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Clarification on Mormons and Prop 8 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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Just to clarify: I’m completely supportive and in favor of the ongoing protests and civil disobedience to bring to light the wrong-headed, unscientific beliefs in fairy tales, and the undemocratic efforts of the Mormon church and its adherents to enshrine their *religious* beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage into the *secular* Constitution of California. In fact, I’m especially thrilled by the prospect of protestors disrupting Mormons’ efforts to marry in their temples. The irony is rich, no?

And especially in reference to my post about the Mormon church’s tax-exempt status, I’m in favor of all churches losing their tax exempt status. There is no reason at all that churches should be able to keep their finances secret and that they should be able to control billions of dollars in assets without contributing back to the society. And they certainly should be paying taxes if they are going to step into the public sphere to make their particular biases and bigotries enforced by law.

Unlike Seth, the Mormon commenter to the previous post, I see no difference between the protests in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles. Both were direct responses to the Church’s efforts to impose its religion on the people of California; both were lawful; and both were filled with the frustration of a people denied. The protestors in Salt Lake City gathered at one of the gates to Temple Square and chanted “You’re Sexist! You’re Racist! And you’re Homophobic!” The protestors in Los Angeles bore signs that read, “You have two wives. I want one husband!” I marched in the protest in San Francisco on Friday night and felt the power of a people galvanized against those who would make them second class citizens. Separate is never equal, and this is but one stop along the route to full equality under the law for the gay and lesbian citizens of Californa. Next stop: The United States.


Science as “Faith-based”? (The “New Atheism”, cont.) 20 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Science, Social Sciences.
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In a comment on The New Atheism thread, Compassioninpolitics wrote:

Interesting concerns. I see a couple flaws with new-atheism that have yet to be answered by anyone. Hitchens et al (aka the new atheists) use hyperbole, poisoning the well, and stereotype to prove their points.

I agree about Hitchen’s rhetorical tactics, but I don’t find this to be true of Dennett, Dawkins, or not even Harris. On the other hand, as Hitchens speaks and prods and provokes with his usual bombast and disdain for those who disagree with him, he is still making arguments against religious belief, and the arguments he makes go unanswered. This is perhaps the biggest weakness in Hitchens’ style in general, that it forecloses responses by demonstrating an unwillingness to engage from the outset.

Where I usually have some sympathy with religionists in this debate is that as a social scientist, I see religion as far more complex than a mere “force for evil” in the world (and here Harris joins Hitchens, in my opinion). Claims of that nature make me roll my eyes, since religion has multiple and contradictory effects, ranging from mass murder to self-sacrifice for strangers. So reducing religion to its negative effects without at the very least acknowledging the diversity of effects and its complexity is intellectually problematic, for me. However, in the world we live in today, it is also understandable that we are focusing on the problematic, anti-democratic, and murderous effects of religion, as those are the aspects that are causing very real social problems, from Gujarat to a field in Pennsylvania.

In terms of human reason, I see the worst effect of religion being that it provides a world view that allows people to react to difficult situations out of habit. It releases adherents from moral responsibility because they already know the “truth”. That makes religion particularly dangerous in the interdependent, plural world we live in today.

Compassioninpolitics continues:

Additionally, they fail to account for the fact that their assumptions about truth are wedded to a narrow notion of science, which is itself a faith based system which fails to include all forms of truth.

What is the “broader” view of science that has to be integrated into atheism’s view? I can’t really address that concern until I know exactly what it is.

More problematic is the notion that science is some kind of ‘faith-based initiative.’ I hear this all the time from defensive religionists, but the only way you can say that science is ‘faith-based’ is to make the definition of faith so mushy and general as to no longer hold any analytic usefulness as a category. But it seems to me that faith in religious contexts means, in general, a belief that something is true that cannot be proven to be true. Scientific method isn’t “true” in a “general principles” kind of way, but it has been proven “true” in an instrumental way over and over again: people believe in the method because it works. That seems strikingly different from faith that Jesus Saves or that Allah will greet you in paradise or that Rama will guide.

[As a side note, here’s where religion adopts (without irony) the language of postmodernism to defend itself: You can’t prove anything is true, so all truth claims are equal. You see, science is just like religion! Utter nonsense, perpetrated by, unfortunately, my colleagues in so-called “science studies”.]

Whereas religionists have faith in the supernatural (especially theistic religions), what exactly do scientists have faith in? The closest thing I can think of is faith in a method, the scientific method.

But that breaks down for me immediately because, as I said above, having faith in the scientific method is not qualitatively, affectively, nor empirically the same thing that religionists mean by their faith at all. Whereas religionist faith-based thinking moves forward by beginning with unprovable axiomatic principles by which all other claims are measured (e.g., God exists), science has no axiomatic principles, only a method. Whereas religion requires group agreement (think: religion as a social phenomenon), science requires group mutual-critique and competition as a social phenomenon. Whereas religion claims Universal and Timeless Truth, science insists on contingency and the fallibility of all claims, which require observable evidence and rational analysis that don’t resort to unprovable a prioris, circular logic, or infallibility.

I can only conclude that science is a faith-based system in a sense of the word that robs it of any meaningful use in describing anything.

Combatting the Anti-Gay Agenda 28 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Sexuality.
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Many parents of gays and lesbians, or friends, or even the closeted queer him- or herself might be inundated with bad information, or more accurately, with falsehoods about homosexuality and gay life. The quasi-religious anti-gay machine has deftly spread its propaganda for more than 35 years now, and in some quarters of American society, it is still the dominant cultural view of homosexuality. This is not only bad for gay men and women around the country still locked in the ongoing battle for equality before the law, but also for gay folks who live in those contexts that lead them to self-loathing, shame and rage, not to mention their friends, family, co-workers, clergy, etc., who often unintentionally reinforce the self-hatred.

Through a rather circuitous route that started at Joe.My.God, I stumbled upon at the Box Turtle Bulletin, a group whose mission it is to fight the misinformation about homosexuality spread by anti-gay groups such as Focus on the Family, Eagle Forum, Heritage Foundation, etc.

In its mission statement, BTB lists these groups as those it wants to serve:

  1. Those who are questioning their sexuality and are concerned about some of the misinformation that they are hearing.
  2. Those who are friends or relatives of someone who is gay or lesbian, and are seeking accurate and reliable information about the issues facing them.
  3. Those who support equal rights for gays and lesbians and seek accurate, reliable information on which to base their arguments.
  4. Those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians, but wish to avoid the pitfalls of the massive misinformation coming from all sides of the issues – from gay-rights opponents as well as gay-rights advocates.

If not only the battle for political equality for gays and lesbians interest you, but also the damaging effects of anti-gay rhetoric on the individual psyches of gays and lesbians, BTB is an amazing resource. I ended up spending about an hour perusing the site and found some amazing articles. Here were the two I found the most intriguing so far: Are Gays a Threat to Our Children? and the only mildly tongue-in-cheek but crammed with good argument The Heterosexual Agenda.

Most recently, the BTB has been covering the ex-ex-gay (i.e., formerly ex-gay, now just gay) conference in Irvine this week, which coincides with the Exodus Freedom Conference (i.e., Exodus International’s ex-gay “ministries”) just down the street. Of especial interest, for those who didn’t hear, three former leaders of Exodus International have issued public apologies for their actions, which they now see as having done great harm. The L.A. Times story is here, and BTB’s videos of the apologies are here.

Placating the Religious Right 25 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, Religion.
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I’ve often mentioned here my discomfort with some forms of multiculturalism. Whereas I believe that a democratic, free society should protect an individual’s right to free association and expression, I do not believe that all cultures or identities are of equal value, and indeed, it is obvious that some are even dangerous to the very tenets upon which a free society is built.

In the United States, we have a minority of conservative Christians called “dominionists” who do not believe in tolerance or rights, who explicitly desire to constrain and limit the assembly and expression of many of their co-citizens (not least of whom, “the gays”). While these people’s rights to believe what they believe (i.e., that the U.S. is evil and that they are called of God to overthrow the government) should be protected, they should not be allowed to actually harm other people (i.e., infringe on others’ rights). So far, this is a no brainer in the United States, but not so elsewhere (and the U.S. has other problems, to be sure).

There is much to admire in the ways that Canada and many European nations (mostly the Western, Atlantic EU members; not so much the Eastern European states) deal with cultural diversity, but as I’ve said many times before, there are also some dangerous trends, not least of which is the belief that pluralistic tolerance should actually mean respect, that there is no way to judge the relative value of various beliefs and practices, and that a democrat is obliged to “respect” intolerance. I have called bullshit on this idea on more than one occasion.

Nick Cohen in this weekend’s Observer comments on British foreign and domestic policy of the Labor government, which has followed a policy of playing nicey nicey with anti-liberal loons whose explicit purpose is the destruction of the core values of democracy. Cohen’s commentary gives reason to hope that British politics have, at least, turned the bend in this regard. (I’m still reeling from the German court decisions that have basically disenfranchised Muslim women in a wrongheaded effort at multicultural understanding; and the fact that Canada even considered allowing Muslims to be subject to separate shariah courts.) But Cohen points out that the change is still fragile, and if the comments section following his commentary are any indication, we’ve got a long way to go in educating people about what democracy really means and what the limits of tolerance must be for democracy to survive.

Government policy is now to support British Muslims who uphold liberal values and oppose those who do not. Rushdie’s knighthood was a sign of the changing mood. Labour politicians might have tried to impose a veto a few years ago; instead, they said: ‘Are we going to allow British policy to be decided by dictatorial bigots, who want to inflame religious passion to divert attention from their own corruption?

‘There is only one possible answer to that question and it remains astonishing how many people who profess liberal sympathies refuse to grasp it. […]

If a liberal intelligentsia that is neither liberal nor noticeably intelligent and a Liberal Democrat party that can’t stand up for liberalism and democracy want to attack the government [for refusing to placate religious fascists], let them. They will pay a price for their moral cowardice one day.

Brainwashing: Children and Religion 6 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Documentary Film, Teaching.
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After watching the documentary Jesus Camp this afternoon, I was thinking about my strong emotional reaction to what I saw. Given what I’d read about the film and friends’ reactions, I had expected to be offended and disgusted. And indeed, I was actually embarassed by the weirdness of some of these people (the older woman with the cutout of Pres. Bush speaking in tongues was beyond freakish). But mostly I felt violated.

There’s a scene early in the movie with a young girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is bowling with friends and family. As she tries to hit the pins, she prays to god to make it a good strike, and she “commands” the ball to do her will. Seeing this twisted my stomach in nots. I have vivid memories of believing that I had that kind of power, because I had faith.

The teachers used likely techniques to indoctrinate the children and to get them to believe: emotional activities designed to excite feelings, music and dancing, object lessons, rhythmic chanting, telling the kids that they are chosen and important, encouraging the children to profess their faith (not to mention to speak in tongues and heal), showing the kids models (inaccurate ones) of fetuses. But mostly it was the content of the teachings that disturbed me–a blatant manipulation of the emotions of a child.

Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat over the past year about the claim in his book The God Delusion that indoctrinating children into religion is a form of child abuse. It is hard to watch these kids talk about Americans as sinners who need chastening, or about how they are sinful for wanting to watch Harry Potter, just because it’s so silly. Or even more, the little bowling girl goes up to evangelize a woman at the bowling lanes, it’s painful to see the brainwashing in practice. But taken as a whole, the kids taling about why evolution is evil, and global warming isn’t true, and how they have to redeem america from Satan…it’s hard not to see this is child abuse.

I suppose it is my own discomfort with my own childhood, and the degree to which I had believed what I was taught. I realize mormonism is a different kind of religion from Evangelicalism, but many of the processes were the same. I have to wonder if my long, difficult journey to reshape my own world view and perspective would have taken so long had I not been indoctrinated in the way I was.

For me, the film raises again the question that may very well be at the center of democratic freedom: what rights do children have? Do they have the right to be raised free from their parents’ superstition? Is the kind of emotional, pyschological, and intellectual damage inflicted on children not a form of abuse? I believe that these parents are sincere in their beliefs and they truly want what is best for their kids. But is sincerity enough to justify what religion does to children?

Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
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I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.

In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.

Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.

More on “Sexual Purity” 10 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Gender.
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A few months ago, I mentioned this growing evangelical phenomenon of “Purity Balls“, where daughters and daddies make creepy abstinence bonds to each other. Here’s a promotional video from Care Net for the 2006 Purity Ball program. I’m stupefied by the sexism, infantalism, paternalism, and bald wingnuttery of the whole thing:

Homophobia Wins in Jerusalem; Mexico City Institutes Civil Unions 9 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Sexuality, War & Terrorism.
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Open House Jerusalem, the city’s GLBT organization, agreed to cancel their Pride Parade, and will have an enclosed ralley at a university stadium instead. In return, the Haredi (ultra-conservative sect) have agreed to cancel their protest and planned violence. The city says they didn’t have the police necessary, the army had refused to send help (they’ve just started a major offensive in Gaza), and they cited a fear of terrorists using the parade as cover for suicide bombings.

I’m all in favor of keeping my Israeli/Palestinian brothers and sisters safe from hateful, violent wingnuts, but I can’t help but feel like this is another loss for gay men and women, on the heels of the major losses for gay men and women in the United States this past Tuesday.

The Evangelicals who petitioned the Israeli government; the Vatican who denounced the parade as “offensive to the faithful”; the haredi Jews who threatened to murder gay leaders; and the Muslim leaders who threatened violence to draw police away from protecting the marchers have won in Jerusalem. And conservative Christians and Catholics, evangelicals and republicans have succeeded in enshrining homophobia into nearly every state constitution in the United States.

One bright spot: Mexico City instituted Civil Unions for same-sex couples today. I’m not sure, but I think this is the first form of gay marriage offered in Central and South America.

Sacré Pénis du Pape! 8 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Religion, Sexuality.
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The Vatican Joins Conservative Jews and Muslims in Hating Gay Israelis! Will the Miracles Never Cease?

The vatican has joined with the ultra-conservative wingnuts in Jerusalem (on both sides of The Wall) in denouncing the planned Gay Pride celebration, scheduled for this Friday. Apparently, the Pride celebration is offensive to believers of all three monotheisms, and should therefore be cancelled. Although the Vatican’s statement contains no overt call to violence, the mere fact that they are aligned with those who are promising to shed the blood of gay men and women this week speaks volumes about the fucked up values of one of the so-called “religions of peace and love.”

Among the more wrong-headed ideas in the Vatican’s statement, the Holy See insists on its apalling misunderstanding of free expression:

“The Holy See has reiterated on many occasions that the right to freedom of expression … is subject to just limits, in particular when the exercise of this right would offend the religious sentiments of believers”

I’ve said it here before, and I’ll say it again: Offense is not a violation of the democratic harm principle. I must adamantly insist on this point: It is not a democracy’s responsibility to protect people from being offended. It is the democracy’s responsibility only to ensure the free exercise of an individual’s rights. The purpose of free speech is for individual’s and the society at large to vet ideas and evaluate them. Inasmuch as religion is, by its very nature, a truth claim, it must be subject to this public vetting process of examination and argument. It may be offensive to a Christian (or Jew or Muslim) when I tell them that they are simply wrong on the issue of homosexuality (and that there is no god, and that their religions are not divine); but it is not and must not be illegal to do so.

The right of “believers” to say that homosexuals are sinners must not be abridged; neither must the rights of those homosexuals to express themselves and fight for their rightful place as full and equal citizens in the democracy.

Religion as a Failure of Moral Reasoning 4 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Ethics, Gay Rights, Religion.
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[Note: I wrote this as a riff on morality after reading a post about Haggard’s hypocrisy over on Positive Liberty, a great libertarian blog. Yes, I read a libertarian blog. I have a great respect for conservatives who are intellectually honest and who work in good faith to make a better, freer democracy. I usually agree with most of their civil liberties arguments—we just part ways on their interpretation of property rights and their view of the purpose of a government.]

In some ways I think that the moral failings of the religious boil down to a failure of intellect and a misfiring of imagination. I’m sure that most of them are perfectly capable of rational thought, yet they choose to fall back on the “known” moralities of their religious traditions. This is a fall back, especially in a pluralist democracy, because they are constantly exposed to the public dialogues about morality, but willfully choose to ignore the knowledge of their society in favor of ready-made moralities. It is further a failure of intellect in its simplicity: Religious morality is, more often than not, devoid of all complexity, seeing the world in stark binary terms. There are no difficult moral questions or conundrums, because all is obvious. I like to think of this as a perceived “moral clarity”. I see it often in my students who, in their late teens and early 20s, see the world in these terms. But part of the joy of being a professor is watching the students over the course of a few years come to shatter that clarity and see the world in its complexity and to choose to follow the more difficult paths of moral reasoning that the real world demands. In Christians, this moral clarity is a failure of intellect, a failure to deal with the world as it is and to use their reason to discern moral choices in the world they actually live in, as opposed to the world of their imaginations.

But it is also a failure of imagination. Surely, evangelicals have vivd imaginations, with their horrifying demons jumping into their bones by merely walking by an immoral act. But here the failure is an imagination gone awry, an imagination that, rather than being employed to discover solutions to real problems in the world, has been set on autopilot, to see things that aren’t there. The marvelous result of human brain evolution is that our minds are able to project into the future and imagine a different world than the one we’re in and fix our own world. This mechanism is harnessed and constrained by religious imagination, which says the world as it is is an inevitability, and the solution is obvious and given (e.g., in the sacred text). The religious imagination can no longer practice basic human empathy, because it is no longer capable of taking the role of the Other, because the Other is already known through the religion. That is to say, the religious world has already told them what the Other is, so there is no way to actually employ their imaginations to experience empathy or compassion, which is already clouded by their religious imagination.

Because they choose to ignore their reason and choose to run away from the real world, they are unable either to see homosexuality for what it is (a mere part of human variation (and in my opinion, very likely biological in origin)) nor to see the homosexual as they experience life (the costs of the ‘closet’ and of regular suppression of their basic freedoms). The religious are unable to see or understand the effects that their faulty reasoning and broken imaginations have on their fellow human beings, and so continue to perpetuate a violence, for which they take no responsibility, because they perceive their actions as being Moral and Good, regardless of their consequences.