Banning religious practices – a bad idea

In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis the anti-Muslim propaganda has been coming out strong. And my home country of Canada has been no exception. It is personally sad for me to see this, because one of the things I most value about growing up in Canada is its tolerance towards other cultures and its celebration of diversity. As a result of this tradition I think it is no surprise that Islam in Canada is more progressive than any other countries. This declaration made by the Canadian Council of Imams speaks volumes to what Islam means to Muslims living in Canada. And I am sure you can make arguments about passages in the Koran supporting violence towards non-believers, and I can answer back with as many in the Bible so let’s put that aside and simply say that in the march towards a more humane society religion must evolve even if it doesn’t dissolve.

Of course there is much that is troubling in terms of the practice of Islam worldwide. You can find countries where people are killed for simply expressing dissent against the Islamic government, committing blasphemy, committing adultery, being gay, etc. There are of course the acts of terrorism which seem at times unending and of course have impact European countries and the U.S. and a big way. And of course there is the oppression of women, which is horrible and profoundly sad that we still must contend with such disregard for the rights of 50% of the population in this day and age. Some Islamic apologists will argue that this is not the way of Islam, but that being said it is certainly part of the cultural practice in many Islamic countries and I don’t hear a lot of Muslim clerics or imams in those countries saying “Hey let the women go to school and drive, this isn’t what Islam is about!” There are perhaps a lot of reasons to be worried about extreme Islamic practices, and keep in mind that many of the things that we think are extreme such as the oppression of woman, is common place in some countries.

So the question becomes, what do we do about it? Even though most Muslims are not violent and never will be, they have some very unsettling practices that they think are justified according to their religion. Many of them are just as indoctrinated as any of the evangelical community here in the U.S. when it comes to their views on women, foreigners, homosexuals, blacks, etc. So there are some people everywhere who could use some enlightening and so how do we go about doing that? And can in happen sooner than later?

Let’s start by identifying what doesn’t work and that is the banning of religious practices. Though France has banned the burka or niqab, and Switzerland has banned minarets, these practices have not been shown to impact cultural shifts in Islam and have only served to alienate and discriminate portions of the Muslim population, not only in those countries, but have angered Muslims in other countries as well. Isolating and alienating religious communities only builds resentment and will only increase the danger from Islamic groups that the laws seek to avoid. This blog post does a very good job of laying out the argument and I don’t want to repeat too much of what is said here, but any laws restricting religious practices at best do nothing and at worst, make the conflate the problem with archaic religious practices.

If history has taught us anything it is that oppression of a religion is a bad idea if we want to actually stop it. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and Europe. At least some of that may be due to the attempts at suppression of religious practices. Anti-Christian laws during Roman rule shortly after the time of Jesus actually led to an even faster spread of Christianity throughout Europe and Asia. It’s human nature that once you start persecuting somebody or some people for what they believe it causes a lot of people to start to ask questions, especially those who don’t trust the government. What is so dangerous about these ideas?  Why should we fear them? In general we are compassionate people, and when we see people suffer by not having the freedom to practice their beliefs (regardless of whether such beliefs are just) we tend to side with them. The last thing we want is a lot of people being on the same side of some unjust ideas.

I know for many of my readers, you have gotten into some arguments with people who have strong beliefs. How did those discussions go? We often think the more brilliant and final are arguments are the more impactful we’ll be.  As I wrote before this tends to not work so well because of the “backfire effect” and so if it doesn’t work very well on an individual level, such things tend to not work so well at a group level either. If our western society is to have any superior morality it comes from practicing the values that we think our important. If freedom is one of them than freedom of religion must be part of what we embrace. Giving people the freedom to practice their religious beliefs is something we want, because if the state starts making laws to ban religious practices, there is nothing to stop them from banning yours if they see fit. By valuing freedom we set an example that as a society that we respect other people and want them to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy. And of course there are other important values we must practice to which is tolerance, equality, compassion, justice, etc, so that if religious practices don’t value you those things we can show them how well it can work. If we want such people to convinced of a better worldview and a better way to live, we need to show that our values leads to a greater empathy, less suffering, and an overall increase in happiness. No words or laws are going to convince people unless they are shown. Part of why they may believe what they believe is that they’ve been indoctrinated against other cultural practices and have never seen any other way of life work.

Racist, and not a particularly helpful solution to terrorism.

I believe if anything is going to erode fundamentalism from any religion it is by showing those people the effectiveness of the values that we hold most dear. It is about embracing those people while at the same time showing them diversity of thought and ideas. It is about offering them a high level of education for their children, to help them think critically about the ideas that have been indoctrinated into their culture. It is about being humble enough to recognize that even if there many values that we do not share, they may even have something to teach us. We say we want these people to respect the laws of our country and yet this seems like much to ask if we exclude and not include. So instead of memes that enhance Islamophobia, why not spread memes that empower those that are oppressed to take advantage of the freedoms they would have in our country? Why not merrily shout out what rights they game by coming here? Why not greet them as friends instead of treating them like the enemy?  It is likely that to truly raise the consciousness of many of those indoctrinated it will take the course of a couple generations as children are born into a freer and more equitable society.  So let’s those children also growing up seeing the compassion and tolerance their parents did not have the freedom to enjoy.

Maybe a more positive meme as a way to empower Muslim women
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The Pope is a Great Guy, but…

Of course if you are in the U.S. you know that life is all a buzz because the Pope is here.  Democrats are happy, Republicans are mad, life can’t get better for us liberals right?

Now don’t get me wrong…I think this pope is miles ahead of popes in the past and I really love his positive messages about doing something about climate change, helping refugees, and taking care of the poor. But….

On the topic of climate change, there this group, let’s call them a hell of a lot of scientists across numerous scientific disciplines who have been saying we need to do something about climate change.  But if the Pope says, then we better start listening.

There are a large group of people who feel great compassion for the poor and already believe we should be helping them.  The Pope says we should help them and so now we better start listening.

There are a lot of people who think we need to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Syria better.  The Pope has made it clear we must help, so now we better start listening.

And look, I get it to a certain point, because there is a large portion of this country who only start to take things seriously when it is said by religious authority, but that doesn’t mean we should really be happy about it.

Secular humanists and those that value the scientific method as the best way to try and understand how the universe works are years ahead of the church on these kinds of issues and yet nothing can be done about it until the Pope says to do something about it?

But here is the thing, the Pope is right, but there is nothing about his religion beliefs that are germane to the issues he speaks of.  Helping the poor is a matter of acting out of our natural capacity to feel empathy, it speaks to equality, and human rights.  There is nothing divine about it.  Doing something about climate change has nothing to do with the story of Jesus Christ.  Once again it is being proactive about reducing suffering and listening to what 1000’s of scientists are saying who have spent years and years researching changes to our environment.  If there was no Pope and no God this would all still be the right thing to do, because why let people suffer?

So I’m happy that the Pope is saying all these things, but there are many among you have been saying these things all along.  Intelligent and compassionate people.  They aren’t called the Pope but maybe they are worth listening to as well. To me it’s a bit sad that we have to look to a man who says many things other have said all along, but just because he is the Pope it becomes relevant.

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people… Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid … the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science. – Jawaharlal Nehru – 1961

A Little Red Wagon

Dhyan_wagonI’m trying hard to have the occasional short post for people who are tired of my long posts, so this seemed like a good one. 🙂  A friend of ours had no use anymore for a Roadmaster red wagon that their grandchildren had outgrown and gave it to us.  My son took right away to sitting in the wagon and has opted to be pulled around in the wagon instead of being pushed in the stroller.  I have taken him a few times now on a two mile route around my neighborhood in which one leg of the journey goes down one of the main roads in town and I have to say it’s a special experience.

It’s interesting how the red wagon seems to evoke emotion in the faces of others.  For most it brings smiles and a sense of nostalgia.  Today one gentleman was outside his home and on his phone and he called out to me and told me to stop and wanted to take a picture and he exclaimed to the person he was talking to “You’ll never believe it, but there is a guy pulling his kid around on a red flyer!”.  And he did take a picture of me and my son.  🙂  The reaction is much stronger than pushing him around on the stroller.  A lot of people point, or wave to him (he sort of just stares blankly unsure of why he has become so popular).  Maybe it’s because it is a classic wagon that the nostalgia is stronger.  Maybe the reaction would not be the same if it was some other color or some other brand.  Some people seem to feel a little sad though.  Nostalgia tends to do that as sometimes I see faces with a little bit of longing, perhaps for the past long since gone.  And sometimes I swear I see a deeper sadness, perhaps wishing that their mother or father would have taken them on wagon rides, or the remembrance of a parent that has passed on.

It’s nevertheless comforting to me that such simple things can evoke such emotion.  That small things can feel so grand.  I enjoy the feeling of taking him for a walk on a warm autumn day.  And for a short time that little wagon becomes a grand chariot to my son and to all around him, and even though I’m the one pulling it, I feel as rich as any king.

A Quick Word About Heroes

I have had several posts that deal with the idea of heroes and are propensity for elevating people to the heights of perfection.  Such posts can be posted here, here and here.  But I also wanted to add to this an excellent post by somebody who is turning into one my heroes (because he hasn’t revealed any flaws to me…yet) who writes an excellent ethics blog.  He approaches the idea of heroes with an excellent thought experiment and by reminding us that it’s the worth of the ideas we should always be analyzing rather than the worth of the person who puts forth those ideas.  Now I promise not blog anymore about heroes. 🙂  Maybe.

The Scales of Justice

I recently watched this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about public defenders.  It is not a slam against public defenders, but rather a criticism of a system in which anywhere from 60-90% of people arrested cannot afford lawyers and rely on public defenders, but there are just far too many of them for public defenders to do their job adequately.  This leaves many defendants with less than adequate representation.  As a result over 90% of cases by public defenders end in plea bargains, even when the people aren’t guilty.  That’s a quick summary, but watching the clip is well worth the time and speaks for itself.

And I started to think about the entire philosophy of justice we have in this country and got really sad about it all.  It would be one thing if we had a beautiful ideal and we were continually striving towards it, but it seems that there is enough of a portion of this country that feel justice is working fine, and that if you are in a position to be arrested than you simply have some sort of punishment coming your way.  The system is rigged from the police procedures that target low income people knowing that many can’t afford to fight back and will pay fines whether they were really guilty or not, to the court system which puts low income people at a severe disadvantage, to the prison system which profits from long jail sentences for minimal crimes.  And once they are in there, opportunities are so low once they get out.  As President Obama said, we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population and compared to other western nations with similar standards of living we are one of the least safe nations.  The violent crime rate is down 40% from what it was in 1980 and yet prison populations have increased by over 400%.  Something is definitely not right.

Bernie_memeAnd my question really is why is it this way?  As poverty continues to grow in this country why do we continue to punish the most impoverished of our people for simply being in poverty?  I’m not saying that there aren’t people who commit crimes and that we should just let it happen, but when you look at the environment and challenges they face, those who criticize rarely have experienced such adversity.  Sure there is always a small portion who rise out of poverty but for the most part the poor are simply exploited for their labor or for their money.  On average, we don’t give them a living wage, we don’t give them access to equal education, we don’t give them equal access to quality health care, and we don’t give them equal access to healthy and affordable food options.

But they all deserve it right?  Making those bad decisions when they had so many good decisions open to them.  Do we not have a responsibility to raise the less fortunate up?  Do we just leave those who haven’t had the opportunities we had to languish and justify it with the idea it’s their fault they are in this position?  What about forgiveness?  What about compassion? How can we paint such a large population of our country with just one color and ignore the tapestry of lives that exist there?  As the top income earners continue to suck away the wealth of the bottom 99% why do we turn our attention downwards, kicking those at the bottom instead of shaking the tree more to let the fruit fall to the ground?  Some people in this country act like if we just eliminated the poor the country would be a better place, but in fact it would be chaos and nothing would remain.  No soldiers to fight our wars, no workers to pick our food, serve our food, work in retail, and all the other jobs we don’t even notice get done everyday.  And even if the void could be filled, the capitalist policies our country function on would simply shift more of us down to the bottom, while the rich keep benefiting.

Welcome to an economy built on consumerism and profit.  To answer the real question why, one simply has to follow the money.  It is to the benefit of the rich to keep the population of a large portion of the country poor.  Because there is only so far wealth can grow, it is finite and if the populous has more, they have less.  Life, liberty, and happiness for all citizens of this country take a backseat when money is involved.

I know this post was ranty and I try to put more logical discourse, but just sometimes you just look at these large systems that are so difficult to change when you are just one person and see millions upon millions of people being impacted by a system that is simply not there to help them, and in the long run doesn’t help the rest of us either.  I made a resolution with myself about a year ago then when I moved strongly by something emotionally I need to not just complain but do something positive, even if it’s just donate some money to a worthwhile charity.  Although perhaps on the periphery of the central theme of this post, there is something that I have been sort of procrastinating getting involved in for some time and I am happy to say I am procrastinating no longer.  I have decided to be a CASA volunteer which is a wonderful program where the volunteer acts as an advocate for a neglected or abused child in court until the system finds them a good and safe home.  Incarceration is a strong possibility for children who grow up in broken homes and maybe helping in this way I can help a few kids stay out of the prison system in this country.

School didn’t teach me to do my taxes: Sad emoticons

An old high school friend of mine posted this video the other day.  It’s a good laugh, but overall I disagree with it.  It’s like many memes you have seen posted on Facebook about the ineffectiveness of school at teaching everyday life skills that people need.  My friend asks for people’s thoughts and as educator I wanted to echo mine, which is basically that just because school doesn’t teach you how to do your taxes, or how to garden, or even knowledge that is directly applicable to your current life or future life, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.  Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about how school subjects are applicable I will simply say this.  First, are schools meant to teach you everyday practical skills?  Should there not be a place that teaches you thinks you would likely not learn about anywhere else?  Second, in addition to learning, you are also learning how to learn.  A whole lot of different stuff too.  And in life you have to learn a whole lot of different stuff all the time.  And thirdly, another thought I like was given by a speaker talking to the students in our program when he asked a student “Is there anything that you ever learned that you didn’t use right away, but later on you found came in quite handy?”.  Invariably the student said yes, and I think anybody can answer yes to that question.  It’s quite possible that no knowledge is actually useless.

I think though that it is a valid question to ask.  What about all this other stuff that one has to know that has nothing to do with the things you learn at school  How do we acquire these skills?  I was pondering the question today because those memes that say school doesn’t teach you anything useful sort of annoy me and could never really figure out why, but perhaps have hit on a couple of things.  First, we should perhaps get out of this mindset that school is the only place where you can learn stuff?  Most people who I know learned to be handy, learned to garden, learned sewing, etc, didn’t get it from school but got it from home.  More than that if you aren’t finding school fun, then why aren’t you spending your time out of school exploring the things that interest you.  You have the time.  And while play is important, exploring something that you want to explore might actually feel like play.  And if your parents don’t know how to do a lot of stuff, is it the schools job to fill in all the gaps in knowledge your parents don’t have?  That seems like an unfair burden to place on a school system that is already playing parent in a lot of other ways for working families.  But I am sure if someone is resourceful they could find someone who gardens, or someone who can show somebody how to do their taxes.  Before I left home I volunteered to do the family laundry for a few months because I knew once I was living on my own I’d have to do it so I should probably learn.  Again, school isn’t the only time and place for learning.

The other thing I thought about was that even though I love the “jack-of-all-trades” kind of person, the reality is that civilization trends away from such people.  The birth of civilization from farming gave people who didn’t have to grow the food free time to pursue other activities and people specialized.  Even in hunter-gatherer tribes there had to be some people who were faster, had better eyesight, were wiser, etc.  People had specialties and civilization has allow that to simply grow over the years.  We hate ironing, and a friend of ours loves to iron, and said he’d iron for us if we cooked him several days of Indian food, and we love to cook and our good at it.  So specializing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it just means that you have to be fairly competent at something.  And that way through what you’re good at, you can then pay someone to do your taxes or just buy vegetables at your farmers market.

In my experience those that are good at school, can pick up other things they need to learn relatively quickly.  The key is to just to learn to love learning and never stop. 🙂

The Cost of Education

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has been talking a lot about the minimum wage and the cost of education in this country.  It’s been a subject of course of many democrats.  One of the memes that I think ties both together well is the one that shows how many hours in a day you would have to work to pay off yearly tuition at Yale at minimum wage in 19—compared to today.

But I don’t want to talk so much about minimum wage, but rather the cost of education.  Bernie Sanders would like to make it free at public institutions.  There are many memes mocking this idea, mostly in regards to this being a wild campaign promise that has no chance of coming true.  Or questioning where all the money is going to come from.  Bernie has a plan for that but I’d like to take the politics out for a second and question why anybody would be opposed to the idea of free tuition at public universities.

Can anybody argue that an educated public is not better than an uneducated one?  Regardless of the type of government a public that is educated simply has less chance of becoming oppressed at least long-term than one that is uneducated.  In fact we should be worried about a society in which education is become less and less valued, and less accessible to a good portion of the population.  The constantly rising price of tuition and the decreasing middle class certainly implies a general decrease in access of education for many families.  Sure student loans are an option, but that’s a heavy cost one has to pay going $40,000 or $50,000 in debt puts you behind the 8 ball for sure through most of your young life.   My generation (which would be about the age of many the students now) or the previous one never had to start out life that way, so why should it be that way for this generation?

A more educated one is also more civil and less divided.  We argue in this country over issues that are non-issues to most other industrial nations.  Issues that become politicized which have no need to belong to one party or the other because they are simply something we need to all agree on and do something about.  As the public becomes less and less literate on important issues such as climate change, GMO’s, vaccines, environmental conservation divides in viewpoints exist when they should not.  Even when viewpoints do differ and educated public will force the debate to be relevant, and compromise is more easily found.  A democracy is only successful when everybody participates.  But how can people effectively participate when they don’t understand the issues?  For many who participate their vote is based less on an understanding the issues over more surface based and emotional reasons.

Look at any country in which all people have equal access to education and you will find a country with less crime, a large middle class, and a productive economy.  So why would anybody oppose free university education without seriously looking at how it could be done.  It’s not like we don’t have the money but yes it would cause us to put less priority one thing to put the priority on education.  It’s simply unclear to me why equal access to education wouldn’t be a primary concern for any nation.  Education makes business better, but that does not mean education should be a business.  As soon as we turn education into a product we’ve ruined it.  This is because like any product, when the quality is high, the cost is also high and few can afford it.  People with less money who want that same product end up getting a cheaper version of the product that simply isn’t as good.   Most universities do want to keep their quality high, but it leaves them with a choice of raising tuition costs to do so, or lowering standards of enrollment to get more students.  After they’ve let more students in who they know will struggle in university they end up inflating grades or lowering expectations so they can appear ethical and that they haven’t just let a bunch of students in only to make money.  Anybody who is in academia sees this business model as a terrible way to run education and yet it seems to be the trend.  There is no doubt in my mind it will come back to bite us.

So let us not oppose the idea of free college education, let us work together to find a way that it can happen. Other nations are able to provide this to their citizens.  Why can we not do the same? It really is to everybody’s benefit.