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The Comforting Illusion: Lifting the Veil on Organized Religion

– by Greg Bentall

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So much of popular religion is simply a collection of ancient superstitions and old campfire stories. Even Pope Francis has told the Church that God is not a “wizard.” God is not our ever-present nanny or “fairy godmother” whose task it is to comfort and protect us, and to shield us from any danger, discomfort, or disappointment. So what, then, really is the point of religion and spiritualism in a modern world?

Exploring the concept of religion from an objective, sociological standpoint, “The Comforting Illusion: Lifting the Veil on Organized Religion” aims to somehow reconcile our modern worldviews with ancient spiritual perspectives.

By examining religion’s direct and indirect effects on practically every facet of 21st century society, be they good or bad, “The Comforting Illusion” pulls aside the curtain of our comfortable rituals and compels us to consider the complex facets of a culture that spans millennia.

The Plight of the Palestinians


In the 1st Century CE, the Romans destroyed the second temple and purged all Jews from ancient Israel. The final battle was at Masada, wherein the final remnants of Jewish leadership perished by suicide just before the Romans breached the walls of the fortification. It was not until the 20th Century that the Jews began to return in significant numbers in response to the Nazi threats. In 1948 there was a great exodus of Jews from Europe to Palestine following the end of World War II to seek asylum and to establish the Jewish state of Israel. All returning Jews from around the world were guaranteed a home and citizenship in the new Jewish state.

This exodus from Europe in 1948 meant the forceful conquest of Palestine, and the attack on the Palestinian people. Violence and tension between Israel and Palestine have continued to this day.

In 1967, Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Israel continues to rule over these conquered lands. Israel did not annex these lands, so the Palestinians living there are not Israeli citizens and are not allowed to vote. These disenfranchised Palestinians number some 2.7 million.

The State of Israel treats the Palestinians as stateless refugees and enemy aliens. There is no denying that atrocities have been committed by both sides. The Gaza Strip resembles nothing so much as the Warsaw Ghetto of World War II. Where there is oppression people will struggle and even fight for freedom and dignity.

There are 5.3 million Palestinians living in the region governed by Israel, including Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The Jewish population of Israel is 5.2 million. This means that the Palestinians are the majority population in the lands controlled by Israel. Additionally, there are another 1.5 million Palestinians exiled to other countries in the region. (WorldPopulationReview.com/Palestine-Population/).

There are Israeli Arabs living in Israel proper who are allowed to vote. However, as Israel was constituted as a Jewish state the Israeli Arabs have little power. There are some 600,000 Jewish Israelis living in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank who are allowed to vote.

The Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has endeavored to establish illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories in order to deny a homeland to the Palestinian people. In the past, the proposed solution to the Palestinian situation was the “Two State Solution.” This meant that the Israeli controlled territories would be partitioned into two countries, Israel and Palestine. Palestine was to be given considerable autonomy, although Israel always claimed the right to maintain security over Palestine. Now it appears that Israel is no longer considering the Two State Solution. After decades of negotiation such talks have broken down. The creation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank have created facts-on-the-ground that have made the Two State Solution impossible.

The United States has long been an ally and supporter of Israel, but has also sought to advocate for Palestinian rights. President Jimmy Carter is known for his efforts at creating a lasting peace in Israel with justice for the Palestinian People. Unfortunately, those efforts were never successful.

When Donald Trump moved the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, his actions were clearly a slap-in-the-face to the Palestinian people. It was a demonstration that Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the other conquered territories were both legitimate and permanent. It was a signal to his cohort, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel had a free hand to put an end to the Palestinian issue in anyway that he chose.

Israel claims to be a democracy. The United States government is its staunchest ally. Yet in truth, Israel is a religious apartheid nation where democracy only applies to the Jews. Netanyahu is a segregationist, not unlike America’s George Wallace. In supporting Israel without seeking justice for the Palestinian people, the United States has abandoned its principles and supported oppression.

If there is not to be a Two State Solution, then the only other method of achieving justice would be a One State Solution. And by this, I mean that Israel evolves into a secular democracy with equal rights and participation for all. But that is not a likely outcome for the foreseeable future.

Gerrymandering — The Usurpation of our Elections


Gerrymandering is a process wherein politicians can determine the outcome of elections by drawing district boundaries in a manner that greatly favors their own party. In 2018, Democrat Doug Jones was elected to the United States Senate from Alabama. In this statewide election Jones won the majority of votes. However, let us assume that instead of a Senate race, this was a race for the seven seats in the United States House of Representatives. If we took the actual votes in this Senate election, and parceled them out by their respective Congressional districts, then the Republicans would have won six of the seven seats, and the Democrats would have won only one. This is the power of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering distorts elections and disenfranchises voters.

Since the Democrats won just over 50% of the votes in this Senate election, one would expect that the hypothetical House election the Democrats should have won three or four seats. Instead they won only one.

We have all seen maps with strange patterns of electoral districts. The term “Gerrymandering” comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry who in 1812 created a boundary for a district in Boston that resembled a salamander.

Perhaps even more that the maps with strange shaped districts, is the table below that shows the intended outcomes of Gerrymandering.

In this table there are 50 “X’s and 50 “Y’s.” Given the equal numbers a fair outcome would be that each party control five of the ten districts. However, by looking at the results, it becomes obvious that Party “X” has Gerrymandered the districts so that it controls eight out of the ten districts. This was done by concentrating the Party “Y” voters into Districts 1 and 2. Districts 1 and 2 might represent, for example, the urban core of the region.

The practice of Gerrymandering is a win-at-any-cost method of controlling elections. It disenfranchises voters and makes a mockery of our right to vote. It is done with corrupt intent as an unwarranted political power grab.

One of the chief purposes of the courts is to protect us from such usurpation of power by unscrupulous politicians. When our elected officials pass unjust laws, it is only the courts that can mitigate the damage. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the final arbiter. Recently SCOTUS ruled on a Gerrymandering case, and rendered one of the worst decisions in the history of the United States.

Rather than declaring the practice of Gerrymandering unconstitutional, as the liberal wing of the court proposed, SCOTUS remanded the decision back to a lower court for further clarification.

The issue identified by SCOTUS was that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring suit. SCOTUS concluded that there was no standing because no one was denied the right to vote for the candidate of their choosing. The horrendous logic of the court left out the fact that even though no voter was denied the right to vote, voters were denied the right to have their vote count.

SCOTUS has recently ruled that Gerrymandering is unconstitutional if it is tied to racial discrimination. The question before the court is now is whether Gerrymandering for partisan advantage is unconstitutional. It is hard to see how anyone with any sense of integrity and fair play would want to allow politicians to engage in any form of political chicanery in order to control elections. This strikes at the very heart of our democracy.

There are several lessons to be learned here. The Republican Senate under Mitch McConnell denied any confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, who was appointed to SCOTUS by Barrack Obama. This act “stole” a SCOTUS seat from the Democrats and gave it to the Republicans.

We must learn that in our democracy voting is essential. It matters who is in the White House because the president has the power to make nominations. It matters who controls the Senate because the Senate has the power to confirm nominations. And, it matters who controls the state legislatures and governorships because these offices have the power to set district boundaries. 2020 is a census year, meaning that many congressional districts will be reconfigured. It is urgent that we all vote for people who will restore ethics, integrity, and fairness to our government.

Forgotten Facts About Healthcare


FORGOTTEN FACTS ABOUT HEALTHCARE

1)      Healthcare is not like other forms of insurance. You cannot buy it by the slice. Everyone needs full coverage because no one knows what might happen.

2)      Healthcare can be immensely expensive. Any health care issue can potentially cost one hundred thousand or even one million dollars.

3)      Any form of “medical savings plans” is simply a cruel joke. For people living paycheck-to-paycheck any form of savings is impossible. A more affluent middle class family may be able to save five thousand dollars over five years in their medical savings plan. When and if they are hit by a medical crisis such as a heart attack, traffic accident, or severe disease, their five thousand dollars in savings may not cover even the first day of treatment.

4)      There has to be enough money paid in to the health care system to pay all claims. A sixty-year-old woman may say that she does not need pregnancy coverage. If that is allowed, then a twenty-year-old woman may say that she does not need coverage for “old people’s” issues such as osteoporosis or Alzheimer’s. Any medical care system must find a way to pay for all medical needs for all people. Healthcare is not just about my medical needs, but how to cover the medical needs of the whole population.

5)      Any health care plan will require government subsidies. The only alternative is to let the poor and vulnerable people die. People in nursing homes are there for a reason, and cannot be expected to get a job and support themselves.

6)      Even the healthiest people need insurance. You may be a marathon runner but this does not mean that you won’t get hit by a bus or develop a brain tumor.

7)      The cost of healthcare is not only the cost of the medical premiums, but also includes the deductibles and copays. A “cheap” insurance policy with low premiums is nearly worthless if it has high out-of-pocket costs. Many who complained about the Affordable Care Act went from cheap, nearly worthless policies, to full coverage. That is also a part of the reason that costs increased.

8)      Coverage of pre-existing conditions is essential. With anyone over age 50 you would expect numerous pre-existing conditions. Under recent plans announced by the Republican Congress, some people with pre-existing conditions would be paying in excess of $100,000 in health insurance premiums alone, before counting the costs of deductibles and copays. This is not insurance coverage but a death sentence. 

9)      We need wellness care instead of sick care. Wellness care involves vaccines, early diagnosis, and rapid intervention. Health care plans should focus on preventive care as a long-term investment. Preventive care should be done with out-of-pocket expense to the patients. Even better is to make preventative care free. For example, my Kaiser Permanente provider requested that I have a colonoscopy simply because of my age. This procedure was done without any out-of-pocket cost to me. During this procedure polyps were found and removed, preventing potential colon cancer.

10)   Healthcare should be seen as an investment in our human capital. A strong and healthy population yields productive workers and tax payers. Prevention is infinitely cheaper than emergency intervention and rehabilitation. 

11)   The health care system in most developed countries try to reduce overall healthcare costs by such mechanisms as volume discounts in purchasing. This country has gone to the opposite extreme. When Medicare Part D was pass for prescription coverage, Big Pharma was guaranteed that the government would pay top dollar for every purchase. The purpose was not to provide affordable health care to all Americans on Medicare. Rather, it was done to create a massive subsidy to Big Pharma at the expense of those in need.

The Viet Nam War Revisited


Historian Ken Burns’ new CNN series on the Viet Nam war opens many old wounds as we review its horrible history. We talk about the 62,000 Americans who died in that horrible war, but we never mention the one million Vietnamese who died in that war, and the utter devastation that we released on that part of the world through our bombings and chemical warfare. Agent Orange was an environmental catastrophe. Many of our own veterans were casualties of this. Viet Nam is still enduring the effects of Agent Orange as is evidenced by the cancer rates and birth defects, even among our veterans. And then there was the napalm.

America entered the Viet Nam war to defend the fruits of French imperialism. Also, because our government lied to us, claiming the war to be a superpower contest between the godless communists and the free world. But in truth Viet Nam was more of a tribal war between factions of the Vietnamese people. The corpses were Vietnamese and not Chinese or Russian. And finally we were there to project American power and influence abroad.

While we should always show respect for our military personnel and veterans, those who are willing to serve and even die for their country. But we should never respect or defend our nation’s pointless and often catastrophic militarism that has wreaked havoc around the world. We must always remember that it is the politicians and not the soldiers who decide which wars that we need to fight.

One sad legacy from Viet Nam is that our country has proven time and time again that it has no memory. We have been fighting for 16 years in Afghanistan for no apparent purpose. We have spilled our precious blood and wasted our treasure in an endless tribal conflict wherein we have no legitimate role to play. We cannot even articulate what “victory” would look like and we have no exit strategy.

George W. Bush started a post 9-11 war with the wrong country. Attacking Iraq after 9-11 was like bombing China in response to Pearl Harbor.

He lied to us saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He lied to us by saying that we would pay for the war by taking Iraqi oil. The Bush family wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left our nation broke and divided. He destroyed the Iraqi government and infrastructure and left chaos and disorder in its place. He disbanded the Iraqi army which then became the core of ISIS. How much better both America and the Middle East would be if only we had stayed out of this futile and destructive conflict.

Our militaristic propaganda says that our military is there to protect our freedoms. I find such an assertion to be utterly ridiculous. All too often our country goes to war not for freedom, but to intervene in tribal disputes that need to be settled by the natives, and to impose our values, form of government, and economic system on the rest of the world. We fight to make the world “safe” by making it look more like us.

Ronald Reagan conducted a terrorist “war” against the duly elected government of Nicaragua. But the origins of the mess in Nicaragua goes back to the Eisenhower administration when we sent in troops to protect the United Fruit Company from the local efforts to unionize the workers. In those days it was easy to denounce anyone who stood for unionization, land reform, or economic security for the starving masses as communists. We must never believe that our own commercial interests trump the rights of indigenous people for political rights and economic participation.

We must never believe our own propaganda. We have no right to talk of freedom when unarmed people of color are being routinely tyrannized, brutalized, and even murdered by police officers for no reason. This is what the Colin Kaepernick protest was all about.

We must never equate patriotism with flag waving or outward patriotic displays when many of our own are denied security and full economic participation. We must never say, “America, right or wrong.” We must never assert our moral supremacy, when prisoners in Iraq were subjected to torture and abuse. That part of the Bush wars will always be a stain on our national character.

During the Third Reich, the nice people made the best Nazis. These nice people were not diabolically evil, but like sheep the allowed and even supported the diabolical evil that surrounded them. America must never become a nation of sheep that believes its own propaganda and confused true patriotism with flag waving support.

We must learn to face our nation’s history with honesty and self-reflection. We must begin to learn from our past and seek to build a better future. 

 

 

 

Urgent Election Reform


ELECTION REFORM

Elections are the sacred well of democracy. When the waters are poisoned there is nothing left. Without fair and open elections the choices of the people are thwarted and democratic government collapses. When this happens, the government ceases to be the servant of the people, and instead allows the usurpation of government authority by an unqualified but well organized oligarchy. Oligarchs rule rather than govern. Government becomes the tool of tyrants. The United States has in recent years failed to provide fair and free elections.

The collapse of fair and open elections has already resulted in a substantial loss of our democracy. Our country, despite our boasting of being the world’s oldest and strongest democracy, has allowed our basic institutions to crumble. We have gone from “Every vote counts in the election,” to “The election will be decided by who counts the votes.”

There are a series of reforms that are urgently needed if we are to salvage what remains of our democracy. The following is a partial list of those urgently needed reforms.

Abolish the Electoral College

Twice in the past sixteen years the Electoral College has thwarted the will of the American people. This is simply unacceptable. In 2000, Al Gore lost Florida and the election by only some 500 votes out of 103 million votes cast. There was a cluster of errors in the Florida vote count. It is estimated that Pat Buchanan erroneously gained an estimated 32,000 votes that were intended for Al Gore due to the “butterfly ballot” fiasco. There were other irregularities as well, including the handling of absentee ballots. By counting ballots on a state-by-state basis, such irregularities come to the forefront and determine the outcome of the election. But when the national vote is taken as a whole there is a different outcome. Any irregularities are “averaged out” and the winning candidate is the overall choice of the electorate.

In 2016 we had the will of the people thwarted again by the Electoral College. This time it was 80,000 people across three states that would have changed the election outcome. In the end, Hillary Clinton received 3,800,000 more votes than Donald Trump in what turned out to be her losing effort.

The Electoral College perhaps made sense in the 18th Century. At that time the United States was a confederation of states, much like the European Union is today. But by the time of the Civil War, our nation became one nation and not a collection of states. The Electoral College, that vestige of the 18th Century, makes no sense in the 21st Century.

End Gerrymandering

We have gone from voters selecting their candidates to office holders selecting their voters. Our current system of gerrymandered districts thwarts the will of the voters. Elected officials can stack the deck on state legislative chambers and the United States Congress by manipulating district boundaries. These boundaries are normally set by the very state legislators that benefit from manipulating these boundaries. We need to remove the setting of district boundaries from the political process. In California district boundaries are set by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Since implementation in June 2012, independent studies have confirmed that California now has some of the most competitive districts in the country. Other states need to follow similar procedures.

Support Voter Registration

New voter registration procedures have become a new form of poll tax. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been disenfranchised by these efforts. The burden of these procedures fall disproportionately on the poor, people of color, and the elderly, and those for who English is a second language. We need a new national voters’ rights act to replace the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was essentially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

No one could deny that we need to clean up our voter rolls. There is no systematic effort to purge the rolls of deceased voters or those who have moved away. But so far this has not been a real issue. After searches for voter fraud spanning decades, no one has ever found more than a handful of actual voter fraud issues, and certainly never enough to sway an election.

In many states convicted felons have a lifetime ban on voting. African Americans make up 13% of the population, but 38% of the prison population. Voter disenfranchisement due to a felony conviction has a strong racial component. It is possible to disenfranchise whole communities by refusing to allow convicted felons to vote, including those who have already paid their debt to society.

Maintain Poll Access

Every election seems to have issues with voter access to polling places. Amazingly, such issues only seem to occur in selected precincts. There is misinformation as to poll locations or hours. There are shortages of ballots or voting machines that do not work. Too often people in these “selected” precincts must wait for hours to cast their ballots. This is another burden that falls disproportionately upon the poor. An hourly worker might have to rush to vote before work, while a salaried manager could vote at his or her leisure.

The act of voting should not be an ordeal. Instead of a 12 hour election window we should be given an extended time of perhaps one week to vote. We should be able to vote by any number of means. We can invest and do banking online. Calculate and pay taxes online. We should be able to vote online as well. For those without computer access, voting computers could be set up in libraries, schools, offices, or other public places. There should also be mail in options for those who are computer challenged. If we can use our bank ATM cards in Mexico City, or Bangkok, we should be able to vote from anywhere during an election period without difficulty.

Demand Election Integrity

Somehow we need to make our elections work. There have been endless reports of lost ballots, voting machine malfunctions, and absentee ballots that have been lost or ignored. Elections should be determined by the votes casted and not by who counted the votes. Here again is a situation where “selected” precincts seem to have much greater irregularities than the norm. If we cannot trust our state and county officials to conduct fair and accurate elections then perhaps we should have outside parties, such as fiduciary institutions, or CPA firms, to collect and count the ballots.

Voting machines, ballot counts, and any online or mail voting methods must be fool proof. This is our democracy we are talking about. We need to provide the resources and make the effort to insure that every vote counts. “Accidents,” “oversights,” and “unavoidable situations” must not be allowed as excuses. These can be avoided by proper planning, training, and redundancy.

Require Financial Disclosure

We must never again allow any candidate to run for President of the United States without submitting at least five years’ worth of federal tax returns. In the past this has been the custom, but it was not a requirement. Trump was able to avoid this disclosure despite his frequent assurances to the contrary. The president must be free of any conflicts of interest. Without the income tax disclosure there is not even a roadmap to look for possible conflicts. This disclosure must be made at the start of the election cycle so that voters have a chance to review and analyze these documents. For this reason the documents must be disclosed before any names are placed on the primary ballots. California now has such a law. We need a similar rule for congressional candidates as well.

Faith Demystified – The God Paradox: when bad things happen to good people.


On May 22, 2011, a devastating tornado left the town of Joplin, Missouri in shambles. There were 162 dead and 1,150 people injured. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in splinters. The Catholic priest was asked if God could have prevented the tornado. The priest’s response was that, “Of course he could. He is God and he could do anything.”  He was then asked why God did not prevent it if he could. The priest said that God is a mystery, and that mere mortals often cannot understand his ways. He spoke about how God would use this tragedy somehow for good. As the priest struggled to explain this conundrum, his logic became more and more twisted and awkward. The priest had inadvertently stumbled into the God paradox.

The God paradox is simply this: If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful. Otherwise, there is no explanation of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no simple exit from the God paradox. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the harder we pull, the tighter the grip becomes. The result becomes some elaborate web built of prevarications. And the more we try to work the story the sillier it becomes. The priest’s whole congregation would need to wrestle with this. No doubt the priest would need to spin more yarns for the faithful in the process, thereby polishing the illusion that God the guarantor of our wellbeing.

The Holy Bible speaks of a God that intervenes in persons and communities. The Bible tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, and that God is our ever present help in times of trouble. We want desperately to believe in a God who loves us and cares about our fate. This is the message that Christians hear most every most from clergy who seek to polish this illusion. This is not just a Catholic issue, but one that is carried out by clergy everywhere. It is just what clergy do, to try and soothe the faithful when bad times happen.

On days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing it is easy to live comfortable inside the illusion of a benevolent universe that will provide for our every need. We feel that we are being coddled by life, and embraced by a loving God. But other, darker days we are jolted back to reality by a tantrum of nature, a tragic accident, a life threatening illness or injury, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one or other such disrupter of our comfortable existence. At times like those we rediscover how vulnerable we truly are. There are potholes in life that demolish our illusions and shatter our easy comfort.

The Joplin tornado had nothing to do with God. It is not that the good people of Joplin were being punished. There was no malevolence in the tornado, only indifference. To try to moralize about the destruction is pointless and totally wrongheaded. It just happened. Sometimes we think that bad things happen to us because we are doing something bad and we punish ourselves accordingly. We are somehow unworthy of God’s grace. This can drive some into fanaticism as they try to assuage their guilt. Others seek scapegoats to blame for the calamity. “If only we had gotten rid of THOSE people this would have never happened.”

The only graceful exit from the God paradox is to acknowledge that the situation at hand has nothing to do with God.

In truth the tornado is indifferent to our fate. The tornado does not either know or care whether we are just or unjust. It simply runs its course according to the immutable laws of weather systems.  

Tornadoes are among the most capricious of disaster agents. A tornado can destroy all buildings on one side of the street while leaving the other side unscathed. The owners of destroyed homes might be thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” while the people across the street might be thinking, “Thank you, God, for sparing us.” In truth both of these sentiments are but an illusion.

 

Do Not Be Deceived By Health Savings Plan Proposals


As the Congress discusses the reconfiguration of our health care system, one “solution” that keeps coming up is various options related to health savings plans. These plans need to be recognized for what they really are, a con of the health care consumer. Sure, you can get health care, but you must pay for it yourself with money that you have saved. Saving money sounds like a good idea, and it is. It is great to have saved a little extra to cover those expenditures that fall outside of your normal budget. The problem here is that the cost of medical care can be so excessive that it would be virtually impossible to save enough.

Medical care is expensive. There are stories of Canadian tourists who find themselves with a two hundred thousand dollar medical bills for having a baby in the United States.  Any serious medical illness can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about an emergency situation such as a heart attack or a stroke. And for those who believe that they are too healthy for such an emergencies, think about getting hit by a car while walking or riding your bicycle.

That is why insurance is needed. Perhaps the best that you could ever hope for from a health savings plan is enough money to cover your deductibles and copays. That is pretty much what happened to me last year.

I have excellent medical coverage for myself and my wife through my employer. I have no deductibles and modest copays that are capped at $3,000 per year. I had a series of medical issues, nothing major and certainly nothing life threatening. I had three emergency visits, three nights in the hospital, and two outpatient procedures. The total cost paid by my insurance carrier was in excess of $65,000. My out of pocket cost was capped at $3,000.

When a patient does not have medical insurance the hospital will jack up the cost to well above what an insurance carrier would pay. If Blue Cross would pay $30,000 for a particular procedure, an uninsured patient will likely be charged $50,000. The reason for this is that the hospitals offer volume discounts to major insurance carriers. Thus, the $65,000 in medical expenses that I incurred last year could have easily been charged at over $100,000 if I did not have insurance.

It is one thing to save $3,000 to $5,000 to cover deductibles and copays. It is quite another thing to save the hundreds of thousands that a serious medical condition might require. And for many households, even saving $3,000 to $5,000 is virtually impossible. There are so many other priorities for our dollars. It is estimated that for 40% of the households in our country, an unexpected bill for $500 could be a financial calamity. What happens if the furnace goes out or the truck breaks down? For some, saving $3,000 to $5,000 in a Medical Savings Account could take 5 to 10 years, and that assumes that no withdrawals from that account would be required during that time period. .

The idea of offering up health savings plans as an alternative to health insurance is beyond ludicrous.  It is a glib and irresponsible diversion tactic offered up by those who wish to deny coverage for medical care.

An Administration Based on Falsehoods


The Trump team has done nothing but lie to us. His people would tell the most outrageous lies throughout the election and transitional period. Now they are continuing their outrageous lies from the White House.

On day one of the Trump administration, Saturday, January 21, Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave his first official briefing. In it he berated the media for “distorting” the crowd numbers at the inauguration, and then proceeded to list a series of “facts” that were nothing more than fabrications. There are numerous pictures, videos, and statistics to support the media’s version of events. Then, Spicer spewed out a torrent of lies. In this case Spicer simply made up numbers such as mass transit ridership that had no basis in fact. These utterly false statistics were disputed by the transit authority. According to CNN, four of the five main statements made by Spicer at that event were totally fallacious. The Orwellian notion herein being enacted is that falsehood becomes truth when trumpeted loud and long.

Kellyanne Conway went on television the next day to explain that Spicer had not lied, but only presented “alternative facts”. I do not know about how this works in your world, but in my world an “alternative fact” is simply a lie.

And of course the larger issue here is that Trump, on his first day in office, must have higher priorities than arguing about attendance figures at the inauguration. This raises the problem of his extreme narcissism which will be a topic for a later chapter.

Trump during the campaign would hammer the same lies over and over, often times repeating each lie multiple times in one sentence. The Trump people routinely tell more lies than can even been debunked. While the press and pundits are trying to analyze the first lie, the Trump team has issued a hundred more. Trump complained about unfair media coverage even when the media did nothing more than show video clips of Trump’s prior pronouncements.

The Donald wants to suppress freedom of the press under the First Amendment. He wants to decide what is news and to punish those who publish otherwise. This is not the thinking of a democratically elected leader. It is rather the rantings of a dictator seeking absolute power and control.

The Trump team refuses to answer questions, and instead pivot and distract by changing the subject. During the campaign the standard pivots were to Hillary’s emails and Bill’s sex life. Neither of these are relevant now, so get over it.

Kellyanne Conway was just one of dozens of Trump spokespersons who lied to us throughout the campaign and transition period. There was also Kayleigh McEnany, Katrina Pierson, Jeffrey Lord, Chris Christie, Paul Manafort, Corey Lewandowski, Rudi Juliani, and more. Paul Manafort is now under investigation for the Russian connection. All of these spokespersons spread an endless barrage of lies, distortions, pivots, and distractions. All of them would pivot and throw red-herrings in order to not answer questions. Now it looks like the Trump administration will continue in the same vein.

Apart from lies The Donald’s other rhetorical techniques includes bullying, heaping abuse on others, and scapegoating problems. He would also promise much but never provide any plans or solutions. Real solutions must be grounded in facts and not fantasy. No one is going to build a wall. No one is going to deport 12 million people, breaking up millions of families in the process. No one is going to be excluded from the United States based solely on their religious affiliation.

The inaugural address was despicable. Rather than addressing the nation Trump only addressed his supporters. Part of being “presidential” is to realize that a president must serve all of the people, and not just those who voted for him or her. Trump attacked all those who oppose him, blamed the media for under reporting the inaugural crowds, and then whined to the CIA that the media was biased. Trump acts more like a playground bully that anyone who could govern this country.

Trump is now and will always be in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution which forbids the president to take any money from foreign powers. Trump has business entanglements in at least 50 countries, and many of these involve foreign governments. Trump denies having any business interests in Russia, but the record is clear that he has been working to establish businesses in Russia for the past thirty years.

Trump’s lease of his hotel in Washington from the federal government is now illegal and must be terminated. Sean Spicer has told us that as president, Trump is above the law and can have no conflicts of interests. But Spicer is describing a dictator, not a president bound by a constitution. More lies from Spicer. More lies is all that we can expect from The Donald and his rabid attack dogs.

The White House website now has a plug for Melania’s ongoing jewelry business. Trump will use every opportunity to abuse the office he holds for personal gain. Spicer two days before the inauguration told everyone to stay at the Trump hotel in Washington. The Trump administration will be marked by endless scandal and corruption, so get used to it.

And let us remember Trump’s tax returns. Trump promised over and over that he would release his tax returns 1) if he ran for election, 2) when the IRS audit was completed, 3) when he was elected to office. This, like everything that the Donald has told us is simply a self-serving lie. We can only assume, along with Mitt Romney, that Trump will never release his tax returns because they are toxic if not radioactive. Without his tax returns we cannot even begin to grasp what is needed for the Donald to be free of conflicts of interest. What we know about his businesses is bad enough. What we do not know is potentially horrifying.

On day one there is enough to impeach The Donald based on the emoluments clause alone. His ties to Putin and his relationship to Russia is further grounds, but this will take more time to substantiate.

And finally, the election irregularities, most of them predicted by The Donald, are grounds for his resignation. Nixon was right. Watergate was indeed a “third-rate burglary” compared to what has happened now. The Russian connection and the various election irregularities will take several years to sort out. But the emoluments clause and the numerous financial conflicts of interest are immediate grounds for impeachment.

We need to trust a Republican Congress to impeach Trump and to put an end to this obscenity that is the Trump administration.

 

Faith Demystified- When Religion Turns Toxic


When Religion Turns Toxic

When religion turns toxic it can become one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Whether we are talking about the Crusades, Mayan human sacrifice, the Inquisition, the genocidal conquest of the New World, the KKK, the Salem Witch Hunt, Islamic terrorism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, we are talking about hatred justified by religious fanaticism.

Of course not all religion is toxic. There are beautiful expressions of faith that can have world changing effects upon both believers and those whose lives they touch. There are religious beliefs and practices that transcend our ordinary existence, and make us one with the divine, the cosmos, the world in which we live, and our fellow travelers on this journey through life.

Think of Jimmy Carter building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Think of the gentle spirituality of the Dali Lama. Think of Albert Schweitzer, or Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolcata giving their lives to serve the poor. Think of the divine transcendence of taize worship, wherein Christians and even non-Christians of diverse tribes come together to focus on the God of all. Think of the Baha’i faith, with its nine doorways of enlightenment.

What is necessary then is to understand the signs of toxic religion and to prevent it from developing.

Tribalism

Humanity throughout its history, even its prehistory, has been organized into tribes. Tribes can represent bonds of kinship, race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious sects, or other demographic groupings that give us our primary identity. As we are social creatures, tribes are essential to our existence. Our culture and language are of tribal origin. Our tribal membership is an overwhelming factor in how we live, act, think, and believe.

Our tribal memberships give us a place in our community, and this is essential to human life. But the downside of tribal membership is that it can separate us from those who are not of our tribe.

If your tribal religion causes you to hate another tribe then it is toxic. If your tribe is the standard by which all other tribes are to be judged then it is toxic. If your tribe proclaims superiority over all other tribes, then it is toxic.

True spirituality rejects superiority and embraces inclusiveness. It embraces curiosity and the desire to learn about the ways of other tribes. It seeks to understand all science, human behavior, and wisdom gleamed from diverse sources. A mountain may be climbed by many different paths, and yet it is the same mountain with the same summit. The path that we chose may be the favorite path of our tribe, well known by our tribe’s long history. We know each step and handhold from those who have climbed the path before us. But to really understand the mountain we need to know the paths others have climbed.

Absolutism

Absolutist religion is highly toxic. When a tribe believes that it possesses the truth, and that all other tribes are misguided infidels, then there is no room for compromise or even dialogue. The absolutist tribe is ready to punish or even exterminate those who follow a different path. Their opponents are demonized as godless, heathens, infidels. Even related tribes which share most of their beliefs with the absolutist tribe believe are still singled out for contempt that may lead to persecution. Intra-religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians, or Sunni or Shia Muslims can be even fiercer than inter-religious rivalries. Sometimes it is hard to tell the Christians from the lions without a program.

Control Needs

Toxic religion seeks to control others. Freedom of religion begins with freedom from the religion of others. The fanatic believes that they alone speak for God, that they alone can interpret their tribe’s sacred scriptures, and that they have the right to rule over others even by force of law. Those who most demand obedience to the sacred scriptures seem not to have even read them!

The fundamentalist always begins by expounding on the authority of the scriptures. And after doing that, then begin to spout off about their own personal beliefs and prejudices. “Yoga pants are a sin!” That one is a comic example, but others are utterly toxic. “God helps those who help themselves!” says no scripture ever. “Life begins at conception.” The ancients had no notion of conception whatsoever. They knew that a man could plant a seed in a fertile woman that would occasionally lead to new life.  But reproductive biology was well beyond their ability to understand.

A serious read of the Christian gospels reveals that Jesus spent a lot of time and energy disputing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were part of the religious right of his day. These people were hyper religious, self-righteous, fanatical control freaks that somehow believed that they alone could interpret the scriptures or to speak for God. Jesus preferred the company of Roman tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

Living in Fantasy

If you fail to understand the world through scientific eyes, you will wallow in superstition and expend your energies trying to appease an angry god. We laugh at stories of primitive tribes throwing virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions. In truth the volcano is indifferent to human life, and the sacrifice of the virgin is both tragic and wasteful. Volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and not divine displeasure.  Throughout our history, and even our prehistory, tribes have made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease their angry gods. We need rain at the right times and in the right amount. We need fertile fields and abundant crops. Our ancestors needed seasonal animal migrations at their appointed times in order to survive. We feel powerless over the forces of nature that can bring storms or fair weather, abundance or starvation.

We may laugh at such primitive views of religion, but in fact we still practice them today. How many times have you heard that God is punishing us due to abortion or gay marriage? Such theories are the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes. My standard reply to such absurdities is that if God did not smite the United States over chattel slavery or genocidal warfare against the Native Americans, we can be assured that God is not losing any sleep over gay marriage.

Others believe that God will protect us from all harm. Global climate change cannot happen because God will protect us! Nuclear war? God will prevent that from happening. Destruction of the ecosystem from the variety of poisons that we use to grow our food? God will feed us manna from heaven.

Those who are locked into an anti-scientific world view deny reality. They refuse to accept facts or logic or even common sense. They are sure that the religious mythology that they have been taught is the only way to view the world. Religious mythology becomes a closed loop system that proves itself true and everything outside its narrow bounds as false. It denies the very real and present dangers that threaten to destroy our civilization.

We can survive and even thrive as a species and a civilization but only if we learn to manage the Earth as trustees. We need to lessen the effects of global climate change, nuclear proliferation, pollution, poverty and hunger. We need to work at a sustainable economic system that provided food, shelter, potable water, energy, education, and health care for all of the Earth’s people.

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