Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why I love Article V of the Constitution

There's an excellent article at, called "A More Perfect Union," which goes through the history of the writing of the Constitution, it's ratification, and the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The lack of a bill of rights, enumerating the rights of individuals as a guard against tyranny, became a major sticking point in efforts to ratify the Constitution, and the final states to ratify only did so after receiving a promise that a bill of rights would be added as amendments. Which leads me to this from the article:

Benjamin Franklin told a French correspondent in 1788 that the formation of the new government had been like a game of dice, with many players of diverse prejudices and interests unable to make any uncontested moves. Madison wrote to Jefferson that the welding of these clashing interests was "a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it." When the delegates left Philadelphia after the convention, few, if any, were convinced that the Constitution they had approved outlined the ideal form of government for the country. But late in his life James Madison scrawled out another letter, one never addressed. In it he declared that no government can be perfect, and "that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government."

The delegates who wrote the Constitution knew it wasn't perfect, and James Madison is probably right that no government can be perfect. It's for this reason, I believe, that the Constitution has written into it the text of Article V:

"The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."

This has long been my favorite part of the Constitution, even including, I think, the Bill of Rights itself, and the First Amendment (probably my most cherished of the actual amendments). We talk a lot in America about the intent of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and often treat this intent with a near-sacred quality, as if it should trump everything else in our debates about what this country should be. We argue about their intent with the First Amendment, about whether "free speech" only means speech, or whether it means "free expression." We argue about whether freedom of religion was intended to refer only to the various forms of Christianity, and whether the Establishment Clause was intended to keep teachers from leading their students in prayer. We argue about the intent of "well regulated militia" in the Second Amendment, and whether the Founding Fathers would have intended we have an unfettered right to any firearm we can get our hands on. And so on, and so forth.

But you know what? Article V is something that I hardly ever see brought up, and it says something about the intent of our Founders as well. It says that they knew the Constitution was imperfect, that writing it had been fraught with often bitter and acrimonious debate. It says that they intended to make it possible for those who followed to grow, to change, and to recognize those changes in the law of the land. And we have. We have recognized that black people shouldn't be counted as a mere 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, Section 1, para. 3), and so have Amended the Constitution to give full citizenship to people regardless of skin color, and we've abolished slavery (Amendments 13 and 15). We've recognized that women are people, and deserve the same voting rights as men, and we've amended the Constitution to reflect that (Amendment 19).

We've grown. We've changed. We've Improved.

That is the beauty of Article V. As we improve as a people in our understanding of justice, of morality, and of humanity, we can --if necessary-- improve the Supreme Law of our country to reflect that.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is Jesus the ONLY reason for Christmas? NO.

Recently I saw the following image on Facebook:

I have to admit, as a secular humanist who rather likes certain parts of Christmas, I felt a little insulted. If Jesus is the only reason for Christmas, then why bother with family gatherings? With spending time cooking a special meal to serve to your loved ones? Why bother exchanging gifts? Why bother doing anything except going to fucking church??

In Christmas, I find meaning in love, caring, friends, family, and togetherness. I find meaning in generosity from those who can afford to be generous. I enjoy being with people I like, and love, and feel close to, and having it be a time when people try to get together with those they love, but aren't normally able to see. Goodwill towards men, peace on earth: these may be cliche, but they have meaning and importance.

I don't know about you, but those seem to me to be damn good reasons for Christmas, even if you're not a Christian. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cigarette addiction

First up, a trigger warning: I'm going to talk about cigarette addiction, which obviously touches on any form of addiction, such as alcohol, heroin, etc. If that's something that is going to be an issue for you, please, scroll down to where I stop talking about it, or go read something else.

When I was 15, I had my first cigarette. I had it in a silly, deliberate and conscious act of rebellion against my mother. It was silly and stupid because frankly, I wasn't going to get in trouble by telling her I had started smoking. And of course, I knew the risks. We were taught all about the risks of smoking in school, complete with pictures of black lungs and the question "If your lungs were on the outside and you could see this, would you really want to smoke?" (which is a stupid argument, because the lungs aren't on the outside, so why the fuck should it matter what I would do if they were on the outside and pricking my vanity?). Now, in my case, it took a full year before I felt like I was an addict, like I really would have a hard time quitting if I tried. This is likely because I wasn't doing a whole lot of smoking at that time. Sometimes I only had smoke a day, other times I couldn't even get a smoke. This wasn't deliberate, it had a lot to do with a lack of funds. Regardless, a year before I was addicted.

At one point, a few years later, I actually did quit. When I was smoking, there were times when I completely enjoyed it, and other times when I didn't enjoy it, and the only reason I was smoking is because of the addiction. During one of those periods when I wasn't enjoying it, I quit, cold turkey. A month after, I tried a smoke again, to test how well it was going, and threw out the cigarette and the pack. It tasted nasty. And I actually did feel better, physically. But at a street dance six months after I quit, I was offered a smoke by someone I was hanging out with, and since it was a social event, I was with a girl I found attractive, and I was in a good mood, I accepted. I wound up enjoying it, and bumming another. Eventually, I bought a pack for myself. I smoked until I was thirty after that, with the occasional attempt to quit which never lasted more than a few days.

When I smoked, I usually enjoyed it. I enjoyed the taste, and the smell. I enjoyed the feel of the cigarette between my lips. The repetitive movement of bringing the cigarette to my mouth, inhaling, lowering the cigarette, and blowing out the smoke was soothing, relaxing. I enjoyed how the taste interacted with the aftertaste of food and toothpaste. I enjoyed how easy it was to break the ice with someone new, simply by asking for a light (assuming you'd seen them smoking, anyway). It gave me a good way to escape from a crowd for at least a few minutes, meaning that I could survive longer at parties and gatherings. Do you get what I'm saying? I enjoyed smoking, in it's entirety. 

Yes, I did have those times when I wasn't as into it, and when I was thirty, I once again used that to help me quit. I was in a period of a few weeks where I wasn't enjoying it as much, I knew that my fiance (now wife) wanted me to quit (though she never pressured me), and I figured I'd try to quit again. I knew myself though, and knew that I would require some help to do so. I made a deal with Michelle (fiance) that if she bought me the patch, I would make an effort to quit. She agreed immediately. Now, I did this not so I could try and blame her if I failed, or some stupid thing like that. I did it to trick myself. I knew that if I simply bought the patch myself, I'd be likely to smoke again when I started wanting the part of smoking that wasn't just nicotine. On the other hand, if Michelle bought the patch for me, I would feel an obligation to her. That obligation would cause me to put forth more of an effort to resisting the urge to smoke, to resist the pleasure I knew I could get. It worked. I quit, and haven't smoked in four years.

But, damn, do I want to. Four years later, I want to smoke. I want to a lot. I miss it. I miss the pleasure, the soothing sensations, the everything. There are days when I don't think about smoking at all, and then there are days when I feel that urge. That urge to go three blocks west, to the nearest SuperAmerica convenience store, and buy a pack of cigarettes. That urge to smack the top of the pack repeatedly against either my hand or a hard surface, packing the tobacco tighter into the individual cigarettes. That urge to open the pack, flip one cigarette over and put it back in upside down as my "lucky" cigarette. That urge to take another one, light it up, and inhale. There's a tension in my chest right now, from typing this, and examining that urge so closely. It's a tension that is, in a sense, reaching for that sensation of smoke being drawn into my lungs. My body wants it, and as I am my body, I want it. Bad.

Sometimes, this can be triggered by specific events. A month or two ago I took clients to a Special Olympics bowling tournament. There were so many people, in a space that was too small for all of them, and so much noise, and I really needed to be away from it all, but couldn't leave. I stepped outside for a few minutes, and there was one of the bowling alley staff smoking. Holy crap, that was one of the strongest temptations I had felt in a long time! I wanted so bad to ask her if I could bum a smoke from her. Almost did. Ever since, the temptation, the urge, seems to be more frequent, and stronger.

So, it's a struggle, and more so lately. I don't really know from personal experience how this compares to alcoholism, or heroin addiction, or other drug addictions. I can only base any comparison to those things on what others have said, or what I've read. My experience with cigarette addiction certainly sounds similar to other forms of addiction. I've heard that nicotine addiction is one of the strongest there is, but I don't know if that's true. I don't know that it's not true. Frankly, I would guess that even if true, other addictions are bad enough that I wouldn't care to try pressing the point at all.

In general, the worst times are when there's some other stress going on, like at the bowling tournament. Those aren't the only times, but they're probably the worst. Although, the other night I was standing in line at the convenience store, and someone in front of me bought a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, I was so tempted to buy one myself. When I reached the counter, I could almost feel the words forming on my lips to ask for a pack. That was a moment of strong temptation, but I don't remember any particular stress, so I guess bad moments can happen even without stress. I didn't give in.

At this point in time, I think the only reason I haven't yet given in to temptation is because of how disappointed my wife would be. If she were no longer with me, I don't think I could resist the temptation.

A friend of mine once told me that she'd asked her grandfather once when he stopped craving cigarettes, how long it took. He replied, "I'll let you know when that happens."

That sounds about right.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Of aliens and humans

James Croft occasionally thinks he's an alien among atheists. To some small extent, I can relate. I don't like chocolate, never have, yet I live in a world where so many people love chocolate that the reactions I get when people first learn this about me range from shocked disbelief to disbelieving pity. Sometimes, there's a sense that I've committed some sort of sin by not liking chocolate. I've dealt with this by deciding that loving chocolate is a sign of being an alien, and I am one of the last remaining True Humans alive. Someday, I shall find others of my kind, and we'll rise up to kick the aliens off this planet! It'll make a great movie. In the meantime, I married an alien. Go figure.

Seriously though, I'm not all that surprised that James sometimes feels alienated. While I haven't been to any conventions for atheists or Humanists, my impression of the online community suggests that sometimes individual members will fall into "hyper-skepticism," and try to out-Vulcan each other. More than that though, there's a definite widespread distrust of religious space, religious community, and religious ritual. A lot of that comes from a position that faith -- believing with insufficient evidence, or even against evidence-- is a bad thing. Some of it also comes from the negative experiences that many of us have had with religion, and the negative experiences we see continuing to happen to others. Many of us are angry. I count myself among this angry-at- and distrustful-of-religion group. I'm aware of, and acknowledge, that there are literally millions of religious people who are not using religion to directly make life worse for other people. But I still think religion is broadly harmful to humanity.

James holds with some of that, but not all of it. He told me once that he agrees that "faith has to go," and he absolutely holds Reason to be a primary value. I know he is capable of getting angry at religious groups, and individual religious people. I suspect there's some anger behind his recent post on Scott Lively. But anger isn't his foremost reaction. And as he said in his post:
I’m a choirboy. I grew up going to a religious school (the diffident, non-imposing Church of England sort of religion) and I sung in the school choir for years. I have sung my way through countless masses and services and psalms. I have become familiar, and therefore mostly comfortable with that sort of religious spaces. I love to sing, and so I have lots of positive memories associated with those spaces which have enabled me to do what I love. I haven’t had any significantly bad experiences with religion in my past
Unlike James, I've had bad experiences with religion. Taken individually, most of them are pretty minor. But in aggregate, I'd say my experience with religion ranges from bad to boring. As an example of the bad, the church I grew up with taught (and perhaps still teaches, but I haven't asked) that blasphemy is the one unforgivable sin, and blasphemy is denial of Jesus and God, including atheism. An atheist can never get to heaven, no matter how much they later change their mind and "repent." Now, this didn't actually scare me when I first became an atheist at 12 or 13. It's hard to be scared when you don't believe it. But when I was 14, I tried talking my mother into letting me go to school dances. According to that same church, dancing is a sin. In a moment of desperation, I blurted out that I was an atheist. My mother wailed. She wailed as if I had just died. She pulled the car up to the house, told me to get out, and left to see my grandfather, who was also the church pastor. We never talked about it after she came home, or after. And I avoided talking about my religious views in front of her after that, until just last year.

A little thing, perhaps. There are far, far, far worse stories out there, and in comparison I'd say I got off lucky. But the little things add up.

Moving on to "boring," James said
I’m a drama geek. My parents raised me on theatre, taking me to see plays and musicals very frequently. I spent my teenage years appearing in countless theatrical productions (this is not an exaggeration: my performance CV for my high school and college years is ridiculously long. I wonder how I found time for anything else!). I like to perform, and I have an appreciation for the dramatic – even the melodramatic. I tend to view religious services as pieces of theatre, and I’m attuned to the production values in and of themselves, regardless of theological content. I therefore find religious services interesting as exercises in dramatic production.
Clearly, we have some different experiences of religious services! A typical service at the church I grew up in went as follows: People would sit in the pews. There were three numbers listed on a board, which were the numbers of the songs to sing that day. The organ player would be playing random songs as people sat down, and when she (it was usually my godmother, Louise) started playing the first song on the list, that was the cue for the congregation to open the songbooks and sing. Some sang enthusiastically, but tunelessly. Others sang ok. Some barely sang at all. And some really didn't sing. After the first song, there would be a prayer. Then the congregation would sing the second song. After that, Grandpa or the guest pastor would give a sermon, typically lasting an hour. The congregation would just sit and listen. No call and response, just sitting. The end of the sermon was signaled by the pastor reciting the Benediction, and giving another prayer. Then the congregation sang the third and final song. And that was it. On the first Sunday of the month, there was communion. As the the congregation sang song after song (there was a longer song list that day), people would go up and kneel at the altar, and receive the bread wafer and shot of wine (red, of course) along with a couple of Bible verses ("This is my body . . ."). Once you had your turn at the altar, you could head to the cafeteria. There was usually pot luck.

See? Boring. Mom would poke me if I started snoring during the sermon. As an exercise in dramatic production, um, . . . it wasn't. That's what always comes to mind when I initially think of religious service. That's what I subconsciously consider "normal" church.

I like theater. I love musicals. And I really enjoy melodrama musicals at Mantorville Theater. If you're not familiar, a melodrama is a play that is deliberately melodramatic, has corny jokes, and requires audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer for the hero, boo and hiss for the villain, sigh winsomely for the heroine, and laugh long and loud. Maybe someday I can actually have a schedule that would let me be in one of the plays.  But I think I'll always have a hard time with the concept of religious services as dramatic productions. Still, I think I can see how James might see it that way. I'm given to understand that other religious services are not like the ones I grew up with.

And now to the part where I'll admit to some small envy of James. He said
I get swept up in things. I am emotionally very open and allow myself to be emotionally affected by those around me. I cry buckets through movies, can’t help but sing a tuneful song, always find myself tapping my feet to music. I've even found myself waving my hands in the air during religious services! To me, this is perfectly natural – I find it hard not to do it. But I do understand that other people react differently.
 Yes, I do react differently. As I mentioned in my previous post,
Much of my childhood and teen years was spent deliberately suppressing my reactions to negative emotions. I had no true friends, and was the target of much teasing, even bullying. I was angry, depressed, suspicious, suicidal, etc. I tried hiding all of that behind a blank facade and misdirection. It's possible this learned response has carried over into positive emotional experiences as well, despite my efforts to unlearn much of it and be more open about my emotions.
In addition, my first introduction to Reason as a value was via Star Trek, and the character of Mr. Spock. I was a young kid (maybe seven?) when I first saw Star Trek: The Original Series, and I loved his preference for logic and using intellect to solve problems.  I'm a lifelong geek, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, my favorite character was Data. Do we see a pattern? The painful experiences of my childhood gave a young me plenty of reason to try emulating Mr. Spock's suppression of emotion.

But. But but but. I am not a Vulcan or an android. Somewhere in my teen years (I think--could've been my early twenties) I realized that emotions are part of us, and that they're a good part of us. Suppressing them is (wait for it) illogical. Spock eventually accepts emotions in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Data gets emotions in Star Trek: Generations. But though I've worked at opening up more, I rarely find myself swept up in things. Sometimes I'd like to be swept up more, but it doesn't happen often.

Things that have swept me up: local performances of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show," (wish I had video of the local shows-ah, well); hot candle wax poured on my body (yay! Endorphins!); and visiting Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves on my honeymoon, because holy shit! CAVES! Do you know how cool those things are??

Things that have made me tear up: "Schindler's List," and songs like "Where've You Been?" by Kathy Mattea

Where am I going with this? I'm reserved. Generally speaking, I'm happy to be reserved. Sometimes, I envy those who, like James, can readily be swept up in their emotions. I typically enjoy it when I'm able to "cut loose," and fully experience the range of human emotion, with tears and laughter and wide, bright eyes and childlike giggles as I crawl through a boulder cave. Yet, when it comes down to it, I would not choose to be like James. I like myself. And I completely agree with him when he says
I don’t think my positive response to these sorts of religious ceremonies and rituals is necessarily problematic, and it certainly doesn't represent any softening of my atheism. But it may carry dangers: I may be less astute to the dangers of communal activity like ritual and ceremony than others simply because I enjoy it, for instance. There’s the opposite potential problem too, though: that one’s dislike for such experiences encourages rejection of them when they might in fact have value.
I do believe there are potential dangers to communal ritual and ceremony, but I also think that my instinctive distrust makes it harder to see the possible value in them, value they probably do have--if done with an eye toward the risks. And while James might be an alien (I bet he likes chocolate, too), if Star Trek taught us anything, it's that the alien perspective can very often be a valuable one!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Talking with James Croft

It's been a while since I did any serious writing, and what gets me back to it? I get to have a dialogue with James Croft, of the blog "Temple of the Future"! This is my initial post in that dialogue. We'll see how it goes. 

Recently, James posted about his gut reactions to four different communities that he visited as part of The Humanist Institute, a leadership training program for the Humanist movement. After I read his post, "Loving and Hating Religion--Some Reflections After Visiting Religious Communities," I realized, as I told James on Facebook
Sometimes, your mind just seems so strange and foreign to me. Your gut level reactions are so different from what I imagine mine would be, that I can't help but wonder how to relate to you. And then I wonder, "am I the odd one?" For example, your description of the BJ group seemed cultish and melodramatic to me, but you don't react like that.
To which he responded
Nathan - perhaps we should find a forum to explore that question. I find it very interesting too. Perhaps there is some answer in our different histories and experiences, or perhaps it's just a difference in brute preference over which we have little control.
A few more exchanges, and here we are.

Let me quote the description of the B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue that I referenced.

Entering this gorgeous old building was like walking into a palpable wall of love. You could feel the positive energy in the air, the sense of excitement for the upcoming Kabbalat Shabbat service. People were hugging, clasping hands and bodies together, staring into each other’s eyes like long-parted lovers. They wanted to be there. 
Our guide – BJ (as it’s called, no joke) asks that visiting groups register before attending and offers a member to guide them through the service – was effusive about the value of the community, explaining its history and values with overflowing enthusiasm. Most striking was when I asked her what role the temple had played in her life: she rocked back on her heels as if I had pushed her, and tears sprang to her eyes almost immediately. “I…I…”, she stammered. “I would love to answer that question. But you’ll have to email me. I can’t…it’s too much.” She so loved her community that to think of it almost knocked her off her feet. That’s serious love. 
The service itself was wonderful: a rich explosion of music (including plenty of nigun(wordless) chant for those who didn't know the words), color, and even dance, as the audience leapt to its feet at one moment to snake around the auditorium, arms linked and feet tapping. It was awesome.
All emphasis comes from James. Rereading that description now, my initial reaction of "cultish and melodramatic" seems only slightly overblown to me, but James clearly loved being there.  Why the difference? When I look at that description, I see more than one thing that I can't seem to relate to. "..palpable wall of love." "positive energy in the air" People getting up close and personal like long lost lovers.   I don't recall ever feeling "positive energy" in the way he describes (maybe when I was going through a New Age phase?), and I've no clue what a wall of love would feel like. I love my wife tremendously, and I love my friends dearly (including ones that actually are former lovers), but I don't know if I've ever wanted to be around a particular group of people so much that I would react as the members of that community reacted. And the guide's reaction of almost being knocked over by a question? I've seen that sort of thing in books, but I don't think I ever believed I'd hear of such a thing in real life! And I can't relate to it, not even in thinking about my wife.

My wife, Michelle, is one of the best people in my life. Being with her continues to be the best experience of my life. She has literally become more attractive to me as the years have gone by (something that sounds silly, but is nonetheless true). Sometimes I find myself just stopping to stare at her, losing track of whatever thought was going through my head. She's brought tons of laughter into my life, and new thoughts and ways of looking at things that continue to enrich my life. But I would never come close to falling over just from a question about how she's affected my life. I do not believe, however, that the guide necessarily loves her community more than I love my wife.

Is it possible that I simply don't have strong reactions to experiences in a way that translates physically? This is certainly possible, I suppose, maybe even likely. Much of my childhood and teen years was spent deliberately suppressing my reactions to negative emotions. I had no true friends, and was the target of much teasing, even bullying. I was angry, depressed, suspicious, suicidal, etc. I tried hiding all of that behind a blank facade and misdirection. It's possible this learned response has carried over into positive emotional experiences as well, despite my efforts to unlearn much of it and be more open about my emotions.

Yet, when I try to imagine the experience of being at the BJ community's service, the word "suffocating" is what comes to mind, rather than any positive emotion just looking for expression. It reminds me of the images of smiling cults that one sees on TV, yes, and it sounds over-the-top, true, but it also sounds like a lot of people and noise pressing in on me, making it hard to breath. Of course, that can probably be chalked up to me not liking crowds.

Maybe James is right, and there's simply a more fundamental, hard-wired difference here. After all, I'm an introvert, while James, I suspect, is an extrovert. Or, perhaps it has something to do with how we think, and not just what we think. I think in words, always have. Other people, like my wife, or Temple Grandin (author of "Thinking in Pictures" and "Animals in Translation") think more in pictures and other sense data. Until I read "Animals in Translation," it didn't even occur to me that other people weren't using words in the privacy of their own head to interpret the world around them. I don't have the book available, or I'd quote the relevant passage. Since then however, I've had multiple conversations with Michelle that have highlighted the differences in our individual experience of thought.

For example, when I think of "Michelle," what comes to mind first and foremost are words--labels and descriptions--like "wife," "lover," "funny" "sexy" "friend" "love" "laughter" "animates the world" "occasionally frustrating" "artist" etc. My understanding of the person and concept "Michelle" is almost entirely in words. Images and non-verbal sounds are in the background, and fuzzy and indistinct (the most prominent of these would be the sound of her laughter, unless I'm horny). When Michelle thinks of me, "Nathan," what comes to mind are sights, sounds, smells, and all these non-verbal, sensory impressions that combine in her mind to mean "Nathan." At one time, we came to the conclusion that our different ways of thinking might be why I like labels, and she hates them. I see labels as descriptive, but with each label only describing a portion of a person, and not always a large portion. She sees labels as limiting and unexpressive of the real person or thing.

So, maybe there's something like that going on with James and I having different reactions. Or maybe there's a difference in our past, such as how we react to emotion, or our experiences with religion, that explains it. Or perhaps something else entirely.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Update on my friend Kyle's condition

Back on May 9th I wrote a post about my friend and brother, Kyle, who was in the hospital. This post is all about updating those wondering about his condition. His condition is good.

Oh, right. More detail. Kyle spent just over two weeks in the hospital while doctors figured out what the hell happened (or at least, close enough to treat), and dealing with the complications from vomit ending up in his lungs, and an infection or two. He actually recovered faster than some of the Mayo staff expected, likely due to his efforts in the past several months to live a healthier lifestyle. While doctors were unable to pin down exactly what caused the cardiac arrest, the primary treatment for all three of the likely causes is the same: getting implanted with a defibrillator that will zap his heart if it ever gets out of rhythm or stops again. Pinning down the exact cause would have been possible, but the doctors became convinced by one of the country's top cardiologists who happened to be visiting Mayo that week that there was no point to putting Kyle through the tests needed (basically, recreate the event) when they could treat them all with the exact same step.

So Kyle's at home now, and apparently back to doing at least some work. He still isn't fully recovered, but there's no reason to believe that he won't be eventually. It'll be a while before he's allowed to lift his left arm over his shoulder, but frankly, he's alive and on the mend. Given what doctors do know about what happened, when Kyle first collapsed he had a roughly 6% chance of surviving. He's incredibly lucky.

Kyle's attitude during all this has been one of severe gratitude. He shocked some of the staff at Mayo by going out of his way to express appreciation for all they've done for him, including the janitor who cleaned his room (side note: how sad is it that doctors and nurses and janitors are shocked when someone sincerely thanks them for what they've done?). He's been floored by the outpouring of support demonstrated by the visits, the cards, the well-wishes, the way his (and my) employer stepped up to make sure his work was being taken care of so he didn't need to worry, the money donated to his family for the medical bills (both through the fundraiser, and independently), and everything else.

And so am I. When I wrote that original post, I went ahead and begged a few bloggers (James Croft, JT Eberhard, Ophelia Benson) I'm in contact with to do whatever they could. I literally teared up when I saw they had shared that post with others on Facebook and Google+. It meant so much to me to see strangers helping out. Thank you. Thank you so much to everyone.

In a later post I'll talk about some of the thoughts and ideas that this whole incident has sparked.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fundraiser for a true friend's medical bills

On Monday, May 7, a true friend of mine collapsed at home. The quick dialing fingers of his wife, and rapid response by paramedics, saved his life. I had just gotten off the phone with Kyle at 6:00 pm and he was fine, and at 6:25 I was in my car, breaking traffic laws to get to his house (normally 20-30 minutes away) in record time, so I could watch his 2 year old daughter while his wife went to the hospital. It happened just that fast.

While the paramedics worked on him, they were forced to shock his heart with a defibrillator several times when he went into cardiac arrest. He also vomited, and some of that vomit went down his lungs ("aspirated" is the medical term). A good chunk of the last two days has been spent trying to deal with the complications resulting from that aspiration. They've kept him on a paralytic sedative until this afternoon, because in his half-conscious state he was fighting the wires and tubes, and he needed those to help heal. The doctors still don't know for sure what the underlying cause of all this was, but they do have some ideas (forgive me for not sharing all the details--it's not my place). At the moment, it's looking like he may end up having an implantable defibrillator put in, so that if his heart ever stops again, it will shock his heart.

Kyle's professional life and passion for the past several years has been helping those people with developmental disabilities have a happier life, with as much independence as they can. For years he worked directly with adults with developmental disabilities, giving them care, teaching life skills, helping them learn to handle and navigate a world that often ignores them and their unique needs, and helping each individual become the best he or she could become. As he has advanced in his career, he has gradually focused on advocating with the Minnesota legislature and elected officials on behalf of people with disabilities. He has helped and encouraged the very people he advocates FOR advocate for themselves, and recognize that they can have a voice that is heard. Last year the Minnesota legislature was debating the new budget, and arguing about where to cut funding. Kyle went to Capitol Hill several times to talk to our elected officials, and helped organize events for people to express their voice. Human services did receive cuts in the budget, but it was not nearly as bad as it had looked like for a while, and I believe that Kyle's efforts, and the efforts of those he helped organize, contributed to that. I recall, while this budget battle was going on, chatting with Kyle in his office, and a client of the company we both work for came to his office and handed him a letter. The letter was hand written, addressed to that client's Representative. Kyle's face lit up with pride and happiness at seeing this client doing something that for her was very difficult, and letting her voice be heard. 

On a personal level, I met Kyle the first week of college, in the fall of 1999. At first, he was just a goofy guy that I liked to hang out with. But one evening someone told Kyle they had seen me in the dorm's common area, and I looked upset. Kyle came to see if there was anything he could do for me. I wasn't actually upset, as it turned out. I had been listening to someone practice the Moonlight Sonata, and was moved by the beauty of her playing. I'm not sure what that person saw in my face that they thought I was upset. Regardless, Kyle and I talked, and that was the first night that I realized this was a man of substance, a man I could be friends with, and a man I wanted to know better. No conversation I've ever had has been more stimulating than the multiple conversations I've had with him over the past 12 1/2 years. I was honored to be his best man (twice), and was honored that he stood as my best man when I got married. He was there for me when I was struggling through my Depression, and even saved my life once. He did not know what I had planned when he saw me that night, but he could tell something was wrong, and the concern he showed was instrumental in me not following through with that plan. He supported me as best he could when I was homeless, and shared in my relief when I got back on my feet and had a place to live again. When I moved from Winona, MN to Rochester, MN, he gave me a place to stay while I got a job and looked for a place of my own. And when I was unemployed and looking for work last year, he strongly encouraged me to apply at Cardinal of Minnesota, the company he works for in the disability services field, despite my fears that I could not show the level of care I would need to, the patience that is required. He saw more in me than I saw in myself, and I have never regretted following his advice and applying. It is the best, most rewarding job I've ever had.

Kyle is my best friend, my best man, my "hetero-lifemate" (as my wife calls him), but above all that, he is -in every way that matters- my brother. He is family.

Not many read this blog, and fewer of you will have met Kyle. Nonetheless, I hope you will help him. A mutual friend of ours started a fundraiser to help pay for Kyle's medical bills. I have given what I can for now, and will give more when I and my wife get paid again (we struggle to stay in the black each month). Please, will you help? He is not just a friend and family, he has been an asset to society. Please, help him and his family.

Here's the link. Fundraiser

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Response to Minnesota Marriage Minute video, Episode 18

Minnesota for Marriage has another video out, Episode 18. Once again, they're abusing statistics.
Give it a look, if you haven't seen it yet.

The question they're addressing today is
“Aren’t committed gay and lesbian relationships just the same as marriage relationships?”
They, of course, conclude that there's something very different about committed same-sex relationships.
No doubt many gay and lesbian couples profess love for one another but studies of gay relationships show that they are fundamentally different than the marriage relationship.
Really? Well, let's what these studies say.
"Marriage is characterized by by a lifelong commitment of both love and fidelity. Indeed, fidelity is universally expected in marriage, however, fidelity and monogamy are fundamentally lacking in many gay relationships. One recent study by gay researchers at San Francisco State University found that only 45% of gay male relationships are based on an expectation of monogamy. Other studies have put the percentage of gays and lesbians in open relationships as high as 75%. The New York Times wrote an article about this entitled "Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret." The article said that couples having sex outside of their marriage might point the way for the survival of the institution. Dan Savage, a prominent gay sex counselor, is an outspoken advocate of open relationships, not only among the gay community, but among married heterosexual couples as well. He says, quote, "Monogamy is ridiculous and people aren't any good at it. We're not wired for it, we didn't evolve to be. It's unnatural, and it places a tremendous strain on our marriages, and our long-term commitments to expect them to be effortlessly monogamous." This attitude by the nation's leading media and gay advocacy voices shows how redefining marriage will impact all of society. If marriage is redefined to be genderless, our marital expectations will be challenged and the norm of monogamy and fidelity will be undermined. This would have profound adverse effects on children, parenthood, social responsibility, and the public good." 
So, what's wrong with their argument? Several things. First, take a look at "Indeed, fidelity is universally expected in marriage. . ." All you have to do is look at any polygamous culture (such as some in the Middle East) to falsify that statement. Or, you could look right here in the United States. Wikipedia cites numbers of 15% of married hetero couples having agreements that would allow extramarital sex (unfortunately, the most recent study on the issue that Wikipedia cites is from 1983, and when I poked around on Google Scholar for more recent studies about hetero open relationships, I was unable to find anything useful. Perhaps someone else knows of something?).

Second, they don't actually address the New York Times article they cite (found here). They simply take it as a given that the article is clearly wrong. Some passages from the article:
The study also found open gay couples just as happy in their relationships as pairs in sexually exclusive unions, Dr. Hoff said. A different study, published in 1985, concluded that open gay relationships actually lasted longer.
[. . . ]
According to the research, open relationships almost always have rules.
[. . . ]
A couple since 2002, [Chris and James] opened their relationship a year ago after concluding that they were not fully meeting each other’s needs. But they have rules: complete disclosure, honesty about all encounters, advance approval of partners, and no sex with strangers — they must both know the other men first. “We check in with each other on this an awful lot,” said James, 37.
Notice that it's not exactly willy-nilly, sex with whomever they please when they please.
That transparency can make relationships stronger, said Joe Quirk, author of the best-selling relationship book “It’s Not You, It’s Biology.” 
“The combination of freedom and mutual understanding can foster a unique level of trust,” Mr. Quirk, of Oakland, said. 
“The traditional American marriage is in crisis, and we need insight,” he said, citing the fresh perspective gay couples bring to matrimony. “If innovation in marriage is going to occur, it will be spearheaded by homosexual marriages.”
Yeaaaaaa. . . . What's the divorce rate right now? Among heterosexual couples? Even if they can't agree with having open marriages, I suspect that an awful lot of couples could learn a thing or two about openness, honesty, trust, and communication from couples that have successfully negotiated open relationships. At any rate, Yanta did not address the reasons the New York Times said that open marriage may show a way to save the institution of marriage.

Now, the Dan Savage part annoys me for a couple of reasons. One, is it shows Dan Savage using the naturalistic fallacy when he calls monogamy "unnatural." I could just as easily say "Using chemotherapy to treat cancer is unnatural, therefore, using chemotherapy is bad." More importantly for this post however, is the implicit assumption by Yanta and Minnesota for Marriage that Dan Savage speaks for the the LGBT community. He doesn't. Yes, he's prominent. However, Pat Robertson is also prominent, but he does not speak for the entire Christian community. Even the Pope doesn't speak for every Catholic.

However, what's really wrong with this video is that the argument it makes and conclusion it draws really aren't connected. Let's assume for the sake of argument that an important quality of marriage is monogamy and not having sex outside your monogamous marriage, i.e., fidelity (note that being polyamorous, I obviously don't truly agree with that, but I'm willing to see what it does to the argument). Nothing in the New York Times article or the quote by Dan Savage, nor in the statistics quoted by Yanta, demonstrates that same-sex relationships are inherently different from heterosexual relationships. All it demonstrates is that a large number of homosexual people (and also some heterosexual and bisexual people) do not yet accept the idea of monogamy as a value. If Yanta's argument could be said to demonstrate that gay relationships are inherently different from straight relationships because a percentage of gay people are in open relationships, then Yanta's argument must also be said to demonstrate that straight relationships are inherently different from straight relationships because a percentage of straight people are in open relationships. That seems a contradiction, wouldn't you agree?

The importance of fidelity is separate from whether same-sex marriage should be allowed, and judging by the prevalence of adultery (without an agreement to be open), is a point that you would need to make to the heterosexual couples at least as much as you would to gay couples. Many same-sex couples would (and do) actually agree that fidelity and monogamy are important (25% - 55%, based on Yanta's own stats), and may very well join you in making that argument. That is, if you weren't sidelining them by claiming that their relationships are obviously inherently different from yours, or inherently wrong.

(As I was writing all of the above, another thought occurred to me. Is it possible that one of the reasons a larger percentage of gay relationships are open is precisely because gay relationships are marginalized by mainstream society? If you're being told that your attractions and relationships are wrong even though it is simply a part of who you are, and you are not harming anyone, then I would not find it at all surprising if that led to you being willing to buck society by trying out new relationship models.)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Minnesota Marriage Minute video, a response to Episode 17

Minnesota for Marriage has released Episode 17 of their Minnesota Marriage Minute video series, this time addressing the question:
Shouldn't marriage be redefined to accommodate the growing number of children of gay and lesbian couples?

Obviously, their answer is going to be "No." The interesting part is what reasons they give for saying "no," through the voice of Kalley Yanta. Yanta starts by saying that there are actually very few same-sex couples raising children, only 22% of same-sex couples in fact, using numbers from the Williams Institute at UCLA. It appears that Yanta's numbers may be out of date, actually, as the number is actually closer to 17%. The US Census Bureau (which the Williams Institute based some of it's numbers on) found some errors and revised their numbers in Sept, '11. The Williams Institute prepared a new snapshot using the revised numbers. Yanta does also use some numbers pulled from the Census data.

So, basically, when I checked the numbers and did the math, I came up with 0.21 percent of households in the US are same-sex households, and 0.04 percent of the total population is a same-sex couple raising their "own" child (which the Census defines as "never-married children under 18 who are sons or daughters of one partner or spouse (Person 1) by birth, marriage (stepchild), or adoption."). These numbers are lower than the ones Yanta uses, which of course she would undoubtedly believe strengthens her argument, which goes like this:
Why should the definition of marriage, which has served us so well, be redefined for the 99.88 percent of households, in order to accommodate the desires of the 0.12 percent? 
That's her entire argument. Well, let's consider an analogous situation. Prior to Loving v. Virginia in 1967, multiple states had laws on the books that banned interracial marriages. Just as today, we have laws banning same-sex marriage. Loving v. Virginia overturned the laws banning interracial marriage, and three years later the US Census Bureau conducted the census of the US. In 1970, the total population was 203,392,031, and the number of interracial marriages was approximately 65,000. That's a percentage of 0.031. That's less than the current percentage of same-sex couples (since same sex marriage is only legal in a handful of states, compared to interracial marriage being legal in all states in 1970, I'm using the figures for total same-sex households, not just those legally married; it's certain that many of those unmarried same-sex couples would like to be married, but cannot be legally). I don't have numbers for how many of those 65,000 interracial couples had children, but obviously the percentage of the total population would have been less than the percentage of same-sex couples with children in 2010.

So, why was it ok to redefine marriage in 1967 to accommodate the desires of 0.03 percent of the population (or less, if you just look at whatever number had children)? Equality, of course.

No matter how small a particular sub-population is, we do not have a right to deny that population equal rights with the majority. Ever. One of the strengths of a republic like America is that the minority is protected from an absolute tyranny of the majority. Or at least, that's how it's supposed to be. That's what the 14th Amendment, the 1st Amendment, and the "balance of powers" is supposed to help ensure. This is part of what the Supreme Court recognized in 1967, and why they overturned the miscegenation bans that were in place at the time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Some thoughts on marriage

This is sort of a thinking out loud post, so I'm not sure you should expect any attempts at tight arguments. Looking into this question of same-sex marriage has me pondering: what exactly does marriage mean to me?

There was a time when I wasn't sure that I would ever get married. I'm polyamorous, but marriage is illegal between more than two people in any state, never mind what gender they are. Marriage says something pretty powerful about your commitment, and since I don't accept the idea that in a poly relationship there is such a thing as First or Second (for me-- if you're in such a relationship, and the arrangement is known by all involved and is satisfactory to all involved, I've nothing to say against it), I wasn't sure that I would get married until and unless it became possible to marry more than one person at a time legally. Yet, I am legally married.

I got married because I loved and love my wife. At the time, I wasn't involved with anyone else (nor am I currently, sadly), so perhaps that made the decision easier. But I also came to a conclusion that there was no reason to deny myself and her legal benefits and rights (like next-of-kin rights, if either of us is ever unable to make medical decisions for ourselves) that are granted to married couples. If either of us ever gets in a relationship with another that develops to a point wherein we would like to marry that person as well, then we will likely have to simply have the ceremony and accept that we don't have the full benefits of legal recognition.

So anyway, I married out of love. I married because I had this wonderful partner who brought a joy to my life I'd never really known, and I wanted to express and demonstrate that commitment to friends, family, and society at large. I wanted to share in the seriousness that people treat a marriage. When you refer to someone as "my girlfriend" or "my boyfriend," people tend to not see that relationship as being on the same level of seriousness and commitment as "my wife" or "my husband," regardless of how serious the couple sees the relationship, and regardless of how serious and committed the couple is in reality. In a similar way, I don't think people take non-legal status marriage as being of the same level as a legal marriage, which is very frustrating and hurtful to those who have no choice in the matter. If you're married (or even if you're single), how would you feel if you were hearing "well, your marriage isn't a real marriage"? Just imagine that for a while. Don't just imagine that someone is saying it to you directly, because many people aren't so rude as to say that to your face, but also imagine that it's simply something that seems a subtle, yet pervasive part of the culture (like . . . pink is for girls, blue for boys, or something). Your marriage isn't real, despite all the love and commitment you've put into it. What feelings come to you?

So, love. Commitment. Sharing with society, and sharing in society's acceptance of that relationship. There is, of course, something to the idea that if the love is there, the rest of the world simply shouldn't matter. That's true, to a point. I would still be with my wife even if society didn't accept our relationship, and I would still be committed to her. But we are social creatures, we humans. We evolved as such, and we build our society and social mores around that social nature. We're so damn social that introverts like myself often have a hard time dealing with a society that doesn't understand why we need time alone. And we're so damn social that introverts like myself still want to be a part of the social world that is society. As such, most of us who get involved in long-term, romantic, loving, and committed relationships are going to want to make that relationship a part of society by publicly and legally declaring our love in the form of marriage. I am no exception.

So that's it. That's the whole and entirety of why I got married. I found someone (who happened to be a woman) that I loved deeply and romantically, someone I was committed to, and wanted to be with for the long haul, even for the rest of my life, and she shared those feelings. She and I already recognized and knew this, but wanted to have our relationship recognized and acknowledged by society. We wanted society to know that we loved each other, and had committed to being with each other, and we wanted society to take that seriously. In our society, the way to do that is by getting married.

Our ceremony was brief, but it meant the world to us. We wrote it ourselves (with a few adaptations from a marriage ceremony book, and tradition), and wrote our own vows. We invited her eldest brother to be the officiant, and he accepted. My favorite colors are black, red, and silver, while hers are black and orange. Black, red, and silver work together a bit better than black and orange, so we chose those as our colors. I wore a black suit, with a red shirt and silver tie, and she . . . she was absolutely gorgeous in a scarlet dress that she designed herself, and that was brought to life with help from a local costume designer. We chose the music, and got a musical acquaintance who had done other work for weddings to turn our choices into "wedding sounding" music ("Paint It Black" was played in a "wedding style" as she walked up the aisle; it was great :)). She choked up during our vows, and I smiled far more than usual all day long. My best friend stood as my best man (I was best man for his both of his weddings, so he owed me one; I don't think he minded though, as he couldn't stop grinning it seemed), and another good friend stood with him. She had her sister (we forgot to tell her she was expected to give a toast at the reception; whoops) and brother standing on her side. The musician gave us a discount because she mentioned Dungeons and Dragons in her vows (it's how we first bonded). For my vows, I admitted that she was right "most of the time." At the reception, we "danced" to "Little Red Riding Hood," by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. I got tipsy on white wine (but was sober by the "wedding night"). And I smile now, with something in my eye, to remember it all.

Then my smile fades, because I remember why I'm thinking about marriage, and what it means to me. I've been looking into arguments against same-sex marriage, and they mostly seem to come down to tradition (which is a piss-poor argument for denying rights), religion (but not every religion agrees on the issue, and America is supposed to have a separation of church and state), and procreation. And this last is the only one that ever gave me pause, because clearly a same-sex couple cannot have children in the biological sense. But when I look at what my marriage means to me, children simply don't enter that picture. Yes, my wife and I are planning to have children. However, children are not the meaning of my marriage. My marriage will mean the same to me even if we never have children.

Why then, do we deny marriage to same-sex couples? Am I unique in my feelings on marriage? I doubt it. When's the last time a romance movie had a couple get married because they really wanted to have kids? I can't think of one; the premise of the romance movies is always love and commitment and love some more. It looks to me like this culture has accepted that marriage has a meaning built on love, and not procreation. So, why?


A song, for your listening and viewing pleasure.

I came across some music that I decided needed sharing. It's from a band I've never heard of before, called Colony 5, and the song is "Future." The video is done by dogmaticCURE, and is meant as a tribute to all those battling for a secular view of the world. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Minnesota Marriage Minute video response

For those of you not aware, this November in Minnesota there will be a question on the ballot for voters to answer:
"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?"
If approved, the Minnesota Constitution would be amended to include the following in Article XIII:
Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.
Leaving the question blank counts as a "No."

Now, it's already illegal in Minnesota to marry a same-sex partner. Supporters of the amendment have pushed this Constitutional amendment to prevent lawsuits from overturning the current law, and to prevent the legislature from changing the law, as happened in New York last year. It's a preemptive strike. The group Minnesota for Marriage has been campaigning to see the amendment passed, and one of the things they do is post YouTube videos called "Minnesota Marriage Minute" videos that lay their case out in short little segments. I'm going to address some of those videos in this and future posts. I won't address them all, because some are simply informative, like the first video that lays out basically what I just said. I'm also not going to necessarily address them in the order they were given.

First up, let's look at Episode 5. 

In this video, they ask "What is the common good of marriage?" The answer they give is:
"Well, marriage serves a vital and universal societal purpose to channel biological drive and sexual passion that might otherwise become socially destructive into enduring family units that have the best opportunity to ensure the care and education of any children produced by that drive and passion."
Kalley Yanta, the host, follows that up with a quote that she says is from the Supreme Court,
"marriage is '. . . fundamental to the very existence and survival of the [human] race'"
but doesn't cite which case. My own search indicates it may have come from the decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967), in which the court overturned a conviction of miscegenation (interracial marriage), and with it, declared all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. The part that Yanta seems to be quoting says:

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.
Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.
So, yes, the Supreme Court has said that marriage is fundamental to humanity's existence. It also said that it's essential to the pursuit of happiness by free men, and that the freedom to marry or not cannot be infringed by the State. They were speaking of race, of course, but I don't find it much of a stretch to apply to same statements to same-sex attraction. But I guess that's what we're arguing about, isn't it?

Let's look more at what Yanta says. A little later on, she gets into defending the idea that children do best in a marriage between their biological parents.
"The overwhelming body of social science evidence establishes that children do best when raised by their married [biological] mother and father"
Except, that's wrong. The consensus of the scientific community is that there is no evidence to suggest that being raised by a homosexual parent, or two same-sex parents,  is detrimental to children's well-being (yes, that link is from Wikipedia; follow the citations). It's true that the data is not as good as one might like, but every study to date, despite the problems they have with sample size and other things, points to children doing just fine when raised by same-sex parents, even when compared to children of heterosexual parents. It is true that children of divorced parents tend to have more issues, and possibly children of single parents, but that is not an argument against same-sex parents. A couple other links for you to peruse: Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents: A Review of the Literature, and a Google Scholar search for "children of gay parents."

Yanta then goes on to say:
"No matter ones view of homosexual marriage, it is undeniable that every child born into a same-sex relationship is intentionally denied the love and affection of one of her biological parents."
But that alone is not enough to deny parents the right to marry the person they love. Interestingly, that same argument could be applied to arguing against giving unwanted children up for adoption, or sperm banks for couples in which the father is infertile, or surrogacy in cases where the woman in a hetero relationship is infertile. In each case, a child is intentionally denied the love and affection of at least on biological parent. Is Minnesota for Marriage going to argue that these are bad things?

Look again at the what they call the common good of marriage:
"Well, marriage serves a vital and universal societal purpose to channel biological drive and sexual passion that might otherwise become socially destructive into enduring family units that have the best opportunity to ensure the care and education of any children produced by that drive and passion."
Other than sexual passion, it's unclear what other biological drive Yanta and the Minnesota for [Straight] Marriage group is referring to here, but I'm going to guess 'procreation' based on the context of the whole video. Certainly that's a position I've seen before when looking at arguments against same-sex marriage. It's definitely true that many gay people have desires for children, and raising a family. Same-sex attraction doesn't change that aspect of human nature. But given that there's no evidence that being raised by same-sex parents is detrimental to children, how is it that same-sex parents could not do this equally well when compared to heterosexual parents? Indeed, it would appear they're already doing it well.

And yes, for now I'm ignoring whether that's actually a good definition of the common good of marriage, or not.

So, what are your thoughts on this video?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Professor vs a Student, via Facebook.

I recently spotted a photo on Facebook that was accompanied by what appears to be a transcript of a conversation between a Student, and a Professor. In it, the Student and Professor debate the existence of God. I thought I would share this important debate with you. My thoughts are in read, for your viewing pleasure.
Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ? 
Student : Yes, sir.  
Professor: So, you believe in GOD ? 
Student : Absolutely, sir. 
Professor : Is GOD good ? 
Student : Sure. 
Professor: Is GOD all powerful ? 
Student : Yes. 
Professor: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm? 
(Student was silent.) 
Professor: You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, young fella. Is GOD good? 
Student : Yes. 
Professor: Is satan good ? 
Student : No. 
Professor: Where does satan come from ? 
Student : From … GOD … 
Professor: That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world? 
Student : Yes. 
Professor: Evil is everywhere, isn’t it? And GOD did make everything. Correct? 
Student : Yes. 
Professor: So who created evil? 
(Student did not answer.) 
Professor: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don’t they? 
Student : Yes, sir. 
Professor: So, who created them ? 
(Student had no answer.) 
Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son, have you ever seen GOD? 
Student : No, sir. 
Professor: Tell us if you have ever heard your GOD? 
Student : No , sir. 
Professor: Have you ever felt your GOD, tasted your GOD, smelt your GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter? 
Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t. 
Professor: Yet you still believe in Him? 
Student : Yes. 
Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son? 
Student : Nothing. I only have my faith. 
Professor: Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has. 
Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat? 
Professor: Yes. 
Student : And is there such a thing as cold? 
Professor: Yes. 
Student : No, sir. There isn’t. 
(The lecture theater became very quiet with this turn of events.) 
Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don’t have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.
[“Cold” is a relative concept, like so many other concepts that we have (bald, tall, short, skinny, fat, long, wide, etc), meaning that it’s use and definition are relative to something else. In this case, when we speak of “cold,” we are referring to a level of heat that is relative to what we normally experience in our normal, everyday lives; we’re also referring to the sensation that is “cold,” which is also relative to individual experience. Think about how someone from Hawaii might find 50 degree Fahrenheit weather to be cold, but someone from Minnesota just after winter has passed might find 50 degree weather pleasantly warm. “Cold” then, is the term we use to describe a certain level of energy, not just its absence, as well as a particular sensation.] 
(There was pin-drop silence in the lecture theater.) 
Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness? 
Professor: Yes. What is night if there isn’t darkness? 
Student : You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?
[Since “darkness” is also a relative concept, referring to the amount of light present in a particular area as compared to a level of light that lets us see normally, “darkness” does, in fact, exist as a relative concept. And when my room is dark at night, I can actually make it darker, simply by taking steps to block the various sources of light that allow me to see, however slightly.] 
Professor: So what is the point you are making, young man ? 
Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed. 
Professor: Flawed ? Can you explain how? 
Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. [As were you, Student, when you called God “good.”] You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure. [Whether or not God is a finite thing doesn’t matter, so much as whether the effects of an existing God can be measured, and determined to most likely be caused by God, and not some completely natural force. So far, no such effects have been identified.] Sir, Science can’t even explain a thought. [And once upon a time, science couldn’t explain gravity, sound, where babies come from, or why some people have blue eyes instead of brown. Now it can. The only appropriate response to a lack of understanding is “I don’t know” or “I’m not able to explain that.” Saying “I don’t know, therefore the answer is God” is intellectually dishonest at the very least.] It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing.
Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. [“Death” is certainly the absence of life, but it's a term that is used to refer to the absence of life where life previously existed. We do not call rocks “dead,” because they were never alive. In other words, it’s one of those relative terms again.] Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey? 
Professor: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do. 
Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir? 
(The Professor shook his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument was going.) 
Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. [Wrong. Evolution has been observed at work, both in the lab and out of it. Scientists are, in fact, able to demonstrate very conclusively that evolution is an on-going endeavor. Check that link for a few examples, or just google "observed evolution."] Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher? 
(The class was in uproar.) 
Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor’s brain? 
(The class broke out into laughter.) 
Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?
[Evidence. To be fair, the Professor sort of set himself up for this, by not being clear that science relies on evidence, sometimes indirect evidence, and not just the five senses. For example, we can say that every time a human skull has ever been opened up for examination, there’s been a brain in there. We can also say that every time we’ve used advanced technology to peer inside a human body, there’s been a brain in there. The Professor, presumably, is human, and therefore we can say, with a very, very, very high degree of probability, that he has a brain. Other things that we use indirect evidence to be aware of include radio waves, microwave energy, odorless and tasteless poisons, and the love of a parent for their child.] 
(The room was silent. The Professor stared at the student, his face unfathomable.) 
Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son. [It’s not faith, it’s confidence based on a high degree of evidence. And the disbelief in God is based on a severe lack of evidence. The disbelief in an all-powerful, all-good God is based on the evidence that there is no all-powerful, all-good entity interfering in the world in any way that an all-powerful, all-good entity would be expected to: preventing cancer, natural disasters, random birth defects, and all other forms of suffering that humans may be unable to prevent, but an all-powerful being could do something about. If an all-powerful being exists, it is clearly NOT an all-good being.] 
Student : That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving. 
[Faith tells us nothing, it demonstrates nothing, and is never a good reason to believe. It does not keep “things alive and moving,” and if faith is the only link between man and God, then there is no link between man and God.] 
I believe you have enjoyed the conversation. And if so, you’ll probably want your friends / colleagues to enjoy the same, won’t you?
Forward this to increase their knowledge … or FAITH.
By the way, that student was EINSTEIN. [Citation seriously needed. Maybe it really was Einstein, or maybe this entire conversation was made up. Regardless, the Student is wrong, and the Professor didn’t do a very good job of calling him out on it. For example, the Student never did address the problem of evil that the Professor brought up.]
So, what do y'all think?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Does religion do more harm than good?

So, earlier I wrote a response to an article called "Myth 2: Religion Does More Harm Than Good," sparked by an exchange on Facebook. In that response, I simply went through the article and pointed out the good and bad parts. I didn't actually address the question "Does religion do more harm than good?" That's what I aim to do now. Of course, there have been entire books written on this subject ("God is Not Great," by Christopher Hitchens, for example), so it's unlikely that I would be able to properly address this question in a single blog post. It should also be noted that it's unlikely I can do this without treading ground already walked by others, but I'll do what I can in giving a (relatively) brief answer.

Before I begin, it would be helpful if I define how I'm using religion. This may seem an obvious thing, but the definition has been debated before. So, the definition I'm using is as follows: religion is  a belief in supernatural forces and/or entities that have an effect on the natural world. It's a belief in entities or forces that are undetectable by any natural means (invisible, inaudible, etc). And yes, I'm blatantly stealing that definition from the one Greta Christina uses in her talk "Why Are You Atheists So Angry?" It's useful, and tends to be how we see religion playing out in the real world, rather than in sociological circles (not that sociological definitions are necessarily bad, but the ones I've seen are so broad you could toss in love of a sports team and have it match).

So let's start with a look back at a few things in the "Myth 2" article. Father Williams had this to say:
Hitchens and company claim to follow the Gospel principle of judging a tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, they consider only the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The innumerable saints, geniuses and benefactors nourished by the Christian faith simply count for nothing. 
In making their case, Hitchens and company refrain from considering the almost countless ways that Christianity has benefited the world as we know it today. 
What of the hospitals? What of the orders of nuns established to care for the dying or educate young girls? What of the soup kitchens and orphanages? What of the preservation of classical culture? What of the artistic and literary treasures?
Let's start with hospitals. I really don't need to enumerate the good that hospitals have done, but I'll list a few points anyway: setting broken bones, treating cancer, helping heart attack victims, and oh yea, saving lives. Lots and lots of lives. This is the case for secular as well as religious hospitals. This is unequivocally a good thing. However, in December of 2010, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix stripped a hospital, St. Joseph's, of it's Catholic affiliation because the hospital performed an abortion for the purpose of saving a woman's life. From the letter the Bishop sent to the hospital administration:
I now ask that CHW agree to the following requirements by Friday, December 17, 2010. Only if all of these items are agreed to, will I postpone any action against CHW and St. Joseph’s Hospital. Specifically, I require the following in order for me to postpone any further canonical action directed against St. Joseph’s Hospital: 
1. CHW must acknowledge in writing that the medical procedure that resulted in the abortion at St. Josephs’ hospital was a violation of ERD 47, and so will never occur again at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
The abortion in question was performed to save a woman's life when she developed severe symptoms of pulmonary hypertension. She was dying, and without the abortion, she would die. Plain, and simple. There was no saving both. Yet, the "good" Bishop is requiring a promise that it would never happen again, even if it was the only way to save the woman's life. (I recall seeing an article written by a woman who went through a circumstance that sounded just like this, including the five kids, Catholic hospital, life threatening pregnancy, and reluctance on the hospital's part to have the abortion performed, but have been unable to find it. It might have been the same woman, but have been unable to find it. Anyone have a link to it?)

That Bishop uses his religious views to claim authority to let a woman die. He apparently wants all the Catholic hospitals to follow his authority in this matter (his letter is full of his claims to authority). That's a whole lot of harm, right there.

But there are other goods that religion does. For example, orders of nuns who take care of the dying and educate young girls. Mother Teresa is perhaps the most famous for taking care of the dying. She founded the Missionaries of Charity to care for the poor and sick, believing that she was following a calling placed on her by God. Here's a quote from Mother Teresa, which was given in response to a question at a 1981 press conference:
"I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
That passion for suffering was on display in her 'hospices.' She did not provide painkiller, even in the worst cases. She felt that suffering was a way to be closer to Jesus. In other words, her religious views provided a very direct harm to people.

Moving on. In 2004, The Salvation Army threatened to close all of their soup kitchens in New York City if the city enacted legislation that would've required them and other businesses that deal with the government to provide benefits to the partners of gay employees. That's thousands of homeless who would've been affected. According to one Army official, "You cannot change theological views. Those are so deeply embedded, they form the root of the faith itself." The Salvation Army thinks gay sex is wrong, and was willing to cause harm to the homeless as a result.

I have very little to say about the preservation of classical treasures, or of the artistic value of religiously inspired pieces. Those things are important, although it's an open question if they're more important than the other, very real harms I've mentioned. I would however note that for the longest time, the patrons of artists were religious (and truthfully, probably the artists themselves), so it's hardly surprising.
But all I've really done so far is list some examples of harm caused by religion, using Father Thomas Williams's questions as a jumping off point. I have not yet shown clear reason to think religion does more harm than good, on balance. So, let me do that now. For this next part, I'm indebted to Greta Christina and JT Eberhard, as well as William K. Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" (1877), specifically for making arguments that inform my views on this.

There is one thing that religions everywhere have in common: Faith. Now, before I go further, let me define how I'm using that word in this argument:
the belief in something without sufficient evidence to warrant belief, or the belief in something when the evidence contradicts the belief
Keep that definition in mind when you read my argument. "Faith" is often used in normal discourse to refer to things unrelated to religious belief, spiritual beliefs, or anything else that definition might refer to. For example, a husband might say to his wife "I have faith in your abilities" when she's worried about a job interview, or a college test, or some such. His "faith" in such a case could be better described as confidence, a confidence based on past experience with her, in which he's seen that she's talented, skilled, and good at what she does. Or, in another case, he might say "I have faith you haven't cheated on me," and in such a case "trust" is what he's actually talking about, based on the evidence of his experience with her, in which she's demonstrated integrity, and that she loves him enough to maintain the monogamy they've agreed to. I'm sure you can think of other examples. The point is that to avoid confusion and the fallacy of equivocation, I need to define how I'm using the word.

Anyway. Religion of all sorts have as a base faith. This faith underpins not just the factual claims of a religion ("God created the Universe, and us," "There's an afterlife," "We are judged upon death to determine if we belong in heaven or hell"), but also the moral claims that are supposed to follow from the factual claims. When you believe that God exists, and believe that God has moral authority, and dictates how we spend eternity, then you have good reason to follow the rules that you believe God has laid down, no matter if they conflict with your own thinking and reason.

Faith inspires people to do many things. It inspires people to be honest, to give to charity, to be generous, avoid violence, and to have hope. It also inspires people to engage in bigotry, oppression of women (see "Does God Hate Women?" by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom for an excellent showing of exactly how religion oppresses women, even today), oppression of homosexuals, child abuse ("spare the rod, spoil the child"), and ignorance of science:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.

It may seem that the balance is coming out in favor of calling it equal in the question "Does religion do more harm than good," but I don't think it is. Faith provides a cop-out of any question. It let's you claim "It just feels right," "It makes me happy," or "I had a dream" as valid reasons for believing basically anything. Even when this leads to a positive, agreeable conclusion, such as "Don't rape women," it's still dangerous. If the reason that you agree with "Don't rape women" is because you think women are, in all but name, the property of their fathers first, and then husbands after marriage, rape becomes a matter of property vandalism, rather than a violation of a woman's right to control her body and sexuality. And if your reason for believing that is "God declared it so" and your reason for believing in God is faith, then faith has become a serious problem. Arguing against the premise that women are property is going to be very difficult, maybe impossible, if your faith tells you that God is the dictator of morality.

It's not just the extreme views in which faith can become a problem. If you have faith in karma, and that everything will work out all right in the end, then there's a strong chance that you won't do everything you need to do to help everything work out in the end. You're more likely to do all that's necessary if you consider that not everyone has a happy ending, and good people do have bad things happen to them, and that bad things sometimes never go away before death.

Of course, it's possible that if religion didn't so very often treat faith as a virtue, and advocate for it, that the dangers of faith could be minimized. I don't know, but I would certainly like to see a world where we tried that out for once, a world in which this quote by William Lane Craig didn't make sense to apparently 64% of the American public:
Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.
 Yet, that is the world we're in. A world in which faith, and therefore religion, harms far more than it helps.