Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington

US photographer Chris Hondros, along with British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, were killed in Libya yesterday.

Hondros was the person who took the iconic photographs of what happened to an Iraqi family, especially a terrified little Iraqi girl, just after her parents were killed by US soldiers at a checkpoint in Tal Afar in 2005.

I cannot see that picture without the sickening brutality of war being brought home to me once again. I wrote about war and death and the impact such photos before.

Journalists like Hondros and Hetherington take great personal risks in order to remind us that was is not a video game but that real people, ordinary people, innocent people, suffer and die unnecessary deaths because of the ambitions and power lusts of a few.

And now they have become the latest statistic.

Imagine there’s no hell

20110425_107.jpgThe latest issue of Time magazine has as its cover story the question “What if there’s no hell?” which focuses on a 40-year old evangelical preacher named Rob Bell who is head of a megachurch in Michigan called Mars Hill Bible Church that boasts 7,000 members attending its services each Sunday. He is described as a ‘rock star’ in the evangelical movement and has just published a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived that is causing consternation in evangelical circles by arguing that hell may not exist and that heaven may be open to everyone, not just those who accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, the usual standard for admission among evangelicals.

To be quite frank, I had never heard of Bell or his church or his book before I came across this article but I thought it interesting that yet another evangelical is finding the concept of hell problematic enough that he wants to abandon it. Hell has always been a thorn in the side of more thoughtful believers. As I have written before, its existence as a place of permanent and indescribable torment is simply incompatible with any concept of a good god.

I grew up in the liberal Protestant tradition where there was very little talk about hell from our ministers. They were too humane to preach that all unbelievers would suffer unbelievable torments. What they did was instead emphasize that heaven was a wonderful place because you got to hang out with god and hell was being denied this interaction. In this view, heaven was like a wonderful party that you would enjoy going to and at which there would be this person that you had really, really wanted to meet all your life. Hell was what you would feel if you were not invited and thus missing out on a great time. Basically it was what we might call ‘hell lite’, where you would feel kind of sad, but would not suffer physically.

But many Christians really like the old-fashioned idea of hell and seem to relish the thought of unbelievers suffering torments. The sainted Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.” How nice for them. And this prospect of future gloating is common today as evidenced by the popularity of the Left Behind series of books and Ann Coulter’s statement “I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me that they do not laugh at the idea of [Richard] Dawkins burning in hell.”(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), p. 320-1.) If you, as an atheist, ever engage in conversation with such people, it is not long before they warn you that your unbelief is going to cost you big time when you die, so that you are foolish not to accept Jesus as your savior right now. In fact, for such people, fear of hell seems to be a more powerful motivator for allegiance to god than the attractions of heaven.

It is easy to see why fear of hell is a more potent weapon in the religious arsenal for recruiting and retaining believers than the lure of heaven. Try this exercise. Imagine heaven as the most wonderful place you can conceive of where you experience all the things that make you happy or content. Then think about that experience continuing forever. I simply cannot do so without it becoming crushingly boring. Even children would get bored with Disney World if they were stuck there forever.

This clip from the film Bedazzled (1967), in which Lucifer (Peter Cook) acts as the fallen angel who comes down to Earth for the soul of a short-order cook (Dudley Moore), provides a good illustration.

On the other hand, it is easy to imagine the unpleasantness of eternal torment because even if the same torture is done over and over again, you can easily imagine that it would still be painful. Unlike heaven, hell never gets old. Take away hell, and the appeal of belief is greatly reduced.

The evangelical traditionalists are aware of this danger and are appalled by Bell’s apostasy. R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that Bell’s message is “theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.” Mohler is right for the wrong reasons. Eliminating hell is subversive to religion because stoking fear of what happens after death is religion’s main recruiting strategy.

In 2005, This American Life ran the story of Carlton Pearson, the head of a successful Pentecostal megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Sunday attendance of 5,000 who, like Bell, began to question the idea of hell. Pearson just could not reconcile the idea of a loving god with one who consigns people to writhe and burn in the fires of hell for eternity, and started preaching as if hell did not exist. His assistant pastors were dismayed and broke away and formed their own church, taking much of the congregation with them so that it dwindled down to a few hundred, though Pearson started getting some new converts. You can listen to the episode.

Will this happen to Bell and his church too? It will be interesting to watch.

Eating more humanely

In response to my earlier post on the hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience, commenter Mary Jo said she became a vegetarian but later returned to eating meat but with a renewed sensibility, saying “I still feel really sorry for the animals I eat. I eat meat that is certified to be humanely raised and slaughtered by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization.” She gave a link to Certified Humane, an organization whose label on products certifies that it “Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritous diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”

But Mary Jo added that despite taking the care to eat certified humane meat, “I have been really mocked about this because, of course, suffering is still involved.”

Peter Singer is one of the foremost ethicists of our time who has written voluminously on the topic. He is someone who in all areas of his own life tries to meet the principles of ethical behavior. He is a vegan but he argues that what is important is not absolute purity but the willingness to minimize the suffering of other sentient beings. In his book The Ethics of What We Eat co-authored with Jim Mason, they take a non-judgmental approach and try to provide people with all manner of diets a way to eat ethically within the framework they have chosen or been forced into. They look at three families, one fast-food based, the second consisting of concerned omnivores (like Mary Jo), and the third being vegan, and for each family they provide practical suggestions for eating more humanely.

In the section titled Food is an ethical issue-but you don’t have to be fanatical about it (p. 281-284) they point out:

[I]t is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reasons for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what. Some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, have strict rules against eating particular foods, and their adherents are supposed to follow these rules all the time. If they break them they may feel polluted, or disobedient to their god. But this rule-based view isn’t the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances.

Amanda Paulson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor about “One woman’s quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt,” describes the ethics of Daren Firestone, a Chicago law student who won’t buy meat, but will eat the remnants of a big Thanksgiving dinner before they get tossed out. Whether or not you agree with that view-don’t eat meat unless it will otherwise be wasted-there is nothing that disqualifies it as an ethical principle. Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan takes the same view about airline meals. A vegetarian in his everyday life, he orders meatless meals when he flies. Airlines, however, sometimes fail to deliver on such requests. If that happens, and he is offered a meat meal that he knows will be thrown out if he doesn’t eat it, he’ll eat it. In these circumstances-in contrast to buying meat at the supermarket-his consumption of meat seems to make no difference to the demand for it.

How relaxed can we be? Firestone’s dietary rules also include what she calls “the Paris exemption:” if she is lucky enough to find herself in a fine restaurant in Paris-or, very occasionally, in a truly outstanding restaurant elsewhere-she allows herself to eat whatever she likes. We wondered whether she believes that on these rare occasions, the pleasure that she gets from eating meat outweighs the contribution her meal makes to animal suffering. When we contacted her, however, she readily admitted that her “Paris exemption” is “more self-indulgence than utilitarian calculus.” But that doesn’t mean that her general opposition to eating meat is not ethical. It is, but she gives more weight to what she wants to do than she would if she were acting on strictly ethical principles all the time. Very few of us are in any position to criticize that, and most of those who do criticize it are deceiving themselves about their choices when their own desires are at stake. A little self-indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn’t make you a moral monster, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you might as well abandon your principles entirely. In fact, Firestone believes that by allowing herself to satisfy her occasional cravings-maybe once every three months-she has been able to be faithful to her principles for many years, while other vegetarians she knows have given up the whole practice because one day they could not resist the smell of bacon frying.

Singer has a utilitarian philosophy that seeks to minimize the suffering of sentient beings. It is not always easy to carry out the calculus (whether it is ethical to use animals in research that could lead to cures for diseases is one difficult question) but some ethical lines can be more easily drawn. Other things being equal, when it comes to minimizing suffering via our food choices it is surely better to be a vegan than a vegetarian. It is surely better to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. It is surely better for omnivores to eat less meat than more meat. It is surely better to eat meat from animals that have been raised humanely than those that have been raised in factory farms, and so on. The mockery that Mary Jo receives for not being 100% pure is entirely unwarranted.

Singer and Mason also realize that financial hardship poses some restrictions on the ability to eat ethically and healthily. They say that if you are forced to choose, avoiding factory-farmed food is a higher ethical principle than eating organic.

Food that is both more ethical and more economical is available in every supermarket. Buying organic food without incurring extra expense, on the other hand, is usually not possible. Taking that into account, and considering that there are more powerful grounds for avoiding factory-farmed products than for buying only organic food, it is reasonable to limit the obligation to buy organic food to what one can afford without undue hardship, while seeing the obligation to avoid factory-farmed products as more stringent.

The Ethics of What We Eat is an excellent book that I can strongly recommend. It not only provides a good understanding of the ethical principles involved in our food choices, it also provides practical advice for those who want to eat ethically but are not sure how best to go about it.

That god, such a kidder

Michele Bachman recently said that back in 2003 when she was a Minnesota state senator and heard that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled that bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional, she prayed to her god asking what she should do and her god told her to introduce an amendment in the state legislature defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

But for some inexplicable reason, after telling her this her god did not use his omnipotency to get enough other legislators to support the measure and it failed, showing once again that her god is such a tease. Either that or he is simply disorganized and lacks follow through. As Woody Allen once said, “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.”

The Democrats election season begins

You can always tell when the presidential election season begins in earnest for the Democrats. That’s when they suddenly discover that the base of their support consists of the less well off in society. So after giving the oligarchy almost everything they want during the first part of their period in office, they suddenly start spouting progressive rhetoric.

Last Wednesday, Obama gave his own plan for cutting the deficit and pleased his base by seeming to discover that they were still around. He first attacked the spending on wars and the tax giveaways to the rich, conveniently downplaying his own complicity in both.

We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program – but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts – tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

He also re-discovered his party’s commitment to the promises of the Great Society and attacked the Republican party’s plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

He gave a rousing promise to defend the social safety net, the way democrats always do when they are running for office.

I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.

That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security. While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older. As I said in the State of the Union, both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations. But we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

He also seemed to notice the governmental actions that have led to rapid increases in wealth and income inequality that have characterized the last three decades.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs?

There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.

He once again invoked the Democrats favorite “They forced me into it!” ploy to excuse his own party’s complicity in the process.

In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again.

Beyond that, the tax code is also loaded up with spending on things like itemized deductions. And while I agree with the goals of many of these deductions, like homeownership or charitable giving, we cannot ignore the fact that they provide millionaires an average tax break of $75,000 while doing nothing for the typical middle-class family that doesn’t itemize.

My budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2% of Americans – a reform that would reduce the deficit by $320 billion over ten years.

He also offered some vague promises on cutting Pentagon spending. Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says that Obama’s plans for reducing the deficit using a ratio of two-thirds cuts in spending to a one-third rise in revenue is weighted too much on cuts and will cause real hardship.

The things that Obama didn’t say tell us more about his priorities than the things he said. As many observers have noticed, the easiest way to significantly cut the deficit is to do nothing at all. Because then the Bush-Obama tax cuts would expire on December 31, 2012 and that would take care of most of the problem. But of course, Obama will ultimately give in to oligarchic demands to preserve those cuts. Rich people love their tax cuts.

When Obama agreed to a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts in December 2010, I could not help but notice that the new deadline is just after the presidential election. Call me cynical, but my sense was that he would vigorously campaign against renewing the tax cuts but once safely re-elected would reverse course and go along with them and with cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, saying regretfully that he was forced to do so by the mean old Republicans.

I would be really pleased to have my predictions proved wrong.