George B. Kauffman, PhD

Anniversary Differences: Science, Civil Rights and Religion

By George B. Kauffman

This is a big year for anniversaries. In science, especially chemistry and physics, the fields with which I’m most familiar, the centenary of discoveries is uniformly and universally celebratory.

In 1913, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys Moseley showed that nuclear charge (atomic number) not atomic weight is the real basis for numbering the elements, leading to our modern periodic table. J.J. Thomson showed that charged subatomic particles could be separated by their mass-charge ratio, the technique known as mass spectrometry. William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg discovered the diffraction law that ushered in X-ray crystallography. Niels Bohr presented his quantum model of the atom.

Robert Millikan measured the charge on an electron, a fundamental particle.

Frederic Soddy proposed his isotope concept (“Frederick Soddy: Radioactivity, Isotopes, Social Responsibility of Scientists and the Environment,” Community Alliance, October 2011; https://fresnoalliance.com/?p=3626), and Alfred Werner, my scientific hero, founder of coordination chemistry, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry (“A Tribute to Louis Coombs Weller Baker: Compound a: Ode to a Complex Salt [CoCO3(NH3)4]-NO3.1/2H2O,” Community Alliance, May 2013; https://fresnoalliance.com/?p=7715).

However, when it’s a case of civil rights, what a difference!

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and on Aug. 28, he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech calling for an end to racism in our country, a defining moment in the American civil rights movement.

On June 11, President John F. Kennedy, following a series of threats and defiant statements, sent the Alabama National Guard to force the admission of two African-Americans to the University of Alabama.

On June 12, NAACP official Medgar Evers was gunned down at the age of 37. (His assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, wasn’t convicted until March 1, 1994.)

On June 19, President Kennedy sent Congress a bill guaranteeing Blacks access to public accommodations and expanding the powers of the U.S. Attorney General to enforce court-enforced school desegregation.

And how did the Roberts Supreme Court celebrate the 50th anniversary of these civil rights events? On June 15, 2013, despite the obvious continuing prevalence of racism in our country (e.g., George Zimmerman was acquitted on July 13 of Trayvon Martin’s killing), it struck down Section 4 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 as unconstitutional, an outrageous infringement on the voting rights of the American people. President Barack Obama said, “Today’s Supreme Court decision…is a setback, but it does not mean the end of our efforts to stop voting discrimination.”

Similarly, in cases involving religion, the reaction—and reactionary—response to the anniversary is to reverse the ruling and resurrect the discrimination of the past.

On June 25, 1962 (Engel v. Vitale), the Supreme Court banned government-endorsed prayer in public schools as unconstitutional. On July 17, 1963 (Abington School District v. Schempp), the U.S. Supreme Court decided 8-1 that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional. About a half-century later these landmarks were greeted with calls for the reinstitution of prayer in the schools.

The 61st annual National Day of Prayer observed on May 3, 2013, resumed the usual debate over the interpretation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, specifically the Establishment Clause (www.christianpost.com/news/national-day-of-prayer-coincides-with-50th-anniversary-of-ban-on-school-prayer-74270).

On June 4, the Springboro, Ohio school board considered adding creationism to its curriculum despite criticism from students, teachers and civil liberties advocates (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/ohio-creationism-proposal-springboro_n_3397661.html), a policy advocated as an alternative to evolution by Henry Morris, founder and president emeritus of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) (www.icr.org/article/66).

On June 16, the cover story of the Christian Science Monitor proclaimed, “School prayer was banned by the US Supreme Court 50 years ago, but there is probably more presence of religion in public school environments—through club ministries, classes, after-school and interfaith programs, and faith-based services—than ever” (csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Family/2013/0616/School-prayer-50-years-after-the-ban-God-and-faith-more-present-than-ever).

On June 24, Chuck Morse proposed a way to get God back in public schools (www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2894845/posts).

In California, on May 8, Pastor Allan Esses of Yes Jesus Is Lord.Org in Irvine sent to Attorney General Kamala D. Harris “a proposed initiative constitutional amendment to be submitted to the electors, that provides that a person using any part of the Bible’s content for authority may freely communicate any view about, for, or against various actions and principles at public or private gatherings, or in any communicative medium and circumstances without it being a crime, hate crime or unlawful to do so.”

This amendment would repeal the constitutional provision denying protection to acts of religious expression inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state. To be submitted as a ballot proposition by the initiative process, Esses must obtain signatures on petitions from registered voters amounting to 8% of the number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election. Keep your fingers crossed!

But rational persons have countered these reactionary actions.

Bill Nye, star of a popular 1990s kids TV show, has spent the past few years condemning some lawmakers and school boards that encourage the teaching of Bible stories as an alternative to evolution in public schools. In the summer of 2012, a hoax on the satirical news site The Onion reported that Nye had been killed. Since his rejuvenated fame due to this hoax, Nye has made it his mission to attack the teaching of creationism in U.S. school science classes because such beliefs have nothing to do with actual science. You can check out his warning on this video: “Bill Nye The Science Guy Dead: Uses Death Hoax to Warn Against Creationism Taught in Classrooms” (www.mstarz.com/articles/5165/20120924/bill-nye-the-science-guy-dead-death-hoax-fame-warn-against-creationism-taught-in-classrooms.htm).

The American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition of America have joined forces to promote the National Day of Reason, held annually on the first Thursday of May to coincide with the National Day of Prayer (nationaldayofreason.org; www.facebook.com/AmericanHumanist/posts/10152946687360195; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Day_of_Reason).

Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Cohen, a Democrat from my hometown of Philadelphia, is seeking cosponsors for a resolution titled “Public School Religious Freedom Month,” which Pennsylvania nonbelievers drafted to commemorate the Supreme Court decision (www.panonbelievers.org/2013/05/28/urge-your-pa-state-representative-to-co-sponsor-the-public-school-religious-freedom-month-resolution). I wish him well.

In June 2013, American Atheists unveiled the nation’s first public monument to secularism outside a Florida county courthouse, a 1,500-pound gray granite bench engraved with quotations extolling the separation of church and state, only after failing to force Bradford County to remove the six-ton statue of the Ten Commandments that a Christian group had put up nearby. They vow to erect 50 more such monuments around the country on public sites where the Ten Commandments now stand alone. An anonymous donor will foot the bill, and atheists are already offering to serve as plaintiffs in lawsuits if there is opposition (www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/us/to-fight-religious-monuments-atheists-plan-their-own-symbols.html?_r=0).

In recent years, belief in a religion—any religion—instead of reason, is considered progress. Does this make any sense?

In one of the most famous moments in J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, Peter turns to the audience and begs those who believe in fairies to clap their hands to save the fairy Tinker Bell from dying from Captain Hook’s poison. There is usually an explosion of handclapping, and Tinker Bell is saved. This belief in fairies or whatever may be suitable for little kids, but it’s hardly a criterion for grownups to make intelligent decisions in the real world.

This brings me to the present article’s conclusion by a longtime insider to the “religion business.”

John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., a prominent liberal Christian theologian, describes faith and God in a rational but inspiring way that makes our different belief systems feel less like dividers and more like unifiers of our humanity. Rafael Casal has posted Spong’s interview with Keith Morrison on the Internet (www.upworthy.com/best-explanation-of-religion-i-have-ever-heard-and-im-practically-an-atheist?c=tbs), and it is worth quoting in full for Community Alliance readers.

Spong: I don’t think hell exists. I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment. Religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand.

It’s in the guilt-producing control business, and if you have heaven as a place where you’re rewarded for your goodness and hell as a place where you’re punished for your evil, then you sort of have control of the population, and so they create this fiery place which has quite literally scared the hell out of a lot of people throughout Christian history. And it’s part of a control tactic.

Morrison: But wait a minute. You’re saying that hell—the idea of a place under the earth or somewhere where you’re tormented for an eternity—is actually an invention of the church?

Spong: I think the church fired its furnaces hotter than anybody else. But I think that there’s a sense in most religious life of reward and punishment in some form. The church doesn’t like for people to grow up because you can’t control grownups. That’s why we talk about being born again. When you’re born again, you’re still a child. But people don’t need to be born again. They need to grow up. They need accept their responsibility for themselves and the world.

Morrison: What do you make of the theology which is pretty, quite prominent these days in America, which is that there is one guaranteed way not to go to hell, and that is to accept Jesus as your personal savior.

Spong: I grew up in that tradition. Every church I know claims that we are the true church and have some ultimate authority. We have the infallible pope, we have the inerrant Bible. The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human mind, by any human creed, by any human book is almost beyond imagination for me. God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew, or a Moslem, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems, which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t believe my tradition defines God. I think it only points me to God.

You and I are emerging people, not fallen people. Our problem is not that we are born in sin. Our problem is we do not yet know how to achieve being fully human. The function of the Christ is not to rescue the sinners, but to empower you and to call you to be more deeply and fully human than you’ve ever realized there was the potential within you to be. Maybe salvation needs to be conveyed in terms of enhancing your humanity, rather than rescuing you from it.

Life is a startling and wondrous experience and, eventually, I think, we’re going to discover that God is unfolding through the life of our consciousness and our self-consciousness and is not a parent figure up in the sky.

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, as well as numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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