January 06, 2005

Tortured Logic, Indeed

Best of the Web yesterday had a bit on Michael Newdow's attempt to restart his case against having "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I find Newdow's case stupid and worthless and needing to be refused by the courts a priori. I'm also annoyed by James Taranto, though. Here's the excerpt:

California crackpot Michael Newdow, who failed in his effort to ban the Pledge of Allegiance because he didn't have custody of his biological daughter, "relaunched his constitutional case Tuesday" and is now using other people's children to make the case:

This time around, Newdow is joined by eight co-plaintiffs--all custodial parents of children who are students in Northern California public school districts or the children themselves. . . .

In an interview Tuesday, a parent of one of the child plaintiffs said the third-grader has been aware of the pledge issue since Newdow's last case was in the news. The child remarked at the time, "That's not right," and became "quite activist about it," the parent said. The complaint identifies the child as a pantheist who doesn't believe in a personal God.
Yes, that's right--the kid is in third grade and he's a "pantheist."

I wonder if Taranto would say, "Yes, that's right--the kid is in third grade and he's a 'Christian'"? My third-grade aged child, Connor, is certainly capable of having his own religious opinions. For a long time, we thought he was an atheist, since he rejects the very idea of a god(dess). But after a little discussion one day, I discovered that he's actually an animist, though he didn't know the term. That is, he believes that all living things are animated by spirits, but that they are not divine. And while animism is a part of my and my wife's pagan beliefs, there is a definite Divine as well.

In other words, yes, a child of 8 can indeed have religious opinions that differ from his parents', and can also presumably have religious opinions that mirror his parents' but that were not simply indoctrinated into him. It's quite possible that such a child could be a pantheist, but he probably wouldn't know the name for it unless his parents had discussed it with him.

UPDATE: Apparently I was not the only critic. Taranto further explains his position (no permalink yet):

Well, that was precisely our point. If a third-grader is a "pantheist," that just means his parents are extremely weird.

You know, Newdow is deeply misguided and is abusing the rights of his fellow citizens. I detest that, and hope Newdow loses. On the other hand, Taranto is acting like a jerk, by dismissing people in broad categories. There are a lot of pantheists and polytheists who are conservative and/or libertarian, and it's kind of annoying, as one of them, to be dismissed so casually as "extremely weird".

(Given that I generally agree with at least his general approach to political matters, if not always his conclusions, it's not like I'm coming at him from the other side. I fail to see how using ad hominem arguments boost the case against Newdow's abusiveness.)

Posted by Jeff at January 6, 2005 09:27 AM | Link Cosmos

Agree. I was a pantheist when I was 8, and thought the Xian formulation of God incredibly stupid. It wasn't until high school that I found out there was a name for it when I started reading about Hinduism.

Posted by: Oscar on January 6, 2005 09:58 AM

The point is that at those ages, such beliefs are utterly uninformed...your children could learn their beliefs from a cartoon show, unless you teach them what you believe and why you believe it...but most of all parents need teach them that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and anchor those concepts in a structure that is consistant with the world... I happen to be a Christian, but I can certainly tolerate and welcome those who aren't, if they raise their children to understand that doing what you want unto others "because you can get away with it" is the root of evil.

Posted by: Doug on January 6, 2005 03:23 PM

My annoyance was with this: "Yes, that's right--the kid is in third grade and he's a 'pantheist.'" Whether or not the child's views are uninformed (and it's likely that they are, as very few kids - even or may especially those instructed carefully by their parents on what to believe - have given religion much critical thought), such patronizing dismissal is irksome at best. As I noted, I doubt that Taranto would have said the same thing about an ostensibly-Christian child.

Posted by: Jeff on January 6, 2005 07:12 PM

I don't see how you should have a problem.
The idea of a government "under God" is an expression of reverence; the idea that there is a higher law that limits the government, that the government and those in the government answer to a higher power.
In athiestic China, the emperor answered "to heaven" and was under "the laws of heaven". Saying "under God" similarly does not negate wicca, or pantheism, since they similarly see people in relationship to "the other". Even a good Athiest will recognize that there are higher goods, and that he or she must respect these higher goals.
What it upsets is people who think they are God, i.e. Nietze, the Nazis or the communist type rulers who wanto be be Ubermensch and answer to no higer power or law...
As for panthiesm, the greatest philosopher, Maiomodes, was a pantheist, so to call it "weird" is nonsense...

Posted by: Tioedong on January 6, 2005 08:52 PM

Well, that's the point: I think Newdow is being abusive of other people's rights. I have zero problem with "under god" in the pledge. The fact that I and a Christian would interpret that differently is neither here nor there; it means what it means to each of us. Even to an atheist, I cannot see where the problem would come in, since an atheist should interpret that as a null phrase - a formal sound without meaning, if you will. It's clearly not an attempt to impose any particular religion on people, or for that matter, to impose religion in general on people.

Posted by: Jeff on January 6, 2005 10:31 PM
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