Thoughts on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

The overwhelming majority of the reactions I have read were formulated within hours (or less) of the publication of the decision and appear to be based on its effect and informed solely by media reports. I believe that the only relevant consideration is whether the Court properly interpreted and applied the law.

After a couple of days of research and deliberation, I have decided that I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision.

I DO have a problem with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act itself. The law favors, among other things, moral or ethical beliefs that are grounded in religion. Ethical beliefs, just as sincere and immutable, that are grounded in secular philosophy or ideology are afforded lesser or no legal consideration. This categorically denies atheists equal protection and at least hints at a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993

Published in: on 2014 07 03 at 09:01:31  Leave a Comment  
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One for the history books

In the United States History courses I took in college, the emphasis was squarely on political history: the political and military efforts to create our country, the effect of electing this candidate rather than his opponent as President, the transformation that World War II wrought on the world geopolitical stage and our emergence as a global power.  I learned also about the concept of historical perspective: that historians cannot speak intelligently about the effect of a given action until decades have passed and the ripples can be seen.

That still leaves us with the enjoyable pastime of speculation.

Just as the destructive force of post-tropical storm Sandy was amplified by merging with a North Atlantic system before making landfall, the economic and military fear, uncertainty, and doubt provoked by the possibility of sequestration, which strikes me as the United States’ self-imposed withdrawal from its role as a major military power, is coupled with what has become an annual Congressional tradition of holding the nation hostage, with each party and representative seeking to maximize the political and economic ransom in exchange for a continuing resolution to keep the government operating. Back when the Congress still performed its Constitutional duty to pass an annual budget, that opportunity to play chicken with (pig-)earmarked spending and unrelated amendments that would never pass on their own merits came only once a year.

The sequestration bill, the idea of Congress motivating itself by creating an alternative default scenario so dreadful that no sane person would allow it to come to pass, may make sense at first glance, but what it reveals to me is a Congress that lacks an awareness of its own capacity for stupidity and that considers brinksmanship as the default method for dispute resolution. The federal government has become so accustomed to unthinkable things, such as a war over personal animosity or abandoning our most fundamental ethical principles, our rights, and legal obligations for the sake of expediency and the perception of security, that it has lost that healthy fear of the repercussions of its own actions.

Regardless of what happens with the looming budgetary crises, there will be negative fallout for the Armed Forces and vital defense contractors. Infrastructure will go unmaintained or even be dismantled. Personnel training and equipment maintenance will be delayed or canceled. Our government is failing us in its most important duty: defending us. The degree and result of that failure cannot be foreseen. It is worth noting that a nation along our porous border is in a state of open war between the federal government and drug cartels, and some have speculated that it is in danger of becoming a failed state.

One would think that our elected officials should be spending all of their energy resolving the government’s immediate fiscal problems and mitigating the impact on the readiness of our Armed Forces. Instead, they have chosen this time to try to limit the American people’s access to firearms. Why, they ask, would a person need military-style weapons? As our politicians eviscerate our military in a way that no adversary ever could, that question pretty much answers itself!

It will be…interesting…to see how this plays out in the coming months and years. Perhaps historians will look back on this year as the beginning of the end of the United States’ status as a superpower.


Okay, so Christmas Eve may be an odd time for an atheist to “come out”.

Gentle Reader, for an unknown reason my thoughts have turned toward the philosophy of religion and toward my own beliefs on the matter. My understanding of faith is belief in the absence of evidence. I obviously can’t prove that reading this entire post carefully is worth your time, but I ask it of you anyway. If we are close, long-time friends and any of this still comes as a surprise, I beg you to give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t feel offended: in the specific example of which I’m thinking, we’ve been friends longer than I have been able to say the words “I am an atheist” even to myself, and our friendship means more to me than keeping you posted on belief changes that I believed would strain that friendship for you, perhaps past the breaking point, at the relatively young age at which I got honest with myself about what I really believe.

I have raised my children to believe that there is nothing worse than lying, and it is vital for me to live by what I teach my children, and, conversely, to teach them by example. A lie of omission is no less a lie, and fear of how the hearer will respond to the truth is no justification.

Yes, this IS an odd time, but I hope that my friends know better than to think that my intent is to insult or offend.

Below is a communication I sent to a friend who I came to know relatively recently and whose friendship and wisdom I came to value immediately. In it, I refer to Pascal’s Wager and the high value I place on my own intellectual integrity. Allowing others to simply assume what they will about my beliefs on religion doesn’t seem like the action of someone who values his intellectual integrity so highly, does it?

I believe that all people have a spiritual side, and we have for thousands upon thousands of years…even prior to the Neolithic Revolution, back when our species still lived as hunter/gatherers, driven by the annual cycles by which our wild food crops became ripe and edible. In every era, that which cannot be explained by the practical knowledge of the day, which we’ll call “science” or “nature” for succinctness, was attributed to the supernatural (again, “gods” or “magic,” for brevity). Given that we as a species have existed for thousands and thousands of years, and that we did not develop the ability to directly see things that were much smaller or much larger than ourselves until about 500 years ago, it was natural that, to paraphrase badly, whatever could not be explained by science was attributed to magic and the gods. Many people whose spiritual nature is expressed through religion may look at the birth of a child or a majestic mountain view and see these as “proof” of the supernatural. My having the same experiences fills me with awe, too, even though I see it as “nature just doing its thing.” My unaccounted-for spiritual (for want of a better-understood, more precise word) feeling in these situations made me question everything else I believe about the way nature and logic work…until I remembered something unstated that I consider an axiom: regardless of what we BELIEVE, myself included, we don’t KNOW everything about ourselves or the universe. The honest among us will be the first to distinguish between our beliefs about the universe and our knowledge about it. Knowing the science and STILL being able to experience the sense of wonder is A Very Good Thing, I think.

For my Christian friends, with all my heart I wish you a wondrous and Merry Christmas.

For those looking around for the unfriend button, or on the ground for the first stone, please take a moment to read my message to my friend, in full.

Dear (my valued friend whose name I have omitted for your privacy),

You might have surmised that we don’t share the same religious belief. That doesn’t cause me any discomfort, and I want to humbly and respectfully take the initiative to ensure that it doesn’t cause you any, either.

I am an atheist, and I have been for as long as I can remember throughout my adult life. The word “atheist” is so over- and misused that it doesn’t convey any reliable meaning, so I shall elaborate. I am not what I call a “militant atheist” – a kid who mistakes belief for knowledge and thinks he knows better than the rest of the world…or who has suffered some tragedy and reacts by railing against his religious belief system. I was raised Baptist as a child, though I never believed that what I was told was literally (or even figuratively) true. It’s just that, prior to my late teens, I felt that I wasn’t free to assert what I DID believe. Part of that was apprehension about the ramifications with my family.

I explored other religions, particularly Buddhism, as a young adult, but ultimately I reached the same stumbling point – the supernatural element.

To summarize my worldview, when I look at physics and biology, I believe that everything that exists can be explained by the laws of nature and logic, without a need for some supernatural force. I also believe that the laws of nature and the laws of logic tend to rule out the existence of a being with the attributes of the Christian God. Of course, it is impossible to KNOW that God (or the enlightened Buddha, etc.) does not exist, known as proving a universal negative, because one cannot see every nook and cranny of existence at the same time.

I believe that the vast majority of those who believe in a religious worldview learned their beliefs from their parents and the culture in which they happen to be born. They never pause to question why they believe as they do. That’s understandable – religion is a great comfort, and its absence can get cold and lonely.

That sums up what I BELIEVE. I freely admit that I could be wrong and you could be right.

Pascal, in his famous Wager, would argue that I should conduct myself as though I am a Christian, because I have everything to gain and little to lose if Christianity is fact, and I have (in his view) lost nothing in life or death if atheism is fact.

If I could respond to Pascal, I would say that my intellectual integrity is a very high price to pay in order to go through the motions of being a Christian, and that doing so would be an affront, not only to my beliefs, but to yours, as well.

I live a life of integrity, as best I can. I strive to conduct myself in accordance with ETHICAL teachings that Jesus, Siddharta Gautama (the man who became the Buddha), and the Dalai Lama would recognize and, I believe, approve of.

Beyond that, I will take my chances, with my eyes open, if my beliefs turn out to be erroneous.

Finally, I don’t teach my beliefs to my children. I try to keep them from forming ANY beliefs about religion until they are old enough to think rationally, weigh evidence, and articulate why they believe what they believe.

I just want to be truly understood, and I want there to be no discomfort between us if the topic comes up. As I said publicly (and tell my grandmother repeatedly), it doesn’t bother me in the least if someone says they are praying for me. I take any well-wishes in the good faith in which they’re intended, and as damaged as I am, I’ll take all the help I can get!

And yes, when my son was gravely ill with meningitis as an infant, I prayed to God, Allah, Buddha, every benevolent Hindu, Greek, or Mayan god I could think of, along with the Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge!

I deeply hope I haven’t overstepped any bounds or your comfort level.

With love and respect,


“In the whole wide world there’s no magic place,

So you might as well rise and put on your bravest face.”

– Neil Peart/Rush, “Bravest Face”


More Thoughts on Healthcare

The current state of healthcare isn’t literally about healthcare at all. It is about the enormous and continuing rise in the cost of healthcare due to the separation of healthcare consumer/patient and the entity that pays for the care, typically an HMO or the government. To give an example of “HMO-driven inflation,” before transferring my care to the Veterans Health Administration (VA), more than one of my providers had a “standard” rate at which they billed HMOs and presumably Medicare, and a second, significantly lower rate that they charged to individuals without health insurance or other third-party payer. I was shocked to find an example even within the VA. Under certain circumstances, such as lack of available bed or inability to provide a service in within a mandated time limit, the VA contracts with private healthcare providers to handle their overflow (at no cost to the veteran – the cost is billed directly to the VA). I had occasion to be treated by a private provider on behalf of the VA, and I came to learn that my care was billed to the VA at a rate that was TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT above the standard rate that was billed to HMOs or other payers. As shocking as that is, I suspect it’s more of an example of the government ironically being price-gouged because its needs are frequently immutable, rather than being a major contributor to “HMO inflation.”

The problem and its causes are no great mysteries. More important are solutions that avoid a massive new Federal government entitlement (when some major current programs are of questionable sustainability) and pricing healthcare out of reach of more Americans, straining non-profit hospitals by further turning the ER into a primary care clinic. I don’t advocate the abolition of HMOs, but I do propose doing away with absurdities like the “sky’s the limit” surgery in exchange for a $20 copay.  We need to look at reviving features of “traditional” 80/20 insurance (which has never gone away for small businesses or the self-employed), such as DEDUCTIBLES and a reasonable, realistic (for patient and provider) percentage match. Nothing onerous that would prevent a person from obtaining needed care, an amount sufficient, if only symbolically, to restore the patient/consumer’s awareness that increased consumption of medical resources costs proportionately more, a basic lesson of economics that seems to function normally until someone with a lab coat and stethoscope enters the picture.

Published in: on 2009 08 16 at 01:25:12  Leave a Comment  
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Some Thoughts on Healthcare

As a brief preface, this post was precipitated by the current disagreement within the United States about President Obama’s healthcare proposal. As with any writing on a political “current events” subject, it is doomed to eventual irrelevance. I must confess at the outset that I have not read President Obama’s proposed bill, in part for reasons based on MY source of healthcare.

I am a disabled Navy veteran. For two years now, I have received all of my medical care from the Veterans Administration (VA) at a VA Medical Center in a major city. I interact with my healthcare providers far more than the average person (merely intuitive assumption) and have for over a decade, and I feel as though my more frequent interactions with a broad spectrum of providers gives me a bit more insight than the average bear on at least a comparison between HMO care and VA care. There are a few things that are the same: one will not always agree with one’s doctor, specialist appointments take longer to get than primary care appointments, and PCPs are the gatekeepers for specialists. There are also some differences: though both can change doctors, the VA has a smaller pool than an HMO in all but the most rural areas, specialist appointments are generally much faster in the VA, all of my VA providers, as well as the pharmacy, work from and contribute back to a master electronic medical record, which contains documents as well as all labs and diagnostic imagery I have ever had, the VA is quicker to adopt evidence-based procedures and standards of care, and if I am dissatisfied with a situation and cannot resolve it with my doctor or his/her clinical supervisor, I can go beyond them to a patient advocate who can navigate the bureaucracy much better than an outsider such as a patient.

In general, I am more satisfied with VA care, though I miss several of my former providers personally. I have heard it suggested that a solution for Medicare might be to give Medicare patients access to VA facilities. I don’t support that particular idea, though some of my reasons are purely personal, such as the sense of cameraderie with other patients, and some VA staff, as fellow veterans.

I think that requiring those hospitals that are significantly subsidized by federal funds be brought to VA standards would vastly improve the care experience, and outcomes, for patients who, perhaps due to “falling through the cracks” between heath insurance and Medicare eligibility, use the county hospital-of-last-resort as their primary source of care. Mandating that hospitals use VA-style electronic medical record and prescription system would improve care/outcomes and reduce errors.

Having said all that, I DO NOT support required government healthcare (or being able to decline it only at your disadvantage or peril). My VA care is a benefit of a specific contract between me and the federal government, basically “Workers’ Compensation” for the Armed Forces. It is a valuable benefit to me, but I am still free to seek care anywhere, from anyone. If the government required me to surrender that liberty in order to avail myself of VA care, the VA wouldn’t know I exist.

If one wants to improve healthcare, don’t start by thinking about what liberties you must take away from the American people. I do not believe, however, that the free market will fix this as long as the current HMO system exists, where people pay their premium, then feel entitled to consume all the medical resources they want for a $20 copay. The economics of paying, say, a $40 copay for a medication that costs $900 just don’t work. There is no free lunch. So the choices appear to be status quo, government regulation, or quite a bit of temporary pain if we want the free market to shift the system of medical payment to something closer to reality. Even the status quo is, I think, merely delaying deciding between the other two.

A note about comments

Philosophy is central to my purpose for originally creating a  blog, and philosophy is, perhaps above all things, a conversation.

This most amazing conversation has continued, more or less uninterrupted, from the time of Thales of Miletus, roughly 2600 years ago, to this very day. There have been tangents that turned into dead ends. Like side conversations during a keynote speech, some of the participants stepped out of the room to continue their particular discussions, and thus the sciences and nearly every other field of human study or endeavor were born from this grand discussion.

As it is a discussion, rather than a lecture, it is appropriately a conversation in which many may join in. That is my goal with this web log. As it is my first web log, I am erring on the side of caution and moderating comments at first. As I get more comfortable and step a little deeper into the pool, so will the moderation gradually disappear, remaining only as needed to control spurious posts. Regardless, unless your contribution refers to penis enlargement, for example, the moderation will not affect content of your post. The place for discussion of the arguments (in the philosophical sense, free of personal animosity) is here, in the light of day, not behind the curtain with my red pen.

In addition, I welcome (and BEG for) your comments or suggestions about the style of the site or similar contributions. My stylistic ideas about web design tend to toward the Spartan, utilitarian side. Some call it hideous. I prefer to think of it as “lynx-compatible”.

In summary, WELCOME!

Published in: on 2008 01 17 at 23:32:52  Leave a Comment  
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The philosopher-poet

“My impatient love overflows in streams,- down towards sunrise and sunset. Out of silent mountains and storms of affliction, rushes my soul into the valleys.

Too long have I longed and looked into the distance. Too long has solitude possessed me: thus have I unlearned to keep silence.

Utterance have I become altogether, and the brawling of a brook from high rocks: downward into the valleys will I hurl my speech.

And let the stream of my love sweep into unfrequented channels! How should a stream not finally find its way to the sea!

There is a lake in me, sequestered and self-sufficing; but the stream of my love bears this along with it, down- to the sea!”

– Friedrich Nietzsche “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

Published in: on 2007 07 11 at 22:43:36  Comments (1)  
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