Saturday, December 13, 2014

Why Would A Straight Guy Get So Worked Up Over Gay Rights? An Allegorical Tale

One of the axes I tend to grind on this blog is gay rights. Very few things trigger my sense of injustice as much as seeing the animus, discrimination, and intimidation my gay friends have had to face all their lives. It burns me up; it really does. This may strike people as odd, since I'm a straight guy. It may even strike some of my gay friends as odd, and they may even prefer that I pipe down about it. Why do I get so worked up about an issue that doesn't directly effect me? Let me try to explain with an extended, and probably rather strained, analogy.

Imagine you grew up as a non-Hindu in India. In Indian culture, the left hand is seen as somewhat taboo. Now imagine a sort of alternate-reality Hinduism, in which the left-hand was seen as a grave taboo, and being left-handed has traditionally been seen as a huge sin. Imagine that when the Vedas were written, people were routinely stoned and burned to death for being caught using their left hand. As recently as fifty years ago, left-handers were arrested, charged with a crime, or required to undergo treatments to make them right-handed. For the last few decades, though, more and more left-handers have been openly writing with their left hand, and demanding that they be treated equally with right-handers.

But many--mostly religious traditionalists--still insist that the left-handed lifestyle is wrong and shouldn't be tolerated. They insist that being left-handed is a choice, and the wrong one. These people are still quite powerful, and campaigning on an anti-lefty platform is a sure way to get votes in many regions. Many left-handers are still disowned by their families and denounced by their friends when their handedness is revealed. People suspected of being left-handed are often taunted and called names, and occasionally beaten or even killed. 

But, as I said, you aren't Hindu (alternate-reality Hindu--this really is a strained analogy, isn't it?). You realize Hinduism an ancient, important world religion with hundreds of millions of followers, and you know many of them are trying to do the right thing as they see it.  Most of your friends are Hindu, and you respect their intellect even if you don't agree with their opinion.

But that's the thing--you can't agree with them about left-handedness. You believe some people simply grow up to be left-handed. You've talked to your left-handed friends, and they assure you it wasn't a choice. It's just one of the facets of human diversity, like red hair or green eyes. You can't see that left-handedness hurts anybody, so you can't see any reason it should be considered a sin. Furthermore, some of your best friends in the world are left-handed, and you've seen what they've gone through. You've heard the stories about when they got beat up, or kicked out of their parents' house. You see the nasty slurs against them in comment threads, and think about how they must feel when they see them. You've seen people give them dirty looks, and mutter nasty epithets under their breath. You've seen the epithets scrawled across their car windows (yes, I've seen this). You've watched TV with them and seen the politicians and priests come on TV talk about the scourge of left-handedness. would you feel in this situation? I suspect you would think it was a huge injustice that left-handers were being denounced for something they have no control over. You would probably get pretty damn angry when you saw people treat your lefty friends badly, or tell them they're living an immoral lifestyle. You would write more blog posts about it than you probably should (OK, maybe you wouldn't do that). You would challenge people when you heard them making anti-left-hander comments. And if they said, "It says right here in the Vedas and Upanishads that left-handedness is an abomination", what would you do? I suspect you would say something like, "Well, how do you know the Vedas and Upanishads are right? How do you know they weren't simply written by people like you and me, who lived in a more superstitious and violent time? How do you know they're not simply wrong about left-handedness?"

At this point, however, don't be surprised if you're the bad guy in the eyes of the anti-left-hander you're talking to. They might offended by you questioning the holy authority of the Vedas and Upanishads. They may even say YOU'RE being narrow-minded and intolerant? So what do you do? Do you backpedal? Which is worse--calling somebody's holy scriptures into question, or staying silent about an injustice that's gone on for thousands of years and hurt millions of people for no good reason? I don't know about you, but for me, staying silent seems far, far worse.

I don't need to spell it out of course, but if you substitute "gay" for "left-handed", and "Conservative Christian" for "Hindu", you'll see how I feel about living in a country where gays are so often denounced, mostly on the basis of tradition and religious texts. When I hear someone quoting the Bible to denounce homosexuality, I'm sorry (and I don't say this to offend, but I probably will) but I'm not impressed. If you say, "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve", I'm going to say, "No, he didn't make Adam, Eve, or Steve. Adam and Eve never existed." I respect the Bible as one of the world's most ancient religious texts, just like the Vedas or Upanishads, but I don't feel any more obligation to follow what it says than I do to follow the Upanishads. I think it was written by people, not God, and they were mostly people who thought the earth was flat and demons cause disease. They were people who believed God was pleased by the smell of burnt animal flesh. They were probably wrong about a whole lot of things.

So that's why I get so worked up about Christians (and traditionalists in other religions) giving gays a hard time. If you believed the way I do, you would too. If you believed the old texts that say homosexuality is a sin are simply opinions of ancient, pre-scientific people, and wrong opinions at that, then you would think that an absolutely enormous injustice has been perpetuated for the thousands of years since those texts were written. Probably millions of people since then have been subjected to really awful kinds of suffering, ranging from being stoned to death to having to live a scary and unsatisfying lie. Yes, it's gotten better in the last 40 years or so, at least in some parts of the world, but it's still not great. I mean, would you want to be a gay teenager about come out to religiously-conservative parents and friends, even in 2014? I wouldn't.

Of course, I may be wrong. Maybe the scriptures ARE correct, and actually do reflect the will of God. Heck, I'll even admit I'm wrong if that's true. But I do have one condition: you have to prove it. Show me hard, physical evidence--the kind that would convince the majority of scientists--that the Bible is the word of God. Then show me hard, physical evidence that homosexuality is simply a choice some people make. Finally, show me hard evidence that it causes harm; enough harm to justify telling gays they can't have what most people consider some of life's main sources of happiness: love, sex, and marriage. Show me all that, and with a very heavy heart, I'll tell my gay friends that, yes, what they are doing is wrong. But I haven't seen any such evidence for any of those things, and I really don't expect to.

Anti-gay Christians are always saying they have a right to their opinion as much as anyone else does--if they want to say being gay is wrong, they should be able to. I agree. It is their right, and they should be able to. But there's a flip side to that equation. I have the right to say that denouncing people and denying them rights for something harmless and out of their control, is wrong. Yes, morally wrong. Hurting people for unjustifiable reasons is morally wrong. If you want me to accept your right to say being gay is wrong, you should be able to accept my right to say the traditional Christian treatment of gays has been morally wrong. That isn't to say people who believe the traditional Christian view are necessarily bad people--they aren't for the most part. They are trying to do the right thing as they see it. It's just that I think what they see as the right thing has been a terrible, tragic mistake. A big enough mistake that I'm willing to risk offending people by saying their religion has caused them to participate in a terrible historic injustice. To make such a claim is a big deal, yes, but not nearly as big a deal as the possibility that gays throughout history have suffered for no good reason. If saying that your religion has caused harm makes me the bad guy, then so be it. There are bigger issues at stake than avoiding offense.

So, why do I get so worked up when when I see gay friends suffer because of what's in the Bible? For the same reason you would get worked up if you saw your left-handed friends, or your green-eyed friends, suffering because of lines in the Vedas or Koran. I believe they've suffered a deep injustice for no good reason, and yes, I do believe it's wrong. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What's So Cool About this Rock

I'm talking about that big one, close to the middle of the photo. It doesn't look like much, does it? It's an average-looking rock embedded in a wall of rock. So what?

What's amazing to me about that rock is what it's been through. Once upon a time, it eroded out of a hillside and tumbled down into a mountain stream, where it rolled around until it was smoothed over. It looks like a rock you would see in a mountain stream because that's exactly what it once was.

But here's the thing: that little rock has outlived the mountains that gave it birth. Those mountains were as vast, imposing, and seemingly eternal as the modern Rockies, but over thousands of centuries, erosion wore them down. By the time the first dinosaurs evolved, they had disappeared entirely. So, that rock in the picture was once a creek rock in a mountain range that eroded away 250 million years ago. The mountains have been gone for more years than you could count in a decade, and it's still there, watching the centuries fly by the way we watch minutes. That's what's so cool about that rock.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

It Only Adds: The Deep History of the Molly Brown House

The physicist Richard Feynman once gave an off-the-cuff monologue in which he challenged the view of an artist friend who claimed that science keeps people from seeing the beauty of things. It's a short, brilliant little speech, which was later turned into a nice little cartoon I urge you to watch.

Feynman concludes that science "only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts."

I agree completely. Science adds enormous depth to our appreciation of the world; both in aesthetic and intellectual terms. It lets us see beyond surface appearances. As Feynman says, you appreciate the flower at smaller scales, and larger ones as well. You see how it's connected to other things in nature, and how it's connected to the evolutionary history of the earth. 

Click for credits.
This isn't only true with flowers, of course. It's true of pretty much everything. Here's my example. I just moved to downtown Denver, and I live a block from the mansion once occupied by the famously unsinkable Molly Brown--socialite, philanthropist, and Titanic survivor. The mansion is a museum now. I haven't taken the tour yet, but I intend to, because Ms. Brown seems to have been a fascinating person. But what I want to focus on here is her house. Most people who look at that house appreciate it as an impressive architectural and historical site. And so do I, though I'll appreciate it more when I learn more.

But I can also appreciate it at a totally different level, and on a far deeper timescale. That's because it's made from a particular kind of rock with a very interesting history, and geologists have worked out this history and explained it to laypeople like me. 

Molly Brown's house is built with blocks of Castle Rock Rhyolite, so called because it was quarried near Castle Rock, Colorado, which is just south of Denver. It's a handsome grayish-pinkish stone you can see in buildings all around Colorado. What's interesting about it is how it came to be. Most layers of rock were laid down over time periods that are, to humans, very long--hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. The rocks in Molly Brown's house were laid down in a less than a day--an extremely violent day, 37 million years ago.

What happened was that a volcano erupted about 100 miles to the west, sending a red-hot cloud of debris, ash, and gas called a pyroclastic flow racing across the landscape, obliterating any living thing in its path. It reached the Castle Rock area within an hour or two. If it had been cooler, it would have settled into a layer of loose ash and rubble, but it was so hot that it fused together into a new layer of rock called welded tuff. It was an eruption that dwarfs anything in recorded history. When Mount St. Helens erupted in Oregon in 1980, it ejected nearly 3 cubic kilometers of material across the landscape. That's certainly impressive, but the volcano we're talking about here was over three hundred times that big. Kaboom.

Luckily, this sort of thing is extremely infrequent--occurring maybe every few hundred thousand years. Still, it's a little disconcerting to read about Colorado geology, and to keep reading about layers of rock--covering a good chunk of the state--that were laid down in similar circumstances. I don't want to be around when the next one happens. Chances are I won't be, but if I am, the best I can hope for is that I make a nice fossil.

Anyway, life went on in Colorado after the eruption. Plants and animals started recolonizing the volcanic wastelands as soon as they cooled down, and life went on for hundreds of thousands of centuries. Eventually, somebody decided to start quarrying the Castle Rock Rhyolite to build fancy houses in the new gold rush town of Denver. One of those houses would be bought by Molly and J.J. Brown, who had struck it rich in the Leadville gold mines. The unsinkable Ms. Brown knew a thing or two about disasters, but I don't know if she had any idea about the one that created the rocks in her house. Her fortune came from rocks and minerals, so I like to think she did.

The Molly Brown house is an interesting place, and Molly herself seems to have been a fascinating woman. Knowing about the deep history of the rocks in her house adds an extra layer of fascination to the whole story; connecting stories on the scale of recent human history with stories from the remote geologic past. As Richard Feyman said, "It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."


The Rockies Explode. Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ideology Trumps Reality, I got that title wrong. It's the other way around, I think. Reality surely trumps ideology. The real world isn't obliged to conform to our ideas about what it will do or should do. That seems obvious, but it's amazing how many people act as though I got the title right the first time, and reality will always turn out to match our ideology. It almost never works that way. Reality is messier than that.

What's gotten me thinking about this are the tragic events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting.* As soon as the story hit the news, people started talking as though they knew EXACTLY what had happened in that 90-second encounter. I heard conservatives who were positive Brown was an unredeemable thug who went for Wilson's gun, and Wilson acted purely out of justifiable self-defense. Then I heard liberals who were equally sure that Wilson is a murderous racist who gunned Brown down in cold blood. These armchair verdicts emerged before almost any real information had come out. People heard one version or the other, found that it matched their worldview, and believed it.

The problem is, as I mentioned, reality doesn't have to conform with our worldviews. It's bigger, messier, and more REAL than our puny little preconceptions of it. I've read through some of the conflicting testimonies, and the most honest thing I can say is that I don't know what happened. I'm not sure anybody does, except Darren Wilson and some eyewitnesses, and any psychologist can tell you that their memories will be faulty, too. We live in a world where--despite what conservatives want to admit--a cop might be a murderous thug in a racist department, capable of shooting someone in cold blood. There are cops and departments like that out there. I've met some very good cops and some very nasty ones, and I'm a clean-cut white guy who isn't likely to see the worst nastiness. The people of Ferguson probably have, and if I grew up black there I'm guessing I would take it for granted that racist, killer cops are out there.

On the other hand, we also live in a world where--despite what liberals want to admit--a young black man might have been in a violent frame of mind and gone for a cop's gun after robbing a store. There are young men who do that kind of thing. Some of them are black and some of them are white. Whether the store video should have been released or not, it's out there, and it suggests pretty strongly that Michael Brown was not in a benign frame of mind.

Does that mean he deserved to die? No. Does it means Wilson shot Brown in justifiable self-defense? I don't know. I tend to to doubt it, but I wasn't there, and I honestly don't know what I might have done in Wilson's place--I've been surprised at myself before, and in much less intense situations. Most of the people pronouncing their verdicts on this weren't there either. I dare say they don't know what they would do in the same position either. So why do people think they know what happened? Why are people acting as though facts will obediently bend themselves to their ideology--whatever that ideology is? They won't. Facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. Whatever your ideology, even if it's well-aligned with the real world, things will happen that run counter to it. Reality trumps ideology, and it doesn't always do what we want or expect it to do. If we want to learn what's actually true, instead of what we want to be true, then it's vital that we remember that. After all, what good is an ideology that blinds us to the real world?


* Please believe me when I say I only want to focus on this one topic--people acting as though their ideology can dictate reality. I'm not defending or denouncing Wilson, Brown, the Ferguson Police Department, or the rioters. I'm not saying whether Wilson should have been indicted, or making any other points beside the ideology thing. I have opinions on those things, but expressing them would be a distraction from my point here. My opinions aren't important anyway.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Every Jot and Tittle: Nobody Obeys Everything in the Bible, and that's a Good Thing

I'm going to try to make this a short one, because it's a sunny day in Colorado, and I want to get into the mountains, and nobody wants to read long blog posts anyway. So here's today's topic: people who claim they follow everything in the Bible without picking and choosing. I hear people say this all the time, and it is clearly, obviously, and abundantly false. Everybody picks and chooses, and as I'll argue here, that's a very good thing. It's not that people who say this are consciously lying--I don't think they are. They just seem to be ignoring vast swaths of the Bible that they no longer follow.

Folks who claim not to pick and choose often quote the King James translation of Jesus in Matthew 5:18: "For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." Now, I find the words "jot" and "tittle" rather pleasing, and I wouldn't mind seeing them brought back into use. But I would hate to see people really follow every jot and tittle, and I'm glad they don't, whether they say they do or not.

First, very few Christians really follow all the dietary and ritual laws in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc. (very few Jews do either, except the ultra-orthodox.) Most Christians I know happily eat shrimp and pork, trim the hair on the sides of their heads, wear mixed fabrics, and generally violate Torah in a hundred different ways. That's fine--I don't expect Christians to start living like Orthodox Jews. But I do expect them not to say they follow rules when they clearly don't. Is that really too much to ask?

Of course, not all Christians claim to follow every rule in the Bible, and there's a long history of debate within Christianity about the extent to which Christians should follow Old Testament Jewish law. This goes all the way back to the beginning, to arguments between Paul and the more orthodox former associates of Jesus. It even goes back to the words of Jesus himself. While Jesus did say that not one jot or tittle would be changed, he also cast doubt on whether dietary laws should be followed, when he said in Matthew 15.11, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them." The tension between this verse and the "jot and tittle" verse has, understandably, led to a lot of tension within Christianity over the centuries.

It seems that many conservative Christians today still haven't decided for sure where they stand on the issue. Whenever I hear someone quoting Leviticus to denounce homosexuality, I ask them why the hair on the side of their head is trimmed, and whether they eat shrimp. Then, generally, they'll say that's part of the Old Covenant, and Christians follow the New Covenant. To which I reply, "Fine, but stop quoting Leviticus if you no longer follow it. And stop saying you don't pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow. Because you do."

Another episode in the New Testament that suggests Jesus was more a "spirit of the law" than "letter of the law" kind of guy is the beautiful story of the woman caught in adultery (though the story isn't actually in the oldest manuscripts, and may have been written long after Jesus' death). The Mosaic law in this case was clear--she was to be put to death (actually, so was the guy she slept with, but for some reason, he doesn't appear.) The Jewish authorities tried to trap Jesus by asking him what should be done, but he outsmarted them. He didn't contradict the law, as they hoped. He just said that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. After a while, the crowd dispersed and the woman lived.

You don't have to be a Christian to be appreciate the wisdom and mercy shown here (wherever the story really comes from). Thankfully, the story helped form a basis for Christians to move away from the brutality of the Old Testament laws (Jews also moved away from the harsher laws, of course). But here again, the fact is that Christians have stopped doing some of the things the Bible clearly prescribes. Even Jesus, if the story in John really happened, was picking and choosing--choosing not to see the law carried out. He was choosing mercy over the law.

Anybody today who really did stone adulterers* and disobedient children, kill homosexuals, burn promiscuous preacher's daughters, or slay entire villages of unbelievers--men, women, children, and livestock--would justly be regarded as a psychopathic barbarian and locked up. Sadly, there are people in the world who do put similarly harsh and archaic laws into practice; people like ISIS and the Taliban. They really do beat people to death with rocks for suspected adultery and for not believing what they believe. And they are rightly denounced around the world as atavistic barbarians.

So, if today's Christians really did follow every jot and tittle of the Old Testament law, they would eat and dress like Orthodox Jews, but carry out violent death sentences reminiscent of ISIS. They don't. In the case of the violent punishments, that's a very good thing. In either case, it's simply false to claim they follow everything in the Bible without picking and choosing. They DO pick and choose, and that is ALSO a good thing, because lots of what's in the Bible was written by people who lived in a violent, superstitious time; a time when people thought the sky was a solid dome and demons caused disease. Let's finally go ahead and face it--some of what the Bible prescribes (especially the Old Testament) is simply archaic barbarism. It's not a matter of how it should be interpreted; it's just wrong, plain and simple. Modern, decent Christians do pick and choose, and they choose not to follow the old, violent laws. That's a wonderful thing, and it shows that this rough old world actually has grown a little more humane, at least in some places.


* Actually, the verse in Deuteronomy classifies female rape victims in the city as adulterers. Also barbaric.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What Accent Snobs Don't Git

I have a nephew and a father named Ben. But that's not what I call either of them. I'm from Arkansas, so I say "Bin". Once my sister-in-law (nephew Ben's mom), said, "You know, his name's "Ben", not "Bin." I told her it couldn't be helped--I simply can't make myself say it that way, because it feels weird and phony when I do. Besides, I like my accent. It marks me as being from somewhere that's a little different. I don't sound like I'm from Anywheresville, USA.

Of course, there are people who hear me say things like "Git Bin an ink pin" and conclude that it means I'm dumb, or that I'm speaking a sort of degraded, simplified version of English. That's OK, because the joke's on them, not me. I know of two Rhodes Scholars (Bill Clinton being one) who talk a lot like I do, so it's clearly a mistake to conclude that anybody who speaks this way is dumb. As for the "degraded English" notion, that idea in itself is what's dumb. It shows an ignorance about how languages change and evolve. They do change, of course, but as they get simpler in some ways, they get more complex in others.

Take the way I say "Ben", "pen", and "them." Anybody who speaks this way is unconsciously applying an extremely complicated grammatical rule. I first realized this when I thought, "If I say 'Ben' like 'Bin', and 'ten' like 'tin', why don't I say 'peg' like 'pig, or 'let' like 'lit'? When I looked up the answer, I was amazed at the complexity of the rule I had been applying without knowing it. Linguists call this way of talking the "Pin-Pen Merger". It shows up in most parts of the south and in the area around Bakersfield, California, which was settled in large part by hillbillies like me. The reason somebody who asks for an ink "pin" doesn't also say "lit the dog out" is that the "e" sound only becomes an "i" in words that end in a "nasal stop", like an "m" or "n".* Try saying "Ben" and then "sit", and pay attention to what's going on in your mouth (seriously, try this--it's kind of amazing). When you say the "n" in Ben, your soft palate connects with your tongue, forcing air through your nose. Your nasal cavity resonates, giving the "n" part of its distinctive sound. When you say "sit", your soft palate never descends, and your nose doesn't resonate.

Of course, before I read all this I had no idea what a nasal stop was, or that my nose resonated like an elephant seal's. Yet I still apply this complicated linguistic rule without even knowing it, and so does the most backwoods hillbilly. We may be speaking a socially-maligned form of English, but we aren't speaking a simplified form. Yes, we've ditched the distinction between the sounds in "pin" and "pen", but we've added a complex (albeit unconscious) rule about when to do so.

That "dumb" version of English turns out to have pretty sophisticated rules. I git a pretty big kick out of that.


Actually, as I wrote this, I realized I do say "get" as "git", and that word doesn't end with a nasal stop. So the rules are actually even more complicated that I'm discussing here, but I don't know what the extra rules are (even though I "know" how to use them--the human mind is weird, isn't it?) Wonder if the linguists have worked out that one, too?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fellow Liberals: Please Ditch the Hippie-Dippie Pseudoscience

(Click for credits)
We liberals* like to think of ourselves as the pro-science side of the political spectrum. And we aren't totally wrong about that. After all, we don't scoff at the vast majority of climate scientists; telling them they're making it all up and we know better. We don't push to have creationism taught in public schools. We don't have bumper stickers that say, "The Big Bang Theory: God Said It, and BANG! It Happened." We don't build creation museums with taxpayer money, we don't say "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and we never say women were created from man's rib. We also don't have blind faith in the power of free markets to cure all societal ills.

But if we think we're immune to woolly, pseudoscientific thinking, we're fooling ourselves. How often do you see a liberal friend shaking their head at creationism, and then going off to check their horoscope? How often do you see liberals buying dubious alternative treatments, taking part in trendy "cleanses", or even talking about the magic powers of crystals and auras? Do you know liberal antivaxxers? Liberals with starry-eyed views of nature as a benevolent mother goddess, despite the fact that nature made arsenic, liver flukes, and polio? I know people who do all these things, and I really, really wish they would stop.

Why? First, as liberals, it absolutely kills our credibility. If you're scoffing at people who say the earth is 6,000 years old, and then turning around and fretting about Mercury being in retrograde, then you're throwing stones from a glass house. Conservatives think of liberals as soft-headed, and this gives them all the ammunition they could ask for. We might as well gift wrap it and say, "Merry Christmas!"

Second--and I know this is controversial--what's actually true really matters. Despite what the postmoderny types say (and don't get me started on them), there is a real world, and it's important that we try to match our beliefs to it as closely as possible. That's a very hard thing to do, because the human mind is incredibly error-prone. We sense only tiny slivers of the vast universe around us, and we tend to see patterns that aren't there. The list of logical fallacies and psychological biases we're prone to would take up many pages. Science and logic help us defeat these tendencies. They give us a way to test our biases and preconceptions, to see if they hold up. Oftentimes, they don't. The earth turned out not to be flat, or at the center of the universe. Ancient myths of human origins turned out to be wrong. The constellations turned out to be random patterns among stars that only seem connected when viewed from earth. And the stars turned out to be so far away that their light can take many human lifetimes to reach us. And that's all OK, because the universe turned out to be grander and more surprising than we ever imagined.

However, science has never given us any reason to think the universe is about us. All these eons and light years probably weren't put in place for a bunch of egotistical apes on one tiny planet among trillions. That's what most subscribers to pseudoscience--creationism as well as astrology--can't seem to accept.

Lots of my fellow liberals disagree with me when I say it's bad to believe things that aren't true, or for which you have no evidence. "What's the harm?" they ask. It's a good question, and here's my answer: What was the harm when the Book of Genesis led generations of people to believe that women were created from men to be a "helper", and were responsible for original sin and the fall from grace? Did any bad things happen because of that false belief? If you tour the bathhouses in Hot Springs, Arkansas, you can see tubs where sick people were once immersed in mercury. They thought it was good for them. Did that belief do any harm? What's the harm when people refuse to vaccinate their children, and diseases like mumps and whooping cough threaten to make a comeback? Did it do any harm that people in this country once believed blacks were an inferior race, and best suited to slavery?

Beliefs matter, because people act on them. False beliefs have probably caused as much suffering as any force on earth. When it comes to senseless destruction, earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease have nothing on human delusion.

"But astrology/past lives/crystals/homepathy aren't like racism and sexism," people will say. "They aren't that harmful." Well, maybe, and maybe not. If someone dies because they try to treat cancer with homeopathic remedies, where the active ingredient has been diluted into non-existence, that is, in fact, harmful. And consider astrology; probably the most common pseudoscience among liberals. What if some powerful person makes bad decisions based on horoscopes that have no basis in fact? Nancy Reagan used to consult horoscopes all the time. What if Ronnie had gotten into it too (maybe he did, for all I know), and made bad decisions about nuclear strikes after consulting an astrologer? I think it's safe to say the results could have been rather harmful.

Of course, Reagan wasn't a liberal (he also believed in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, apparently) but my point is that liberals can't exactly claim the high ground when it comes to science and critical thinking if they're subscribing to pseudoscience themselves. Many conservatives also get into pseudoscience, but things like astrology and other New Age ideas are much more common among liberals. And that really needs to stop. It's embarrassing. We liberals pride ourselves on having soft hearts, and that's a good thing. But having a soft heart doesn't mean you have to have a soft head, too.


I actually don't like calling myself a liberal, because I don't want to lock myself into one way of thinking. I'm not a doctrinaire liberal, but I'm a whole lot more of a liberal than a conservative.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How they Talk in Houma: A Hillbilly's Observations

I've spent most of my life in places where people talk funny. And I like it that way, because I talk funny myself. I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, which is why I sound like Bill Clinton or Billy Bob Thornton. After high school, I went on an unplanned tour of interesting North American accents. I spent a year in New Orleans, which is the only place in the south with an accent that could be mistaken for Brooklyn's. Later I spent two years in Newfoundland, where people sound like Popeye...if Popeye were Irish. For the last four years I've lived in Cajun country in Houma, Louisiana. Now I'm about to move to Colorado, which, for all it's natural beauty, is sadly lacking in non-standard dialects. They sound like newscasters out there, and the only linguistic spice is the occasional "y'all".

I always wished I had written down some of my favorite dialectical quirks from Newfoundland, because now I've forgotten most of them. I don't want to make the same mistake again, so before I leave I want to write about how people here talk.

But don't get me wrong. The last thing I'm trying to do is make fun of anybody. Nobody from Clinton, Arkansas, who occasionally says "dadgum" and "cain't" without a trace of irony, can afford to make fun of anybody else's dialect. Unless they make fun of mine first, and then it's on (I'm looking at you, Chicago and Boston.)

I love dialects, and it would be a dreary old world if everybody in it talked like Peter Jennings. Besides, while many educated people think regional dialects are a sort of degraded version of the language...they're wrong. Professional linguists will tell you that the "proper" form of a language is just as arbitrary as any of its dialects. The standardized version is useful and good to learn, but it's not the "real" version, any more than a Red Delicious is the "real" version of an apple. Every dialect has its own grammatical rules, and they're just as complex as the standard version. That means people who think of regional dialects as ignorant, degraded forms of the language are actually displaying their own ignorance about how language works. As someone who grew up speaking a widely-disparaged form of English, that strikes me as the sweetest of ironies.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, how do people in Houma talk? You might think they would have a stereotypical Cajun accent where dey talk like dis, but most of them don't. You mostly hear that "flat" accent "way down da bayuh"; not here in town. Houma's accent is actually tough to describe. To my foreign ears, it sounds sort of like a cross between the Cajun accent and the New Orleans "Brooklyn" accent known as "Yat". For example, people here pronounce words like "water" as "watuh". Not "watah", as Scarlett O'Hara might say, but "watuh", as someone in pre-hipster Brooklyn might say. There are also some distinctive pronunciations. "Crawfish boil" becomes "crawfish ball". Mayonnaise is "mannazz". "Room" is "rum".

As in New Orleans, "y'all" works differently in Houma than the rest of the south. For example, one of my coworkers just asked me, "What's y'all password for this computer?" Being from Arkansas, I know that should be "What's y'all's password?" But she won't listen to me. At least people here know there's no such thing as a singular y'all. Only a Yankee would call one person "y'all." In the southern dialect, that's just bad grammar.

Another word with different rules in Houma is "fuss". In Arkansas, if you do something stupid you get fussed AT, but here you just get fussed. It's a much more focused fussing.

The dialect in Louisiana can change from one town or bayou to the next. In Thibodaux, just 20 miles north of here, if someone is embarrassed they're "haunt." But they only seem to get haunt in Thibodaux. People in Houma just seem to get embarrassed (though not very often.) Cajun French changes over short distances, too. I can't speak French, but I know that a werewolf is a loup garou in some parts of Louisiana, but a rougarou in Houma. They even have a Rougarou Festival here. You should go sometime; it's fun.

There are a few other Cajun French words still floating around. Stinkbugs are "peunez". The pretty yellow flowers that blanket the fields here in spring are called "Pis au lit", which can be politely translated as "wet the bed." Apparently that's what you will do if you eat them. When people see babies and puppies here, they squeal, "Ah, cher!" But it's pronounced "shah", and lots of people even spell it that way. Another quirk you can see even in writing is that people leave off the "ed" in words like "canned" and "boiled". That's why the grocery store down the street has a "Can Soup" aisle, and you can buy "Boil Shrimp" all over town.

Finally, some phrases in Houma have a unique syntax. People here don't say, "I've known him for years" but "I been knowing him for years." They don't say, "We went to eat", but simply,"We went eat." When I walk my dog most places, people say, "What kind of dog is that." Here it's "What kind of dog that is?" It's not "When did you go to Baton Rouge?" but "When you went to Baton Rouge?"

People in Louisiana are know for being easy-going and fun-loving, and for good reason. In my four years here, I'm not sure I've ever met an uptight Cajun. It's a cliche to say the culture and language here is as flavorful as the food, but that's because it's true. It's a flavor I'm going to miss.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Epidemiology of Attitude

A while back, a woman stomped up to the reference desk at the library where I work and confronted me. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on her, but she was mad at me because she was trying to do something on one of our public computers, and it wasn't working. Which meant, as it usually does, that she didn't know what she was doing.

I helped her out, and I was civil, but I can't say I was radiating friendliness. But I had been with the previous patron. She came to the desk with an almost identical problem, but she was smiling and pleasant instead of rude and accusing. Noticing how differently I responded to each patron got me thinking. If each of them were showing me their typical way of dealing with others, then the rude one must experience a totally different world than the friendly one does; a world she creates herself.

Her sour way of dealing with people surely creates a bubble of sourness that surrounds her everywhere she goes. People see the look on her face, and give her the same look back. She goes around creating a world that's less friendly to her than it would otherwise be, and she probably never realizes she's the one doing it. I imagine she figures most people are basically nasty, so she may as well be nasty back. So they're nasty back, and so it goes, back and forth, in a self-perpetuating cycle.

And it doesn't just affect her. Obviously, it makes things unpleasant for those she meets, but it goes beyond that. The people who meet her are likely to catch her ill temper for a while and pass it on. That's what I did after meeting her--I snapped at a co-worker for something I would have normally let go. Not only does nastiness reflect back it at people who exude it, but it also spreads outward, jumping from person to person like a disease. Nastiness is contagious.

Luckily, so is niceness. The nice woman I dealt with probably goes around seeing smiles reflected back at her, and sees the world as a friendlier place. That's likely true on a purely psychological level, but it's also true in the real, physical world--she doesn't just see people as friendlier; she actually makes them friendlier. She could meet the same sequence of people in the course of her day as the rude woman, but they would treat her far better, because she treated them better first. Being likable pays huge dividends. It's strange that more people don't realize this. I forget it myself sometimes.

The people the friendly woman meets will likely turn around and treat other people a little better. Friendly people go around spreading friendliness, and rude people go around spreading rudeness. I suspect each attitude can behave like an epidemic--infecting whole towns or workplaces with either self-perpetuating friendliness or self-perpetuating rudeness. I think superstition and reason might also be contagious in similar ways (guess which one is more virulent), but that's a topic for another day.

Just a couple days after I met the nice woman and the rude woman, my friend Chastity shared a Japanese folktale that captured my thoughts about them. In the story, a man sees a dog walk into a large room, and then walk back out wagging his tail happily. But then another dog walks in and comes out growling and bristling. Curious, the man goes to look in the room, and finds that it's full of mirrors. Each dog had gone in, seen his reflection all around the room, and responded in kind.

I like little fables like this one, which is called The House of 1,000 Mirrors. Two of my other favorites are The Blind Men and the Elephant, and The Emperor's New Clothes. These simple little tales reveal deep truths, and that's why they're so powerful.

Unfortunately, I suspect some people will see The House of 1,000 Mirrors--and perhaps this whole blog post--as too cutesy and trite. That might even be my reaction if you caught me in the right kind of mood. The story doesn't have enough bite and irony, or it sounds too moralistic, for today's zeitgeist. But the thing is, while it may be a little cutesy, it's actually not trite at all. It contains real wisdom about the real world. If you want people to be nice to you (and nice in general) you have to be nice yourself. If you're rude, the world will be that much ruder, particularly to you. You'll create a rude reality for yourself that follows you everywhere you go. The world you see is to a great extent a reflection of your own attitude.

Maybe the reason earnest little stories like this are unpopular today is that people have learned the lesson about the Emperor's New Clothes a little too well. There's so much insincerity, pretense, vapid commercial optimism, and true triteness in this world--so many naked emperors--that people have started acting like there are nothing but naked emperors out there. In a world so full of people trying to get you to take silly things seriously, it's no wonder people have such a cynical, ironic stance toward everything. It's a defense mechanism. But it can and has been taken too far. The lesson of the Emperor's New Clothes is an essential one, but so is the lesson of the House of 1,000 Mirrors. Maybe the trick is remembering them both at the same time?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Faith of the Founders: Why it's a Moot Point

One of the great national pastimes in the culture wars of the last few decades is arguing about the religious beliefs of the founders. Religious right types, who don't believe in separation of church and state, pore over the founders' writings looking for expressions of religious sentiment. And they find them, because many of the founders, such as Sam Adams and Roger Sherman, were devout Christians. Secularists pore over the founders' writings looking for criticism of religion, particularly Christianity. And they find them, because many other founders--including towering figures like Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison--were free-thinking sorts enamored with Enlightenment-era ideas. They weren't atheists, and most weren't exactly Deists, as people often claim, but they certainly weren't orthodox Christians.

But here's the thing: if what's at issue is the separation of church and state, the founders' religious beliefs are mostly beside the point. If we're trying to figure out the original intent of the First Amendment*, what matters isn't whether they were religious or not, but whether they believed in separating religion and government. Which most of them did, whether they were orthodox Christians or not.

These days, it's easy to get the idea that church/state separation is a secularist idea, because many of its most vocal advocates today are secular. People think that if you're a conservative Christian, you must oppose separation. But that's not always true, and it certainly wasn't true in the early history of our country. You can be a Christian and still support separation of church and state. In fact, Christians are the ones who first fought for it.

In the colonial era, many of the the states had established churches, and actively persecuted dissenting sects. Quakers were hanged in Puritan New England. Baptists were jailed in Anglican Virginia. Anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread, to the extent that George Washington had to forbid his troops from burning effigies of the Pope.

Not surprisingly, then, it was minority Christian groups who first wanted the state to stay away from promoting religion--because they knew the official religion would likely persecute them. In Virginia, Baptists teamed up with the Enlightenment rationalists Madison and Jefferson to push the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which would influence the drafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution, as well as the No Religious Test Clause ("no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States").

When Jefferson first used his famous and controversial phrase "wall of separation between church and state", he was writing to his allies: Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. Not only that, but he was echoing words written over 150 years earlier by the religious dissenter Roger Williams, who had founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom. Williams--no stranger to state-sponsored religious persecution himself--had written in 1644 about the dangers of gaps in the "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."

So, while it's an interesting exercise to try to figure out the divergent and complex religious views of the various founders, it's beside the point when it comes to church/state arguments. Then, as now, many of the biggest supporters of separation were devout Christians, who agreed with James Madison when he said:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects?
Who does not see this? Sadly, a whole bunch of people these days, especially among evangelical Christians. Perhaps they should take a look back at their history; back to the days when they were the ones being officially persecuted, and could still see the wisdom of that wall of separation.


* There are, of course, problems with relying on original intent in interpreting the Constitution. First, there never was one single original intent. The framers and ratifiers didn't all agree on what it meant, or what it should mean. Second, there are good reasons to be cautious about binding ourselves to the views of people who lived 200 years ago. It won't do to disregard their intentions in writing the Constitution, but at the same time, we've moved on from their views on race, sex roles, and many other things, and it's a jolly good thing we have.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Cult of Reason: A Cautionary Tale

"From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step." - Denis Diderot

Last week, decent people around the world were horrified by the videotaped beheading of the American journalist James Foley, at the hands of the fanatical and barbaric organization known as ISIS, or the Islamic State. Though most religious people were just as shocked as anyone else, at times like this many secular types are tempted to dismiss all religion as irretrievably superstitious and violent. For example, it was the September 11 terrorist attacks that led to the rise of the outspoken anti-religious movement known as New Atheism. As one of the movement's apostles, Richard Dawkins, said:
“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that.”
I'm not an atheist, and I know its unfair to paint all religion with the same brush this way, but I admit I can understand the sentiment. There are few things more infuriating to me than seeing violence done in the name of unproven religious dogmas, and Islam is not the only guilty party. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless pogroms against Jews were perpetrated by Christians, while Judaism has committed its own atrocities, beginning with the ones matter-of-factly chronicled in the Old Testament. Hinduism spawned the murderous Thuggee cult, and it was a Hindu extremist who killed Gandhi. Even Buddhists--usually given a pass by western atheists--have had their violent movements.

So, there's no doubt that religion can drive atrocities--history is replete with examples. But secularists like me should be careful about generalizing from those examples, and concluding that all religion is bad, or even that all ISIS-style horrors are religiously-motivated. That's because a closer look at history shows that some really awful deeds have been done in the name of reason. 

Consider the French Revolution. Like the American Revolution a few years earlier, the French Revolution began as an attempt to create a new kind of society based on Enlightenment principles like liberty, reason, and government by the people. But in France, things spiraled out of control, and those Enlightenment principles turned into murderous caricatures of themselves. Before it was all over, the leaders of the revolution there had pretty much flipped their powdered wigs.

The revolutionaries saw--correctly--that the Church and the nobility were both corrupt and oppressive; partners in maintaining the old social order. The Church was also incredibly rich, and the revolutionaries soon began annexing its lands and money. As revolutionary fervor increasingly turned against all things considered anti-revolutionary, a campaign of "de-Christianization" was launched across France. Crosses and other religious icons were removed from churches and cemeteries. Towns and streets named for saints were renamed. Priests were required to swear an oath to the principles of the revolution, and many of those who refused were executed. Other priests were defrocked, and even forced to marry. The Christian calendar was replaced, as part of the same reforms that introduced the metric system. Months were given new names, and weeks were ten days long. Sunday was abolished. 

Revolutionary-era inscription on a church in France (click for credits)
On November 10, 1793 (20 Brumaire, Year II, according to the French Revolutionary Calendar) a great Festival of Reason was held across France. Churches across the country were re-christened (or rather, de-christened) as Temples of Reason. At Notre Dame cathedral, the altar was demolished, and an alter to Liberty--represented as a "Goddess of Reason" was put in its place.

The Festival of Reason wasn't an official observance by the revolutionary government, which was by then under the firm control of the increasingly paranoid and murderous Robespierre. It was part of an even more radical atheist movement, led by people who had overseen massacres of priests, nuns, and other "enemies of the revolution". Robespierre himself was more of a Deist, and a rather puritanical one. He didn't approve of the atheists, and before long he had them sent to the guillotine--the National Razor, it was called. But Robespierre liked the idea of a revolutionary religion, so he dreamed up his own, which he called The Cult of the Supreme Being. Its principles included a belief in a supreme deity, the immortality of the soul, and the cultivation of a fanatical sort of "civic virtue", enforced if necessary by terror and the National Razor. 

On 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794), Robespierre oversaw the Festival of the Supreme Being, a grand affair meant to inaugurate his new national religion. When he appeared at the top of an artificial mountain created for the occasion and began leading new religious ceremonies as a sort of self-proclaimed prophet of the gods of reason, that's when many of his followers realized he had gone full-on bonkers. A few weeks later, he too lost his head to the National Razor, and the Reign of Terror he had presided over was done. Less radical forces came to power, while a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte began his rise.

The French Revolution showed that religion has no monopoly on the kind of atrocities that can arise from fanaticism. Atheists declaring their allegiance to reason and liberty can commit them too. In the twentieth century, of course, radical Marxist atheists like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot would preside over some of the worst horrors the world has ever seen. Anyone proclaiming atheism as a cure for ideological violence needs to pick up some history books.

Of course, one could argue that the Cult of Reason and Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being (as well as the fanatical and dogmatic Marxism of Stalin and Mao) actually were religions, even if they didn't see themselves that way. That may be, but it's probably beside the point. What matters is that it's not religion per se that causes atrocities so much as fanaticism and unquestioning devotion to an ideology. Some movements that fit that description are unquestionably religious, but others are atheistic and may even proclaim themselves anti-religious. We could debate whether or not they are religious, but it's clear that they are fanatical and dogmatic.

It's amazing to me that the leaders of the so-called Cult of Reason couldn't see the irony--the sheer absurdity--of the name of their movement. You can't have a cult of reason. If its a cult, it's not reasonable, and if it's reasonable, it's not a cult. Of course, the word "cult" didn't have the same sinister connotations in French as it does in English, but the point is that reason isn't something you can turn into a dogma, because as soon as you do, you can know longer honestly call it reason. True reason is an open-minded search for the truth. If you already knew the truth, you wouldn't need to reason. The whole point of reasoning is to arrive at truths you didn't know when you started. . 

Real reason entails a degree of intellectual humility, and that's why it's antithetical to fanaticism and dogma. The fanatics of the French Revolution liked to talk about reason and liberty, but it was just talk--it wasn't real reason, or real liberty. Just as you can't promote liberty by forcing people to think a certain way, you can't promote reason by being dogmatic. A real commitment to Enlightenment principles like liberty and reason requires a degree of tolerance for other lifestyles and points of view, because it may be that our own will turn out not to be that reasonable. 

That's what members of every fanatical ideology seem to miss. Again and again, they justify their actions by saying it's for the greater good; that the brave new world they are bringing into being will make all the bloodshed worthwhile. As Stephen Pinker puts it:
with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.
Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.
It also shows that the ideologues are entirely too sure of themselves. What makes them so certain they are right, and things will turn out the way they think? In order to be reasonable, you have to remember that you might be wrong. To kill in the name of ideology is to show a level of confidence in human understanding that no human should have. Whether our cause is religious or secular, none of us are smart enough to be that sure of ourselves. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

What the Apes are Thinking

Sometimes I go to the zoo, and look at the orangutans and gorillas. And they look back at me and all the other humans. 

Somebody's always saying, "Look at that big ass monkey!" A kid will be hooting and making faces, while his dad says, "They say we came from those things? No way."

But the apes take it all in stride. They just gaze back at us and look thoughtful. 

Or maybe wistful, or bemused.  

Contemplative. That's the word.

I've always wondered what they were thinking. What questions are they pondering? 

Lately, though, I've been reading the news, and thinking about history, and hearing about Kardashians and Limbaughs and such. And now, when the apes look at me and my kind, I think I know what they're thinking:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


THEY are really the problem, aren't THEY? People around the world agree on that. They just don't agree about who THEY are. Some point to the police and say, "THEY are all a bunch of racist thugs on a powertrip." Others point to the poor, and say "THEY just want to lay around and take handouts." Right now there are people looking at Ferguson, Missouri, pointing to African-Americans who live there, and saying, "THEY just need to settle down and stop tearing up their own community." Over in the Middle East, there are Jews looking at Arabs and saying, "THEY are a bunch of terrorists who want to wipe Israel off the map." And there are Arabs looking at Jews and saying, "THEY are Zionist extremists who won't stop until the Palestinians are dead or driven away." Whoever THEY are, THEY are to blame for most of the society's ills. WE certainly aren't.

The problem is, THEY is just a word, and an inadequate one--even a deceiving one. "THEY" takes a whole group of individuals, each one different, and tries to fit them all under an umbrella that can never cover fully cover them. When people rant about THEY, they seem to see THEM as a sort of faceless, homogeneous mass. But that's a cartoon view of reality, and an ugly one at that. THEY aren't like that. Some of THEM, are, sure. Some cops, for example, are racist thugs on a powertrip. And many of them aren't. Some of them are good, brave people doing their best in a hard job. I've known both kinds.

Same goes for all the other THEYS. Take the African-American community in Ferguson. To hear some people tell it, you would think THEY could do no wrong. To hear others tell it, THEY have only themselves to blame. Both views are ridiculous, because there is no THEY. There are just many different individuals, with many different points of view, acting many different ways. Some of them, obviously, are looters and rioters (though many of those are from outside the area). But some--I would say most--are horrified and embarrassed by the looters and violence. I would think most of them are angry and feel like they have every right to protest (and I think they're probably right) but they're horrified and embarrassed by the violence and looting. Many of them are calling for calm and peace, and some of them have even taken to guarding stores from looters. As in any group of people in a volatile situation, there are all kinds of reactions. Cooler heads are trying to keep the peace, but there are always a few hotheads (usually young men after a few drinks) who they may not be able to control. It's always been like this, in every community under pressure and composed of...well... human beings. And the rest of the community sees the violence break out and thinks, "People are going to blame us all for that. They're going to think we're all that way."

And they're right. People will do just that, saying, "See, just look at how THEY act." Whether THEY are poor, or rich, or black or white, or Arab or Jew or Christian or atheist, or liberal or conservative, or police or protesters; people will look at the worst elements and say, "Yep, that's how THEY are." And people need to stop doing that, because it's just stupid. It's a simplistic and jaundiced way of looking at other people, and it's done untold harm in the world--maybe as much harm as those few hotheads and thugs that cause most of the violence. After all, they're are thinking that way too. And if the hotheads are the spark, the widespread THEY attitude is the fuel. And that fuel is inside all of us, if WE let ourselves slip into lazy, cartoonish, cynical habits of thought, and start thinking THEY are all alike.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Tolerance and Other Paradoxes

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. - Karl Popper
Reading the news the last few weeks has me thinking about tolerance. In a previous post, I wrote about how I had come to see the wisdom in my dad's contention that before people try to "love they neighbor" they should try to master "tolerate thy neighbor". It's simply a more attainable goal, and a glance at the news on any random day will tell you we haven't even gotten there yet. Walk before you run, and all that.

Of course, "first tolerate, then try to work your way up to love", isn't as simple and self-contained as it sounds. It can only go so far, because not everything should be tolerated. Some religions say we should feel compassion and even love for thieves, liars, and murderers, but they don't generally argue that we should tolerate what they do, and for good reason. You can't have a workable society which looks at a murderer and says, "Oh, that's just Joe. Sure, he stabs somebody every now and then, but that's just his personality, you know?"

So, if tolerance is going to be more than just a bumper sticker, we need to really think about its limits. Like most good things, it's only good in moderation. In fact, tolerance has the strange feature of being self-destructive when taken to an extreme. Take religious tolerance--many religious groups are intolerant of people who don't share their religion. Just yesterday, the Sunni extremist group ISIS killed dozens of people of the Yazidi faith after they refused to convert to Islam. Should ISIS' intolerance be tolerated? Surely not. If you tolerate active, violent intolerance, aren't you just promoting intolerance with your tolerance?

Tolerance, like the related concept of ethical/cultural relativism, self-destructs when taken too far. There may be a few college freshmen clinging to relativism hard enough to say we can't judge ISIS because what they're doing is right in the context of their culture. But what about the Yazidi culture, or the culture of the Chaldean Christians who are also in danger? Relativism and tolerance both have limits, and for similar reasons.

Tolerance, it seems, is a bit like oxygen. You have to have it, but only at appropriate levels. Raise the concentration too high, and things start to explode.

So how do you figure out what the appropriate level is? That's the hard part. Some people think the appropriate level is close to zero. This was the view in the Christian world for hundreds of years. Heretics were seen as endangering not just their own soul, but the souls of others, so killing and torturing them was considered the lesser evil. Tolerating them would have seemed like madness. After the Protestant revolution, people slowly began to realize that the religious diversity was here to stay, and started trying to figure out ways to live with it. People like Locke argued that it was useless to try to force belief on people anyway, because you can't. All you can do is make them say they believe a certain way. You've forced them to lie, and put yourself in a position of not knowing what they're thinking. This is a lesson the extreme PC crowd could still stand to learn: all you do when you suppress ideas is drive them underground, where you can't see what they're up to. This sets the stage for some nasty surprises in the future.

Later thinkers, notably John Stuart Mill, tried to find the appropriate line between freedom and tolerance on the one hand, and restriction and suppression on the other., with the Harm Principle. Mill, in an uncharacteristic burst of brevity, summed up this principle nicely: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Put in the language of tolerance, this means society should tolerate individual actions up to the point where they interfere with the freedom of others. We can't tolerate active intolerance. If someone wants to say, "Eggplants have souls and it's wrong to eat them!", that should be tolerated. If he starts yanking people's eggplant parmesan off their tables, that should not be tolerated. As the old saying goes, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."

The harm principle is wonderfully simple, and I find it pretty appealing. But it's not without problems, because the line between fists and noses can be surprisingly fuzzy. If a man develops a gambling problem, and his kids suffer because of it, his actions aren't just affecting him. If I decide to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, I can't honestly say that only affects me. I'm raising my chances of dying in an accident, and if that happened, it would affect my friends and family as well. Mill would probably say, "Yes, but that doesn't mean the law should get involved." Maybe that's true, but what if I wrecked and had massive head injuries, and couldn't pay the medical bills? Should society help me pay them? Some libertarians would say, "No way. You made your decision (as was your right), and you don't deserve to be helped."

But others don't want to live in a society where those who make stupid decisions are simply allowed to die. Who hasn't made a stupid decision, at least as a teenager? They would argue that it would be better to just require people to wear helmets and get medical insurance, because their decisions don't just effect them. So, the harm principle doesn't simplify everything as much as it first seems to. Even the phrase about your fist and my nose originated among temperance advocates arguing that alcohol should be regulated or outlawed, because drunkenness doesn't usually affect only the drunk. They thought alcohol was hitting too many innocent bystanders in the nose.

Still, I think the harm principle is a useful rule of thumb, and I tend to think we should err on the side of freedom, at least when it comes to individual actions. But I also want to suggest another rule of thumb. Let's call it the evidence principle. If I want to force another person to speak or act in a certain way (you can't really force people to think a certain way) then I should be able to provide real, empirical evidence to show that their actions are harmful to others. And appealing to tradition or scripture isn't good enough. Maybe the tradition or scripture is a good one, but if so, it should be possible to show why that's true. No intolerance without evidence, that's my slogan.

One of the places this principle could be best applied today is on the question of gay marriage. If you ask people why they oppose gay marriage, oftentimes they simply point to tradition or the Bible, as if that settles it. But it doesn't, because it may be that both are wrong. Slavery once had hundreds of years of tradition behind it (and you better believe people used that to argue in its favor) but that didn't make it right. Similarly, the Bible can be wrong. People may argue otherwise, but they don't really believe it. How many people are really going to say the following passage is something we should follow?
"If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear." - Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Nobody in their right mind, that's who. Both tradition and the Bible can be wrong, and that's why those who want to be intolerant to the point of forcing others to comply with their beliefs should be able to make a very good case--with real evidence--that the practice they're against is harmful to others. If people want to speak intolerantly, I think that's their prerogative (just as its the prerogative of others to denounce them for it). But if they want to practice active intolerance--forcing their views on others--then the burden of proof should be on them. Tradition and scripture won't cut it. As a judge in Virginia recently put it, "tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage." Of course, this "evidence principle" doesn't just apply to gay marriage. It applies any time someone is so sure of their beliefs that they're willing to impose them on others, or even--as in the case of ISIS and the Inquisition--kill those who follow their own conscience.

One of the best arguments for tolerance of other cultures and views is that it's so easy to be wrong. The world is full of different lifestyles, ethical beliefs, and traditions--should we really be so convinced ours are the right ones? What if the other guys are right? Some of the world's traditions are mutually exclusive, which means they can't all be true. That means some ancient traditions and scriptures are dead wrong. As far as I'm concerned, that's the main reason we should err on the side of freedom and tolerance, and put a heavy burden of proof on those who want to be intolerant. There are some things that can be shown not to be tolerable, and I think one of those things is unfounded intolerance.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blasphemy, Certainty, and Wild Conjectures

I've been reading a book called God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, and Why Their Differences Matter, by Stephen Prothero. In the chapter on Judaism, I came upon this passage that I liked a lot:
“Almost all religions provide opportunities for human beings to convince themselves of their own righteousness, to speak in the name of God, and even to go to war on God's behalf. This 'blasphemy of certainty' is also rife among secularists who in their case have not God but science or the proletariat on their side.”
I liked the whole idea here, but I especially liked the phrase "blasphemy of certainty". When I started looking to see where it came from I ended up in one of those intellectual pinball games I sometimes find myself in on the internet. Turns out it's a quote from an essay called The God of the Desert, by Richard Rodriguez. Which I intend to read, but so far I haven't. Anyway, the passage it comes from is this:
“The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. If God is on our side, we must be right. We are right because we believe in god. We must defend God against the godless.”
Seems true to me. But I also found a similar passage while Googling, from an excellent article by Andrew Sullivan:
The 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne lived in a world of religious war, just as we do. And he understood, as we must, that complete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy.
These passages linking certainty, war, and blasphemy resonate with me, even though I'm not sure blasphemy isn't, as they say, a victimless crime. If God does exist, and She is in fact omniscient and beyond any human understanding, then surely being certain that we know Her thoughts is hubristic and disrespectful. I don't know if I would call it blasphemy. That word makes me nervous, because it's been the charge brought against far too many people who ended up being executed for it.

But what if that such killings, based on the lesser crime of certainty, is the real blasphemy? I don't believe humans were created in God's image, but for people who do, you would think killing Her special creations would be blasphemy if ANYTHING is blasphemy. Misplaced and prideful certainty is one thing, but killing in the name of that certainty--and doing so in the name of God-- is surely quite another. Both Montaigne and the current Pope have similar points. Montaigne noted that:
"It is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account."
While Pope Francis, in a radio address last year, said:
"this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”
Hear, hear, gentleman.

As for certainty, even if we could have absolute certainty about everything, would it really be such a gift? Elsewhere in Andrew Sullivan's essay (I'm really bouncing around here, huh? There's a reason this blog's called Ramblebrain) I find a quote from the German playwright Lessing, who said:
"If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say, Father, I will take this--the pure Truth is for You alone."
That one bowled me over. It started me thinking in a different direction (ramble, ramble), not about blasphemy, but about truth and certainty. I realized I would make the same choice Lessing did. Sure, I might be tempted by the offer of the full truth, but what would I do with it once I had it? Where would I go from there? If you know all truth, there would be no surprises; nothing to look forward to. Sometimes I lament the fact that my lifespan won't be 1/10th long enough to get any real foothold on Truth with a capital T. Maybe not 1/1000th. But is that really such a tragedy? Maybe it would be a bigger tragedy to actually have the full truth.

I wouldn't know, but I would think it would be mortally boring to be omniscient. To ever find anything interesting, you would have to make yourself forget things. Some people think of God as existing in some kind of state of ultimate sublime wholeness, but would that in fact be a sublime existence? I can't imagine what this hypothetical state even means, or if it exists, but it certainly doesn't sound very interesting to me. You would want to have new things to learn, wouldn't things to create, or see created? You would crave some excitement, and you wouldn't want the spoilers omniscience would give you. It would be like knowing the outcome of every story that will ever be told. It would be the universal spoiler.

What if (and now I'm getting into the wildest kind of speculation) there is or was an omniscient God in possession of omniscience and the full truth, and She found Her existence boring and lonely? And so She decided to forget what She knew, and to allow Her wholeness to fragment--in order to really feel alive? What if that's how this fragmented universe of broken symmetries and diversity came about? What if it's even why it came about? Maybe it was more interesting to create--or even become--a contingent universe that eventually came to include billions of sentient beings with billions of points of view? None of them would have the full truth, but that's the point: they wouldn't know the outcome of the play before the curtain lifted.

Is there a theology similar to this? I imagine there is, but if so I don't know what it's called. It reminds me of the Hindu idea of lila, which I've heard expressed as something like, "The universe is what happens when God wants to play." It's probably not how it happened at all of course, and I don't have a clue if there's a God at all, much less whether She would find her omniscience boring. These are wild conjectures, and I don't put much stock in them--certainly not enough to roast anybody alive. I don't have that much certainty in anything. I don't know the full truth, and I probably never will. And I'm realizing that's a very good thing.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Drawing the Line: Notes on Persecution and Tolerance

Jean-Léon Gérôme / The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
I've been thinking about tolerance a lot recently (see last post), and I'm planning to do a post that really grapples with the idea of the limits of tolerance. We all agree that some things, like murder and theft, shouldn't be tolerated, so how can we find the line between what should be tolerated and what shouldn't? But doing that topic justice is going to take some serious background reading and head-scratching, so today I'm going to write about something easier.

I'm guessing that if many conservative Christians read my last post, which celebrated tolerance, some of them will be thinking something like, "Yeah, well, you certainly spend a lot of time attacking conservative Christian ideas like creationism and support for traditional marriage. Just how tolerant are you, buster?"

It's a reasonable question, and one that deserves an answer. It seems to me that one of the biggest drivers of this country's current political divisiveness is misunderstanding. People don't understand what those on the other side really think. They see their opponents as more extreme, and less well-meaning, than they actually are. Some conservatives seem to think liberal democrats are really Leninists, and some liberals seem think conservatives are really fascists. I'm pretty sure they're both wrong. So, I think it would help if people on each side took the time to explain what they actually DO think. Maybe it would ease the other side's mind?

This is especially true when it comes to religion. Religious conservatives and secular liberals like me have a terrible time understanding each other, because we really do have strikingly different views of...well...reality. Why are we here; where did the universe come from and how old is it, why do good and bad things happen, what happens after we die, what are the foundations of morality--we don't just have different answers to these questions; we may even have entirely different ways of conceptualizing them.

I think this misunderstanding is part of the reason some Christians think secular liberals are out to get them.You often hear Christian conservatives in this country claim they're being persecuted. People like me, admittedly, find this laughable. After all, Christian conservatives are still one of the most powerful groups in this country. Self-proclaimed evangelical, born-again Christians regularly become governors, senators, and presidents. Self-proclaimed atheists and secular humanists do not. If you want to see real persecution of Christians, look at what ISIS is doing right now to Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. That's the real deal, and it's horrifying. Telling Christian teachers they can't lead their public school classrooms in prayer is not in the same ballpark. It's not even persecution at all.

Still, the secular side occasionally goes too far. A while back, a college professor caused a furor by telling students to write Jesus' name on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. If that's what really happened (and accounts differ) then yes, that professor would have been totally out of line. Recently, the CEO of Mozilla, the company that makes Firefox, resigned after it came out that he was against gay marriage. I haven't looked into exactly what happened, but he does seem to have been the victim of a bit of a witchhunt. After all, it's still perfectly legal to be against gay marriage in this country, and I hope it always will be--even though I'm a vocal supporter of gay marriage.

Despite these lapses in tolerance from the liberal side, it's clear that some Christians have an exaggerated view of how far liberals would (or could) go in opposing them. For example, a movie just came out called--you guessed it--Persecuted. It played here, and I thought about going just to see how the other side thinks, but I couldn't quite force myself to give them my ten bucks. The premise is that Congress tries to pass a law called the Faith and Fairness act, which forces religious broadcasters to give other religious views equal time. A minister refuses to support it, and the next thing you know, he's been framed for murder and is on the run. Former presidential candidate Fred Thompson is in the movie, as is Fox news anchor Greta Van Susteren, so this is not a fringe effort. Apparently many conservative Christians really think such a bill could pass in this country.

This tells me they think secular liberals like me are a touch more militant, and a whole lot more powerful, than we really are. That's why I think we should explain what we really do think and want, because we're apparently not making our intentions clear. I can't speak for others, but I can say explain my own views.

So here goes. First, I would never support a measure forcing religious people to support religions besides their own. I wouldn't support a law requiring ministers who object to gay marriage to marry gay people. But I do support laws that prevent businesses from discriminating against gays, for the same reason I support laws preventing discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, etc. Yes, I know there are difficult lines to be drawn between not forcing clergy to marry gay couples and disallowing discrimination in businesses, but that's where I think the line should go.

The point is, I do think there's a line, and we shouldn't go past it. What most people in this country don't realize about their opponents in the culture wars is that they do have lines beyond which they won't go. At least, I hope they do. That's one of my lines, and I would love to hear my conservative Christian friends tell me where their lines lie over on the other side.

As for things like public prayer, I think school kids should be allowed to pray if they want to as long as it's not disruptive. That's what they law says they can do. People who say kids aren't allowed to pray in schools are misinformed at best and lying at worst. I think teachers should be allowed to pray on their own time, but not lead students in prayer. Public schools shouldn't support any religion in any official capacity. There should be no prayers at graduation or football games, because you can't assume all the kids in that school are Christians, or even religious at all. Government entities like public schools should be officially neutral when it comes to religion, because it's everybody's government--not just the Christians'.

Finally, I don't think telling public school employees they can't promote religion while they are at school or acting in an official capacity amounts to persecution. If we started telling them they couldn't promote religion on their own time, or attend a certain church, or write editorials supporting conservative values, then THAT would be persecution.

Some of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have declared that parents who tell children they were born sinners, deserve to go to hell, and will in fact go there if they don't believe certain things, are basically engaging in psychological abuse. They've even questioned whether society should allow it. While I dislike the idea that parents tell their kids these things, I would never support laws telling them they can't. That would be going much too far, and besides, people would rise up with guns blazing if the law ever passed. It's not going to happen, and it shouldn't happen. I still stand by my right to question parents telling their young children their Jewish or Hindu friends are going to hell. But I'll also (force myself to) stand by their right to do so. As the saying commonly attributed to Voltaire (but really said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) goes: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I could go on, but this post is long enough, and it's not like my personal views are important, anyway. It's just that, once again, I think the misunderstandings in this country would be alleviated a little if people would explain what they really do think. That's all I'm trying to do here. To return to the question at the beginning of this post, am I intolerant of conservative Christianity and fundamentalism in other religions? It depends on what you mean by "intolerant." If speaking out against things like young earth creationism and official school prayer is intolerance, then I guess I'm intolerant. But that's an acceptable level of intolerance in a free and pluralistic society, just as it's acceptable for Christians to speak out against my beliefs.

It's also an acceptable level of intolerance to tell teachers they can't proselytize in the classroom. But here's the thing: this doesn't just go for Christian teachers. Atheist teachers shouldn't be allowed to promote atheism, and Muslim teachers shouldn't be allowed to promote Islam. Not in the classroom. If they want to do it on their own time, that's their business.

It's really all about fairness, and deciding where we should draw the line between what should and shouldn't be tolerated. My point here is that most people on both sides of this country's cultural/political divide do think there should be lines. I don't ever want to tell Christians, or members of any other religion, that they can't think, act, and worship according to their conscience (as long as they're not imposing on the rights of others). I hope most conservative Christians don't ever want to tell me I can't think and act according to my own conscience, or tell me that, as a secular agnostic, I'm not as much an American citizen as they are. I think they have lines of their own. Despite my fears when I hear people like Rick Santorum and James Dobson speak, I don't think most conservative Christians really want to turn this country into a Christian theocracy.

Well, I hope they don't. But it would ease my mind if they came out and said so, just as I hope some of the things I've said ease their minds. So how about it, friends on the other side: where are do you draw your lines?