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