Can Corporations Pray? And Other Tales From The Blue Dot

What strange creatures we are.

I don’t know exactly why it struck me this way, but two items in the news seem to be related in some strange way.

First up is a decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that declared, according to SCOTUSblog:

that a family-owned, profit-making business cannot challenge on religious grounds the new federal health care law’s mandate of birth control health insurance for its workers.   The two-to-one decision by the Philadelphia-based court conflicts with a recent ruling by the Denver-based Tenth Circuit Court.

The blog provides a little background:

The case involves a Pennsylvania company that makes wooden cabinets.  All of its stock is owned by members of the Hahn family, who practice the Mennonite faith.  Their company has 950 employees, and it is company policy not to support “anything that terminates a fertilized embryo.”  The objection is aimed at two drugs that must be provided in health coverage for employees under the contraception mandate — the so-called “morning-after pill,” such as Plan B, and the so-called “week-after pill,” known by the name ella […]

The Third Circuit majority concluded that the First Amendment right to exercise a religious belief — under the Free Exercise Clause — is a “personal right” that exists for the benefit of human beings, not artificial “persons” like corporations.   Religious belief, it said, develops in the “minds and hearts of individuals.”  In drawing this conclusion, he noted the contrary view announced by the Tenth Circuit Court, and said that “we respectfully disagree.”

The majority remarked: “We do not see how a for-profit, ‘artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law,’ that was created to make money could exercise such an inherently ‘human’ right.”   The opinion said that the judges could not find a single court opinion, before the lawsuits against the contraception mandate began, that had found that a profit-making corporation doing ordinary business had its own right of “free exercise” of religion.

It is one thing for a religious organization to be able to exercise the tenets of its faith, the court said, and another thing for a purely secular corporation to make the same claim.

So, this latest court decided that, unlike people, corporations cannot worship God and, presumably, can’t pray down the wrath of the Almighty on their competitors.

Now, it strikes me as beyond weird that we, here in the twenty-first century, are hung up on whether a non-human entity like a corporation can have a personal relationship with God. I mean, it’s one thing to define corporations as people, just so they can give lots of money to Republicans, but it is quite another to define them as people so they can, among other things, prove their fealty to God by denying women contraception coverage.

In any case, that leads me to my second item in the news, which is this stunning photograph produced by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, while it was beyond Saturn, some 900 million miles—yes, 900 million miles—away:

Earth and its moon from Saturn

That’s a picture of the earth and the moon. Somewhere in that picture are you and I on July 19, 2013. Somewhere in that picture are the judges about to issue their opinion on whether corporations can worship God by not having to provide access to birth control via insurance policies. Somewhere roams Steve King and his imaginary cantaloupe-calved friends. Somewhere Anthony Weiner and his text-friendly schnitzel are about to doom his—their?— political future.

Yes, what strange creatures we are.

But I won’t end it there,  thanks to Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer”), who reminded us of one of my heroes, Carl Sagan, and his remarkable “Reflections on a Mote of Dust,” written shortly before his death in 1996. Sagan was commenting on a photograph taken by Voyager 1 in 1990, but what he said is even more amazing as you think about the Cassini picture above. It’s something to mull over this weekend, as we will, no doubt, hear the usual God-talk and more political commentary on Steve King and Anthony Weiner and the ongoing dysfunction that has paralyzed good government:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.



  1. I have seen the quote from Carl Sagan before, being a dedicated fan of science and science fiction. It never fails to impress me, and to bring home how petty our concerns can be.

    Then I read some statement from Ted Nugent or Michele Bachmann or Steve King and become embroiled in the minutia once again.

    Very nice post that provides perspective, something humans seem to lack.


  2. ansonburlingame

     /  July 28, 2013


    For sure a “deep” subject about which you write, the “relativity” of a single human soul in the vastness of the universe (or is it universes?). A single human can look “out” and see or at least consider the vastness of “space”.

    But look in the opposite direction as well, look “in” at that vastness, just within a single human being. First we “see” a single body, then all the various “things” that make up that body, such as a single human heart. Then look deeper into that heart and find untold numbers of atoms and molecules, then the “pieces” of each atom. Then take just one “piece” say one electron spinning around one atom within a single heart and wonder what “makes up” that one electron. And keep going “down” further until ………?

    Maybe, just maybe, there are untold numbers of “strings” that make up that single electron. Hmmm, I wonder what makes up a single “string”?

    All of which I write above is based on SCIENCE, what humans have found throughout the ages. At least “out to” galaxies we KNOW what is there. Same at least “down to atoms and atomic particles”. Someday, some humans will for sure “know more”, both further out or deeper within. But not yet.

    Now go figure out the role of God in all that “stuff”. I would suggest that if a very few of those electrons spinning around within a single human heart stopped “spinning”, then death would occur to a single human being. Would that be God’s Will? Does “He” control every electron thus spinning, within the entire universe (or universes)?

    The point of course is that does anyone believe God really cares about whether a corporation is a “human thing”? I seriously doubt it. But as humans attempt to regulate affairs between humans well that makes a difference to a lot of humans.

    All adult humans, one way or another pay “taxes”. Many groups of humans pay taxes as well, but not all of them. All of that is regulated by HUMANS through “laws”. God has NOTHING to do with such laws, in my view. Invoking God’s Will to develope human law is nuts in my view and to try to invoke such Will to create laws is nuts as well.

    But I sure hope “God or something” keeps all those electrons spinning the way they are suppose to spin, and the earth as well at least for a few more billion years. Otherwise it might get hot as hell right here on earth (at least the half of earth facing the sun).

    I will argue politics with you until the cows come home, human ideas of how to govern people. But you and I have far to little insight into God to bring Him into the discussion whether or not a corporation is a “person”, which to me is ridiculous. A corporation is a legal entity (thus with no soul) representing a group of people. How any corporation is regulated is simply up to “us” NOT God!!!

    I might also note that when “us” disagree, well the “blood starts to flow” as you point out above in all human affairs. Does anyone think God takes sides in such “fights”? Ridiculous, in my view. He is too busy keeping things “spinning”!!!!


    • Anson,
      I am pleased that you agree that the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee ruling is ridiculous. To believe that “God or something” has any interest in the Supreme Court is silly, as is believing (?) told Michelle Bachmann to run for president. Either (?) has a perverse sense of humor or little sway with the Republican Party.

      Your comment made me think of Jack Handy. A celebrated “deep” thinker, he shares an interest in “the vastness of the universe (or is it universes)”?

      “If God dwells inside us like some people say, I sure hope he likes enchiladas, because
      that’s what He’s getting


  3. Not only, as Sagan said, is the pale blue dot the only home we’ve ever known, but after reading all I could get of science over a half-century I am utterly convinced that it is the only home humanity will ever have.

    There is no other habitable planet in the solar system. Mars has an atmosphere so thin that it is almost a vacuum, and that’s because its gravity is insufficient to retain one Terraforming is not an option. Travel to another star’s system? The nearest that could possibly contain an option is light years distant, very probably more than ten light years. The fastest conceivable transport can not exceed about ⅓ light speed because radiation becomes excessive over that unless you have a lead-encased spaceship, and that brings up the other major problem, energy for the propulsion system. Even a nuclear fusion power plant would not suffice for such speeds. And then there’s the biological/medical problem with it. Human beings do not live separate from their terrestrial environment. We are each a colony of millions of bacteria existing in symbiosis and we constantly interact with that environment. In order to preserve an adequate gene pool and diversity for the generations it would take to travel to another star we would need a ship the size of a city, and that makes the propulsion problem just that much harder.

    And just to put it all in perspective, consider the current state of manned space travel. After a half-century of it now we only have a pathetic motel-6 of a station in orbit where astronauts spend the great bulk of their time doing maintenance and which must be constantly replenished by shuttles which bring supplies and haul off the trash. One astronaut recently almost drowned when the water-cooling system on his suit malfunctioned. Just imagine the difficulties on a multi-generation trip through space. There’s not only the gravity effects on human physiology, but no access to mineral wealth and industrial products.

    Mankind is stuck here and always will be, but it is very questionable whether we can even manage to maintain this spaceship we call Earth. The seas are over-fished and dying. The icecaps are melting. The air in the capital of the most-populated nation is so bad they are selling canned air and erecting giant inflated tents for visiting diplomats. And here in the world’s most prosperous country the political party in charge of government funding not only rejects all attempts at conservation but says the answer is to create more jobs building a pipeline to carry the most polluting of all forms of petroleum (tar sands) to an eager, thirsty and growing third world market. And international cooperation is a joke and war a constant threat because of ethnic hatred and superstition, that of the Mennonites included.

    The Third-Circuit opinion in your post, Duane, the one concluding that science needs to trump religion, provides a faint glimmer of hope, but I fear it is about as attainable as Carl Sagan’s distant pale blue dot.


  4. ansonburlingame

     /  July 30, 2013


    You are too pessimestic, in my view and do not take into account the nature of “life”. All life tries to grown and thrive. Maybe life was somehow created in a caldron here on Earth a few billion years ago. Or maybe it came to earth from elsewhere. We don’t know for sure, yet.

    But once life took a foothold on Earth, well look what we have today in comparison.

    In a much shorter time frame, there were many that thought “sailing the oceans” would result in falling off of Earth, into ……….? A solar eclipse was considered an act of gods. Little did they know, right.

    The nature of the “human spirit” is to explore the unknown. Science is thus far the proven way to do so, explore the unknown. As more is revealed through science, God or gods is/are pushed “back” in exactly what He or they “control”. You speak of the “speed limit” of light and our current inablity to overcome that restraint. To me that is like assuming the Earth is flat and thus we should look no further, beyond the horizon into the truly unknown.

    Look beyond Earth, into space, and we know not very much at all. But look within and the quantum world is just now becoming better understood, despite Einstein’s reluctance to “believe in” quantum theory!!! Frankly, I submit we still do not understand exactly WHY the apple hit Newton on his head. Exactly HOW does gavity “work”? Do some “strings” emanate from Newton’s head, grab and apple and pull it towards that single human head?

    All we really know is how to measure the effects of gravity and use it, constuctively or destructively as the case may be. But HOW gravity actually works, we don’t yet have a real clue, in my view.

    But I do agree with you in terms of human inability to sustain life as we know it on Earth alone “forever”. The instinct for life to always grow and thrive is so basic that someday we will only be able to “eat each other” unless we find other places for life to flourish. What happens when life outgrows the bounds of Earth????

    Such however is not human politics. It is I suppose some sense of “philosophy”. Others might call it “science fiction”. But just look in our life time where Buck Rogers lasers were such fiction, yet today, we have ray guns in space (maybe but who knows for sure as some humans deem it to be “Top Secret”) ready to …….

    As well just consider the religious resistance to stem cell research. Many say such research is against God’s Will. Such thinking would have prevented Columbus from sailing because he would have been violating God’s Will to go “over the horizon”, I suppose. But when he did so and found “savages” lurking “over there”, well such savages were not really human, right, at least until we gave them the “word of our god’s/God”!!!!

    I for one still wonder what the world would look like today had Columbus been a Chinese sailor???? As well once something akin to stem cell research provides us a path to acutally create (human engineering) other variants of human life, well…….? SOMEDAY such will be the case, unless we “eat each other to death” worldwide!

    IF that happens, life on Earth is gone, does that mean life elsewhere is gone as well? Who knows, today, for sure.



    • Yes, Anson, I realize my comment was pessimistic, but you are failing to recognize its context painting me as anti-science. You shouldn’t because I’m not. My comment was limited to Duane’s topic, which was to marvel at the dichotomy between religion and science in the modern era when it is increasingly apparent that we can not escape our planet and thus have no alternative to getting along with each other. Except of course, war and ethnic hatred. Or jihad, if one prefers.

      I stand by my pessimism for interstellar travel and for the state of the Earth’s environment which is a train wreck in slow motion. But I agree that there are new horizons to explore in many areas of science. Humanity has only had the power of computers for only a few decades now, and that alone bodes progress. We are only beginning to understand the human brain and the possibility exists, I submit, for not only improving its function but even encouraging its further evolution. Aging is another area still mysterious and ripe for exploration. I subscribe to Scientific American and it is full every month of nascent fields. But space “exploration” isn’t a big one, unless you count astronomy. There’s nothing on Mars that can’t be best explored by robots. Manned space travel captured the popular imagination during its heyday, mine included, but it’s limits are now clear. The future is inward and now is the time we need to realize that.

      We need to learn to all live together and clean up the only nest we will ever have, but here we are. The Shiites and the Sunnis are slaughtering one another by the tens of thousands in Iraq and Syria, Iran and North Korea are on the verge of nuclear-weapons, and the Mennonites still eschew machines and modern medicine. There are, I think, some 8,000 different religions and they all think they are the sole correct one.

      The time is short, I think, before we reach a tipping point past which much of mankind will not survive.


  5. ansonburlingame

     /  July 31, 2013

    Never would I accuse you, Jim or Duane, of being “anti-science”. We all agree that science, the quest to resolve the unknown is our best bet to reveal more and more of the unknown, how things work and why and what can we do to control such things, like space travel, or human engineering to create “better” humans.

    I do suspect however, that both of you tend to discount how some reliance on powers beyond ourselves, the human brain, might have some effect on human existence. Yes, science pushes “back” such frontiers that earlier men thought remained exclusively in the realm of gods. But wherever our new frontiers of knowledge might now reside, there is always the question of “where did that come from” or thoughts along those lines.

    Science showed how (but not why) the apple fell on Newton’s head. Now we can use our current understanding of those forces, F=MA if you will, to slingshot objects far into space and explore the previous unknown, at least within our own solar system. One small step for mankind, if you will is again provided for mankind.

    No one can even begin to predict with any accuracy what this Earth might look like 1000 years from now. We may have turned it into a cinder block or we may have transported such life on Earth to other places in space or all else in between. In the year 1013 I wonder what the world population might have been as compared to almost 7 Billion humans today, all instinctively still trying to “grow and thrive”.

    But then again, so what, I suppose. Our more immediate “crisis” is revealed in just one city in America today, Detroit. How do we the people, or just the people of Detroit figure out how to bring those 700,000 back into some form of the American Dream in their daily lives?

    If we cannot figure out how to do so effectively and sustainably, they how do we find a way to confront the next problem, maybe with a whole State, like California. The same dilemma applies to the issue between Israeli’s and Palestinians as well I suppose.

    There is some similarity between the two, in my view. Detroit could be viewed as a ghetto, an entire city confined to the boundaries of that city, with all therein clamoring for “more” from outside. Same applies to a few million Palestinians, all wanting “more”.

    I for one am far more pessimistic about how we the people in America deal with current problems. I still believe the “human spirit” will continue to solve the long range issues delving out into “space” or within into “quantum space” as long as we keep up with current political problem resolutions to avoid “eating each other”.

    I have experienced a hiatus from “politics” of a sort for the last month, tending to personal business in Kentucky. As I ponder why “Irene” became such an icon for me and her family over her 88 years of life on Earth, well I see more clearly a path forward for the “human spirit”. Irene and her extended family NEVER moved above the bottom 50% in terms of material possessions in America. But my God she had more “wealth” than all of us combined, for 88 years, wealth in her “spirit”. Now how do we “redistribute” THAT wealth I wonder.

    Figure out how to do so and problems like Detroit simply go away, in my view.



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