Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What will we ever do about religion?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that religion is the Great Divide, the issue that will make or break us as a species.

Election Night saw Progressives rejoicing across-the-board -- except on the issue of same-sex marriage. Voters in California, Arizona and Florida, who had otherwise voted relatively progressively, skewed to the Right over this sex-driven issue.

Why? Religion. They blindly followed what their church leaders told them – that the Bible (Christian or Jewish – take your pick) commands us to adhere to a strict gender binary – male or female, with no room for anything in-between.

Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more useless than studying theology, not even a business school education (which can be summed up, “buy low, sell high”.) I’m from the Richard Dawkins/George Carlin school on this. Religion is a quaint idea and while I respect anyone’s right to believe in something I personally regard as nonsense, what-the-fuck do I really know about the existence of a deity? I’m just a human, an insignificant mortal to whom no deity has deigned to reveal him/her/itself (I’m covering all the bases – don’t want to piss him/her/it off, just in case he/she/it really does exist) so I’ll suspend judgment on the existence of a deity and just get on with my life, unencumbered by time-wasting theological debates.

But religion is humanity’s answer to a really thorny problem. We’ve fought uncounted battles and slaughtered each other in appalling numbers over whose invisible man-in-the-sky is the real deity, when the answer is “none of the above.” Amazing.

In our society, believers have grown emboldened to believe the rules by which we play as a nation (our federal and state constitutions) allow us to inject personal religious beliefs into the civic discussion. What about the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment? -- “Never heard of it!”

I have to believe the California Supreme Court will rule that the various challenges to the Prop 8 vote are meritorious and it will strike the Prop 8 result. I don’t believe two-thirds of the California Assembly or the State Senate would let Prop 8 be submitted either to the voters or to their representatives in a constitutional convention. With the passage of time, as younger people join the roll of voters, a new LGBT-friendly majority will increasingly define the electorate, especially once the people learn about the full extent of the Prop 8 campaign of lies.

But in the meantime, what do we do about religion?

As it stands, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the state shall not establish any religion (the Establishment Clause) and everyone is free to practice his or her own religion (the Free Exercise clause.)

The latter has spawned a curious corollary – the tax deduction for religion. It’s enshrined in Sections 170(a)(1) and 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC, or “the Code”.)

Section 170 reads as follows (in pertinent part):

Sec. 170. Charitable, etc., contributions and gifts
(a) Allowance of deduction.
(1) General rule. There shall be allowed as a deduction any charitable contribution
(as defined in subsection (c)) payment of which is made within the taxable year.

Section 501(c)(3) lets a charity avoid paying tax on the income it receives. Religious organizations (like churches) qualify for 501(c)(3) treatment so long as they stick to religion and stay out of things in the civil sphere, like politics.

The question now being hotly debated (and the subject of the many post-election street protests) is whether churches that advocated for Prop 8 overstepped that line.

I think the answer is a no-brainer: Of course they did.

Here’s how the deal works:

My neighbor pays tax on his income. But he doesn’t pay tax on money he gives to his religious organization of choice (his church.) And unlike just about any other recipient of money, the church doesn’t pay tax on its receipt of that money nor does the donor pay a gift tax on the transfer. The result is a tax-exempt flow of cash to the church.

The church doesn’t pay any other taxes either. If it burns the fire department will come out to quell the fire and if there’s a disturbance the police will respond. But the church is exempt from local taxes that would pay for these kinds of things. There’s more but you get the idea.

So who picks up the tab for this subsidy? You guessed it – the rest of us – you and me, whether we believe in their religion or not. Why?

The religious folks have come to believe that this tax subsidy is their right under the Free Exercise clause, that if they’re taxed like the rest of us it’s somehow an unconstitutional imposition or restriction of their right to practice their religion.

Of course it’s not. We’re just asking them to pay their own way without asking us, those who don’t share their religious beliefs, to pick up their tab. They’re still free to indulge their irrational religious beliefs to their hearts’ content. They just have to obey one little law, a quid-pro-quo for this privilege of being tax-exempt – stick to religion and stay out of the public sphere.

But that’s a problem for them. Their religion seems to tell them they have to go out and make their business everyone else’s business. Their god tells them so.

So if their god tells them to discriminate against gay people they feel the entire society in which they live must also obey their religion’s commandment. They believe their religion has got to be everywhere – not just in their churches but in all the businesses their churches might engage in, like hospitals. And not just in their private religious schools but in the public schools that are supported by taxpayer dollars, money collected from people like me who don’t believe in their religion or its curious ideas. They believe it’s their right to inject their religion into areas where the law has been clear – “This is a religion free zone.”

They want to be free to discriminate against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. They don’t want to have to hire them – not just in their churches but everywhere else, even though our laws are increasingly telling them they can’t do that, not in non-religious enterprises.

They’ve convinced themselves (by listening to their clergy, whose ignorance on this is truly appalling) that this country is a Christian country, that the Founding Fathers said so. They ignore and refuse to acknowledge any documentary evidence, proof really, that the Founding Fathers said no such thing, that in fact they said just the opposite. It’s maddening, infuriating.

What’s the solution?

I don’t believe it will ever be possible to disabuse these people, or all of them anyway, of their belief in the Invisible-Man-in-the-Sky. Not gonna happen. Irrational belief in stuff like this may be programmed into our genes, that maybe the ability to believe in a deity conferred a survival advantage on early humans.

Think about it. Early hominids emerging into consciousness were defined in part by their ability to think not just in the present or even the past but into the future, and when they did one of the very first things they realized was that each and every one of them was going to die. They saw it all around them. Animals do too but animals don’t make the logical step into realizing maybe they are next. Humans did, and it probably came as a big shock.

I remember when my daughter came to this realization. She was ten, and she was greatly disturbed.

I had to laugh – not at her but with her because I was her age when I had the very same epiphany. I told her as gently as I could it was ok, that it happens to everyone but that what’s important is to live the life you have as fully and as meaningfully as you can.

One thing I didn’t tell her was that death is part of God’s plan or that any deity had anything to do with it.

But not everyone can deal with this very disturbing fact with such objectivity. The idea that we can’t know what happens after we die, that maybe the lights just go out, that this is it, it’s over and there is no tomorrow – that’s too much for most people. They have to believe that they continue, somehow, somewhere. And they have to believe they’re not alone, that there is a god who loves them and won’t let the terrible things they see and hear of happening in the news each and every day happen to them.

People who don’t believe in a hereafter suffer a multitude of ills. We all know we’re going to die but it’s an easier pill if we know it isn’t The End. I often find myself tempted. I too want to believe but my intellect holds me back. I know I’d probably be happier if I could believe. I’ve tried, really I have, but belief just never happened. The best I can do is admit I’m too insignificant to know. I don’t know why but the deity has just never deigned to speak to me and sorry but I just can’t take anyone else’s word for it, especially if that person or those persons are long, long dead. I adopt their virtue of humility and avow that I’m just too insignificant to know. That’s the message of Job. But still I pledge to “do the right thing” even if I now there is no deity who will judge me when I die and I won’t fear eternal damnation because I don’t believe in him/her/it. I will try to die content knowing that on balance I lived a good life simply because something inside me unrelated to a belief in a deity tells me it’s the right thing to do, that I simply feel good doing the right thing, period.

If I do hope for the existence of a deity it will be so that I may meet that entity and it will then disclose to me the secrets of creation, including quantum mechanics and maybe integral calculus. If there is no deity and the lights really just do go out, that’s ok too. I will be swallowed-up by the Cosmos, whatever that is. There may not be a deity but there is an order to the Universe. Einstein told us so. That’s enough for me.

But I digress.

The flood of Christian (including out-of-state Mormon) money that defeated Prop 8 was subsidized by the rest of us. The dollars themselves were not tax exempt but they were propelled by the voices of their clergy whose livelihoods and employment are tax-exempt, so IRC sections 170(a)(1) and 501(c)(3) were instrumental in defeating Prop 8.

The answer is to get rid of the tax deduction for religion – all of it. Level the playing field. People would still be free to practice their religion. They just would not get a free ride out of my pocketbook to pay for it.

At the same time we should get rid of all the other deductions, like mortgage interest. Get government out of the business of making value judgments about which activity is right and which is wrong. No more incentives, at least not tax-fueled. As the Right would say, let the market decide. That will take care of 90+ percent of all the tax complexities. Keep a graduated tax structure so that the poor are not taxed on money they need just to survive and those who have the most pay the most. That’s not socialism -- it’s how it was in 1913 when Congress enacted the income tax and it persisted until World War II.

But that’s another essay for another day.

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