reform bill. Apropos of our last article, the debate on the floor was intense, the differences irreconcilable. For the minority, John Boehner deplored the bill, characterizing it as striking at the heart of the American Dream. For the majority, Nancy Pelosi beamed that it was a final step toward ensuring the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. As bitter as the debate has been, it was to be expected that the conservatives who opposed the bill would be angry and frustrated. Sure enough, this morning I overheard radio talk show host Mike Gallagher mid-tirade, calling the Democrats “filthy”, “vile”, “bastards”, “vermin”, and for good measure, “bastards” several more times. It recalled Rush Limbaugh recently calling Democrats “cockroaches”. These despicable comments do not represent the best of conservative commentary, and I am very aware that such rhetoric is as bad and worse on the other side. What is ironic is that such voices bemoan the demise of the American republic even as they undermine the civil discourse that is vital to it. It is perfectly appropriate to offer withering critique of ideas and actions, but these ad hominems are themselves worthy of severe reproach. Many of the conservatives who are angry and frustrated this morning are Christians, and to you I make a special plea. May we exemplify Jesus’ exhortation to “love our [ideological] enemies, to treat them as our friends”. May we treat them as we would wish to be treated. May we speak what we consider the truth in love. May we chasten each other when incivility speaks. May we be exemplars of civil discourse. This is our calling.

Regarding Haiti: An Imperative

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Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. » Give here or here.

Barack Obama on the Size of Government

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You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

The Myth of Religious Violence

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The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. William T. Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. A growing body of scholarly work explores how the category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power. Cavanaugh draws on this scholarship to examine how timeless and transcultural categories of ‘religion and ‘the secular’ are used in arguments that religion causes violence. He argues three points: 1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; 2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; 3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world. ~ Synopsis

Dennis Prager on the Nanny State

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A thirty year old who is still relying on mom and dad, it’s not a good sign right? So why is a society relying on government a good sign? Tell me the difference between relying on your parents as an adult and relying on the government as an adult? … If you knew somebody were forty, and on virtually every major financial debt of their life they could turn to their parents, you would think that this is a person who has not grown up. Well, why if you turn to the government are you grown up? What is the difference between nanny-family and nanny-state? This is one of the many reasons that all the founders — especially Jefferson — were so adamant about keeping government small, their belief that humans needed to work out their lives for themselves. Everybody believes that there are a number of individuals who clearly have been hit by such tragedy that the state must come in if nothing else works. And we want other things to work.

Ryan T. Anderson on a “Christian Nation”

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First, this phrase “Christian nation” is a famously confusing one. No recognized leader in the so-called “religious right” has ever called for America to be a theocracy or believed it ever was, but this is what Meacham accuses. He asks, “What then does it mean to talk of ‘Christian America’? Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles.” Well, if you’re talking about the biblical principles of not slandering, stealing or murdering, then, yes. But I don’t recall any of us ever proposing that it be the law of the land that everyone, say, confess their sins, one to another, or that we lock people up when they chose to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We do however believe something close to what Meacham himself admits in his article, which he offers as a corrective to people like us. He would have us understand that, “[America’s] foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like.” Well, actually not so different. We understand that Christianity had a deep impact on our nation’s founding, its guiding documents and our national growth. Deep, but not singular. We thankfully live in a country of religious freedom.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on Religious Wars

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Atheists often claim that religion fuels aggressive wars, both because it exacerbates antagonisms between opponents and also because it gives aggressors confidence by making them feel as if they have God on their side. Lots of wars certainly looks as if they are motivated by religion. Just think about conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Asian subcontinent, Indonesia, and various parts of Africa. However, none of these wars is exclusively religious. They always involve political, economic, and ethnic disputes as well. That makes it hard to specify how much role, if any, religion itself had in causing any particular war. Defenders of religion argue that religious language is misused to justify what warmongers wanted to do independently of religion. This hypothesis might seem implausible to some, but it is hard to refute, partly because we do not have enough data points, and there is so much variation among wars. In any case, the high number of apparently religious wars at least suggests that secular societies are unlikely to be more prone to murder in war.

Reconciling All Things

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This book inaugurates the Resources for Reconciliation series, a joint venture of the publisher and Duke Divinity Schoola’s Center for Reconciliation. The two authors, codirectors of the center, bring perspectives that pair perfectly: Catholic and evangelical Protestant, African and American, academic and practitioner, ordained and lay. Each also brings powerful life experience in confronting oppression and injustice: Katongole grew up under Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and lived near the Rwandan genocide. After growing up a missionary kid in South Korea, Rice worked for 17 years in an urban ministry in Jackson, Miss. Against a background of difference, the two argue for a vision of reconciliation that is neither trendy nor pragmatically diplomatic, neither cheaply inclusive nor heedless of the past. The reconciliation they explain and hold out hope for is distinctively Christian: a God-ordained transformation of the consequences of the fall into the new creation spoken about by the apostle Paul. Deeply theological, this short book needs slow reading by anyone interested in harnessing the power of the spirit for social change. ~ Publishers Weekly

The Plot to Kill God

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Paul Froese explores the nature of religious faith in a provocative examination of the most massive atheism campaign in human history. That campaign occurred after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when Soviet plans for a new Marxist utopia included the total eradication of all religion. Even though the Soviet Union’s attempt to secularize its society was quite successful at crushing the institutional and ritual manifestations of religion, its leaders were surprised at the persistence of religious belief. Froese’s account reveals how atheism, when taken to its extreme, can become as dogmatic and oppressive as any religious faith and illuminates the struggle for individual expression in the face of social repression.

Dennis Prager on the Fragility of Civilization

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One major difference between Left and Right is that the Left does not understand the fragility of civilization. If I have to go beneath every political position to a core distinction between Left and Right, it would be that I am not on the Left because I do not believe that good civilization is normal. I believe it is an aberration and that it is entirely fragile.

Os Guinness on Faith Based Initiatives

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Another example of a flawed understanding of the separation of church and state is George W. Bush’s much-trumpeted but bungled policy of providing government money for what he calls “faith-based initiatives.” Predictably, this initiative was surrounded by controversy from the start and did not live up to its supporters’ hopes. At its best, it was a well-intentioned compliment to the dynamism of faith-based entrepreneurialism in the nineteenth century. The tribute was sincere and the intention laudable — to encourage the voluntarism and dynamic energy that are now recognized as the lifeblood of a healthy civil society, and to foster the little platoons and mediating institutions that are its cells. ¶ But regardless of its political and legal problems, such as the accusations of cronyism and political manipulation, the project was self-defeating as a concept because the close relationship between government and faith-based groups almost inevitably leads, first, to a growing dependency of the faith-based organization on the government, and, eventually, to the effective secularization of the faith-based group. In the words of David Kuo, President George W. Bush’s special assistant for faith-based initiatives, “Between Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services alone, for example, more than $1.5 billion went to faith-based groups every year. But their activity had come at a spiritual cost. They were, as organizations, largely secular.”

Os Guinness on the Culture Wars

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To be sure, it is as dangerous to exaggerate the culture wars as it is to minimize them. At the core of these wars is a battle between two sets of elites, with their corresponding battalions of activists, organizations, and supporters. And on most issues, the great majority of Americans find themselves between the two sides, somewhat ambivalent and often confused. But when all the issues have been clarified and matters of style separated from matters of substance, it becomes clear that the issues dividing the traditionalists and the progressives are important and will be decisive for the future of of the republic. They are, after all, disagreements about the very nature and destiny of human beings, so they cannot be swept under the rug. ¶ In short, the issues at the heart of the culture wars will be decisive for the American future, and they will have to be settled — but not in the present, destructive manner.

Os Guinness on What Politics Can’t Do

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Put differently, there are two equal but opposite errors into which Christians have fallen in the modern world. One error is to "privatize" faith, interpreting and applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. That way faith loses its integrity and becomes "privately engaging and publicly irrelevant." ¶ The other error, represented by the Religious Left in the 1960s and the Religious Right since the late 1970s, is to "politicize" faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes "the regime at prayer," Christians become the "useful idiots" or "biddable foot soldiers" for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form: Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests. In short, out of anxiety about a vanishing culture or in a foolish exchange for an illusory promise of power, Christians are cheated into bartering away their identity, motives, language, passions, and votes.

Os Guinness on Nationalism and Worshipping Ourselves

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Yet over the course of time the United States has given rise to its own soft civil religion, and the reason lies in the character and function of civil religion. In the absence of an official religion, what binds a nation together becomes suffused with a sense of the sacred and surrounded with a religious or semireligious aura until it becomes its civil religion. Thus, in essence, civil religion is a nation’s worship of itself.

Os Guinness on the Secularization Thesis

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The salience of religion in our times is a massive stumbling block to much educated opinion in Europe, the United States, and the Western world at large — to what was once called the republic of letters, and which Peter Berger calls "the international faculty club." For one of the cardinal assumptions of intellectual orthodoxy since the Enlightenment, expressed canonically in the secularization theory, is that modernization means secularization, which in turn means that, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, religion will slowly disappear from sight as the world modernizes, leaving behind only a vacant grin. ¶ This presumption translates practically into three attitudes that are widely prevalent in educated circles in the West: that religion in the modern world is irrational, archaic, retrograde, and on the way out; that what remains of religion is the leading source of evil and conflict today; and that a central task of politics is to curb the illiberal power of religion, above all in the public square. In short, the idea that religion is a wild card in human affairs is admissible, but the idea that it could play a central and constructive role is absurd. ¶ For any thoughtful student of world affairs who understands the role of religion in American and Western history, or in international affairs today, this view is preposterous.

Timothy Keller on Concern for This World

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Christianity, therefore, is perhaps the most materialistic of the world’s faiths. Jesus’s miracles were not so much violations of the natural order, but a restoration of the natural order. God did not create a world with blindness, leprosy, hunger, and death in it. Jesus’s miracles were signs that someday all these corruptions of his creation would be abolished. Christians therefore can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence. With integrity. ¶ Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, he came and experienced it to defeat it and someday, to wipe the world clean of it. Knowing all this, Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice. Karl Marx and others have charged that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” That is, it is a sedative that makes people passive toward injustice, because there will be “pie in the sky bye and bye.” That may be true of some religions that teach people that this material world is unimportant or illusory. Christianity, however, teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it. Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people. It’s more like the smelling salts.

Os Guinness on French, English, and American Securalism

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Church and state were not officially separated in France until February 21, 1795. But the overall explosion that the corrupt, coercive French establishment ignited against itself created a grand fusion of revolution and irreligion and led to a radical secularization of French public life, so that in France to be progressive still mostly means being secular and to be religious still means being viewed as reactionary. This is a key part of the French mentality that lingers to this day and bedevils the resolution of French conflicts over religion in public life, not to speak of the direction of the European Union. ¶ Astonishingly, too, Roman Catholic writers, from the popes down, who decry the militancy of French secularism today rarely acknowledge that this fierce secularism was bred and developed in direct reaction to their own earlier corruptions and has led to similar outbreaks of murderous anticlericalism elsewhere. These include the vicious Mexican repression of Catholics in the 1920s and the brutal Socialist slaughter of seven thousand priests, nuns, and bishops in Spain in 1936.

Os Guinness on American Ideals

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As history’s first new nation and the current lead society in the modern world, the United States is distinctive for the way it was founded by intention and by ideas. American ideals and institutions do not trail off into the mists of antiquity as do those of many nations. They were born in an unprecedented burst of brilliant thinking and political building, and from the very beginning they engaged constructively with many of the central challenges and characteristic features of the modern world. ¶ Freedom, equal opportunity, the rule of law, mutual responsibility, representative government, the separation of powers, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, justice grounded in due process and the presumption of innocence, universal public education — as words, these ideals trip off the tongue lightly; but as principles, they form the bedrock on which the greatness of America has been built.

A Conflict of Visions

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This latest work by Sowell examines two competing visions which shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power. These visions are the &quot;constrained&quot; vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the &quot;unconstrained&quot; vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. The book builds a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes are ultimately based on the differences in these visions. It covers a wide variety of political, philosophical, and economic thought. Although occasionally abstract, this volume is an important contribution to our understanding of current social issues. Recommended for large public and all college and university libraries. ~ <em>Library Journal</em>

Joshua Fost on Religion Gone Bad

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Needless to say, there is a long history of horrible events whose causes are or were almost entirely religious; without faith (i.e. belief without evidence) many of these conflicts may never have happened, or might at least have taken on a less violent form. Examples: Abortion clinic bombings; the American revolution; the Arab/Israeli conflict; the Aum Shinrikyo poisonings; Aztec religious sacrifices; the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco; the Catholic/Protestant conflict; the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide; the Huguenots and the French Wars of Religion; the Inquisition; the Indian/Pakistani conflict; the Ku Klux Klan; the Sunni/Shi’ite conflicts in Iraq, the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka; the Thirty Years War; and witch trials.

Nassim Taleb on War as Diversion

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The next time you experience a blackout, take some solace by looking at the sky. You will not recognize it. Beirut had frequent power shutdowns during the war. Before people bought their own generators, one side of the sky was clear at night, owing to the absence of light pollution. That was the side of town farthest from the combat zone. People deprived of television drove to watch the erupting lights of nighttime battles. They appeared to prefer the risk of being blown up by mortar shells to the boredom of a dull evening.

Changing Minds

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Think about the last time you tried to change someone’s mind about something important: a voter’s political beliefs; a customer’s favorite brand; a spouse’s decorating taste. Chances are you weren’t successful in shifting that person’s beliefs in any way. In his book, Changing Minds, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner explains what happens during the course of changing a mind – and offers ways to influence that process. Remember that we don’t change our minds overnight, it happens in gradual stages that can be powerfully influenced along the way. This book provides insights that can broaden our horizons and shape our lives.