You Probably Shouldn’t Read This

UPDATE: The Air Force backed down, and allowed the airman to re-enlist by omitting the “so help me God” portion of the oath. Bravo, but it’s a shame it had to go down the way it did.

Seriously. This is about religion, so you should probably go back to whatever you were just doing. This is an opinion piece, and I’m entitled to mine. So.

I was aghast at today’s USA Today article explaining how an Air Force airman was denied re-enlistment for refusing to finish his enlistment oath. As an atheist, he objected to the “so help me God” portion of the oath, which the Air Force says is mandated by statue.

It’s such a crock, I can’t help but wonder who in the military is using this to make some kind of spiteful jab at Congress or the administration. Everyone knows that both the First Amendment and Article VI of the Constitution makes such a requirement patently illegal. I’m sure there are plenty of devout service members in religions other than Christianity who would also object to the oath, and I know there are plenty of Christian sects that object to any kind of oathmaking to God. Surely we’re not trying to exclude all of them from the military, right? And it seems a little disingenuous anyway. I mean, a truly devout Christian, who perhaps would have no objections to making an oath unto God, would also feel a bit nervous about the whole “thou shalt not kill” thing, right? Killing being a sort of implied requirement of joining the military?

According to our basic precepts of government, as outlined in the Constitution, our government cannot prescribe or dictate someone’s religion to them, and this USAF fiasco-in-the-making certainly seems like an attempt to do just that.

However.

This is the kind of news story that gets people up in arms about completely different religious-related things, and does so incorrectly. While our government is barred from dictating or establishing a religion, it is not barred from recognizing religions (plural), nor is it barred from incorporating religious precepts into government – provided it does so in a way that doesn’t force someone to join said religion. That “thou shalt not kill” bit, for example, is a pretty important underlying thing in our laws, which are not a big fan of citizens killing each other. In fact, Christianity’s Ten Commandments pretty much outline the core concepts that underpin the majority of our oldest and most significant laws. So it’s not like religion is unimportant, from a governance perspective.

But this whole “the government and religion can’t co-exist” gets taken too far, as (I feel) in this other USA Today article from a few days ago. Putting a cross or other religiously-significant monument in a public place isn’t necessarily violating the separation of church and state. Such a monument could easily be a simple cultural acknowledgement of the role religion has played in our country – which was, keep in mind, founded in part by folks seeking religious freedom. The cross in this Indiana state park doesn’t in any way detract from anyone’s use of the park, and it doesn’t “promote Christianity” any more than having “in God we Trust” printed on our money promotes Christianity. Atheists manage to be atheists while also spending money, so it’s difficult to see how a cross, on a war memorial, could be negatively impacting anyone.

And putting a cross on a veterans’ memorial doesn’t make the entire park into a religious shrine. That’s a ridiculous overstatement. It’s like saying a county council meeting has become a church, simply because it opens with the Pledge of Allegiance (which also includes the word “God,” something that’s cause no end of bickering in the past couple of decades).

The problem with this “remove religion at all costs” is that it’s just as wrong as trying to shove religion down someone’s throat. The idea that, in a country based on religious freedom (it was the first thing we added to the Constitution, remember), you can’t display your religion, is just ridiculous to me. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you don’t have to look at anything you disagree with. It means the government can’t tell you what to believe in. Your fellow citizens are welcome to try and convert you to their viewpoint – that’s in the First Amendment, too. You also have the non-enumerated freedom to walk away and not listen. 

You have a right to live in this country and practice whatever legitimate religion, or lack thereof, you wish. You do not have a right to force other people to join you – and that includes forcing them to join you in atheism. You do have the right, in a public venue, to stand up and proselytize – that’s a basic First Amendment protected speech thing – and that proselytizing could well including promoting atheism.

One of the biggest problems we have in our American culture today is a lack of respect, and a lack of tolerance, for other people’s perspectives. While I don’t want the government forcing any religion down my throat, I must not have a problem with other people practicing, displaying, and promoting their religions. I cannot find it in me to get upset about displays like the one in the Indiana state park, simply because Christianity – and other religions – are a part of our culture, whether I follow that religion or not. I’m not out to revise history by removing God from every possible public venue, because it wouldn’t be true.

And there’s a downside to these arguments. Christians increasingly feel attacked from every side simply for practicing their religion. It’s suddenly becoming unfashionable to be religious. As a result, they quite understandably push back – often in significant ways. You take my cross out of the park, I fight against civil liberties that contradict my religion. The rhetoric and intolerance simply escalates to ridiculousness. It’s unproductive. For the life of me, I just can’t get upset about a carving of a cross in a state park. If you get upset about it, maybe stand next to it and preach atheism or whatever you’re into. Equal time.

While the government has no business forcing an airman to say, “so help me God” in order to keep his government job, we as citizens don’t have (I feel) any right to force each others’ personal beliefs underground. If it isn’t detracting from your personal liberties, and if it isn’t demonstrably harming anyone, then let it go. Accept that we’re all different, and that we don’t all need to live according to some standardized script.

Our increasingly constant bickering, simply because those people over there don’t live like I do, and I don’t like that, is becoming annoying, distracting, divisive, and incredibly counterproductive. I almost think we should outlaw national news organizations simply so we’re not all so damn aware of all the differences going on around us!

Just because I don’t eat soft shell crab doesn’t mean I object to seeing it on the menu, and if we’d all spend less time worrying about small-time arguments like this, we’d all be a lot happier. And we could focus on the important stuff.

Anyway, there you are. Have a good weekend ;). Comments welcome, but keep ’em polite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing Your Religion

It’s fairly well-known that I use an Apple Macbook Air laptop when I’m on the road. I’m frequently the target of friendly jokes about it, which is fine. But I’m also frequently put down by people who claim I’ve “spent too much” on it, and who insist they can get “the same laptop” for much less.

(As an aside, I always find it odd that many of these folks drive fairly expensive cars instead of a cheaper model that does the same thing – drives them to work.)

There are two reasons for their comments, and it’s important that you be able to recognize both reasons, both in yourself (so you can knock it off) and in others (so you know what you’re up against). This is as true in professional IT as it is in your personal life, although the professional consequences can be more dangerous and annoying.

The first reason is justification. If you make the same decisions I make, then I was right; if you make a different decision, then I might have been wrong, and I hate being wrong. Americans in particular have got real problems with diversity. We tend to migrate ourselves to communities where folks feel more or less like-minded, and we’re not often confronted with radically different things. When we are confronted – well, you only have to turn on cable news to see how well we don’t deal with it. Technology is no different. I spent almost half an hour one time, whilst setting up for a lecture, listening to a guy harangue me about how I’d spent too much on my laptop (he clearly had access to my credit card statements). He argued dollar-per-GHz, dollar-per-GB, you name it. He was pushing hard to have me “admit” that I’d made the wrong choice – thereby justifying his.

The problem is that you can be right without other people having to be wrong. My choice in laptop is driven by some very specific factors and compromises that are important to me; that choice won’t necessarily hold true for someone else. For example, my laptop is literally my lifeblood. It’s my only computer, and it’s where all of my work happens. I need it to be reliable, and when it breaks I need reliable service. I’m tough on a computer: in the past, I’ve ruined HPs by running too many VMs too often, causing the CPU to overheat. I eventually got those laptops to the point where they could barely run at all. I also personally dislike cheap, plastic-y laptops covered in manufacturer logo stickers (“Intel Inside”). That’s not a functional choice; it’s aesthetic. I like my aluminum laptop. It feels sturdier, and that makes me feel more confident. I also compromise entirely toward portability. I don’t need 16GB of RAM; I need a laptop whose weight is measured in ounces, not pounds. I travel up to 40 weeks a year, and I feel every single ounce. So I have the 11″ Air, despite its lower hardware spec.

None of those reasons might matter to anyone else. They might prefer a glossy black plastic laptop with a 17″ screen and shoulder-destroying weight – that’s fine. I’m happy for their decision and wouldn’t dream of convincing them otherwise. But that’s the trick with justification: you need to recognize when someone is doing it, and dig into why. Why do you feel your solution is best? Do your reasons apply to the current situation? In business decisions, how many of your reasons are aesthetic, and does that really matter to the overall direction?

The other reason is fear. People dislike change, and as a long-time advocate of Windows PowerShell I can assure you that many professional IT people loathe the idea of having to learn something new. So they’ll often campaign for solutions that fit within their existing scope of knowledge, or they’ll stay willfully ignorant of other solutions. For example, I help run PowerShell.org, and it’s based on a LAMP-stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) web server running in Azure. That shocks folks… but I love LAMP as a web stack. I understand the alternate WISA (is that a thing? Windows, IIS, SQL Server, ASP.NET?) stack, but it wasn’t the best tool for a WordPress-based site. I could have made it work, sure, but it would have involved a lot of hackery up-front and ongoing. Azure, happily, doesn’t care what I run with it, and the Azure folks I know were happy to help me get my CentOS server up and running. They believe in the right tool for the right job, too. I don’t know Linux terribly well, so I had to learn a lot in order to get things configured properly – and it was kinda fun. And now I know a bit more about Linux than I did.

There’s a trick in “right tool for the right job” that a lot of folks don’t get, which is that you need  to (a) know what the job actually entails and (b) know what all the possible options look like. A lot of folks fall down on (a) and most fall down on (b). If you don’t know Linux, for example, you might argue for Windows simply out of ignorance. That’s willful ignorance, because the resources certainly exist for you to inform yourself. I would never, ever, ever choose or recommend a solution without learning as much as possible about all the choices – that’s one reason I enjoy heading up the research paper projects my company produces. I love learning about new tools, and figuring out their strengths and weaknesses.

Both justification and fear are often wrapped up into something we colloquially call “religion,” as in, “I’m a religious fan of Windows.” Formal religion, for some folks, certainly has aspects of justification and fear. Many religions are evangelistic, meaning they seek to bring more people into the fold – that’s not entirely like someone trying to convince me I’ve picked the wrong laptop. Many religions are also resistant to change, and to incorporating new elements. Many religious adherents are also willfully ignorant of the “competition.” As a kid, I spent a lot of time learning about different religions, because I simply didn’t want to live in a world where I knew nothing about what the rest of the population was thinking. Knowing didn’t necessarily change my choices – but at least I made informed choices.

And that’s an important note: simply because you know about choices doesn’t mean you won’t make the same decision you would have made before knowing. For example, in an organization with zero Linux expertise on staff, the WISA stack might be the right answer simply because there’s nobody to support the LAMP stack. If we needed to roll out something fast, it might be worth hackery (if needed) to run on Windows, because we’d have the hackers lined up and ready, as opposed to having to spin people up on Linux skills. That’s definitely a consideration. It isn’t the consideration, though. It’s one of many, and in some scenarios it might be outweighed by others, and someone might be tasked with coming up to speed.

Regardless of your personal religion, when it comes to professional IT, you should lose your “religion.” Your only truth should be, “the right tool for the right job,” and your crusade should be to clearly define what the “job” is, so that you can best select the tool that goes with it. If that means you have to learn something new… well, so be it. Hopefully you got into IT because you were excited about constantly learning new things, not just because it offered a bigger paycheck in the mid-90s. After all, the more you know, the more situations in which you can be useful – and that’s just good career advice.

We’re coming up on the new year. Consider making a resolution that, in 2014, you’ll never make a recommendation or product/solution argument without being fully informed about the requirements and about all the possible choices. Be an analyst, a consultant. Recommend things that you might need to learn more about. Be flexible. Not “religious.”