Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ben Stein Got It Wrong

By Bill Lazarus
wplazarus@aol.com


Ben Stein, a former attorney who is a noted laconic actor, recently made a widely circulated CBS Sunday Morning Commentary about religious beliefs in America.  His opinions cry out for a response.
He started by saying that, although he is Jewish, he doesn’t mind saying Merry Christmas or seeing holiday-related items.  Most people don’t.  They are hard to miss anyway.  Christmas lights and decorations about; Christmas music fills the airwaves and stores.
Most of us shrug off such outward demonstrations of religious belief.  The objection people have to Christmas – a concern held up by the U.S. courts and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – has to do with the placement of religious symbols on public land.  Many people rightly feel that public money should not be used to support someone else’s religious teachings. 
As a result, cities were enjoined to stop putting tax dollars in cr├Ęches and other religion-related items.  That’s all.  After all, I would imagine Mr. Stein might object if the holiday in question was Ramadan, for example, and his tax dollars were being used to support the activities of that Islamic holiday.
He then insisted that, as a result of the absence of such religious artifacts, the country is now atheistic.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The last survey I saw on the subject this year showed 92 percent of Americans believe in God.  There’s no connection between belief in God and the public support of religious beliefs. 
Besides, the Constitution specifically prohibits Congress from passing laws that infringe on religion.  This idea developed because each framer of the Constitution wanted to impose his religious views on others.  The choice then was one or none.  Having seen what religious wars did to decimate Europe, the delegates wisely opted for none.  Later Supreme Courts then created the concept of separation of Church and State.  Nothing in that can possible be construed as atheistic.  God is enshrined on our coins and in our Pledge of Allegiance, for example.
Equally, there’s no limit on worshipping God.  Anyone can, anywhere, including public facilities.  Prayer is not banned in school, contrary to repeated claims.  What’s banned is forced prayer that everyone is obligated to participate in.  As a result, schools have clubs formed by people of various denominations.  They meet, discuss their religious views, pray and hold activities.  They just can’t require others to join them.
Such rules are absolutely necessary in a polyglot society.  Sadly, historically, any monotheistic religion that gains control of society immediately dictates religious views.  No monotheistic religion is exempt.  As a result, the framers of the Constitution prevented that from happening here.
Mr. Stein then claimed that the impact of restrictions on religion has forced  God “ to punish” people by sending such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina.  Does he mean all natural events are signs of God’s anger?  What did the devout Catholics of Haiti do to deserve such torment?  How about the Moslems in the Philippines, the followers of Confucius in China? They have suffered horrifically from earthquakes, tsunamis and/or floods.  The followers of the Shinto faith in Japan who endured devastating earthquakes and tsunamis?   How about Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed Homestead, Florida?  What did the people there do so terrible as to receive God’s wrath?  What about Hurricane Bill?  That one caused no damage.  God had second thoughts?
Was the Holocaust God’s punishment?  If so, then the Nazis must have been His messengers.  Forgive me for finding that especially absurd.
Moreover, when we do start acknowledging God’s wrath?  After all, natural disasters have been around before mankind existed.  They are easily traceable in the rocks that make up our planet.  Was God sending a warning to dinosaurs or to the creatures that preceded them?
This morning I read about storms that decimated a small Southern town.  Was that a warning to the residents?  The residents were bad.  Residents in nearby cities must have been good because they were unharmed.
The absurdity is obvious.
Natural events happen.  As population increases, hurricanes will affect more people; so will tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes and the various other natural disasters the Earth produces on a regular basis and has through history.  That doesn’t require God.
Then Mr. Stein blamed prominent atheist Madeleine Murray O'Hare for lack of prayer in school.  He forgot a few people, like the Supreme Court, who sided with her viewpoint.  He also noted slyly that O’Hare was murdered, as if, I suppose, that renders God’s judgment.  Bertrand Russell, a philosopher and an atheist, lived to be 98.  Is that God’s judgment, too?  Isolated incidents do not serve as proof of anything.  Besides, as noted earlier, prayer has not been removed from school; forced prayer supporting a single faith has.  There is a vast difference.
Then, he blamed the behavior of today’s children on Dr. Benjamin Spock.  He is hardly unique.  Dr. Spock is a popular and convenient target. However, all Dr. Spock did is offer a proposal of a way to raise children.  He was not the first one to do so (or the last), but his timing, coming as it did during the Baby Boom, was excellent.  He may have been right, partially right or wrong.  Regardless, his ideas struck a chord.
It is ridiculous to blame him for the way children are.  Just for starters, complaints about the younger generation can be found in literature for more than 2000 years.  Plato was very angry at the children of his day, for example.  The reality is that generations change.  Mr. Stein’s generation went through the cauldron of the Depression and World War II.  That will affect anyone. 
The next generation – the one Dr. Spock addressed -- was determined that their children would not suffer.  That worked until the Viet Nam war, which was widely protested in the same way previous wars were protested.  There were anti-war riots in New York City during the Civil War, for example.  Such events change people. 
The next generation, growing up in abundance and opportunity, naturally was different than Mr. Stein’s.  They knew nothing of war protests and Depressions.  They didn’t have the same experiences or the same ideas.  How could they be the same?  Their values are different, too.  That’s not better or worse; that’s simply different.  There’s no point railing against them, because the next generation will be different, too.
Finally, Mr. Stein insisted that comments about God are not acceptable while anti-religious jokes are.  I suspect some of that comes from commentaries like his.  Nevertheless, he’s also wrong.  There are literally millions of pages on the internet devoted to God and religion. As a religious historian, I can think of no time in history where more people had access to more religious material and ideas.
The problem for Mr. Stein is that scientific study is also available.  That means, we now have a good grasp on how the universe, Earth and life appeared.  It all can be done without a God.  Even the Roman Catholic Church now acknowledges that: Pope John Paul II accepted evolution, conceding Adam and Eve never existed.  Pope Benedict XVI has endorsed the Big Bang Theory, which did not require divine action.  He was reduced to saying the universe exists “in the mind of God.”  Intense and widely available investigations into the Bible by noted scholars have verified the non-historical nature of the religious texts.  As such, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the compendium of the faith, admits that the Gospels represent not history, but the belief of the authors.
That kind of documented research is what is undermining faith, not the legal restrictions.  The number of people leaving churches is soaring.  They are not necessarily becoming atheists; they are searching for meaning in a world increasingly threatened by climate change, pollution and overpopulation.  Mr. Stein would do well to search for God’s plan in such potential global calamities than to attempt to fix blame on a few people who do not accept current religious beliefs.
Perhaps it will be a consolation to him to know that humans have frequently changed their religious ideas throughout history and will again in the future.  That’s human nature, just as it is to try to find someone else to blame for natural events and changing cultural mores.

 Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 


My confession:

I am a Jew, and every  single one of my ancestors was Jewish.  And it
does not bother me  even a little bit when people call those beautiful
lit up, bejeweled  trees, Christmas trees.  I don't feel threatened.
I don't feel  discriminated against. That's what they are, Christmas
trees.

It doesn't bother me a  bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me.
I don't think they are  slighting me or getting ready to put me in a
ghetto.  In fact, I kind  of like it.  It shows that we are all
brothers and sisters  celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't
bother me at all that  there is a manger scene on display at a key
intersection near my beach  house in Malibu .  If people want a
creche, it's just as fine with me  as is the Menorah a few hundred
yards away.

I don't like getting  pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think
Christians like getting  pushed around for being Christians.  I think
people who believe in  God are sick and tired of getting pushed
around, period.  I have no  idea where the concept came from, that
America is an explicitly atheist  country.  I can't find it in the
Constitution and I don't like it  being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it  another way: where did the idea come from that
we should worship  celebrities and we aren't allowed to worship God ?
I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too.  But  there are a lot
of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from  and where
the America we knew went to.


In light of the many  jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this
is a little  different:  This is not intended to be a joke; it's not
funny, it's  intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter  was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane
Clayson asked her 'How could  God let something like this happen?'
(regarding Hurricane Katrina)..   Anne Graham gave an extremely
profound and insightful response.  She  said, 'I believe God is deeply
saddened by this, just as we are, but for  years we've been telling
God to get out of our schools, to get out of our  government and to
get out of our lives.  And being the gentleman He  is, I believe He
has calmly backed out.  How can we expect God to  give us His blessing
and His protection if we demand He leave us  alone?'

In light of recent  events... terrorists attack, school shootings,
etc.  I think it  started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was
murdered, her body found a  few years ago) complained she didn't want
prayer in our schools, and we  said OK.  Then someone said you better
not read the Bible in  school.  The Bible says thou shalt not kill;
thou shalt not steal,  and love your neighbor as yourself.  And we
said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock  said we shouldn't spank our children when
they misbehave, because their  little personalities would be warped
and we might damage their self-esteem  (Dr. Spock's son committed
suicide).  We said an expert should know  what he's talking about.
And we said okay.

Now we're asking  ourselves why our children have no conscience, why
they don't know right  from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to
kill strangers, their  classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think  about it long and hard enough, we can figure it
out.  I think it has  a great deal to do with 'WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.'

Funny how simple it is  for people to trash God and then wonder why
the world's going to  hell.  Funny how we believe what the newspapers
say, but question  what the Bible says.  Funny how you can send
'jokes' through e-mail  and they spread like wildfire, but when you
start sending messages  regarding the Lord, people think twice about
sharing.  Funny how  lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass
freely through cyberspace,  but public discussion of God is suppressed
in the school and  workplace.

Are you laughing  yet?

Funny how when you  forward this message, you will not send it to many
on your address list  because you're not sure what they believe, or
what they will think of you  for sending it.

Funny how we can be more  worried about what other people think of us
than what God thinks of  us.
Pass it on if you think it has merit.
If not, then just discard  it.... no one will know you did.  But, if
you discard this thought  process, don't sit back and complain about
what bad shape the world is  in.

My Best Regards,   Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein


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