Regular readers of THE MEMING OF LIFE may begin to catch an unmistakable whiff of the concrete in upcoming posts. Don’t worry — I’ll continue to spatter the blog with incontestable pablum like “death is scary” and “thinking for yourself is good.” But I think it’s time to assert a few positions as well.
I don’t believe a secular, freethinking worldview leads to any and all possible conclusions with equal ease. I think a stated confidence in reason leads more decisively to some conclusions than to others. We will surely differ on what those conclusions are — Christopher Hitchens, for example, might dispute large whacks of this post — but he and I would presumably agree on the terms of the debate, which is the first requirement for sensible discourse.
There is a balance to be struck. If I tell my kids, “Hey, just think for yourself! Whatever you come up with is peachy,” that is indeed moral relativism. If I say, “Think for yourself, as long as you reach my conclusions,” that’s indoctrination wrapped in hypocrisy, a là Catholic intellectual tradition. (See? I’m not always nice.)
If instead I say, “Think for yourself — then be prepared to support your conclusions and to change them if necessary,” I’ve struck just the needed balance.
So freethought isn’t about declaring all conclusions equally valid — it’s about differing intelligently. Let me then begin my plunge into the concrete:
1. If war is necessary and effective, then war it is! Woohoo!
Aside from the gratuitous ‘woohoo,’ that should be fairly uncontroversial. Here’s a corollary:
2. War is rarely necessary and rarely effective.
Let’s define necessary as “something essential; something that cannot be done without,” and effective as “something that accomplishes its stated objectives.” I believe war fails to meet both of these criteria. It is unnecessary, because there are most often alternatives that have been proven to work brilliantly, and it is ineffective because it most often exacerbates the very problems it seeks to solve.
Some stats to consider:
One in seven countries are currently at war.
More than half of war deaths are civilians.
There are now over 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.
Children account for two-thirds of those killed in violent conflict since 1990.
An increasing percentage of world conflicts involve poor nations (formerly one third, now one half).
The average civil war drains $54 billion from a nation’s economy.
25 million people are currently displaced by war.
Mortality among displaced persons is over 80 times that of the non-displaced.
Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years.
SOURCE: UN Development Programme Human Development Report, 2005
Yes, stopping Hitler was a splendid idea. Unfortunately, our public discourse now evokes WWII as the justification for all wars instead of recognizing it as one of the very few necessary wars in our history.
Time for a final assertion:
3. Except in the rare cases when war is necessary and effective, peace is preferable to war.
Seems reasonable. And one of the many voices in agreement with this final assertion is the long and noble tradition of Catholic peace activism. (See? Discernment.)
So why do I bring this up today? Because — though you wouldn’t know it from the yawning inattention of the media — today is the 25th annual International Day of Peace, an observance created by the UN in 1982 “to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of mankind [sic], to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways… (The International Day of Peace) should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.” (from General Assembly Resolution UN/A/RES/36/67)
Not only do the stats and history seem to support the futility of war, but the foundation of secular ethics is this: in the absence divine safety net, we are all we’ve got, so we ought to try very hard to take care of each other. If war generally fails to accomplish its objectives while impoverishing and killing millions of us, secular ethics ought to oppose it — except in the profoundly rare cases when there really is no alternative. When it comes to this standard, most of our national violence is far more analogous to the Mexican-American War than to the fight against Hitler.
So today, the flag of the United Nations is flying in front of our house, and the preference for peace was the topic of conversation at the breakfast table. Connor plans to use some of the money in his “others” jar to buy a Peace Bond from Nonviolent Peaceforce. I will donate a day’s wages to NP’s Work a Day for Peace program, which runs through October 2, the International Day of Nonviolence.
I’ll post about nonviolent action on that day. For today, talk to your kids about your preference for peace, the futility of violence, the situation of child victims of war — and the fact that all of these opinions flow quite naturally from a secular worldview. Donate to Nonviolent Peaceforce, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, or another organization that’s out there doing the heavy lifting for humanity.
(Watch Ken Burns’ powerful new seven-part documentary THE WAR beginning this Sunday September 23 on PBS. He lays out precisely the case that is needed: that WWII was “the necessary war,” and that its misuse and mythologizing is leading us to disaster. Catch a long preview here.)