Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Faith vs. Science

What role should religion have in government and policy? What about science? For Toni Van Pelt and her colleagues at the Center for Inquiry, the answer is simple: public policies should be based on scientific evidence, not on faith. As we discuss on this week’s Lincoln Avenue, one of the primary goals of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy – and Van Pelt’s primary role there – is to encourage Congress to base laws on objective evidence and to ensure that religion remains truly separate from the state.

In our conversation, Van Pelt mentions a variety of issues, from legislation that allows religious organizations to receive federal funding to provide social services to whether creationism should be part of the school curriculum. Underlying all of this are two core assumptions. One is that faith is suspect. Neither the Center for Inquiry nor Van Pelt herself overtly emphasizes atheism. Instead, they use terms like “naturalism” and “rational ethics.” Yet, as their website suggests, they don’t believe that spirituality and science can fully co-exist. One must either base one’s life on “reason and experience,” or rely on “occult explanations.” To my mind, this creates a false dichotomy. While bringing both faith and reason to the table can be challenging, I see reasonable people doing it every day. I come from a religious tradition that emphasizes critical thinking, argument, and the intention to act in Godly ways. My faith is based on reason and experience, not superstition. In addition, my religious tradition generally refrains from trying to impose our views on others. We don’t think it’s our business to help others see the errors of their ways or to guide them to find the “one true light.” Perhaps because of that, my hackles are always raised when someone tries to tell me that my beliefs are wrong or that theirs is the only truth. And that applies to both believers and skeptics.

That said, the second core assumption of the Center for Inquiry strikes me as essential in a diverse democracy: that public policy should be based on the best evidence and analysis of problems, not on religious faith. Further, I believe that it’s possible and reasonable to advocate for the separation of church and state without denigrating or even excluding religion. The constitution is not anti-religion. Instead, it supports religious choice and diversity, including the choice to reject religion, and the right not to have religion forced upon us. We cannot, I expect, keep people from proposing policies or lobbying on the basis of their beliefs, nor can we keep lawmakers from being influenced by theirs. We can ask that decisions about how our government acts be based on full critical debate about what will work best, and we can insist that such debate consider all of the available evidence. So while I may not fully agree with the Center for Inquiry’s views about the dichotomy between science and faith, I like knowing that Toni Van Pelt is working for public policies based on critical analysis rather than assumptions.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Inspiration for the Continuing Struggle

Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of nine black teenagers who walked through angry crowds to enter all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957. That experienced led her into a lifetime of activism and teaching about social justice and nonviolence. In October, she visited Youngstown, to give a public presentation and meet with students in the Youngstown City Schools. I was honored to get to talk with her during that visit.

What struck me most as I listened to her talk with students, and then during our interview, is how well she illustrates the power of story. The Little Rock Nine helped change America in the 1950s, but when Minnijean tells her stories about what it was like to be assaulted physically and verbally by students, teachers, and protesters and to walk through the halls of a school where she was not welcome, her experience offers lessons and inspiration for young people decades later. Stories make history concrete and personal. They help us understand not only what happened but why it happened and what it was like.

Much as I believe in stories, I’m also intrigued by the program she helps to lead that takes young people to visit the places where history happened. Sojourn to the Past connects school-based study of the civil rights movement with visits to key sites and conversations with people who were part of the struggle. As Minnijean explains in our interview, those interactions move both the students and the adults. The program does more than just connect students with history, though. It teaches them about the principles of nonviolence, a challenging but positive way of thinking about human interactions and conflict. A number of students from Youngstown City Schools have participated in the program.

Minnijean’s work is inspiring, and for many, this year’s presidential election seems like evidence that the struggles of the civil rights movement have been redeemed. And yet. Racial segregation is once again common in the U.S., and the achievement gap between white and black students remains a persistent challenge. Tomorrow night, the Ohio Commission on African American Males is holding a hearing as part of a statewide effort to identify and address the problems facing black men. There’s more work to be done. We need Minnijean’s inspiration as much as ever.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Helping the YWCA Help Women

The economic crisis seems to get worse every day. While we hear a lot about the challenges facing the auto industry and investment banks, we also know that many individuals and families are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. Sadly, as anyone in this area knows all too well, for some the current crisis just worsens an already tough situation. Many local agencies try to help, and this week I’m talking with a representative of one that you might not have thought about: the YWCA.

As Leah Brooks, development director of the Youngstown YWCA explains in this week’s conversation, her organization devotes most of its energy to two primary causes: fighting racism and helping women and families improve their economic and social position. As Brooks explains, the two are interconnected, since racism is at once a source of economic difficulty for many women and an obstacle to self-improvement. The YWCA pursues these goals through education programs, including helping women find available opportunities for formal education as well as informal programs to help them develop financial literacy. The Y also offers subsidized child care and housing, both of which help women move toward financial independence by giving them a more stable environment and making it possible for them to go to work. On top of these projects aimed at developing economic independence for women, the Y also offers health education, arts programs, and more.

In these tough times, the programs offered by the YWCA are even more important than usual. Meanwhile, the Y’s facilities are in bad need of updating. The building is almost 100 years old, and its heating and electrical systems are out of date, but equally important, the organization now needs different kinds of space than it did in 1911. With help from tax credits and other grants, as well as donations, the YWCA hopes to transform its structure, adding apartments for disabled and low-income women, an updated child care facility, and improving the space for offices and meeting areas. At the same time, the renovation will emphasize green construction and create jobs in the local economy.

As this suggests, Leah Brooks’s visit to Lincoln Avenue is in part about fundraising, but I’m generally quite happy to support a worthy cause, especially one that supports people who are working hard to be able to support themselves. You can make a donation or get involved in the YWCA’s programs by visiting the YWCA’s website.