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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pastors come up with creative ways to express how unequal gays are

Now, I'm sure that pastors denouncing homosexuality from the pulpit isn't a new thing. It's impossible to know how often this happens. But it's hard to escape the notion that the recent three occasions of pastors doing so, so vehemently, are related to Obama's recent profession of personal support for gay marriage. And for that reason, I have to admit that his endorsement means more than I'd previously thought it would. It's easy as a long-time supporter of gay rights to observe the president saying something in an interview for a magazine that expresses the most tepid of support, while clarifying that gay marriage is something that is and should be decided by the states, to be...well, underwhelmed by that revelation. But clearly this milquetoast-in-my-eyes statement has put a fire in the belly of some preachers lately. And the result isn't pretty.

First, Pastor Sean Harris of Barean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina:
 "So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, “Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,” you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed. 
Can I make it any clearer? Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting to Butch you reign her in. And you say, “Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.” 
You say, “Can I take charge like that as a parent?” 
Yeah, you can. You are authorized. I just gave you a special dispensation this morning to do that."
Second, Pastor Charles Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church, also in NC:
I’ve never been as sick in my life of our President getting’ up and saying it was alright for two women to marry, or two men to marry. I can tell you right now, I was disappointed bad, I’ll tell you right there, it’s as sorry as you can get. The Bible is against, God’s against, I’m against and if you’ve got any sense you’re against!
I had a way, I’ve figured a way out. A way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers, but I couldn’t get it past the Congress. Build a great big large fence, 150 or 100 miles long, put all the lesbians in there, fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals. And have that fence electrified till they can’t get out. Feed them. And you know what? In a few years they’ll die out. You know why? They can’t reproduce.
If a man ever has a young’en, praise god it will be the first em. All of these… You can say amen, I’m going to preach the hell out of all of them.
Hey I’ll tell you right now, somebody say who you going to vote for? I ain’t gonna vote for a baby killer and a homosexual lover.
You said did you mean to say that? You better believe I did.
God have mercy it makes me puking sick to think about… I don’t even know whether you ought to say this in the pulpit or not. Can you imagine kissing some man?
Third, Pastor Curtis Knapp, of New Hope Baptist Church in Seneca, Kansas:


If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. They should be put to death. 'Oh, so you’re saying we should go out and start killing them.' No. I’m saying the government should. They won’t, but they should. You say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you, you’re horrible. You’re a backwards neanderthal of a person.’ Is that what you’re calling scripture? Is God a neanderthal, backwards in his morality? Is it His word or not? If it’s His word, he commanded it. It’s His idea, not mine. And I’m not ashamed of it. He said put them to death. Shall the church drag them in? No, I’m not saying that. The church has not been given the power of the sort; the government has. But the government ought to [kill them]. You got a better idea? A better idea than God?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Soldiers who died by their own hands

On this day we remember and honor soldiers who have been killed. Does that include those who killed themselves? I certainly hope so, given that the stress and horror of warfare is almost certainly responsible for creating the mental conditions that produce the desire to end one's own life as much as they are responsible for physical injuries. At Big Think, Rin Mitchell writes:
In a recent blog post, Major General Dana Pittard described suicide as “an absolute selfish act.” The post came after Pittard attended the funeral of a soldier who had committed suicide. He later recanted his statement, but others believe that he is not the only one that probably views veteran suicide in this light. However, what draws concern for some is that no higher ranking army officials stepped in to publicly respond to Pittard's comments. Pittard's views in no way represent army policy and views, but now that it is out there—it raises the question as to whether senior military leaders and The Department of Defense will ever speak out about what suicide among veterans means—and determine some kind of perspective on it as a country. It was unacceptable and unfortunate for Pittard to take it upon himself to shed light on the subject, especially around the holiday when soldiers of the war are remembered the most—Memorial Day. It isn’t something people want to think about and probably should remain as it has remained—an “unseen tragedy.”
I don't think the number of suicides in the Army has increased by 80% since the invasion of Iraq because at that point, Army soldiers became 80% more selfish. I also don't think that the solution is to not think about it. Rather, I think we should acknowledge that depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common in veterans, and it's not at all unusual for a person experiencing such to contemplate ending his/her own life, and even to eventually follow through with it. To pretend otherwise is to deny the reality of psychological damage caused to soldiers, to count the harm of forcing them into combat in terms of how it breaks their bodies but not how it breaks their minds. A soldier who commits suicide is also a casualty, and should be remembered and grieved alongside his/her compatriots whose deaths were more directly caused and less easily dismissed.

ETA: Big Think has edited their article to note that it was authored by Mitchell and not Orion Jones, so I've edited my post accordingly.

Why I'm a libertarian feminist atheist skeptic

...in four paragraphs:

Libertarian: I mistrust government, a whole lot. I believe that market forces are preferable to legislation when it comes to getting things done, because they are more voluntary (consent is always best) and more easily reversible. I believe that the pursuit of happiness is a personal thing and takes different forms for different people, and the government's main job should be to allow us room to conduct our individual pursuits. It should prevent us trampling on each other in the process and enable those of us who by circumstances of birth or misfortune have been denied the ability, but otherwise stay the hell out of the way. I am a left-libertarian, not a paleoconservative, states' rights, or Ayn-Rand-worshiping libertarian.

Feminist: Sexism is a bigotry that generally takes the form of explicit assertion or implicit suggestion that men must be one thing and women another, and that women exist for men (as ornamentation or care-givers, means of reproduction, and so on) rather than for themselves. I oppose any attempt to institutionalize this idea via law, and argue against the endorsement of it in culture. I am an individualist feminist, not a difference feminist or misandrist.

Atheist: I consider it highly unlikely that our great big messy very old universe came into being via the deliberate machinations of an infinite mind, much less the kind usually asserted to be responsible for doing so. And if the complexity of this universe, and of us specifically, requires explanation by appeal to such agency, then surely the agency itself demands such all the more. I believe that supernatural beings are neither required nor sufficient to supply existence with meaning or morality. I am a "good without gods" atheist, not a "believers are stupid" or "believers are evil" atheist.

Skeptic: Science is a tool for knowing the empirical world-- the best one we have. Considering that, it would be a shame not to use it whenever possible and when we do forget to use it, it's always to our detriment. I view mystery as a door to open and explore beyond rather than to hammer shut with nails marked cultural reverence, tradition, religion, or magic. I believe reality is always more fascinating than the myths we make up to replace it, but imagination is important because it's our ability to wrap our minds around what is really real. I am a "let's find out the truth" skeptic, not a cynic, pessimist, or "You must share my other ideologies or else you're not really a skeptic" skeptic.

Note: This post brought to you by two discussions I've read recently in which at least two of the above were alleged to be incompatible. I am convinced that they are not, or at least don't need to be.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Weekend web readin'/watchin'

From Pandagon, Rejecting the "self-discipline" framework 
Money quote:
"Self-discipline" can't really be extracted meaningfully in this debate from the concept of sin and punishment. Under the sin framework, gluttony is a sin, and the only proper response to sin is punishment. Therefore, if you accept the "self-discipline" framework, there is no problem here. The overeaters are sinners, and their health problems are punishment for their sin. The system works, let's all go home. Indeed, you see this exact argument being trotted out in comments. 
But if you reject this notion and instead view negative health effects of overeating as a public health problem to be solved, then the question of "self-discipline" becomes silly. Let's just say for the sake of argument that you accept this assumption, that people don't have self-discipline and that's why they overeat. If you're still interested in solving the problem, the response then becomes, "So what?" There's no real way to fix that problem with traditional finger-wagging, as thousands of years of scolding has so far proven ineffective. Leaving it be is also unacceptable, because real people are suffering and our health care systems are overextended. When you're engaging in problem-solving, it's best to start by looking at things you can control, and leave the discourse of sin and redemption to the wayside. 
From the New York Times, Last Ones Left in a Toxic Kansas Town 
Money quote:
This April, officials abandoned their plan to turn Treece into a wildlife preserve. It had been a quixotic hope all along, dependent upon the desire of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, which had nothing to do with the buyout, to take over the land from the Department of Health and Environment. The Wildlife Department wouldn’t give an official statement, but one employee told me the agency wasn’t interested in the land. “It’s not because that couple stayed,” he said, referring to the Busbys. “Not only because of that, anyway. That land is inadequate for supporting wildlife, or from what I hear, any other kind of life.” 
Instead, another auction will be held this fall. The now-barren plots of land will be sold to buyers who can use the space to hunt deer and rabbits, or to grow crops (at their own risk). The land won’t be cleaned up further except to dismantle the remaining chat towers by hauling the stones away and using them to fill local cave-ins, where the effects of airborne lead are mitigated. This could take years. 
The state recently petitioned to remove the town’s name from maps. The “welcome” sign out on U.S.-69 has been taken down, and a visitor today couldn’t find the place unless she already knew the way. The Busbys will be allowed to stay in the ghost town as long as they like, but once they leave or die, it’s very likely that no human will ever live in Treece again.
From Powell's Books Blog, Writing Across Gender 
Money quote:
I don't think it's terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender's consciousness in a way that men aren't. This isn't to say that women don't often misunderstand, mistreat, and stereotype men, both in literature and in life. But on a basic level, functioning in society requires that women register that men are fully conscious; it is not really possible for a woman to throw up her hands and write men off as eternally unknowable space aliens — and even if she says she has, she cannot really behave as though she has. Every element of her life — from reading books about boys and men to writing papers about the motivations of male characters to being attentive to her own safety to navigating most any institutional or professional or economic sphere — demands an ironclad familiarity with, and belief in, the idea that men really are fully human entities. And no matter how many men come to the same conclusions about women, the structure of society simply does not demand so strenuously that they do so. If you didn't really deep down believe that women were, in general, exactly as conscious as you, you could probably still get by in life. You could probably still get a book deal. You could probably still get elected to office.
From MSNBC, Rachel Maddow's update on the war on women:
Rage-inspiring video:


Saturday, May 19, 2012

MS legislator has supernatural fears of gay marriage

A state representative from Mississippi, Andy Gipson, posted on Facebook recently responding to Obama's endorsement of gay marriage. Gipson first invoked Leviticus and Romans, the first of which calls for men who sleep with men as they do with women to be put to death. Asked to elaborate further, he had this to say:


Why am I calling these concerns "supernatural"? Well, aside from Gipson having outright appealed to biblical mandate...

1. "Unnatural behavior which results in disease" certainly sounds like he thinks gay sex causes disease. Like somehow, the act of two men having anal sex-- which is presumably what Gipson is describing, never mind that anal sex occurs between straight couples as well, and there are a lot of ways for gays to have sex besides anal intercourse, and oh yeah there are such things as lesbians-- brings HIV/AIDS into existence. I guess this occurs via spontaneous generation, like people used to believe about rats and garbage. Accumulate enough garbage, and rats will appear. They must have been produced by the garbage! It's a miracle. Only, not the kind of miracle you'd want, since (almost) nobody sits around wishing for rats or HIV. And the latter, incidentally, may be more easily transmissible via anal intercourse, but a) it would be absurd to suggest that it's difficult to protect oneself from infection, and b) two uninfected people can have all of the anal sex they want over the entire course of their lives without either one ever getting the disease. You know, such as might be the case between two married people. Including two gay married people, Mr. Gipson.

2. You see, we need to think of the children. Not because gay married couples can be expected to become parents, and unmarried gay couples are parents already, and there is reason to believe that they are somehow inferior at it in comparison to straight couples. Gipson doesn't even bother alleging that. Instead, he claims that children might be confused because gay marriage might mislead them about the "proper role of men and women in society" and the "important differences" between then, which gay people being married would somehow render obscure. He doesn't bother to explain, though, what the proper roles of men and women in society are and how gay marriage would misportray that, nor does he explain what important differences between men and women exist which gay marriage would make less obvious. Gipson simply speaks about children becoming "confused," as if they are being deceived about the reality of what men and women are and do, when in fact he is the one advocating for such deception by trying to force men and women to do and be other than what they want and are. Dobedobedo.

3. "Undermining the long-standing definition of marriage as between one man and one woman." Or one man and a bunch of women. Or one man, one woman, and a bunch of concubines. Or one man and one woman, but only if they're of the same race. We're all familiar with these very real historical and current forms of marriage that exist despite the outright denial of people like Gipson. But what baffles and amazes me about the redefinition argument, especially this version of it, is that it sounds like he honestly thinks people won't know what marriage is anymore if gays are allowed to marry. Like everybody who is currently in a non-gay marriage, or aspires to someday be in one, will suddenly forget why and lose all motivation. They'll experience a collective marital amnesia, like Goldie Hawn's character in Overboard, and cease to want and feel what they formerly did about being in love and establishing long-standing relationships based on that love. Straight people will cumulatively throw their hands in the air, forget the whole marriage enterprise, and become eunuchs I guess. Or gay, in which case I suppose they will all get gay married, which is probably one of the thoughts that makes Gipson wake up at night in a cold sweat.

All of these impulses I'm calling "supernatural" because they are literally not about reality. They are about Gipson's false impression of reality, which he portrays as real but which will be further-- let's not kid ourselves, it's already very apparent-- revealed as unreal as the cause of gay rights progresses. Sex doesn't work how he thinks it does. Men and women are not what he wants them to be. Marriage is not what he wants it to be. And that's frightening. It's really scary to be profoundly mistaken about such basic and fundamental aspects of life. But though I have sympathy for a person who is so mistaken, the solution is not to force the rest of us to conform to his delusions. Mississippi, please pay attention and vote this person out of office...he has no business being there.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Too far from food

What my brain does when it hears the word "steak"
Beatrice Marovich has a fascinating essay at Religion Dispatches called "Eat, Pray, Kill: The Basic  Brutality of Eating," in which she writes about the ethical quandaries of food in the context of secular morality and religious traditions. It's fascinating to me both because of the sheer number of different perspectives she manages to cover while following the twisting topic of whether there is an ethical argument to be found, secular or religious, in favor of eating meat, but also because of the jarring awareness it provokes of the kind of cultural context in which a person could write such an essay. A cultural context, that is, of being far from food.

The kind of distance I'm talking about when using the word "far" is geographic-- most Americans do not live anywhere near where the majority of the food they consume is produced. But it's also informational-- most Americans do not know very much about what's in the food they consume, or how it was produced. That's by necessity to some extent, but it's also by design. The food we eat is artificially colored and flavored, decorated with pictures of quaint, casual, spacious farms from which it didn't come, delivered to us out of season from distant lands, filled with chemicals we can't pronounce, and in general modified within an inch of its non-life into appearing and tasting like something it isn't. Just reading that previous sentence makes me feel like a curmudgeon, as if these facts are so ordinary and basic that they hardly bear mentioning. But Michael Pollan, who is mentioned in Marovich's essay, spent more time than anything else in his books discussing the duplicity of large-scale food corporations and the enormous power they wield in perpetuating such, in cooperation with the government. They quite simply do not want us to know what's in the food, or how it got there. We might demand that it be cleaned up or produced more ethically, or stop eating it altogether. And that all costs money. From the corporations' perspective, it's better for us just not to know.

It's for this reason that the primary question of how to eat ethically continues to be, and is treated in Marovich's essay as, the matter of eating meat or not. Ethics are about avoiding harm, right? And avoiding harm with regard to food means not killing animals and eating them, right? Weeeelll.....no. Actually it's a great deal more complicated than that. There's also the carbon footprint-- how much damage is caused to the environment in order to produce this meal? And the blood footprint, which constitutes the sum total of suffering and death involved in getting that meal to you, is about far more than whether that meal is composed solely or mainly of dead animal. What about the animals whose existence was threatened or ended in the process of collecting the non-meat components of your dinner? What about the well-being of the workers who did the collecting and processing, packaging, shipping, and serving? The vast majority of us are food consumers but not producers-- we don't kill the meat we eat. So why should that be the only part of the process of consumption for which we hold ourselves morally responsible? Oh yes...because it's the most obvious. It's almost impossible to avoid, and for many of us avoiding it is the last thing we'd want because the presence of meat is either anathema or obligatory in a good meal. That doesn't mean it's the only consideration, or even necessarily the most important one.

These are things that are easy to forget when we're far from food. But what is it like to be close to food?

When Louis recalls first becoming a bloodsucker in Interview With a Vampire, his memory is of having fled his own home in horror at the thought of needing to kill humans to survive, and he is discovered by his amused maker living off the blood of rats in the sewer. It would have been impossible for Louis to become a vegetarian, but you get the impression that he would have done so if he could. Gradually Louis is convinced that dining on humans instead is not only tastier and more dignified but entirely acceptable, because humans are petty, finite, lesser creatures. Most of us never have to encounter a similar shock as children at the thought that we are being asked to eat the flesh of the same creatures we anthropomorphize constantly in books, TV shows, movies, video games, etc. Or at least. any shock that does occur is mild considering that the meat of those animals doesn't look like those animals, and sometimes doesn't even look like meat. Almost nobody has to go out into the barn and and slaughter a pig for Sunday ham, or learn how to most efficiently slice a chicken's throat, and the rarity of anyone doing such things anymore has gone mostly unnoticed. It has just been part of the distancing.

Being close to food seems to inspire ritual, and Marovich's essay is mostly focused on that, having been inspired in large part by a presentation at Columbia University on religion's general relationship to animals, which she in turn narrows into a discussion on meat. Food is a thing that is consumed into our bodies (which is kind of bizarre when you think about how rarely that happens otherwise-- there's medication, and that's about it), there are concerns about purity and pollution, which of course is religiously relevant...goodness, could it be any more religiously relevant, without being sex? But ritual purity and hygienic purity are not quite the same thing, and neither are ritual pollution and actual pollution. A religious rule regarding the avoidance of eating some particular kind of food might be based on actual poisonous or otherwise unsafe properties, or it might be based on poisonous or unsafe properties that the food used to have when the rule was originally devised by doesn't necessarily any longer, or it might be based on that food's associative properties as unfit to introduce into the human body. Meat was necessary for our ancestors to eat, and they had to find a way to clearly and firmly articulate what kind of meat was acceptable, and how it must be slaughtered in prepared, in order to make it safe to eat both physically and psychologically. Hence, ritual.

Sustainable farmer Joel Salatin's TED talk in 2009 was framed in very religious terms:

Salatin is a devout Christian and makes no attempt to hide it. When interviewed about slaughtering chickens for Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Salatin talks about how nobody on his farm slaughters everyday because it's desensitizing, and claims that priests recognized this concern and spoke against the same people performing continuous slaughter for that reason. Salatin definitely makes the sustainable production of meat and produce a sacred mission, and speaks of it passionately as his calling, his attempt to do service to animals and the earth by acknowledging their interests and the continuous roles they serve for each other-- cows and pigs eating grass, chickens following in the path of the livestock and eating the insects attracted to their waste, and contributing their own waste to the land which produces more grass to feed more livestock. It's for this reason Salatin describes himself as a "grass farmer"-- grass, he proposes, is the beginning of everything, the link that is missing in the current CAFO and factory farm production of chickens and cows who are raised solely or primarily on grains, growth hormones, and fat.

That's not a model that requires a farmer of a particular faith, or really any faith at all, but it does introduce a notion of sacredness that I find very useful-- a model of doing things that is very important for reasons that aren't immediately obvious, for a deep-seated and satisfying purpose. That's a form of ritual which is repeated not because it's ritual, but because it remains relevant, remains sacred. A ritual created by someone close to food. We can't all be anywhere near that close, but we can listen to those who are.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

From the wayback machine

Other bloggers occasionally like to dig up something they wrote years ago and share it again, either for nostalgia's sake or because it has become relevant again, or both. I'm going to do that today, only I'm going super old school on you. High school, that is.

Apologies for the fuzziness-- I need a real scanner.
I'm not sharing this because it's an especially good bit of writing-- it isn't. I'm sharing it because of the date and the location. Wichita, Kansas, November of 1994. Publishing this in the school paper got me a certain amount of retaliation-- a rapid-fire rumor spread that I wrote it as a way of coming out myself, and the word "DYKE" was scrawled in big red letters on the wall of my storage cubbyhole in the journalism office. But I didn't encounter any open resistance from the staff about the legitimacy of writing on this topic, and certainly not from our journalism teacher Pam Koeller or anyone in administration. We started a gay-straight alliance club in that same year, again with no resistance from anyone in authority that I recall, and with the gracious sponsorship of biology teacher Sherri Schaake (both Koeller and Schaake, it should come as no surprise, were excellent teachers in addition to being so open-minded).

Considering the current environment in the U.S. midwest when it comes to LGBT issues in 2012, I am forced to come to one of two conclusions. Either it is the case that
  1. A large scale back-sliding has been taking place, and a progressive attitude that was once prevalent has now diminished, or
  2. There are significant pockets of progressiveness in what are commonly considered to be thoroughly red states which make it unfair, or at least very hasty, to dismiss them as generally hostile to LGBT interests.
I suppose it's also possible that the high school I attended was just a remarkable exception, but it wasn't some kind of haven of gay-friendliness. The GSA club was started in the first place in part because openly gay or "gay-seeming" students could expect to be bullied at any free period such as lunch or breaks between class, and we wanted to create a safe place in order to just hang out and talk. 

And yet. And yet, there has been a rash of bullying of gays that has led to several suicides in the past few years. Elsewhere in the midwest, in 2012, we have stories like this. It really does baffle me sometimes.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The squeaky wheel will never be trusted...or something

I do not like Psychology Today. I'll say that up front.

That's primarily because "fluff" would be a gracious term to apply to most of its articles, and they have the annoying habit of presenting whatever trend or subject being discussed as a brand new phenomenon, accompanied by the inevitable cover advertising the preeminent story of the issue by manipulating an image of an attractive white woman's face and/or body in some way-- the newest issue (June) features a discussion on "difficult people," so the cover image is of an attractive white woman's face painted with a symbol for radioactive materials. Clever.

But my attention was drawn to that cover, not so much because of an urge to find out why difficult people resemble models dressed up as hazardous waste as because of another headline: "The Atheist in the Next Pew: A New Breed of Nonbelievers." The article is actually called "The Atheist at the Breakfast Table," which is behind a paywall at Psychology Today's website but you can read the full version at the site of its author, Bruce Grierson. Grierson wrote an interesting overview of what life is like for "quiet atheists" who go about their daily lives being generally indistinguishable from theists, even attending church, and taking great pains to make sure their children are exposed to religion-- to the point of hiding their own lack of faith so as to avoid "foisting" their atheism on them. And right on cue he portrays these quiet atheists as a new breed of nonbelievers that you really ought to get to know in order to avoid stereotyping the whole lot as being like those nasty, obstreperous, faith-trampling New Atheists we've heard so much about.

And what about them, anyway? Well, Grierson doesn't use that term, but...
The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.
Hoo boy.

Okay, first of all...as has been pointed out already by commenters on Friendly Atheist, there is a bit of bitter irony in that description of atheists metaphorically "galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor." The "galloping" I am guessing is an oblique reference to the famed Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse, aka the "New Atheists" Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. The bitterness comes in considering that there have been some literal guns blazing in chapels in the past few years, and it hasn't been by atheists. The incident of which most near (again, literally) and dear to me being, of course, the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009. So, perhaps not the best mental image to evoke there.

Second, the "fervor of a persecuted minority"? Atheists are undoubtedly a minority, at the 15% of the population Grierson claims they represent after their numbers have doubled in the last twenty years. Are they persecuted? Well, let's see. One openly atheist member of Congress, support groups for clergy who find that they've lost their faith and need help finding new employment and adjusting to the social fallout, teenage atheists being called horrible things and sent death threats, the majority of Americans by far deeming them untrustworthy, ranking below Muslims and homosexuals and about on the level of rapists...it depends on how you define persecution, I suppose.

But the big whammy comes in the final two sentences of that paragraph. "That strategy," meaning all of this aggressive fussing-- in particular since 9/11-- has not endeared atheists to the majority of Americans, who dislike and distrust them more than any other identifiable group. Which mustn't, I guess, be mistaken for persecution because atheists brought it on themselves. This is an obvious example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in that Grierson makes no attempt to actually show that any "campaign" by atheists resulted in the popular animosity against them, and that's a problem not just because it's a highly questionable suggestion to make (and I'll explain why in a moment), but also because Grierson's article can be summed up as an attempt to introduce readers to a kinder, gentler, quieter form of atheist that is presumably more normal and likable, who don't deserve the ill will that those loud obstreperous types...do? Which is quite like saying "Let me introduce you to some closeted gays, so that you don't think all gays are flamboyant leather daddies like the kind that march down the street with the floats and the banners and the balloons." True, maybe, and an important distinction to make, but not exactly the best way to honestly combat prejudice.

And prejudice is, frankly, what it is. It didn't begin with the advent of the "New Atheists" (which I would tentatively date at mid-2004, when Sam Harris' The End of Faith was published--  Breaking the Spell and The God Delusion came along in 2006, and God is Not Great in 2007). 48% of Americans said that they would not consider voting for an atheist for president in 1999, more than those who would refuse to vote for a Muslim, homosexual, Mormon, Baptist, or Jew (all of whom were below "Black," by the way), which was evidence of a gradual improvement in esteem from 1958's 75%. The majority of those polled have regarded atheists as "untrustworthy" for quite a while, plus there is the consideration that when confronted with thoughts of death (which a terrorist attack that annihilates two buildings and kills almost 3,000 people is likely to encourage), people tend to hold tightly to their ideologies of family, religion, nation, etc. and judge more harshly those who defy them. You would expect (and, if you've been paying attention, have seen) massive lashing out at Muslims in America since 2001, but the antipathy toward atheists was unanticipated. It makes sense, however, in light of a communal urge to join together on a meaningful basis. And an interfaith community (We all worship God, in our own way) is a short but cavernous step away from accepting those with no faith at all. Cavernous, as in that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when the entire company is attempting to escape from the Balrog in the Mines of Moria by leaping from one precarious promontory of broken bridge to the next?


Yes, about like that.

Weekend web readin' (late)

From the hairpin, The Best Time I Took My Baby to the Emergency Room 
Money quote:
This is still a little too raw for me to really want to talk about it, but I got a bit of a guilt-nudge from yesterday's post on criminalizing bad mothers
All parents do something stupid at some point, and most of us get away with it. That's the truth. Usually, it's not doing meth while you're pregnant, or putting your baby on top of a bear in Yellowstone so you can film it. But it's something, and you usually get away with it. And if you get away with it, it's a funny story, and you'll eventually laugh about it with other parents. If you don't get away with it, people will make themselves feel better about their own mistakes by pillorying you. But there's no difference between people who do something stupid and get away with it, and people who don't get away with it. It's luck. Don't kid yourself.
From Religion Dispatches, A New Goal for Anti-Choice Activists: Targeting Sex-Selective Abortion 
Money quote:
PRENDA could be this year’s Pence Amendment—named for its author Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (now running for Governor of Indiana) and his attempt to bring down Obama’s health care law over the federal funding of Planned Parenthood. PRENDA, like the Pence Amendment, is red meat for the anti-choice mission to defund and defame Planned Parenthood. It will also serve as a pure political tool to electrify the single-issue voter to recruit carloads of right-wing voters to the polls. 
PRENDA, like the Pence Amendment, will likely not pass in the Senate. But if it passes the House we can expect a joint Boehner/Franks press conference designed to use the victory as reinforcement of a growing GOP meme: this bill will save millions of baby girls! The Democrats voted against saving the lives of potential women! Who’s waging the real war on women, Democrats? We are the true women’s rights advocates! 
In a recent op-ed at Politico, “Battle Hymn of the Anti-Abortion Feminist," Lila Rose begins, “In the ongoing debate over women’s health care, one voice has been mostly absent: that of the anti-abortion feminist.” Rose casts herself—and other anti-abortion activists—as the true champions of women, just like the rest of the GOP. Although PRENDA addresses “black genocide” again, this year’s focus is decidedly on sex-selection abortion.
From NPR, From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith 
Money quote:
MacBain glances nervously around the room. It's a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists' convention in Bethesda, Md. 
Her secret is taking a toll, eating at her conscience as she goes about her pastoral duties week after week — two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick when she doesn't believe in the God she's praying to. She has had no one to talk to, at least not in her Christian community, so her iPhone has become her confessor, where she records her private fears and frustrations. 
"On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse," she tells her phone in one recording. "How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I'd just keep my job. But I can't do that. I know it's a lie. I know it's false."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Religion is and isn't special

Passerotti, God the Father
The primary reason, it seems, that people are now telling Dan Savage that he shouldn't have apologized-- even in as qualified and precise terms as he did-- is because it gives the impression that one should not criticize religious beliefs. And if one does so, and it offends, the appropriate thing to do is to relent and express sincere regret. The basic impression of someone who hasn't dug into the details and/or prefers not to consider them is that Dan Savage insulted Christianity, Christian students were offended, and so Savage apologized to them. Examining the situation beyond that very superficial level reveals all three of these statements to be inaccurate, but people who are just fine with the idea of insulting religious beliefs are concerned to see Savage, ordinarily very much just fine with doing such himself, suddenly appear to acquiesce to those he disturbed. It looks like appeasement, like giving up legitimacy and rhetorical ground.

The "spell" referenced in the title of philosopher Dan Dennett's book Breaking the Spell is not religion itself, but the protective aura of deference surrounding discussion of it. Dennett argues that if we aim to properly discuss the origins and effects of religion, we can't be held back by barricades of etiquette which allow the description of religious beliefs and practices as true and/or moral, but not false and/or immoral. Further, we must reject the proposition that religion is a sui generis pursuit, noncontinuous with other kinds of human thought and behavior or even with other kinds of non-human animal thought and behavior. Does this mean saying religion is just like all other kinds of basic things humans-- and even other animals-- do? No, of course not. The fact that it has a name, constitutes a category, suggests that there are reasons for saying that some things people do, say, and believe are religious whereas others aren't. However it's also true that religious speech is a kind of human speech, religious behavior is a kind of human behavior, and religious beliefs are kinds of human beliefs. These are all things that humans conceive, live, and do with their human brains and their human bodies in their human societies and cultures. Studying the cognition of religion-- the production and perpetuation of it in terms of how minds produce and perpetuate all other kinds of human activity-- means starting with this recognition.

It sounds pretty basic and non-controversial, except when you consider that there are believers who are so certain of the one-of-a-kind, completely separate and special nature of their beliefs that they won't even call them religion. Instead you get "I'm spiritual; not religious" or "Other people have religion; I have a personal relationship with Jesus." To them, "religion" is the category of all of the failed, false, misguided attempts of humanity to reach the divine, whereas they have the real thing. To say otherwise is not only mistaken but offensive, precisely because this body of beliefs has been declared so very personal. You wouldn't question out loud whether someone loves his mother, and for that same reason you shouldn't question whether he loves his Lord-- or how he knows he has a Lord in the first place. The problem is, of course, that loving someone is a highly subjective and emotional matter, whereas gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, souls, and any other entities which are supernatural but asserted to exist objectively are not. Whether God exists as creator of the universe and answerer of prayers, performer of miracles, and possible hater of gays is an objective proposition whose truth or falsity matters. The truth or falsity of the objective existence of all things matter, of course, but you'd think especially that of the supposed origin of life, the universe, and everything.

So claims of empirical truth that come from religion are just like all other empirical truth claims in terms of being subject to the same demands for evidence and justification. Atheists by definition are just people who don't believe in any gods, but atheists who are also skeptics will point out that they disbelieve because they have searched for such evidence and justification and found them to be lacking. The case for God did not convince them. This is obviously not the entire story, however...atheists are not rational androids who simply  applied logic to the proposition that gods or the entirety of supernatural agents existing and then concluded that they don't. Being human, atheists are subject to the same intuitions and biases that affect everyone else-- and that's where things get interesting.

See, there's reason to believe that religion is intuitive....that we suspect and come to believe in the existence of "spiritual beings" because of ordinary features that come with being human. We are social animals, particularly keen to detect and discern the motivations of other creatures with agency. We anthropomorphize at the drop of a hat. We have an existential sense that makes questions like "What's it all about, anyway? Why are we here?" seem not only sensical but important-- especially in the face of crisis. We are incapable of knowing what it's like to be dead, because there is no way to be conscious of complete non-consciousness (no, sleeping does not count), so accounts of life after death seem compelling and we speculate about what Grandma must be thinking and feeling or even doing right now, even though she passed on years ago. Participating in religious rituals makes other participants feel like family, even if they aren't actually kin, and being willing to expend resources to do so presents a powerful signal to others of our commitment to the group. We tend to believe in a just universe-- the idea that immoral acts must be punished and good ones rewarded, somehow in the fabric of existence if not through the justice systems humans have created. There is just all of this stuff that human brains are prone to do that makes belief in supernatural entities and moral codes likely, if by no means determined. And of course there's the fact that each individual human born into the world doesn't have to take on the responsibility of creating a religion from scratch-- there is almost certainly one available for him or her, handed down from his or her parents virtually from birth.

Some recent research has indicated that more intuitive thinkers tend to be more likely to also believe in a personal god. An intuitive thinker is a person who tends to think with his or her "gut," allowing feelings to guide conclusions about the rightness or wrongness or even truth or falsity of different propositions. Intuitive thinking is reflexive and quick, and-- let's be honest-- how most of us think, most of the time. It's not a bad thing; in fact without intuitions we would be utterly lost. We just don't have the time to make all of the thousands of decisions we make in a day by taking a time out, sitting down, and pondering what to do while taking every possible factor into consideration, weighing the pros and cons, and making an inductively or deductively reasonable conclusion...which charitably but falsely assumes that that's what we are inclined to do in the first place.

"The human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally."

It would be far too cut and dry to say that intuitive thinking is affective, feeling-based, whereas counter-intuitive thinking is...well, thinking-based, but let's say that counter-intuitive thinking is more reflective. It's slower and requires a little more effort. Well, a little effort, period, as opposed to simply allowing your first emotionally-laden conclusion to rule the day. It's intuitive for a religious person to think about God as behaving more or less like a super-human-- having amazing powers and knowledge, but still doing things like focusing on one thing at a time and using the most direct physical means to cause events. Having a gender, opinions, and emotions. That's the "personal god" the most intuitive person is most likely to believe in. I like to say that religion is intuitive but theology is counter-intuitive-- theology is where you will find descriptions of God as a genderless amorphous "ground of being" whose behavior (if you can call it that) is complex and ubiquitous. This god is ultimate, and by that I don't mean "super awesome" but rather "distant and removed." This is not a god who intervenes directly in human endeavors by means of causing either catastrophes or miracles in order to influence our behavior. That is a proximate, personal god, the kind of being Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell would describe as punishing liberals every time a natural disaster or terrorist attack occurs. This is the god Rick Perry ordered Texans to pray to for relief from drought and threats to property rights, and who he, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain all believe told them to run for president. The god George W. Bush says told him to go to war.

You can probably guess the dangers I see in making God that personal, that proximate. But thoughtful theists generally recoil from it. They recognize the problems in claiming that God subverts human choices ("free will") to specially punish or reward politicians, the enemies of fundamentalists, or football teams, not to mention directly cause or inhibit natural events such as tornadoes, tsunamis, or the processes of natural selection. Evolution is not a threat to a person who doesn't demand that God be proximate. The plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover were mostly Christian, a couple of them even Sunday school teachers, but nevertheless they were branded atheists for supporting the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools unqualified by disclaimers questioning its validity. From the perspective of someone who believes in proximate, personal, In-Your-Face God, everyone who isn't might as well be a nonbeliever. And nonbelievers are the enemy.

This is the type of person who views critique of his or her religion as bullying or blasphemy, who places matters of faith off limits to critical discussion while simultaneously holding that God intercedes directly in world events in a perceptible ways on a regular basis-- that is, that God's existence, nature, and behavior are easily empirical matters. This is the type of person who, while virtually ubiquitous, must not be allowed to dictate the rules of the conversation. If they are, the definition of "respect" becomes "behave as though my beliefs are true," when in actual fact a) it is possible to maintain that a belief-- any belief-- is false respectfully, and b) respect can and often should be abandoned when considering beliefs that are ridiculous and/or obviously harmful. It's not a choice between understanding these beliefs and openly forming opinions about their truth or falsity, how morally acceptable or objectionable they are-- we can and should strive to do all of the above. With these as a simultaneous goal, it becomes easier to identify when being critical crosses over into being an asshole and when being empathetic and understanding crosses over into being a doormat.

Religion is special.
And it isn't.