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Civilitas

The 7th Circuit on Atheism and Freedom of Conscience

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The Supreme Court has said that a religion, for purposes of the First Amendment, is distinct from a “way of life,” even if that way of life is inspired by philosophical beliefs or other secular concerns. … A religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being (or beings, for polytheistic faiths), … nor must it be a mainstream faith … Without venturing too far into the realm of the philosophical, we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of “ultimate concern” that for her occupy a “place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons,” those beliefs represent her religion. … We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. … The Supreme Court has recognized atheism as equivalent to a “religion” for purposes of the First Amendment on numerous occasions … The Establishment Clause itself says only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but the Court understands the reference to religion to include what it often calls “nonreligion.”  … At one time it was thought that this right [referring to the right to choose one’s own creed] merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. … In keeping with this idea, the Court has adopted a broad definition of “religion” that includes non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as theistic ones.

War and Peace

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As war in the Middle East rears its ugly head once again, any person of conscience must wrestle with the question of war. Naturally, on the Web one can find a second front, the war of ideas. At First Things, Richard John Neuhaus’ “Sounds of Religion in a Time of War” is a typically well-considered assessment of the war in Iraq while George Weigel brings the “just war” tradition to bear in “Moral Clarity in a Time of War”. LeaderU features a number of articles in “Warview: Iraq, the US, and World Opinion”. While one could have hoped for wisdom on war from a secular worldview, B. Stephen Matthies at The Secular Web instead offers a critical review of Christian approaches in “Just War Tradition, Pacificism, and Nonviolence” The pacifist position is well represented at Sojourners Magazine and Pax Christi. See “Just? Unjust?” by George Lopez and “Liberation Without War” by Jack Duvall.

Wendell Berry on War, Peace, and Christianity

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But "Christian" war has always been a problem, best solved by avoiding any attempt to reconcile policies of national or imperial militarism with anything Christ said or did. The Christian gospel is a summons to peace, calling for justice beyond anger, mercy beyond justice, forgiveness beyond mercy, love beyond forgiveness. It would require a most agile interpreter to justify hatred and war by means of the Gospels, in which we are bidden to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despise and persecute us.

John Tyler on Church and State

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The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent — that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions… The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid. …and the Aegis of Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free governement would be imperfect without it. ¶ The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly. Mind should be free as the light or as the air.

Darwinism, Design, and Public Education

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There are two controversies surrounding neo-Darwinian evolution – one scientific about Darwin’s theory itself and the merits of intelligent design theory, and a second over whether our education system should expose students to this controversy. "Darwinism, Design and Public Education" is a stellar volume that will prove to be of great influence and significance in the years ahead, as this debate continues and intensifies. This peer-reviewed book collects several excellent essays that were previously available in separate, difficult-to-find publications, as well as some entirely new scientific material. Leading proponents of design theory, from multiple disciplines, are represented, as are some of the leading critics of design theory. ~ Seth Cooper

Utopia

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Sixteenth-century classic by English ecclesiastic and scholar envisioned a tolerant, patriarchal island kingdom free of private property, violence, bloodshed and vice. Forerunner of many later attempts. Since its publication in 1516, Utopia has provoked a hailstorm of debate. The minute details More ascribed to his "perfect world" make Utopia still a work of the future. • "There were utopias before this book that Thomas More wrote in the early 1500s, including Plato’s Republic. This, however, is the book that gives us the word ‘Utopia.’ The book is brief, barely over 100 pages, and only 60-some describe the place itself. That is enough, and makes me nostalgic for the habit of writing briefly and to the point. It’s easy to sum up More’s heaven-on-earth in a few words. It portrays a communal, democratic society. It is paradoxically unregulated and tightly regulated — overwhelmingly, More’s citizens just want to do what is best for their society, and that covers a remarkably narrow range of possibilities. There are, of course, some who break the laws of the land, and More deals with them harshly. "Harsh" is a relative term, though, and his punishments were hardly harsh in a day when it was a hanging offense to steal a loaf of bread for your starving family. It’s also a strongly religious society. Religious tolerance is a matter of law, a novelty by the standards of More’s day and the standard of his own behavior. ‘Tolerance’, however, meant tolerance of any monotheism that wasn’t too animistic, and certainly didn’t tolerate the unreligious. This translation from More’s original Latin is modern and smoothly readable. Even so, I wonder how another translator would have handled some of More’s neologistic names, like the unpleasant ‘Venalians’ who are the Utopians’ neighbors. No answer is right, but other renderings may convey more and grate less. Those are quibbles, though. It’s a good book as well as being a Great Book, and casts an interesting shadow into modern communism, theocracy, and ideas of the good life. I recommend it highly." ~ wiredweird at Amazon.com

Fareed Zakaria on the Democratic Age

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We live in a democratic age. Over the last century the world has been shaped by one trend above all others — the rise of democracy. In 1900 not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government created by elections in which every adult citizen could vote. Today 119 do, compromising 62 percent of all countries in the world. What was once a peculiar practice of a handful of states around the North Atlantic has become the standard form of government for humankind. Monarchies are antique, fascism and communism utterly discredited. Even Islamic theocracy appeals only to a fanatical few. For the vast majority of the world, democracy is the sole surviving source of political legitimacy. Dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe go to great effort and expense to organize national elections — which, of course, they win handily. When the enemies of democracy mouth its rhetoric and ape its ritual, you know it has won the war.

Michael Shermer on the Ambiguity of Religion’s Impact

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From the Crusades’ numerous attempts to cleanse the Holy Land of infidels (anyone who was not a proper Christian), to the Inquisition’s efforts to purge society of heretics (anyone who dissented from Christian dogma), to the Counter Reformation’s push to extirpate reforming Protestants from Catholic lands, to the Holy Wars of the late twentieth century that continue to produce death rolls in the millions, all have been done in the name of God and One True Religion. However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil; shades of gray complexity abound in all such societal structures, and religion should not be treated any differently than, say, political organizations. One could easily build a case that state-sponsored terrorism, revolutions, and wars make even these horrific religion sponsored catastrophes appear mild by comparison. If God is a meme, so is King and President; and if religion is a virus, politics is a full-blown epidemic replete with copy-me memes such as nationalism, jingoism, and outright racism. Yet no memeticist would propose that we do away with the state. Why? Because the state is a complex social entity with countless nuanced beneficent effects that go along with the pernicious.

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. on What Trials Cannot Do

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Court trials cannot: prosecute the dead, secure direct testimony from the dead, or repair damages done to the lives of the dead; truly match punishments to crimes when the crime consists of the murder of many victims; put institutions and systems on trial; within usual rules against self-incrimination and torture, compel perpetrators to confess; summon classes of offenders newly tagged as such without engaging in the ambiguities of ex post facto prosecution — an ambiguity abolishable by legislative grants of general impunity; avoid, in most societies, the skewing influence of money and power on the effectiveness of prosecution and defence; always implement distinction between retribution and vengeance, especially in response to public demand for the latter; guarantee ‘closure’ or satisfaction among victims that justice has been done once a perpetrator has been punished, a problem further exacerbated by the traditional western judicial system which largely keeps victims on the margins of the whole process; always avoid adversarial abuse of plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses; avoid scapegoating, especially in trials of leaders who required large constituencies for carrying out their crimes; or escape from the danger, inherent in the adversarial trial system, that the courtroom will become a playing field in which the most skilled, rather than the most truthful, side will win.

PJ O’Rourke on Conservatism at Worst and Best

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In its worse forms, conservatism is a matter of “I hate strangers and anything that’s different.” But in its better forms, conservatism simply says that the structures of society, both civil and political, religious and so on, are the result of a long series of trial-and-error experiments by millions of human beings, not only all over the world, but through time. And that you should toss out received wisdom only very carefully. Obviously there are some ideas that were around for centuries that were not good (slavery comes to mind). But when people have been doing something for a millennium or two, there is probably a reason. And you better be pretty careful before you just throw it out.

James Waller on the Thin Veneer of Civilization

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In Rwanda and the Balkans, neighbors often killed neighbors. How did they turn on people they’d known all their lives? And in the Holocaust you had incidences of this, too — I’m thinking of Jan Gross’ book, entitled “Neighbors,” about a small village in Poland named Jedwabne where the Catholic half of the village killed the Jewish half simply because they were given permission to do so. You realize how thin this veneer of civilization is that we put up. We say we live as neighbors and in a community, but when something happens structurally that says now you have permission to persecute, to take from, to even kill people that you’ve lived with for years, the relative ease with which people can do that is incredible.

Richard John Neuhaus on America

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Intellectuals are inclined to think that they are certified as intellectuals by virtue of their capacity to complexify, and the messiness of history is such that any conflict provides ample opportunities to highlight evidence contrary to the general truth. In the present war and the larger story of which it is part, I continue to believe that America is — on balance and considering the alternatives — a force for good in the world. And I continue to be impressed by how many otherwise sensible people criticize that proposition as an instance of uncritical chauvinism rather than the carefully nuanced moral judgment that it is.

Cary Tennis on Alcoholism and Redemption

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It’s that experience of utter hopelessness, or moments of clarity, or hitting bottom, at which some sufferers typically call out to a higher power for help and others seek the aid of psychiatrists, healers and scientists. The common paradox in all these experiences is that personal powerlessness is twinned with personal responsibility: You suddenly realize that while no one can cure you, neither can you cure yourself on your own. You need God, or friends, or an institution, or a belief system, or something — anything — not yourself. And thus begins, in myriad forms, the archetypal untangling of epistemological knots that results, ultimately, in an unaddicted ego that knows it is both profoundly free and profoundly interdependent. And that’s the basis of a healthy society. For that reason, many recovered addicts view with suspicion systems of government aid that seem to prolong dependency and/or to shield sufferers from the fundamental hopelessness of their situation. Thus we would expect Bush, not just as a political conservative, but as somebody who’s experienced deep hopelessness, aloneness in the universe and the need for God, to view welfare and other government attempts to eliminate suffering as simply, and wrongly, shielding people from their true problems, the recognition of which alone could catalyze deep change.

Natural Law and Practical Rationality

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According to the natural law account of practical rationality, the basic reasons for actions are basic goods that are grounded in the nature of human beings. Practical rationality aims to identify and characterize reasons for action and to explain how choice between actions worth performing can be appropriately governed by rational standards. Natural Law and Practical Rationality is a defense of a contemporary natural law theory of practical rationality, demonstrating its inherent plausibility and engaging systematically with rival egoist, consequentialist, Kantian and virtue accounts. ~ Product Description • “An impressive tour de force…Any philosopher doing work in contemporary ethics generally, as well as those doing work specifically in the areas of natural law and practical reason, will benefit enormously from grappling with the vigorous argumentation of this book.” ~ Review of Metaphysics

Gary Kamiya on the Avante Garde

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Again and again, the authors of these manifestos open with a mighty trumpet blast, issuing the most lofty and passionate denunciations of the imbecilic, stale, decadent, safe, bourgeois, vile, outmoded, mechanical, academic, etc. tradition they are rejecting. But when it comes time for them to reveal their epochal new vision, the mighty doctrine that will overthrow the past, turn art on its head and lead mankind into a dazzling new era of truth and beauty, it turns out to be, well, “spatial forms arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects” (Rayonists Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharov). Or a theater in which the actors read aloud from their parts (the Russian symbolist Fyodor Sologub). Or a placard proclaiming “No Girdle!” (The nunist Pierre Albert-Birot, who also incorrectly asserted that nunism is “an ‘ism’ to outlast the others.”) Without discounting the originality of these ideas — rayonist paintings are among the first abstract works ever executed, Sologub’s theater anticipates Brecht, and Birot would have burned Andy Warhol in a game of one-on-one — after the mighty windup, there’s something banana peel-like about these aesthetic punchlines.

In Defense of Natural Law

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In Making Men Moral, his 1995 book, Robert George questioned the central doctrines of liberal jurisprudence and political theory. In his new work he extends his critique of liberalism and goes beyond it to show how contemporary natural law theory provides a superior way of thinking about basic problems of justice and poltical morality. It is written with the same combination of stylistic elegance and analytical rigor that distinguishes his critical work. Not content merely to defend natural law against its cultural critics, he deftly turns the tables and deploys the idea to mount a stunning attack on predominant liberal beliefs about such issues as abortion, sexuality, and the place of religion in public life. Readers interested in law, political science, and philosophy will find George’s arguments both challenging and compelling. ~ Product Description

Martha Gelhorn on Making a Difference

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All my reporting life I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort. I belong to a global fellowship, men and women, concerned with the welfare of the planet, and its least protected inhabitants. I plan to spend the rest of my years applauding that fellowship and cheering from the sidelines. Good for you. … Never give up.

Richard John Neuhaus on America and Meaning in History

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One reason American history is no longer told in terms of redemptive purpose is that we no longer think of history itself as having a purpose. History is a matter of this happening and then that happening and then the other thing happening, and who is to say what it all means? As the man said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” The very idea that history should have a meaning strikes many of our contemporaries as highly improbable, maybe even nonsensical. If there is no purpose, there is no meaning. There is, although perhaps only on the surface, something attractively modest about this way of thinking. Especially when it is contrasted with the pride, presumption, and delusions of divinely ordained power that sometimes attended talk about “Christian America.”

George Stephanopoulos on Government

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Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I’m capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I know that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government. A government that forces us to care about the common good even when we don’t feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check our bad ones. I don’t think government is good, just necessary.

The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man

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Dr. Budziszewski begins by turning his criticism on himself, examining the foundations of the nihilism of his early career. Describing the political effects of Original Sin, he shows how man’s suppression of his knowledge of right and wrong corrupts his conscience and accelerates social collapse. The depraved conscience grasps at the illusion of “moral neutrality,” the absurd notion that men can live together without a shared understanding of how things are. After evaluating the political devices, including the American Constitution, by which men have tried in the past to work around the effects of Original Sin, Dr. Budziszewski elucidates the pitfalls of contemporary communitarianism, liberalism, and conservatism. The revenge of conscience is horrifically manifest today in abortion, euthanasia, and suicide, evils brought about by the pollution of good impulses such as pity, prudence, honor, and love. The way out of this confusion, he concludes, is Christianity, a once-prevalent faith whose troubling memory men now suppress along with their knowledge of the natural law. The political responsibility of Christians is somehow to stir up that memory and that knowledge, a daunting task in a world of sound bites and shouting matches. ~ Product Description

Don Eberly on Morality and Politics

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But politics cannot begin to put the conecting tissue back in society. It is ill-equipped to reconstruct traditional moral beliefs. The best policies cannot recover courtship or marriage, make fathers responsible for their children, restore shock or shame where it once existed, or recover legitimate social authority to institutions that have been hollowed out by a pervasive ideology of individual autonomy. The vast majority of moral problems that trouble us cannot be eradicated by law.

Don Eberly on Law and Morality

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The Bible recognizes many evils, but does not supply a specific mandate for outlawing all that believers consider immoral or improper. As the late theologian John Courtney Murray put it, “The law, mindful of its nature, is required to be tolerant of many evils that morality condemns.” Christian should not adopt the habit of their secular brethren in turning to the law to right every wrong, especially on issues where only a genuinely restored moral authority in the culture will get the job done.