Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Majesty - Science Saved My Soul

Sit back and soak up the wonder on a Monday morning.

From philhellenes: Science Saved My Soul

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The blogosphere was on fire over the weekend with a video and reports about Dan Savage's talk at a high school journalism convention.  Dan Savage is the co-founder of the "It Gets Better" anti-bullying campaign and he was at the conference to speak on the subject. There has been a fierce pushback from conservatives against anti-bullying campaigns, with particular viciousness reserved, as usual, for anti-bullying of LGBT people.

It is impossible to have an honest discussion about bullying without mentioning the Bible. The Bible has been cited by Christians as the authority upon which they base their rejection of homosexuality, and thanks to the extreme privilege of religion in society, this Biblical authority is accepted all too often in society as a defense for "understandable" Christian outrage toward unbiblical "choices".

Incredibly, when Christians persecute their gay peers, the power of religious privilege is so total that society is inclined to regard the Christian bullies as the victims. In fact, as I mentioned in another post earlier today, attempts have been made to grant Bible-based religious bullying specific legal protection in at least one state, formalizing and codifying what has long been the de facto position in virtually every state, anyway.

The moment Dan mentioned the word "bible", a student popped up out of her seat and walked out of the room, followed by a thin stream of smiling, smirking students who were obviously planted in the room to perform this bit of political theatre. One wonders if these student "journalists" heard any of the talks at the conference that did not confirm what they already "know", or were they simply sent there with virtual antennae raised until the dog whistle they were waiting for had sounded, triggering their patently insincere march of Christian persecution.

Several atheist bloggers have posted about this, and the subsequent twisting of the incident in the conservative media. Most were supportive of Dan and proud of the way he reacted by continuing his talk while acknowledging the rudeness of the walkout with the restrained scorn that such a premeditated and clearly orchestrated display deserved.

Behind the scenes, however, it appears that Dan received something far less than enthusiastic support. Although we can only speculate, it appears that forces with the power to destroy Dan's career made it clear that "one simply cannot call anyone’s religion “bullshit” in today’s America". Soon after the incident went viral, Dan Savage bowed to pressure to apologize to Christians for his remarks.

Some bloggers have reacted with emotions ranging from sadness and disappointment to defiance and outrage. Jen McCreight and Daniel Fincke are two bloggers whose approaches are slightly different (Jen is a science grad student; Daniel is a philosopher) but who make the same point:  it is time to stand up and say that religion should not be given unearned "respect" and deference.

From Camels With Hammers:

"Such demands make it clear to me that it is absolutely incumbent on those of us who think religions are bullshit to start saying so more frequently and to fight to stop this trend of insidious undue deference to baseless believing. It is the result of decades’ worth of concentrated effort by the Religious Right to make politics bow the knee to fundamentalist religion combined with the Left’s confused understanding of the value and limits of multiculturalism. No one deserves to be made into a second class citizen on account of their beliefs. But American freedom of speech has to not only politically but morally and intellectually guarantee that all beliefs are open to rational scrutiny by public figures and intellectuals without fear of career reprisals.
Religions do not deserve the support of the rules of politeness when it comes to their truth and falsity. The public sphere should not revere indiscriminately everything that tries to halo itself with the name of religion. The secular public sphere should feel no such shyness about sacrilege, blasphemy and treating religion rudely less it implicitly be in the political thrall of the religious sphere. To so refrain from unqualified, scrupulously rational, public criticism of religion is to favor and support it implicitly. This is intolerable. Forcing atheists to honor the excessive reverences of religious feelings is coercing atheists to treat as sacrosanct that which their own consciences do not judge to be genuinely sacrosanct. This goes beyond normal social politeness and deference to other cultures’ traditions to the point of atheists having to de facto accept religious restrictions in their own right, on account of their being religious. That’s intolerable to my atheistic conscience and should be to other atheists’ consciences as well, as it cuts to our very right to live thoroughly independent of deference to all religious authorities which we don’t believe in." Daniel Fincke, "Follow up on Dan Savage's attack on the Bible that inspired walkouts."

From Blag Hag:

"We can use “bullshit” to describe ideas like astrology, reptilian conspiracies, alien abductions, Big Foot… but God is off limits, despite being equally ridiculous.
That’s why Christian groups cry foul when someone points out flaws in their religion. It’s not their emotions that are so fragile: It’s their faith. Because Christianity, like all religions, simply cannot stand up to questioning. It’s why so many parts of the Bible actively denounce questioning faith. It’s why Christians have to run out of talks and make press releases about persecution. Because Christianity crumbles in the face of history, biology, and analytical thinking. Silencing dissent is the only way for Christianity to survive." Jen McCreight, "Christianity is bullshit, and I'm not apologizing for saying that."

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sen. Gretchen Whitmer for President!

Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, ally of Michigan youth 

In 2008, a clear majority of voters in the state of Michigan sent a strong message to their legislators that they approve of stem cell research and want it to go forward in their state universities. The University of Michigan has gained a reputation as a world leader in stem cell research for cures for several diseases and the people of the state rightly wanted that reputation - and the valuable research for which it was justly earned - to continue unmolested by partisan politics fueled by powerful special interest groups. So, of course you can guess what is coming.

Last year, Michigan house Repubicans, to please their socially conservative corporate backers, decided to execute an end run around the will of the people by inserting language into education funding bills demanding detailed - and unnecessarily burdensome - reports on details of the stem cell research over and above what had previously been required by the law. During the contentious debates which followed, the Republicans went as far as suggesting that the university was evading established rules of accountability to obtain funding underhandedly. Using the most devastating play in the conservative right-wing's handbook, the Republicans appealed to the well-tended public distrust of intellectualism and science, conflating them with their liberal anti-god conspiracy fears which have been equally carefully nurtured over the past few decades by the religious right and its political arm, the Republican party.

Democrats trying to prevent yet another Republican religious attack on higher education argued passionately to repeal the onerous language which had been inserted into the funding bill last year (and which threatens to be continued this year). In spite of these efforts - and in direct defiance of the will of the people who voted in November 2008 to allow stem cell research to proceed - the Republican controlled House and Senate passed the punitive, research-suppressing measures.

It seems that the corporate and religious right is perfecting its strategy to completely bypass the democratic process, undermine the republic and achieve its goal of near total power through a puppet democracy.  Thanks to Citizens United, they can now operate as super citizens - a tiny, elite and powerful group controlling 99% of the country's wealth - by pouring money into campaigns to ensure the elections of their personal agents in legislatures across the country. Using the Republican party as their political arm, powerful special interests - nearly always an alliance of churches and corporate "citizens" - now effectively rule the United States. Sadly, they have achieved this oligarchy with the willing compliance of millions of "moderate" Americans who have remained unwilling to rock the boat of their comfortable religious communities by speaking out against religious influence on public policy.

Senator Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, spoke out on the education funding nightmare, defending the right of American students and researchers to continue to receive the funding which the people of Michigan have declared they are entitled to receive.

In addition to fighting to save the world-class reputation of Michigan universities, Senator Whitmer has also stood up courageously for gay Michigan youth. In the fall of 2011, she gave this powerful speech on bullying after the Senate passed the Matt's Safe School Law. The outrageous law, cruelly named after a young Michigander who had been driven to suicide by relentless bullying by religious schoolmates, was touted as an "anti-bullying" law, but in fact gave legal protection to bullies whose persecution of others is justified by their religious beliefs.

Watch Sen. Whitmer's brief, but powerful remarks:

While religious conservatives and their corporate allies celebrate their almost total dominance of American government and society, there still remain a few dedicated voices for social justice and liberal ideals. Senator Gretchen Whitmer stood up for Michigan youth, for education and for scientific research, all anathema to the oligarchy which seeks to reduce American society to an uneducated feudal state.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What? War On Secularism, Too?

Got that heathens? Secularism is not only unnatural, but harmful!

Read Rick Perlstein's article Behind the Right's Phony War on the Nonexistent Religion of Secularism.

"The professional right had found its substitute for the Red Menace. In many ways "secular humanism" was Communism’s superior as an organizing tool, because it so handily took the fight directly to the bloodiest crossroads in our political culture: the space between the public school and the home. There is no more effective way to organize against liberalism than to argue that liberals are invading the sacred precinct of the nuclear family – the basic unit of government under God's covenant, as the "Christian Reconstructionist" Rousas J. Rushdoony, father of the home-schooling movement, argued in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education. The power-grabbing would-be-messiah government must be defeated, argued Connie Marshner, a Heritage Foundation staffer influenced by Rushdoony, if Christians were to "reverse the coming of the secular humanist state."

Women Unite 4.28.12

To salute the WomenUnite rallies protesting the War on Women. 

I cannot believe that we are still fighting this battle in 2012.

Saturday Inspiration - 4 Questions

For your Saturday Inspiration, please take a few minutes to listen to this intelligent young woman answering questions from a theist friend.  It will help bolster your conviction that some young people are managing to become free thinkers in spite of the cultural indoctrination and enormous privilege that religion enjoys all over the world.

Notable and quotable:  (on the value of prayer in difficult situations) "I have to say, that I have never been in a situation that I could do...literally...nothing about. There is always something more useful that you can do than pray. Always." (7:02)

This week, and probably for the next few weeks,  my posts are going to be focusing on issues that are important to children, teens and young adults in our demon-haunted world.  Young people like FactVsReligion will be featured. I welcome suggestions for other great videos!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hmmm... Homeschooling...

Why are there so many infants in this homeschooling logo?  Curious!

I have been curious about homeschooling lately. I have always been pretty certain that I lack the temperament for it, because even though I always loved spending time exploring with my kids when they were younger - not to mention reading and amassing a book collection worthy of small library status - I really did not think I had the organizational skills nor the sticktoitiveness necessary for success. I have to admit, though, that some days the idea of sailing around the world with my partner and our kids - providing them with the best darn home schooled education imaginable -  is very tempting indeed!

Actors portraying the Nifty family:
citizens of the world!
Anyway, this week I have had more than the usual number of those days and thoughts about sailing away have been drifting pleasantly across my mind, so this morning - just for fun - I decided to look into what kind of resources are out there to help people like me. You know: people who like to daydream about how cool it would be to sail the world with teenaged offspring, living off the grid- independently and self-sufficiently! - learning new skills (maybe the kids could learn a few things, too) and generally becoming quite literally the coolest family on the planet!  The same people who fail to consider the challenges and frustrations of trying to help said offspring finish their high school education while gallivanting around the globe (killjoy!).

Everyone knows that the homeschooling movement in the USA is dominated by religious fundamentalists - the movement was actually inspired by Rousas John Rushdoony, the Calvinist father of American Christian Reconstructionism - but I happen to know at least one secular homeschooler (Hi Jenn!)  so it has to be at least hypothetically possible that not everything connected to homeschooling would have to be drenched in the blood of Jesus.

Yikes! Website banner for Homeschooling
Education in the shadow of the cross? That is just creepy.
This morning, I decided to idly surf the web to see what resources would be out there for a parent seeking curricula, textbooks and supporting materials in order to provide a good, non-religious homeschooling experience for her children.  I found a secular homeschooling website!  The Secular Homeschool Community homepage lists forums, blogs, groups and resources tabs for homeschooling parents who wish to provide their children with an excellent, broad-ranging, thorough education that is not based upon religious dogma.  Excellent!

Perusing the google search page again, I typed in homeschool textbooks to see how easy it might be to find books and materials to support a homeschooling curriculum as suggested on the website.  At the top of the search results was Homeschooling Books. I clicked on it only to discover that it was obviously geared toward the Christian homeschooling community in spite of its deceptively bland website name and description.

The next site I opened, sporting an equally bland name (Homeschool Supercenter!) looked much more promising.  Their textbook menu included specifically Christian resources and texts, of course, since the majority of homeschooling families are homeschooling for explicitly religious reasons. But at the top of the menu - even before the undoubtedly more popular Christian resources - were several categories of secular textbooks!

Feeling delighted that the second most referred site on the google search for homeschool textbooks offered resources for secular homeschooling, I clicked on the secular science tab and voilĂ !  A little intermediary page of full curricula packages popped up. On it, not one real science package was featured, but prominently displayed on the top line was "Apologia", a creationist vomitus of Biblical mythology and anti-education, wrapped up in a fancy package with a SCIENCE label slapped on it.

I have news for the Homeschool Supercenter:  creationism is not science. Calling it science does not make it science. Slapping on a SCIENCE label not only will not make that creationist dreck science, but it is false advertising as well.

8th edition of a creationist textbook
Further perusal of that site unearthed what looked to be some actual science resources, but after the bait and switch in the first layers of link clicking before finding the real science buried under the stealth religion, I am not sure it would be wise to purchase them.  I think a secular homeschooler would need to research every text she is considering for her children.

It must be interesting - not to mention a constant training ground for investigative skills - for secular homeschoolers to avoid the traps that appear to have been laid for them by the Christian homeschool movement. Presenting religious mythology in sciency-looking packages and hiding religious dogma in sciency-sounding language in textbooks and materials is the sneaky tactic used by the religious right to trick people into buying that garbage. If they are really lucky, they hope that people will buy into the nonsense, too, thus fulfilling the greater goal of the religious education strategy, which is to deny children a full education - especially denying them an understanding of the scientific method, free thought and skeptical critical thinking skills - thus keeping them ignorant, fearful followers of the teachings of their church.

Parents are free, of course, to deny their children a full education. In fact, it appears that millions have decided to do just that. Encouraged by anecdotal data which point to superior performance of homeschoolers compared to public school educated children, many homeschool parents are rightly proud of what their children  - and they - are able to achieve. But those "statistics"* hide the complete story. Standardized tests can only test what children can regurgitate under less than ideal conditions, not how well-devloped their critical thinking skills have become. There is no way to know whether they have been taught to simply memorize actual scientific theories (which they are told are lies) for testing purposes, while being taught that religious mythology is the actual truth which they must believe or face eternal damnation.

Christian homeschooling websites often post
 optimistic - and totally fabricated - charts like this.
Homeschooling parents who use religious texts for science and history education deny their children access to reality. Worse, like the sciency-sounding but educationally bankrupt creationist textbooks and materials with which homeschoolers dazzle each other and obfuscate reality, the Christian home-schooled child evinces an educated-sounding pseudo-intellectualism which masks a chasm of ignorance so deep the child may literally never be able to climb out of it.

The Christian homeschooling movement continues to grow. According to hopeful Christian homeschooling websites (quickly google** "homeschooling statistics" or similar), it will continue to grow a lot.  I wonder if secular homeschooling is likewise growing?  I am going to keep my eye on this topic because it is related to some other things I am working on about education and the power of the religious right.

Meanwhile, however, I will just keep dreaming!

*My own informal search on the internet for a source of this type of "statistic" report outside the homeschool community turned up zilch. All of the charts and diagrams showing homeschooling superiority that filled pages of goggle** search results came from homeschooling websites and blogs.
** I accidentally typed "goggle" instead of "google", but really, I did sort of goggle at it, too.

Thank Gods It's FreyaDay!

Good morning, Humans.

It is the last Friday in April. There was frost outside this morning.

I do not like to be cold. I do not like frost in April.

I will lie up here on top of the fridge where it is warm. I will stay here until springtime if I must.

It is the last Friday in April and it was frosty this morning!

Thank gods it's FreyaDay!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thorsday Tonic - The Burden of Proof

(via Friendly Atheist) QualiaSoup on The Burden of Proof.

Just after I finished up my post about the conviction, without evidence, of Catherine Snow in 1834, Hemant Mehta posted this excellent video about a related topic on his blog.  Good timing!

If you've ever found yourself in a frustrating and seemingly pointless debate with a determined theist, here is a video which will explain to you what is happening, and hopefully help you to see how you can approach the theist in a way that might get hir to understand why hir "debating" methods are not honest.

Of course, it also explains why most theists are so resistant to understanding anything of the sort, but at least you will know!

(My only complaint about this superb video - what is up with the one-eyed characters?)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Valuable Lesson Learned

Well, folks, I just spent the better part of this day working on tonight's Barmy Bible Study - hours of work
- and somehow, some way, the post has disappeared.  I was just finishing it up - moving a photo from one spot to another and clicked "remove" to remove the duplicate photo and    !    the entire post vanished!

Let that be a lesson to me:  I must learn to compose posts offline and transfer over somehow.  This is something I really hate to have to do because the post never migrates over properly, and in the end you have to fuss with it exactly as I just did now - which means I could still lose it.  Except, possibly I would have a back-up copy, I guess.

Just posting to complain because this seriously stinks.

Then and Now - Woman Hanged for Being A Slut

Catherine Mandeville Snow, last slut to be hanged in Newfoundland

One month ago, on Thursday, March 29 in St. John's NL, a mock re-trial of the infamous 1834 case of Catherine Snow was held.  Mrs. Snow was the last woman to be executed in Newfoundland.  She was tried and convicted of the murder of her husband. Two men who worked for the husband were also tried and convicted of the murder. One of them was Catherine Snow's cousin and alleged lover, the other an indentured servant.  The husband, John Snow, had disappeared in August 1833 and no trace of him was ever found. Catherine Snow protested her innocence of the crime right up until the moment of her execution.

After the recent mock retrial, several journalists reported with satisfaction that the modern "jury" of some 400+ citizens (both male and female in our "enlightened" age) had voted to overturn the conviction of Catherine Snow, and all hands appeared to be pleased that justice had finally been served. I am afraid I am of a far less agreeable temperament, however. I am too inconveniently inclined to look not just at the general outcome of a vote, but at the details and what they might say about how people think. Which is why I have written about this today.

The case was notorious because Catherine Snow was widely believed to have been innocent of the murder of her husband, yet was convicted of the crime by an all-male jury reacting mainly to the accusation that she was an adulteress. There was no physical evidence at all connecting Catherine Snow to the crime.  Even for that time, such a deficiency of evidence would have ordinarily caused sufficient doubt about a person's guilt to prevent a murder conviction - and perhaps even prevent a wrongful arrest in the first place - especially when there were two people already convicted who had confessed to the crime.

But Catherine Snow's case was special, you see.  She was a woman, and a wife. As a wife, she was the property of her husband, John Snow, in accordance with English common law in the 1830's. Because she was little more than a piece of chattel, a woman's human rights were almost non-existent. Unlike a male prisoner, Catherine Snow was not considered a person of equal worth to a man,  so the care that might normally have been given to ensure that justice was served in a capital crime trial appears to have been considered unnecessary.
Gossip soon branded Catherine Snow
an adulteress, crippling her defense.

Moreover, as a woman who may have been unfaithful to her owner/husband, she was a "wretched woman" and a "sinner" of a most particular kind, who deserved to be punished.  Gossip and rumor from John Snow's home-townspeople was enough to tarnish Catherine's Snow's reputation which, in turn, was enough to prejudice a judge and jury to convict her without evidence - and apparently without hesitation - even when the penalty for the conviction was death.

Likewise, the indentured servant, Arthur Spring, was John Snow's property. In those harsh times, it was difficult to survive indentured servitude - what with beatings, overwork and the habitual refusal of owners to honor the terms of 'contracts', only about 40% of indentured servants survived to avail of their eventual emancipation - but should a servant dare to challenge a master's authority, the full weight of the law and the citizenry would come down to crush him or her.  Just like runaway slaves in the USA during that era, indentured servants were hunted down if they ran away from an abusive master, and the law would punish anyone who tried to help them:

"Deserted, from the service of the Subscriber, on Monday last, JOSEPH DELANEY, an indented apprentice, about 5 feet 3 inches in height; had on a Moleskin Jacket and Blue Trousers. Whoever harbours or employs the said apprentice, after this public notice, shall be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law. JOHN BERRIGAN, Tailor, St. John's, June 6, 1833." (item in local newspaper)

According to testimony, John Snow was a moody, difficult, possibly violent man.  He is believed to have beaten his wife and mistreated his servants. None of this was considered relevant in the murder trial, perhaps rightly so, but it begs the question of why other irrelevant testimony was allowed by the judge and taken into consideration by the jury. For example, there was no evidence connecting Catherine Snow to the crime of the alleged murder and disappearance of her husband, but the court heard repeated references to her alleged infidelity and to the reports that Catherine was believed to have fought back against John Snow's beatings by throwing things at him.

Most of the 1834 jury - male citizens all - would also have been the owners of wives and indentured servants.  Just the idea that a wife and a servant might have had the audacity to plot with the wife's alleged lover to murder their owner no doubt chilled the blood in the jurors' veins.  A woman trying to take her fate into her own hands - defying her husband, fighting back against his "discipline", taking a lover - seems to have been so upsetting to these men that they convicted Catherine Snow of the murder of her husband out of fear that she might embolden other women (like their wives) and as a punishment for her rebellion against her lot in life.  In spite of confessions from the actual killers - including outright testimony from one of the killers that Catherine Snow had known nothing of the plot (even though he had nothing to gain by exonerating her) - and in spite of the fact that there was absolutely no evidence to support the charges, the jury, knowing very well that she would be sentenced to death, took less than half an hour to convict her.

They convicted her, basically, because they saw her as a rebellious slut. They convicted her because they wanted to make an example of her.  The male citizens of the colony wanted to send a clear message to women: never forget that a woman whose reputation had been ruined - whether by her own actions or by the malicious gossip of others does not matter - would be stripped of any defense for any crime,  She would be judged on her perceived character, not on whether or not there was any evidence that she is guilty of a crime. Shorter version: sluts would be shown no mercy.

At the retrial last month, it was established that the facts of the case are clear. There was a total absence of incriminating evidence against Catherine Snow in 1834 and this fact remains undisputed today. No new evidence which might have pointed unambiguously to her guilt was ever brought forward. The woman was wrongfully executed and the modern "trial" was meant to demonstrate how modern social mores - and stricter legal protections that "guarantee" that convictions will be based upon evidence - are superior to those of a bygone era.

And then they held the vote.

A majority (approximately 250) of the modern "jurors" voted to acquit Catherine Snow, which led to the jubilant reports about the exoneration for Catherine Snow, the wonders of modern justice and the superiority of modern egalitarian sensibilities. Not widely reported, however, was that nearly 200 of the assembled "jurors" withheld their "aye" for acquittal, declaring that there was not enough evidence to acquit.

You've read that correctly: nearly half of a crowd of modern men and women, living in a society which claims to go by the principles of innocent until proven guilty and convictions based upon evidence, would not acquit a defendant of a crime for which there was no evidence against her and, furthermore, made the astonishing assertion that in order to acquit, they would require evidence of innocence.  Apparently, unless Catherine Snow could prove that she did not murder her husband (your honor, here is a gun without my fingerprints on it - and here is another gun without my fingerprints on it - and another...) - obviously a nearly impossible task since there was no physical evidence in the case - these jurors refused to acquit, leaving the ghost of Catherine Snow still languishing in jail, I guess. They were not going to acquit her because there was no evidence not connecting her to the crime. WTF?

Also, four modern "jurors" voted "guilty". Apparently, they had just arrived from 1834 via some sort of time machine.

The self-congratulatory reporting on CBC and in the local newspaper, TheTelegram, focused only on the majority opinion. The full vote was glossed over and even the verdict - acquittal - was incorrectly reported with misleading headlines like "Retrial Finds Last Hanged Woman Not Guilty". The story was spun as an example of modern fairness and equal treatment of both genders before the law. Aren't we just the best society now?

CNNs Mary Snow, a descendent of
Catherine Snow is working on a
book about her infamous ancestor.
I guess I am just curmudgeonly. Being far less inclined to uncritically accept the rosiest interpretation of this event, I insist on focusing on the large minority who did not vote for acquittal - and the fraction who, incredibly, still voted "guilty". What does it say about modern society when a case this clearcut can still only produce a split decision, rather than the unanimous acquittal that the facts of the case demand (after failing to result in the resounding dismissal it ought to have received instead of ever having gone to trial at all).  Spectators remarks - and particularly some misogynistic comments below the news articles - reveal that slut-blaming and slut-punishing are alive and well.

We talk of how things have gotten so much better for women.  In some ways, things have gotten better. Since about midway through the 20th century, in some western countries at least, women have finally ceased to be the legal property of men for the first time in history. Stories like this, however, reveal just how deeply cultural misogyny is ingrained. If Catherine Snow was really on trial today, I am uncomfortable with her odds. We've still got a long way to go.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Isn't That Just Ducky!

Ducky and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

I am Ducky the puppy. I like to play outside.

I like to play while my human makes pictures on the pavement.

I sniff the ground and pull on my leash.  I like the picture!

I am Ducky the puppy and I think my human is full of win!

Isn't that just Ducky!

Tuesday Tonic - Through These Godless Eyes

(via Left Hemisphere)

Philhellenes hits another one out of the park.

"...Children of Abraham, as kind and as good as you are being a follower of the Abrahamic god, you are essentially telling me that the creator of the universe once roamed this planet, pointed at a human child and said, 

'Kill that - for me.' 

What am I supposed to do?  
Tell you that you may have a point?"

Good timing, this.  The story of Abraham and Isaac is cued up for Wednesday's Barmy Bible Study.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Vatican Reprimands Women Religious

The LCWR march to support preservation of the Louisiana wetlands

[This is the first post on this story. A very cool follow-up post can be found here.]

When the stories about Catholic women religious and clergy coming under fire from the Vatican for upholding true Christian values*  made the rounds of the news cycle last week, a lot of people were surprised to learn that any Catholic organizations might actually be working for social justice. But there are orders of women religious (aka nuns or sisters) who have been quietly providing real help for the poor and the marginalized in our society (and around the world) - no religious conversion or test required - and they have been doing so for years. Catholic orders of women religious have been working tirelessly for decades with the most disadvantaged people in society, and often in direct - if quiet - defiance of the official stance of the Church hierarchy

Public antipathy toward the Catholic Church as an institution has grown and is understandable given the heinous crimes and even more heinous denials and cover up that have rocked the church over the past few decades. Catholic politicians like Rick Santorum - whose Catholic fundamentalism is terrifying in its coldly relentless misogyny - has further entrenched the public perception of the Catholic Church as an authoritarian, ultra-conservative, misogynistic organization that seems to be completely forgetting its frequently stated mission to promote social justice.

Sadly, this characterization is undeniably true.  It is a reality that is obvious to objective observers, but which has gone largely unnoticed by parishioners who continue to participate in their traditional communities happily (willfully?) oblivious to the church's recently renewed rightward tilt. One of the things every Catholic knows is that one can visit a Catholic Church almost anywhere in the world and feel at home. The liturgy, the music, the incense - care has always been taken to ensure conformity around the world so that a Catholic community can transcend national borders and national loyalties. It is this conformity and continuity which has lulled many Catholics into a false sense that the Church that they grew up with in the 60's 70's and even the 80's - an emerging progressive and ecumenically-minded Church focused on social justice - has continued to progress. The soothing sameness of Catholic rituals and celebrations served to smooth over and conceal the rightward lurch of the church hierarchy from its rank and file members. People were fooled by the same old-same (wonderful) old appearance of the Church they grew up loving and admiring, while behind that mask, the progressive and socially conscious movement that had at long last been launched by Vatican ll was being dismantled and discarded.

I almost feel like thanking Rick Santorum for bringing the hard-right swerve of the church to the public's attention - and particularly to the attention of sleeping progressive Catholics. While still not quite mainstream Catholicism, this fundamentalist strain of Catholicism has been resurging under the radar for over four decades (the most conservative elements began pushing back even before the Vatican ll council was adjourned), until it has come to dominate the church in a way which is bewildering to many liberal Catholics, and frightening to secular Catholics and non-Catholics. Clearly, though, Catholics are waking up to this reality now and even more clearly, many of them are not happy about it.

On the heels of the contraception debacle, some Catholic clergy are now in hot water for defying the hierarchy and refusing to lobby their parishioners to oppose gay marriage. Polls showed that a whopping 90+% of Catholics use forms of birth control other than the approved "natural family planning" (aka the "rhythm method") and that the vast majority of Catholics support the coverage of contraception by employer insurance, defying the official church position against contraceptive coverage. Perhaps encouraged by the solidly progressive views of a majority of ordinary practicing Catholics, a few priests have begun to refuse to obey their archbishops on other issues where they cannot, in good conscience, agree with the Church.

In Seattle, WA, at least two Catholic priests have refused to gather signatures for a petition for a referendum to ban gay marriage, defying the explicit urging of their Archbishop, Peter Sartain. Among the dissenters were Rev. Michael Ryan of St James Cathedral and Rev. John Whitney, SJ.(Jesuit) of St. Joseph's.

Rev. Michael Ryan
"I have decided that we will not participate in the collecting of signatures in our parish. Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community." Rev. Michael Ryan, St. James Cathedral, Seattle.

"The leadership of the church sometimes confronts the world as an enemy of the Spirit. The church needs greater humility and openness." Rev. John Whitney, SJ. St. Joseph Catholic Church, Seattle.

"I am particularly concerned about our youth who may be questioning their own sexual identity and need our support at this time in their lives." Pastoral life coordinator, St. Mary's Church, Seattle.

Rev. Ryan, in particular seems to have risked serious censure by defying the archbishop because he is the pastor at the archbishop's home parish, the archdiocese Cathedral of St. James. But Rev. Whitney, as a Jesuit, has also taken a bold and courageous step:  Jesuits take a specific vow of obedience to the Pope, over and above the usual clerical vows taken by other orders. So far, though, there has not been a reaction from the church like, for example, public censure of the priests.

Interestingly, however, there has been a seemingly out- of-nowhere attack by the Church hierarchy on women in the Church. During the same week that this open act of defiance from priests was occurring in Washington State, news broke that the the Vatican had issued a stunning reprimand of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (story from NPR) for their stance on social issues.  It may be a coincidence that the Vatican has assigned Archbishop Peter Sartain - yes, Archbishop Sartain of Seattle - to investigate and oversee an overhaul of the nun's association. In keeping with the Bible-based and historically deep-seated misogyny of the Catholic Church, it would appear that the Vatican's outrage over acts of defiance from within the clergy could only be adequately assuaged by chastising and humbling female servants of God. Quelle surprise!

What stance suddenly and so deeply enraged the Vatican, you might ask?  Why, that would be the sisters' long-standing (and publicly expressed) view that social justice should never become a political kickball.  It would be their stance that, as women religious, they have a duty and a right to follow their conscience when serving people in need. It would be their stand that when the requirements for social justice conflict with Catholic doctrine, that perhaps it is the doctrine which should be evaluated and not justice that should be sacrificed.  On the website for their social justice lobby, these sisters regularly expressed views which have only now landed them in a great deal of trouble with the men of cloth.

Check out these radical feminists!
The sisters' work and their opinions are not actually news to people who work with them, but as so often has been the case over the centuries, the Vatican largely ignored the women religious. Though these women have taken on the lion's share of the Church's work giving aid and comfort to the poor and suffering, they are rarely acknowledged and even more rarely praised by the male hierarchy for their efforts. Yet, in a time of social upheaval, when issues surrounding women's rights have come to the fore, the Vatican is suddenly focusing on the women they have branded "radical feminists" and punishing them for the sins of moral independence and following their social conscience led by their understanding of the teachings of Christ. They have been given notice that they will be taken in hand by Archbishop Sartain, and their entire cooperative of women religious may be completely overhauled to conform to new, stricter Vatican boundaries including - naturally - a male overseer.

The sisters are not taking this harsh censure with complete submission.  These are women who love God and love the Church, but they also believe in social justice and - though their spokeswoman stops just short of saying the Vatican is dead wrong - they have steadfastly defended their position, in spite of the painful sense of rejection and humiliation:

Sr. Simone Campbell
"And it's not about the giving up but it's about the fidelity to the call to be faithful to the Gospel and have that so unseen and to have this edict never mention the Gospel, never mention the responsibility to be God's arms and hands with people who are poor and suffering, the people at the fringes, people who suffer injustice, to have that not at all seen is extremely painful." Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of  Network.

Allowing that the edict was like "a sock in the stomach," Sr. Simone nevertheless was generous enough to offer an apologia for the Vatican's unexpected slap down:

"When you don't work every day with people who live on the margins of our society, it's much easier to make easy statements about who's right and who's wrong." Sister Simone Campbell.

Sr. Campbell is more generous - and more submissive to unearned male authority and privilege -  than the Vatican or the Pope deserve.  It should not be surprising that the pervasive misogyny in the Catholic Church which would happily see women everywhere subjugated as inferior, less than human beings, extends even to its servants inside the Church, but somehow it still is. The Church has shown its moral bankruptcy in so many ways throughout its history, but has generally had clever enough leadership to hold on to its position of "moral authority" in society, in spite of behavior which has shown it to be the complete opposite in every way.  The one thin beacon of light in the entire decrepit organization has been the outreach work of people like the women religious, and the Vatican seems determined to snuff it out.

Women helping women.
Retired nuns volunteer to tutor
women for GED

I am a little late getting this post off the writing desk. Started this post last week before, you know - crime - but I still wanted to write about it. There was a time in my life when I was determined to join one of the orders now under the umbrella of the LCWR - when I was fired up with enthusiasm to pursue the kind of "mission" that would be unrecognizable to anyone unfortunate enough to be the target of what opportunistic, proselytizing evangelical churches call "missions" today.  "Sisters" were models of strong womanhood; performing important, meaningful work, giving up comforts and conveniences to minister to the poor and sometimes risking their lives to bring nursing, education and other humanitarian aid to people in war-torn places. In an era when strong female role models (not to mention prospects for a life of adventure) were exceedingly rare for girls, these women exemplified one of the few pathways that a girl could embark upon to make a difference in the world outside of domesticity. 

The people who made the news last week for displeasing their Church masters represent the kind of Catholicism that almost was. The courageous work of Catholic women religious, and the recent willingness of some Catholic clergy in Washington to challenge the Church hierarchy represent the kind of loving and inclusive Christian stance that I once believed permeated the Catholic Church.  While I have rightly abandoned any romantic delusions of that kind over the past several years, it is a relief to know that my youthful belief that there were sincere people who devoted their lives to the social mission of the Church was not entirely without foundation.

*Not to be confused with the brutally hypocritical True Christian Values™ of the religious right.

More in touch with the rest of humanity than most religious people, sisters at Villa Maria by the Sea  host an annual surfing contest.

Mondays Rock!

Need some get up and go on a Monday morning?

Stand up, turn the volume up and enjoy the sunshine!

Katrina & The Waves:  Walking on Sunshine

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day

To mark Earth Day, 2012,  here are a few verses from the Digital Cuttlefish (complete poem here):

Recycled star
Is what we are
With everything we see
This view of things
Amazement brings
At least, it does to me

Some future day
I know we may
Be swallowed by the sun
For what it’s worth
Protect the Earth–
We’ve only got the one.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Liberal Media, Godless Scientists...Murderous Doctors?

Will doctors refuse to play the "enforcer"?

I was recently thrilled to see a doctor stepping forward to call government intrusion into the private decisions of female citizens the outrage that it is. I think it bears reposting. Writing anonymously, the doctor made a case for principled medicine, and provided some tips on how doctors should practice civil disobedience in states where these ghastly laws are in effect. The essay was originally posted on the blog Whatever.  Also anonymously. I think that is disturbing.

Christian terrorism is rarely called
out by a cowed and cowardly media.
When citizens feel they can only speak out "anonymously", the chilling irony should not be lost on us - it should be ringing alarm bells. Loudly. People who still believe in the principles of equality and freedom, even if they do not agree that it might be a good idea to consult experts before writing terrible laws, ought to be worried when free speech is suppressed. People who value a free society should be horrified that there are citizens among them who are too frightened to speak openly when they disagree with the government.

Some doctors are angry about being used by the government to intimidate a subset of its citizens. They are rightly aghast at being compelled to be the brutal enforcers of this Republican governmental violation of women's most basic human dignity - doctors being forced by law to commit state-mandated rape as a method of anti-abortion rights coercion - when there is no medical reason for compulsory testing of this kind prior to an abortion. Some have begun to realize that part of the anti-abortion strategy is to undermine both their authority as medical experts and their trusted position in society. But most of these doctors remain silent.  And the very few who do speak out, tend to do so anonymously. Why?

Christian jubilation after the
murder of Dr. Tiller sends a clearly
threatening message to doctors.
One reason is pressure from within the profession. Some doctors are perfectly happy to put religious ideology over the welfare of their female patients and may privately support laws forcing their peers to bow to church authority.  Many other doctors are understandably alarmed by the violent rhetoric and physical harassment directed at pro-choice doctors by anti-choice groups, so they pressure their peers not to offer the full range of women's health services, not to speak out about the immorality of withholding appropriate medical care, not to make waves which could endanger them all. The few doctors who dare to protest unconstitutional laws based on religious ideology are intimidated into anonymity by threats to their livelihoods and reputations and even threats to their physical safety. They are presented with an ethical catch-22 situation: they know that invasive procedures - including vaginal penetration with an ultrasound wand against a patient's will and for no legitimate medical reason - goes against everything most doctors say they believe about doing no harm to a patient, but those who try to apply those ethics to women patients are threatened with prosecution if they disobey these draconian anti-woman laws.

Already wealthy, tax-exempt churches
lobbied for access to federal funds to
duplicate secular public services. The churches
can  supplement their grants with cash
from their own fat reserves and wait patiently
for the cash-strapped secular agencies
 to starve and shut down, leaving the field
clear for a total church takeover.
The intimidation of doctors is just the latest in a steady round of attacks on traditionally respected professions by an unholy alliance of religious and corporate elites and their political arm, the Republican party. Their long term strategy is to replace the current political system in the United States - democratic republicanism - with an authoritarian theocratic regime: a Bible-based government, led by godly men and answerable only to God (whose "commands" are, naturally, communicated only through those same godly men). That strategy has relied heavily on the tactic of stirring up fear, suspicion and resentment to undermine public confidence in an array of once-trusted professions while simultaneously planting and building churches around the country. The targeted groups have long been hated by religious hardliners and wealthy, powerful elites because of their relative inability to control the information coming from these sources. The goal is to replace the secular resources that serve society with church-controlled resources.

Republican candidates like
Rick Santorum vied for the title
of "most devout Christian"
to the delight of the
religious elites.
Republican strategists capitalized on the natural (but usually milder) anti-intellectualism that is common in a population that believes it can point to its own physical strength, raw ingenuity and dogged determination for the country's success as much as, if not more than, the work of highly educated, high-falutin' "experts". When tough economic times hit the middle class hard in the late 70's and again in the early 90's, those smoldering resentments were all too easily fanned into the raging flames of a culture war. Government agencies (It's not Uncle Sam, it's big brother!), scientists (godless evilutionists!), teachers (lazy, freeloading glorified babysitters!) and journalists (It's not the free press, it's the commie, liberal media!) were the first casualties of the manufactured "populist" rejection of formerly respected experts and secular representatives of peoples' interests. Political operatives worked hard to sow doubt, distrust and contempt for the essential human resources upon which a civil society relies and they have succeeded to an alarming degree. Where once a public servant's religious views were a non-issue, today virtually any candidate for public office in the USA must pass a religious test - specifically must display Christian bona fides - to have any hope of winning a nomination.

The attack on medical doctors - probably the most trusted profession in the modern era - is a part of this series of attacks on the secular foundations of American society. It is not accidental that doctors have joined scientists, teachers and journalists in the crosshairs of Republican operatives. Like scientists and journalists before them, doctors as a group were once able to work fairly independent of ideological influences. Individual doctors brought their own beliefs to their practices, of course, but the profession as a whole was not under pressure to conform to a particular politicized religious ideology.

This state of affairs could not be permitted by the Republicans or their powerful backers. Authoritarian political systems demand ideological purity and social conformity, so doctors - like journalists and scientists before them - posed a threat to the political ambitions of the Republican party, especially in terms of their strategy to use abortion as the rallying "cause" which could impassion voters enough to vote blindly against their own interests. If left unthreatened, doctors might challenge the lying propaganda that the anti-abortion movement was spreading and puncture the bubble of misguided passion the religious right had so carefully blown up. If permitted to retain their respected and trusted position in society, doctors might undermine the attempts of religious political operatives to replace trusted public resources with private Christian agendas.

Prison for doctors?
Hence the push for legislation which targets doctors as well as women. When pressed to say what penalty abortion should bring to a "guilty party" should their dream of criminalizing abortion be realized, anti-abortion leaders usually shy away from suggesting a punishment for the women involved (probably sensing that it would be a loser at the polls), but nearly all declare that, as the "butchers" who "kill babies", doctors should be thrown into prison for murder. Sensing the target on their backs, doctors have fallen silent as wave after wave of unconstitutional and medically unsound legislation has been passed, heaping untold misery upon women.

Thus, the goals of the Republican party may soon be achieved. Doctors may be rightly disrespected for standing silently by as the medical ethics they claim to believe in are violated by these laws: as women are grossly mistreated, legal medical procedures are withheld - even in potentially life-threatening situations - and patients are harmed by bad medical practices. Furthermore, doctors may be rightly distrusted by women (and many men) for many of the same reasons, in addition to the betrayal of doctor-patient trust upon which competent health care must rest.

If principled doctors fail to act to stop this looming crisis of public confidence, the consequences for society extend far beyond the impact on doctors and women. The public confidence has been successfully undermined in the media, in teachers and in scientists with predictably terrible results. Religious conservatives may claim that their holy books can provide all of the answers to the needs of humankind, but even science's most vindictive critics turn to medical science for help when a health crisis occurs or - irony of ironies! when they need assisted reproduction using technology developed through evolutionary science - while they work tirelessly to deny that opportunity to others. Should they, and other hypocrites like them, succeed in convincing enough people that doctors, like teachers and scientists, are not respectable authorities who can be trusted, then to whom will the people be able to turn when they need real assistance?

Keeping a low profile and hoping that this madness is only a temporary cultural spasm fueled by a fringe group of religious fanatics will be a mistake. It did not work for scientists, teachers or journalists.  It did not work for the people who believed such radical theocrats could never seriously win elections and form governments. It has not been working - with frightening consequences - and the situation will only get worse as long as professionals shrink back fearfully from challenging the lies and disinformation that are being deliberately disseminated to undermine public confidence in them. I am encouraged by the letter I linked to at the top of this post, but it sure would be nice to see many more doctors stand up and say "Enough is enough!".

The manipulation of public trust in doctors, scientists, teachers, the media, and even their elected representatives is a dangerous power play by the conservative right wing. Destroying trust in the resources best-equipped to provide the public with the services it needs is a strategy which has had terrible consequences for millions of people, and ultimately could tear apart the very fabric of our civil society.  That is a game that should never have been played.