Monday, June 25, 2012

In The Lousy Queen We Trust.

This post is not about bourbon or Kentucky. If you only want to read those kinds of posts from me, turn away now.

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a small piece of my personal philosophy. I wrote: "It is wrong--morally, ethically, and legally--to impose your religious beliefs on other people. Any questions?"

Inevitably, there was a small effort to equate religious beliefs with non-religious beliefs, the familiar 'Humanism is a religion' argument. This is easily refuted. Religious belief systems involve supernatural entities, non-religious belief systems do not. Because a religion’s beliefs are issued by supernatural entities they cannot be challenged by mere humans.

That's why we can't allow anyone to impose their religious beliefs, with regard to sexual preference, or alcohol consumption, for example, on the rest of us. This should not be a dispute between religious believers and non-believers, because if you believe in American liberty and the U.S. Constitution, you have to subscribe to this philosophy, no matter how religious you may be.

Thinking about this, I always recall a speech I heard Kurt Vonnegut Jr. make at an American Civil Liberties Union fundraiser many years ago in Louisville. He explains it so much better than I can. He uses an analogy involving playing cards that makes the dilemma, and the answer, so clear. He repeated it in his book, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (Dial Press, 1999). It is excerpted below from an excerpt used by the publisher to promote the book.

I will speak of Thomas Aquinas… I will tell you my dim memories of what he said about the hierarchy of laws on this planet, which was flat at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God's law. Beneath that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.

And the lowest law was human law.

Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards. Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so why shouldn't we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.

The Thomist hierarchy of laws is so far from being ridiculous that I have never met anybody who did not believe in it right down to the marrow of his or her bones. Everybody knows that there are laws with more grandeur than those which are printed in our statute books. The big trouble is that there is so little agreement as to how those grander laws are worded. Theologians can give us hints of the wording, but it takes a dictator to set them down just right–to dot the i's and cross the t's. A man who had been a mere corporal in the army did that for Germany and then for all of Europe, you may remember, not long ago. There was nothing he did not know about divine and natural law. He had fistfuls of aces and kings to play.

Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, we were not playing with a full deck, as they say. Because of our Constitution, the highest card anybody had to play was a lousy queen, contemptible human law. That remains true today. I myself celebrate that incompleteness, since it has obviously been so good for us. I support the American Civil Liberties Union because it goes to court to insist that our government officials be guided by nothing grander than human law. Every time the circulation of this idea or that one is discouraged by an official in this country, that official is scorning the Constitution, and urging all of us to participate in far grander systems, again: divine or natural law.

Cannot we, as libertarians, hunger for at least a little natural law? Can't we learn from nature at least, without being burdened by another person's idea of God?

Certainly. Granola never harmed anybody, nor the birds and bees–not to mention milk. God is unknowable, but nature is explaining herself all the time. What has she told us so far? That blacks are obviously inferior to whites, for one thing, and intended for menial work on white man's terms. This clear lesson from nature, we should remind ourselves from time to time, allowed Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Imagine that.

What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up, and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.

Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really understands nature or God. It is my willingness to lay this groundwork, and not sex or violence, which has got my poor book in such trouble in Island Trees–and in Drake, North Dakota, where the book was burned, and in many other communities too numerous to mention.

I have not said that our government is anti-nature and anti-God. I have said that it is non-nature and non-God, for very good reasons that could curl your hair.

Well–all good things must come to an end, they say. So American freedom will come to an end, too, sooner or later. How will it end? As all freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.

To return to my foolish analogy of playing cards: kings and aces will be played. Nobody else will have anything higher than a queen.

There will be a struggle between those holding kings and aces. The struggle will not end, not that the rest of us will care much by then, until somebody plays the ace of spades. Nothing beats the ace of spades.


Jeff said...

Great post. I've read a lot of Vonnegut and never seen that speech. Thanks for posting. Not that this blog isn't otherwise wise, but you just never know where you are going to find the kind of wisdom that punches you in the gut.

TomFreeland said...

Nice post. I really liked the notion that of "non-God" as opposed to "anti-God". A perfect analogy.

Lazer said...

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Bill of Rights, right? He believed in God and was religious, no? You tell me, you're the historian.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Actually, Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, and it originally applied only to white men, which Vonnegut sees as an example of how humans do a poor job of interpreting natural law. I can't say what Jefferson believed and I'm not a historian. At best, I'm a history writer. Okay?

Anonymous said...

I doubt you will allow this to be published, but all the banning these days comes from your side of the political spectrum. Who is banning Happy Meals, large sodas, doughnuts..etc, etc..and who is banning certain speech. It isn'twhat you would call knuckle-dragging conservative church-goers, it is supposedly atheist, agnostic, "enlightened" individuals like yourself.

What if Mayor Bloomberg in NYC decided whisk(e)y is the Devil, he's ban it in a minute.

Adam said...

Chuck, I was already a big fan, but now you have vaulted into my Pantheon of Heroes.

Pantheon in the architectural sense, that is.

Anonymous said...

1. this post has nothing to do with atheism or agnosticism.
2. Happy meals were banned by a nonpartisan board in SF, opposed by a democrat mayor.
3. Bloomberg ran for mayor as a Republican then switched to independent prior to his third term.

So . . . do better next time.

Mat Garretson said...

How I wish Kurt Vonnegut were still with us. Thanks for sharing, Chuck.

Ever since they aligned with the religious right to win back the White House in 1980, the GOP - the party I was proud to be a member of - has increasingly strayed away from its base. Today it's akin to an old man watching Fox News from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy, shouting at the TV. And the other party ain't much better.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I find myself, approaching old age, disappointed with many entities I used to respect and that meant something to me personally in the past: The Republican Party, the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and--most recently--my alma mater, Miami University, which is also the alma mater of Paul Ryan.

Tom DeCoste said...

That has always been my favorite Vonnegut quote. Palm Sunday is one of the few books I re-read, it always inspires. Regarding Thomas Jefferson, he referred to the Bible as a "Dunghill". George Washington said that religion causes "more acrimony and hatred than anything else". Adams chimed in with a reminder that "the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. Religions are not bad, there should be more of them. The government isn't related to such diversions and should it be characterized as intertwined, fear the messenger.

Ari Sussman said...

I know you said this post is not about bourbon, but it reminded me of this passage from Breakfast of Champions:

Kilgore Trout wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.

Been thinking about Vonnegut this week, since seeing the flood in Midland, MI - or “Midland City” as it’s called in Breakfast Of Champions. The breach of Dow Chemical’s containment ponds hasn’t registered among our current parade of calamities, though I imagine Vonnegut would say something about it if he were here.