In midish-1995, the Religion Page of the Sacramento Bee began a new policy, to publish humanist & secular responses to posed moral questions alongside views from local faith leaders. Grabbing the gauntlet, AOF’s webmistress Pat Kelley was soon submitting her own answers. Click the "Read More" link to see highlights. To wrangle, contact Pat at <pkelley9 (at) gmail (dot) com>. But beware the doggy, it's a killer.
April 22, 1995. Why do good things happen to bad people?
For the same reasons bad things happen to good people. Coincidence, happenstance, recognizing opportunity are all part of good or bad fortune.
California's recent storms proved tragic for many good people yet many more people benefited nicely. Are those who gained work bad people for seizing upon the misfortune of others? What is a good or bad person? The majority of atheists are good, honest, worthwhile individuals who chose to live without theological ideology. Both good and bad happen to atheists the same as with the Go-fearing population.
It is human nature to feel rankled when good fortune goes to someone who has committed an injustice, especially if it's a personal insult we feel powerless to rectify. Consider though, American folklore and literature, lionizes some people who have performed fairly despicable actions. The Puritans practiced the same type of vicious religious persecution that they claimed to flee. Christopher Columbus enslaved and killed Native Americans. Were these historic figures good people or bad people? There is much room for debate, yet criticizing the good fortune of such people seems somehow un-American. Why is that?
July 1, 1995. Do you think Mickey Mantle, a recovering alcoholic for four decades, should have been given a liver transplant? Why?
At first glance it seemed unsportsmanlike for this American hero to have used his fame and fortune to slide home out of turn, leaving the bases loaded. However, it is virtually impossible for a celebrity to receive such urgent medical attention without raising suspicions of foul play. Once we look past our initial reaction, the real issue becomes apparent; whether society considers the individual worthy of the benefit bestowed. In Mickey Mantle's case, his own errant behavior directly resulted in his life-threatening illness.
Consider though that we are a nation of death-defying vices. We smoke tobacco and drink alcoholic beverages in defiance of the Surgeon General's warning labels. We ignore our doctors by over-eating and underexercising.
With organ donations, resources are scarce and quickly perishable. There's no time to waste discussing an individual's worth to society. We all make mistakes. Should we have denied Mickey Mantle a liver transplant solely because of his culpability in his illness, we might someday find ourselves being turned away for bringing on our own misery.
September 23, 1995. Do you think a college at which students live in dormitories should admit a student who was convicted of killing her mother?
Sending a child off to college can be an emotional experience. The thought of a convicted murderer lurking about the college dormitory does little to allay safety concerns.
However, facts in one recent case indicate the murderer was a minor child who suffered severe abuse by her mother. Justice, called for a compassionate verdict to rehabilitate, counsel and grant her a new chance to merge with society. Denying her admission to college only adds to the tragic events of her life and serves no purpose other to continue punishment.
In the absence of new criminal activity, once any individual completes a sentence meted out by the court system, members of society who continue the punishment by treating the individual as a pariah, or practicing vigilantism, risk becoming criminals themselves.
Realistically, concerned parents and college officials could better serve their adult children by displaying confidence in their abilities to determine for themselves whether the punished individual truly deserves a second chance to unite with her peers.
November 25, 1995. Some in Congress think religious and charitable institutions, rather than the government, should provide a social and economical safety net for the poor. What do you think?
It would be unreasonable to saddle only churches and charities with the awesome burden of ministering to millions of American poor. However, in this age of battle against "pluralistic secular democracy," there is a plan to get around this massive burden. It's based on the "Biblical Definition of Poverty," and it goes like this. The New Testament refers to three economic classes: the rich, who do not have to work for a living. The "not rich," who do not lack in daily necessities but must work for a living. The poor, who cannot sustain themselves due to illness, age or handicap and are so destitute they must depend upon charity to survive.
The practical implications of redefining poverty are profound: it drastically reduces the number of truly needy people while totally disregarding the plight of the marginally poor who might qualify.
Welfare needs reform, but is it really necessary to encumber religious organizations with unwanted government strings and controls while taking a pound of flesh from the most vulnerable members of society in the process?
January 13, 1996. What would Jesus say to the Material Girl?
All that is known about Jesus is that he existed and was briefly an itinerant, apocalyptic preacher. Most information about Jesus comes from the Gospels, which are not historic documents but greatly embellished testimonies of faith written generations after his death. They said that Jesus was a radical, identifying with poor, downtrodden outcasts of society. He preached tolerance of a merciful god and a kingdom of love and peace. Most of his followers were members of the "fringe" and since Madonna is so outrageous, Jesus probably would feel quite comfortable around her.
A true victim of free speech, Jesus's greatest crime was in advising followers to find a personal relationship with God - even if it meant disregarding authority. He was murdered for his outspoken attacks on priests, Pharisees, hypocrites and businesses. Today he might advise Madonna to become a "Spiritual Girl" and donate her wealth to groups that help protect individual rights to freedom of speech and religion.
March 23, 1996. A Southern California couple are trying to gain custody of twins they believe resulted from the wrongful implantation of the wife's eggs in another woman. The twins are 6 and living with their birth parents. Assuming the couple's contention is right, are they justified in seeking custody?
This is an atrocity of modern medicine and exemplifies the love/hate relationship society has held with science since Copernicus found the earth is not the center of the universe! These twins truly epitomize the term "accident of birth." Had the adults involved considered this possible outcome? Probably not. People tend to have "faith" that things will work out for the best. After all, nothing ever goes wrong in a hospital, right?
So where do we go from here? At six years of age, the children have bonded with the only parents they know. It is understandable for the natural parent to yearn for these "babies," but to rend this family apart would be adding injustice to insult.
Perhaps all the parents can somehow accept the fact that without their individual contributions these children would not exist at all. At this point they might work out some form of visitation without revealing the reason to the children until they are better able to understand the intriguing circumstance surrounding their entrance into the universe.
May 25, 1996. Clark and Roberta, both 35, married two years ago. Clark was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. He and his wife now want to have a child. Is it right for them to do so?
The desire to leave something of ourselves to live on after we die is distinctly human, but no, it is not right to conceive a child at this time. Of course, there are no guarantees in life that even healthy parents will live to raise their children, but to purposely conceive a child at such a time when one parent is dying is an understandable, yet irresponsible, emotional reaction to a traumatic situation. No doubt adding to this tragedy, at age 35, Roberta senses her biological clock is running out.
What they need to do though is consider the quality of life for the child after Clark's death? Another stressful element to consider is the increasing amount of care Clark will require of Roberta as his cancer progresses. A child deserves to be brought into happier circumstances. Perhaps an alternative for this couple is to have Clark's sperm frozen now so that the option of pregnancy is available to Roberta after the mourning process is over when clearer heads prevail. Ultimately Roberta may have to face the reality that sometimes there is nothing else we can do except say good-bye.
August 7, 1996. John learns that a co-worker has been embezzling funds from the company. John tells his division chief, who says it's better not to make waves. Should John go over his boss's head?
No. It is the division chief's responsibility to investigate and settle this issue as "wavelessly" as possible. Companies that have division chiefs also have accountants and auditors to track the flow of funds. Quite possibly the division chief was already aware of embezzlement activity and of an impending or ongoing investigation. John's reporting a crime doesn't make him privy to confidential information. Besides, even though John may be an upstanding employee with nothing but the best intentions, for all the division chief knows, John could be in cahoots with the embezzler and, by revealing the co-worker, trying to mask his own involvement.
John's in the swim now. He should just quietly tread water. Going over his boss's head might create a tsunami that could sink his career. If his division chief truly ignores any subterfuge going on in his division (or even if he's an accomplice) evidence will eventually bubble to the surface far above his boss's head.
October 5, 1996. Do you see a moral issue in the chemical castration of repeat child molesters?
As a parent, my gut reaction was "lock them up and toss the key." Then I researched a bit. In 1995 there were 13,800 sex offenders in California prisons, with 3,000 prisoners released each year. Incarceration protects the community only during the time the offender is incarcerated. The majority of offenders are never imprisoned.
If our sexual orientations and attractions are inherent, then attempts to correct behavior are not only immoral but useless. On the other hand, if sexual proclivities are modeled and learned
Denial and minimization of the harm they inflict are common behavior traits among pedophiles and incest offenders. Rendering individuals incapable of achieving erections just may serve to convince them that there is no need to go through therapy to deal with their problems.
Since even impotent individuals can molest, chemical castration is not "the" answer. Besides, how can you castrate a female child molester?
December 14, 1996. Harold's wife has been hospitalized for three years in a vegetative state and given no chance of recovering. Harold intends to care for his wife as best he can, but he also wants to get involved with another woman. Is this wrong?
The religious fidelity dictate "for better or worse until death" seems woefully inadequate, and cruel in this situation where a loved one could literally linger on for many years. Without regard to the confines of religious "absolutes," situations such as these exemplify the importance of open communication in marriage relationships concerning the possibility of what either spouse would want for the other should one became permanently incapacitated.
This question simply raises more questions: Has the wife been examined for additional opinions? How old are Harold and his wife? How long have they been married? Do they have children? What commitment could he make to another woman? What would Harold do if his wife eventually recovered? Would then two women feel threatened or abandoned?
Bottom line, whether the length of time of total incapitance is three, five or 20 five years, it would be hard to condemn either a husband or wife for eventually seeking the companionship and comfort of a healthy, viable relationship.
May 3, 1997. The retirement systems for California's Public employees and teachers invest significantly in tobacco stocks as they try to get the highest returns for their members. Should they be doing this?
Many products are considered bad or addictive by one special interest group or another. Alcohol and fat are two products that have been virtually reclassified as diseases which has created huge investment markets. Whether these markets are good or bad depends upon whether one believes individuals are capable of helping themselves or are addicted victims who need others to help cure their hopeless afflictions.
Given the volatile nature of the investment market, it would be a disservice to members for an investment group to hesitate to consider the political 'sin' of a product before purchasing stock. Besides, the same investment group that purchases tobacco stock might also invest in products designed to help consumers stop sing tobacco.
Short of a tobacco prohibition, the decision to use tobacco is up to the individual, and last I heard, in a free marketplace, if there were no demand there would be no market nor profit to make. When people stop using the tobacco and/or numerous lawsuits eliminate profits, investors will abandon the market.
July 19, 1997. What's Right With the World?
Tangibly: Scientific leaps and bounds. Consider the Internet. A few short years ago the realms of theology, philosophy, politics, science and other intellectual pursuits were luxuries reserved for upper classes. Today the Internet provides access to information regardless of age, sex or social condition. In addition, scientific advances, such as genetic research, allow us to live cleaner, healthier and longer lives, while enjoying far more leisure and luxury than our predecessors could ever dream.
Intangibly: Human Beneficence. Several years ago in the midst of the last electoral campaign where preachers and politicians alike spewed vicious rhetoric intended to divide people into hateful, self-serving voting blocs, I witnessed an automobile accident. Within seconds of the crash, people poured out of their cars, houses and businesses to assist the injured, direct traffic and call for help. It struck me that no one seemed to care what the age, race, religion, sexual preference or political affiliation was of anyone at the scene. What is right with the world is that complete strangers can disregard personal prejudices long enough to bond in a crisis and assist people in need.
October 4, 1997. A College Student, 20, who went on a drinking spree and nearly died as a part of a fraternity initiation has now filed a negligence suit against the school, the fraternity and the bar where he drank. What do you think of this?
So much information is available on the potential consequences of excess alcohol consumption that a person has to be either an absolute hermit or incredibly dense not to have a modicum of awareness. In addition, most universities have clear-cut rules available to all students against fraternity hazing. I think this particular fraternity should be permanently disbanded for engaging in hazing practices.
Somewhere along the line, all people must ultimately accept responsibility for their actions, but I fear any warnings aimed at any young adult out to prove his drinking prowess, such as this
Instead of suing, this college student should thank his genetic makeup and the hospital staff for the fact that he survived his reckless bender. I suggest the parents of this kid get him into some heavy-duty counseling to determine why he so desperately needs to belong to a peer group so willing to risk another person's life.
December 20, 1997. Do you see a relevant message in Christmas anymore?
Absolutely yes, but the question is "which" message? Christmas is a mythological grab bag of supernatural tales. Pick one: virgin birth, an infant God, Santa Claus, a red nosed reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, talking trees. All this just to ensure young children collectively agonize over whether or not they've been naughty or nice!
Also, we love to complain about commercialization of Christmas, but we are a capitalist society after all. When businesses earn as much as one-half of their yearly revenue during this season, it's no surprise that we're bombarded with messages to spend, spend and spend in order to fulfill "the season for giving."
The relevant message is in the combined excitement of the tall tales, wild sales, colorful decorations, festive singing, gift exchanges, and party atmosphere. These inextricably link us with an age-old winter holiday, and ensures that forever it will bring loved ones together, unite families, co-workers, friends alike and insert a bit of Spring into dark winter days.
March 14, 1998. If you punish a child after the child admits doing a bad thing, are you doing a bad thing?
It depends on the child, the misdeed and the frequency of bad behavior. Children constantly test their limits - and parental patience. Parents have the responsibility of grooming their blossoming progeny to be contributing members of society. They must teach their children that all actions, good or bad, have consequences. Most "opportunities" to teach consequences of bad behavior happen after an offense has occurred, hence it is viewed as punishment or "bad." But is it really?
While confession may be good for the "soul," admission alone doesn't necessarily blaze a trail to maturity, and could conceivably mislead a child into future misdeeds. For instance, if a child steals a toy from a store, is admission to the theft a satisfactory solution? Does that make the behavior OK? If so, what happens to the stolen toy? What consideration is afforded the victim of the theft, the store owner? What has the child learned?
When children do good things we praise and encourage them. Conversely, we punish to discourage bad behavior. Done in a loving manner, punishing is not a bad thing.
May 30, 1998. Several States, hoping to protect fetuses, have passed bills that allow for the involuntary detention - up to nearly 9 months in South Dakota - of pregnant women who abuse drugs or alcohol. Is this right?
No. Such laws are arbitrarily enforced and subject to the whims of politics and public opinion. The alternative is to provide better access to preventative measures like good prenatal care, birth control counseling, and educating men and women on health and nutrition. This sort of irresponsible legislation could easily result in discouraging women from seeking pre-natal care for fear they might be taken from their families, lose employment and wind up locked down with violent criminals. It is unfortunate that some women choose to abuse substances during pregnancy, however, where is the line drawn between use and abuse? Our guarantee of individual rights to make our own choices as free Americans does include the right to make foolish choices. Currently alcohol, tobacco and a plethora of prescription and over the counter drugs are available for consumption by anyone of legal age regardless of gender or stage of pregnancy. Factor in any number of untreated conditions such as diabetes and obesity and a good number of pregnant women might be surprised to find themselves subject to the arbitrary discretion of a government sanctioned inquisitor.
August 15, 1998. What would Jesus do if he were governor of California?
What Jesus might do as an elected official in a free and secular society compared to what he might have done in biblical times when kings ruled as Gods with absolute power over life and death? Give us all kudos, perhaps, for a job well done?
Truth is, we don't know what Jesus would do, or if he would even accept a temporal position. The Jesus Seminar found very few biblical passages attributable to a single historical person. Those passages do reveal ethical values that, to some people, represent Jesus. To others, they represent the teachings of other spiritual and intellectual guides -- Buddha, Confucius and Bertrand Russell, for example. The question: "What would Jesus do," if he were Governor implies an inherent, inappropriate religious bias. Throughout history leaders have shared in the process by which humanity continually redefines common ground rules under which dissimilar
As Governor, a great thinker might firmly oppose power-hungry Congressional hypocrites who insist upon public prayer (Matt. 6:5-7), and practice virtues of compassion toward a diverse California population.