Friday, December 27, 2013
What's worth arguing about - and, more importantly, what probably isn't...
Today is the anniversary of the return to earth of Apollo 8. The return successfully ended the mission during which the first humans left earth orbit, traveled to and orbited the moon, and returned to earth safely.
This was a very big deal. It paved the way for further missions to the moon, including the mission, a few months later, in which humans first set foot on another world. It also enabled humans, for the first time, to watch the Earth rise over the Moon. A photo of Earthrise taken during the mission has become iconic and, I think, should be installed on the wall of every leader of every nation and every religion in the world. It is graphic proof that we're all in this together, here on Earth, and maybe it would be a good idea if we quit squabbling so much.
See? That's all of us down there. Most of us are stuck here. We need to get along.
Which makes it all the more notable that one of the things the astronauts - Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders - did during the mission, while they were orbiting the Moon - caused quite a stir back here on Earth. On Christmas Eve, during a live television broadcast from their spacecraft, the three took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. This is what it sounded like, on Christmas Eve, 1968:
As Bible readings go, that was pretty innocuous. They didn't say anything about time frames, didn't insist that what they were reading was literally true, didn't force anyone to accept what they were reading as true. They just read it and said "Merry Christmas". At the time - I remember well seeing the broadcast - I thought it was a nice thing to do at Christmas. And now, looking back, I can understand how the astronauts would have wanted to turn to a shared cultural touchstone like that at the time. It was Christmas Eve and they were as far away from home as any humans had ever been. But, apparently, not everyone felt that way.
In the wake of the mission, Madalyn Murray O'Hare, who made a career out of being an atheist, sued NASA for allowing the reading. She asked the courts to ban astronauts from praying publicly in space on the basis, apparently, that because they were public employees, doing that was a violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court refused to hear her case because, they said, the lacked jurisdiction. As far as I can see, O'Hare, who as I recall never let a fact get in the way of her proselytizing for her cause, lacked in this case the fact that the astronauts were not praying, but reading.
I'm not a religious person. I don't appreciate people throwing their religious beliefs - or their lack of them - in my face. But I still don't see anything wrong with that particular reading of those particular verses from scriptures that are shared by both Christians and Jews, in that particular situation. O'Hare, as far as I can see, was arguing for the sake of argument. No one was forcing anyone to listen to the broadcast, much less to believe in what was being read or to say they believed in it.
Which brings me back to the Earthrise photo and the idea that we're all in this together. If we keep getting all argumentative over minor things like this, we're sure not going to be able to come to accommodation over the bigger, more important things. And if we keep insisting, each from our little corner of the world, that we're right and everybody else is wrong and deserves to die because of it, there aren't going to be many of us left on this insignificant little rock floating in space. And that would be unfortunate, because we - as a species - have done some good and worthy things while we've been here, and I propose that we should do everything possible to be able to do more of those wonderful things in the future.
I know. I'm letting my naïve little Pollyanna side out again. People are going to keep arguing about things that don't really mean anything in the long run, and they're going to keep fighting over them, insisting that their belief is more important than the other person's right to have his or her belief as well. And people are going to keep on killing each other over that.
But, really? Do we really have to persist in this childish effort to get rid of everything we don't personally believe in? Even when it isn't really hurting us at all? I'm not saying that there aren't important things worth fighting for. I am saying that a lot of things - most things - don't rise to that threshold of needing to take up rhetorical or literal arms. And one of those things that does not rise to that level is someone simply reading from the scriptures they happen to believe in, with no coercive intent or effect.
And now, this is me getting off my soapbox. At least until the next time I feel the need to climb back up on top of it.