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Yesterday I posted about a meme I saw over at Facebook, and I suggested that one major difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals think the government needs to protect citizens not just from foreign threats but also from domestic ones that are either too powerful or just too complex for people to confront on their own. I gave the example of healthcare, though I could have given others.

Gwynnyd and roh_wyn had a fascinating conversation which I mostly sat out of (and Brian made some thought-provoking comments over at FB). I'll admit I got a bit intimidated (and on my own blog!) – I'm still feeling a bit gunshy around conflict after having too much of it the last few days, and also the conversation really unrolled while I was away – too much to address to do an adequate job with any of it, unfortunately, by the time I got back to my computer. But it was fascinating. I encourage people to read it.

The exchange did remind me of a scene in The Handmaid's Tale. The book is dystopian fantasy, set in a world where many women can't reproduce and those that can are basically kept in sexual slavery as "handmaids." Think the Biblical story of Sarah, who gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham so she might bear children on Sarah's behalf. Fertility problems aside, the situation also is a reaction to women's lib, from a society dying of choice (in the book's words). The scene I was reminded of is about one of those handmaids, comparing her old situation where she earned a paycheck like most unmarried women do today, with her life after the revolution that made it illegal for her to work or earn money.

The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on the cracks. I'm remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. Though I never ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.

Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don't open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don't stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don't turn to look around. Don't go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.

It feels a bit odd to cite the Handmaid's Tale in the same breath as I'm advocating more of a role for the government, but I think this distinction is useful. It also serves as a warning in red letters six feet high about one major pitfall of relying on government. But I think that concern really relies on a certain way of thinking aboput what the government is.

Over at FB, Brian gave an analogy. We all know the saying "you'll follow my rules as long as you live under my roof. He's concerned about a similar thing happening with government: as long as people are relying on the government for things. Basically, the idea that people rely on the government means they aren't truly mature and the government can tell them what to do. If you think of the government as something above and beyond individual people, I can see how that makes sense. It's an other, an outside force that can exercise power over you – and that can be infantilizing.

I think I see government in a fundamentally different way. Government isn't something that oppresses us but that uplifts us. It forces people with a lot of power (or groups of the same, as in corporations) to play by certain rules so they don't run over the rest of us. It also provides a structure for those of us who don't have enough money or power to influence society all by our lonesome, to organize so our opinions have a role play in deciding what direction our society goes in. I think our democracy is more or less broken these days (and I blame our modern news culture for this at least as much as Citizens United). The realist in me doesn't really expect governments to act in the average citizen's best interests.

But I think we need to keep in mind that government is supposed to be by and for the people. It isn't dad keeping you from doing the cool stuff you want to because he still pays the bills; in many ways it's us, the collective us, and in others it's the big brother who makes sure that kids who have several years on us don't mess with us around the playground. Of course I'd love for the government to be unnecessary, but that's not because I think it's bad or oppressive; it's simply inefficient, and if the government did a good enough job giving opportunities to everyone that we had a decent distribution of wealth, I'd be happy to leave it up to everyone to satisfy their basic needs as best they can.

The thing is, though, so far the market hasn't obliged. I'm thoroughly middle class and there are times when I worry majorly about how I'll pay for health care. Sometimes how I'll pay for food, in the summer. And if I hadn't had family to live with after I graduated undergrad I'm not sure what I would have done. I looked long and hard but I was either overqualified (to the point of being unhireable), or the only work available was temp or part-time. (I actually had very few college loans, so that wasn't a huge issue.) And others are so much worse off than I am.

In light of that reality I don't really view dependence on the government as such a bad thing. Even if we look at things as more than just a practical matter. This is more about the sick needing treatment, the hungry needing food, etc. Rather I see it as empowering that there is a way the poor can go toe to toe with the rich. The government ought to be allowing everyone and not just the uber-rich to stand up and be counted. The fact that it doesn't is a great failure of democracy. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't imagine what it would be like if the government actually fulfilled this basic function, and try to make that wishful thinking into a reality.

All of which brings me back to the Handmaid's Tale quote. The irony's not lost on me! I mean, really, using a post-apocryphal story about the ravages of an all-invasive government to encouraging more government? And the story illustrates the ways government can go bad (and I'm as aware of that as anyone, and am all for vigilance against abuses of power). But this distinction between freedom-to and freedom-from has always struck me as profound. Aunt Lydia was perhaps being ironic, or being presented as absurd, but in other circumstances – ours, for instance – I think she's actually on to something. There's the freedom to not have other people make you do things you don't want to (freedom-from), but then there's also having the freedom and ability to do those things you want to do. And freedom is meaningless without the power to exercise it. Freedom-from is important, but freedom-to is crucial, too. That's worth remembering.

I know others won't see government this way. I'm actually not trying to convince people – just lay out more where I'm coming from. Life is still hectic just now and I am still answering MEFA emails, so I don't know if I'll reply to every comment. But do let me know what you think, whether you agree with this vision of government or see things in a different way. I'm definitely reading everything said.

Now off to grade papers. I have a hundred-odd pages of student attempts to evaluate the Euthyphro Dilemma or Russell's free-man's worship that need reading + marking over the next few days. Ah, summer school!

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Over at FB, a friend posted the following meme:

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This fascinated me, so much so that two days later I'm still thinking about it. It's a Reagan quote, which makes me think that this is supposed to be some kind of conservative ideal or something to show that conservatives are right. Here's the thing, though: I suspect most liberals would agree with Reagan's idea here, perhaps with just a small tweak.

All things being equal, I'm hard-pressed to imagine anyone who would want the government to run her life. It's big, it's blundering, and it's generally not very forgiving. Republicans are famous for this, and while American conservatism today usually doesn't live up to that ideal very well, the idea that Republicans want the government as small and unobtrusive as possible. The way I walways thought about it, Republicans want government to get out of the way as much as possible. Depending on the Republican, they might make exceptions for the national defense or the definition of marriage, but that's the basic idea.

Here's the thing, though: in my experience Democrats also don't want government to interfere more than it needs to. The difference is that Democrats think companies and non-profits and simply an unequal distribution of resources are just as much a danger that needs fighting as anything al-Qaeda has pulled off. If we'd worked out a way to give everyone the money necessary to meet their basic needs (food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc.) I'd be more than willing to shrink the government down so all it did was keep the borders secure and make sure the interstate highways were in working order, and maybe a few other extremely basic things like that. I'm actually not a fan of big government.

But Utopia's just a small town upstate, not any good description of how things actually work. Companies exist to make a profit, not help people or even treat them fairly. People have their own biases and will put their own family and friends' comfort over the basic needs of a complete stranger. And everyone comes with their own biases and ideologies, and will tend to act in a way that lives out those ideologies. This is just human nature and I don't know that it's particularly immoral that people act this way. (Not particularly saintly, either, but certainly not heinous.)

In light of this, I think a lot of the things Republicans consider "interfering" is protecting. Let's take one example: the insurance mandate and the blow-up over whether religious groups needed to pay for insurance covering procedures that went against the group's beliefs. I believe access to health care is a right, perhaps not legally but definitely philosophically. I also believe that each individual (not her employer) ought to be the one deciding which medical procedures she'll actually have. The medical system is expensive but also complicated, and so I don't think it's reasonable to ask any individual to navigate it on her own; it needs systemic reform, and it needs to be providing universal access. Both of those are big enough problems that you need a group action, organizing and implementing a system that makes at least basic health care affordable for every one. And this implementation needs to respect individual dignity and autonomy. That means that if I'm poor and I'm sick, I shouldn't have to rely on some charity that might have special requirements. I also shouldn't have to face special requirements to access government care that middle- or upper-class people don't face. (I'm thinking of people on Medicare who have to prove they were raped in order to get an abortion, or where the government says they can't buy certain kinds of food, or requires them to pass a drug test before they get tax dollars.

This all falls under the rubric of protecting people. The threat here isn't a terrorist cell but a company or individual or church or other institution imposing its ideology on other people. As I said, I can't imagine anything more natural in the world than a church using its resources to advance its agenda. Ditto for a company or civic group or even a wealthy individual. The way the government protects us, and in particular "the least of these," is by putting limits on what those groups can actually do.

This meme clarified for me a basic difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives seem to think the best way to get at liberty is by leaving people to their own devices. Liberals, I think, see threats other than national security threats that people need protecting from (or at least an organized, collective way to protect themselves), and they recognize that the best road to liberty often involves laying down some ground rules establishing just how much of public resources any one individual can claim. If society was equal enough that no one could take away what his neighbor truly needed, I'd be all for shrinking government down to the size of a breadbox. But, reality being what it is, I don't see that happening any time soon.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Atheist blogger Pharyngula shared a taxonomy of several different kinds of atheists:

(h/t Dan Fincke)

I found this all really interesting, because when I blog about religion and atheism, I often struggle to find a word to describe the movement. The movement seems to include people who are against organized religions as much as people who believe God doesn't exist for philosophical or scientific reasons, so the label atheist always struck me as a bit inappropriate. There are also the people who didn't want to believe anything without good evidence and just thought we couldn't be sure whether God exists (which I always thought of as agnostics), and of course the people who simply didn't think or care that much about God (secular humanists or the areligious more generally). Pharyngula's post does a good job at getting across the diversity of this movement.

To summarize Pharyngula... )

Reading this made me want to develop my own taxonomy of religious people, in particular of Christians. Read more... )

What's the point of all this? Three things.

First, I think Christians (and religions in general) often have their influence propped up. Lots of people claiming to be a Christian don't understand a lot of what Christianity is about. This should come as no great surprise to people who read their Bible; Jesus himself taught that "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 7:21) So just because someone calls himself a Christian, that doesn't mean his actions.

Of course when someone uses your name and you don't agree with what they're saying the onus is on you to correct them. But it's always easier to get people to read the headline item than the retraction. So if you think Christians do the craziest thing, it's worth figuring out whether it's actually genuine Christians contributing to the craziness. Atheists have less cultural atheists and atheists from convenience, I think, and so it's only fair to compare apples to apples.

Oh, and one other thing on that note? Influence goes both ways. Anders Breivik's Christianity only counts if people affected in the same degree by other philosophies (like Josef Stalin's atheism) count against those influences.

Second, I think all this makes religions seem more important than they really are. I never thought philosophies should be judged by how popular they are, but if we're doing that, again, it's only fair to compare apples to apples. If you want to look at what philosophies are doing well by how many followers they attract, look at the people who have actually thought about said philosophies. And if you want to use what percentage of those followers can actually give a good explanation for why they're a Christian or an atheist or whatever, again, you've got to look at people who are actually engaging with Christianity and atheism on the same level.

Finally, I think a lot of atheists would find they have a lot more in common with certain types of Christians than they think. If your point is that certain Christians' stances on homosexuality (or sex generally, or women's rights, or Obamacare, or…) is wrong, you might find natural allies in Christians like me who are a bit dismayed at what some people are doing in the name of our religion.

And when it comes to Christian pastors encouraging their flock to beat their effeminate sons, or Muslim girls being kicked out of schools, or ultra-orthodox Jews calling young girls sluts because their elbows aren't covered? I'm every bit as angry about that as any other human being, and just as eager to fight against it with anyone willing to pitch in.

What do you think of this way of splitting up Christianity? Did I miss anything? Where do you fall? (It may be more than one group; I consider myself both a psychological and philosophical Christian, personally.)

(Originally posted to LJ.)
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I've been volunteering with the Middle-earth Fanfiction Awards for longer than I've been on LJ. I've had to take a few breaks, for personal reasons, but for the most part it's been my online home more than anywhere else.

I used the past tense just now because that particular awards is ending. It's a bittersweet moment, to be sure, but today I'm focusing on the good memories of how much joy I got out of the awards. I really grew as a writer and as a person through that event, and I also made some of my best friends through those award. I know several people on my flist have been reacting to this news and I haven't commented, not because I don't care but because (as Legolas said) "for me the grief is too near." I really appreciate all of the email thank-yous I've received these last few days and will try to reply as soon as I can. I'm teaching summer school so I'm pretty busy in my offline life, and I'm also dealing with a hurt hand that makes it painful to type for too long at a stretch.

(It's actually quite bitter for me; but today I'm focusing on the sweet.)

A little while ago I made the last official MEFA announcements, thanking some of our volunteers and also talking about what the awards mean to me. It ended up being quite personal. I thought some of you might enjoy reading it:

Every year, I usually post stories that are MEFA-eligible which I invite people to nominate if they want to. I started this as a public service to people who read my work, since I don't always post my fiction in the same archives. And it kind of became a yearly tradition. Even though there's no MEFA this year, I'd still like to do a run-down of my recent work.

  1. biography of Sauron, written for the Silmarillion Writers Guild
  2. Nor By Jerusalem: a vignette looking at Caranthir's thoughts on the journey to Middle-earth.
  3. This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never: Elanor Gamgee remembers her childhood, on the night before her wedding.
  4. *With the Blood of Patriots: After Pelennor Fields, Faramir and Aragorn remember the fallen.
  5. Profiles in Courage: An essay re-examining Lobelia Sackville-Baggins's actions during the Shire's occupation.
  6. *But Have Not Love: Maedhros and Maglor, just after the sack of Doriath.
  7. *Not Because We Are Angels: Life must have been quite grim for Ar-Zimraphel in the years before Numenor's fall.
  8. We Still Remember, We Who Dwell: As penance for the previous piece (unusually angsty for me), I wrote something lighter. Maglor reunites with Elrond at Arwen's wedding.
  9. Finding God(s) in Middle-earth: I examine several incidents from The Silmarillion and speculate about how they might have shaped Gondorians' views on religion and the supernatural.
  10. *Like the Heathen Kings of Old: The aftermath of Denethor's pyre. Because when writing the previous essay, I was struck by a certain similarity between Denethor's pyre and the human sacrifice that occurred on Numenor.
  11. Beginnings: A moment shared between Curunir [Saruman] and Feanor, before either came to Middle-earth.
  12. The Point of the Sword: A Dunedain Ranger walks into a bar... (Swordspoint/LOTR crossover)
I also found a draft I'd written but never finished working with a beta on, with Bilbo learning about the Battle of Greenfields. I can't even remember who the beta was. Maybe it's time to polish that off?

Nearly all of these were written for Dawn's Back to Middle-earth Month. Thank you, dawn_felagund for organizing that!

(Stories with asterisks have graphic violence and themes that some people may find upsetting. Or attractive. In any case, you've been forewarned.)
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Sometimes the comics are more about profound truth than humor.

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(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Apparently Anderson Cooper came out as homosexual recently.

I usually get my news through blogs and the Daily Show and don't even own a TV, so most of the time what I hear about Mr. Cooper or any mainstream newsman is secondhand. Occasionally I've caught a piece by him when I'm on vacation somewhere or in a public place like a waiting room or airport. So while I'm not that familiar with him, he and Brian Williams have always struck me as some of the more dependable and interesting TV journalists out there. And the most reliable.

This coming out doesn't change that. I'm a straight, white woman rounding thirty. If I were lesbian, I'd still be a white woman rounding thirty. I'd still be, you know, me - and I'm sure my experiences and so my personality would change if I was part of that minority, but that would only change some things. Not everything.

The article I linked to above gave some details but also looks at whether this will change his reporting. And here's where it gets interesting.

The title is Does coming out change Anderson Cooper’s reporting?, but the first line asks Do you feel differently now about Anderson Cooper’s reporting? At first glance, these are two very different things, and they are, but when I stopped and thought about it the distinction got a bit muddier. It reminded me of a line I read somewhere a few weeks ago, about how in the sciences belief changes nothing (the sun still sits in the sky even if I believe it doesn't) but in the social sciences it can change quite a lot. People who believe they are free act free-er, and ditto for other perceptions.

Mad About you illustrate this really well. In this clip Paul and Jamie are on retreat at a resort, where they tell too many tall tales. Jamie explains the situation with another lie: that Paul is really mentally ill (without letting Paul in on the fib). Hilarity ensues:

Read more... )

Since a journalist needs to be perceived as unbiased to be effective in that role, the mere fact that he's perceived as biased in some area (like sexual politics) will affect the kind of stories he's able to tell and have really heard. I know in situations where some part of my identity isn't known by the person I'm talking to, I can push the envelope a bit more than I would otherwise (I can actually be more philosophical because I won't be written off with "of course she'd say that, she's a philosopher." And sub in Southerner, Christian, academic, liberal, Trekkie, whatever you like.)

This is a sad thing because he's the same man he was before this news, and no one had any reason to doubt his objectivity then. Kind of reminds me of the reaction to the news that Dumbledore was gay, which we only learned after the books were published. The sad thing is that I am, like I said, a straight white rounding-thirty woman and all of those things carry biases I have to try to overcome. No one calls me on that or shapes their impressions unless those biases aren't overcome in a rather radical way, because my biases are the norm. (As far as I can tell, so are Mr. Cooper's.) That fact strikes me as unjust.

In any event, I'm really proud of one of my favorite mainstream journalists for having integrity here. It's hard to put yourslef out there sometimes and I think his courage should be commended.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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1. I think I've had this cat in my philosophy class:

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2. A funny pic from the annals of FaceBook:

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And yes, it is that hot. I wish I had a ceiling fan... The highlight of my day was definitely going to the grocery store to pick up one little thing (frozen green beans to use as an ice pack for the fingers I broke a few days ago). Central air is deliciously delicious.

Also, the internet has been busy with the recent Supreme Court case on Obamacare. My favorites:

3. Because the internet is tubes full of cats:

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4. In which photoshoppers are historically knowledgeable and really funny:

Read more... )


(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Jon Stewart meets Lord of the Rings - what's not to love?

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I disagree with pretty much all of the points made, of course. But as far as pastiches go, it was actually pretty good. Why can't all political ads actually be clever like this?

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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This week, Peter Singer made me do something that I won't soon forgive him for: he caused me to defend the Roman Catholic Church. On more than one occasion, actually.

I wrote several months back about the RCC's response to the contraception mandate. (Quick recap for non-Americans: Obamacare requires that all insurance plans cover "preventive care" like contraception, and only makes exceptions for clergy and other people employed by houses of worship – but not for people at religion-affiliated groups like Catholic hospitals and universities. The RCC hierarchy and several other religious institutions have resisted this aspect of the law because they think it interferes with religious liberty, since it would force religious groups other than churches to pay for things they considered deeply immoral.) I haven't really changed my mind on that whole issue, and I still think employers shouldn't be allowed to impose their morality on their employers through things like health care policies. It's perfectly legitimate to say that I am only allowed to be reimbursed up to a certain cap, or that procedures need to be proven effective at accomplishing their goal; but it's not up to the employer to decide whether that goal is a good one or not. I still think that whether the employer is religious or not is irrelevant here.

But I'm not going to press that issue any more just now. There are bigger fish to fry. Last week the ethicist Peter Singer published an editorial talking about religious liberty. If you aren't familiar with his work, he actually has a good FAQ available at his website outlining his views. Basically, Singer is a utilitarian (meaning actions are judged based on their consequences, how much pleasure and pain they create – for us and for anything else including non-human animals). Because of this, Singer's become a favorite son of the animal rights movement. In particular, he's very much against slaughter-houses where animals suffer greatly to provide meat, milk, and eggs more cheaply to us humans. As you can imagine, he's all for doing anything that will keep those animals from suffering, up to and including becoming a vegetarian (he is one) if the joy of eating meat is outweighed by the slaughtered animal's suffering.

Hence, the editorial: The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom

See, some countries around the world have banned certain kinds of animal slaughter. Religious groups often have a problem here because unlike modern slaughtering practices where the animal is often stunned so it's unconscious when it's actually killed, kosher and halal laws require the animal to be conscious when it's killed. Those same laws also require that the butcher use a smooth blade so the animal wouldn't feel pain, and they restrict the situations under which meat can be eaten at all. In my opinion this gives the animal a dignity and a moral status you don't see in the slaughterhouses (frankly, I struggle to imagine anything less ethical than knocking anyone unconscious, human or no, and then hacking them up while they're unable to defend themselves), but I guess if we're looking just at the avoidance of pain, the stunning method is probably best.

Singer argued that these laws don't really violate religious liberty because there's nothing requiring Jews and Muslims to eat meat slaughtered in the wrong way. They could simply become vegetarians. According to Singer, we don't need to worry about religious liberty unless a law actually contradicts a religious requirement. They can just go vegetarian if they don't want to break their religion's requirements.

Singer also applies this definition of religious liberty to the contraception mandate, and here's where I really start disagreeing with him. I'm no expert on vegetarianism and the arguments for and against it, so this question of whether Jews and Muslims should have to go vegetarianism only affects me in a vague sort of way. I simply don't feel all that strongly about it either way, although it does strike me as basically unjust. On the other hand, I study and teach at a Catholic school. Catholic higher education is something I do know and care about, so when Singer took aim at that, I couldn't help but take notice.

Here's Singer's take on the contraception mandate:

Likewise, the Obama administration's requirement to provide health insurance that covers contraception does not prevent Catholics from practicing their religion. Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities. […]

Of course, the Catholic Church would be understandably reluctant to give up its extensive networks of hospitals and universities. My guess is that, before doing so, they would come to see the provision of health-insurance coverage for contraception as compatible with their religious teachings. But, if the Church made the opposite decision, and handed over its hospitals and universities to bodies that were willing to provide the coverage, Catholics would still be free to worship and follow their religion's teachings.

So again we have this idea that nothing is forcing Catholics to open hospitals and universities and other institutions whose employees are entitled to contraception coverage under the health care law. I don't actually agree with him there. Whatever we might say about vegetarianism (and I'll leave that question to those better informed than me), Christianity does command that we heal the sick and teach people both about Christianity's specific revelation and about the world more generally. In the modern world, the best way to do this is to set up hospitals and schools, including universities. Are we really prepared to say there are no religious liberty issues when you tell Catholics they can't heal the sick, when the Bible probably gives us more explicit commands to do that than it does to worship God? That just seems perverse to me.

Of course, the contraception mandate doesn't keep Catholics from healing the sick. You don't actually have to set up a hospital to treat the sick (individual Catholics could work at non-Catholic hospitals, for instance). And if you had a hospital where everyone was a completely faithful Catholic, the issue just wouldn't come up; I have a hard time imagining most of the Catholics upset about religious liberty violations being so against the mandate if Catholic hospitals and universities weren't actually paying for contraception because no one working there was putting claims in for it. Also, Catholics aren't necessarily faced with a choice between paying for contraception and closing down their hospitals and universities; they could just pay the fines for noncompliance, for example. Still, there are religious liberty issues here. The reason these workarounds are necessary is Catholic does condemn contraception use (even the non-abortifacient kind). Catholicism requires more than just a certain kind of worship.

The tricky part here is that Catholic institutions regularly hire non-Catholics. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that my employer gets to impose his morality on areas of my life having nothing to do with my job. (To be fair, I'm also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that our currently society forces this decision on the RCC and other religious groups; in my ideal world health insurance wouldn't be tied to the employers at all.) Catholic hospitals just about have to hire non-Catholics because there simply aren't always enough Catholic cardiologists and medical billing specialists available in a certain geographical area to completely staff a hospital with people willing to accept the Church's teaching on contraception. This is doubly difficult for universities, where you probably are looking for a person with a very specific expertise. If a Catholic university could only hire Catholic professors that would seriously undermine its ability to attract the best people. I'm not saying Catholics don't make good academics (far from it!), but in academia you usually want someone with a very narrow specialty. That means you really want the widest applicant pool you can get.

In our society, we typically provide health insurance through companies. To my mind, it's part of the compensation you get for working there. It's also the price companies and institutions pay because we don't subsidize health care (or health insurance) through our taxes. That means less of a tax burden for companies and individuals, but it also means more responsibilities fall to those companies and individuals (and non-profit institutions like the RCC) to provide the care society needs. A government without tax $$$ sure can't do it. If I could afford health care without my employer's help (either independently or through government programs) I wouldn't need its approval to get the health care I needed. And so it strikes me as seriously unfair that my employer should be able to decide what health care is available to me, simply because I'm not poor enough to qualify for government assistance or rich enough to afford it all on my own.

I know lots of people will disagree with me on this. I can just see Brendan Palla shaking his head, because this is precisely the argument we've had in the past. My point isn't so much that I'm right and those who think the contraception mandate is an assault on religious liberty are wrong. What I am trying to say is, this is an issue where religious liberty comes into play. It may not win the argument, either because the RCC gave up its claim to religious liberty here by hiring non-Catholics or because religious liberty is somehow outweighed by other concerns. But even I don't buy the argument that there's no religious liberty concern here. It's just that that's not the end of the story.

The thing is, I'd actually feel this way even if Christianity didn't explicitly command us to care for the sick and educate people. Dr. Singer's definition of religious liberty is pretty restrictive, and I'd actually like to impose another one. Religious liberty means not being forced by the law to choose between what your religion requires and the kinds of thing most people in your society consider naturally good – things like eating meat and using public transportation, for example. Religious liberty shouldn't force people to choose between their religion and being a full member of society. (That includes taking full advantage of the kind of thing people in your society naturally value.) You can freely give up those things, but if the law forces you to give that up or otherwise violate your religion, there are religious liberty issues involved.

That doesn't mean those religious freedom concerns win out every time, of course. But just discounting them full-stop isn't the way to go about figuring out where justice lies. Religious liberty means more than just the freedom to worship.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I'm sure someone out there is having a bad day, or just could stand to spend a few minutes looking at cute animals. And because sharing is caring:

Twenty-five perfectly hand-sized baby animals

Pretty much what the link says. Enjoy!

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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A few days ago Dan Fincke and I sat down for a debate as part of his blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. It was the first time I'd done anything of the kind, and I'm trying to look at it in terms of what I can do better, both in terms of setting up the interview (I'm not nearly the night-owl I thought I was, for one thing) and of explaining my thoughts better on the fly. All of which are good, even if I wish I had been better able to explain myself in the actual debate.

You can read the debate here. Basically, we talked about four things: why I support the SSA; why I think Christianity shouldn't condemn homosexuality; what as a Christian I made of the Biblical story where my supposedly all-good, all-knowing God ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites; and what it would take for me to give up what Dan called the "God Hypothesis."

deep philosophical thoughts behind the cut )

It was an interesting debate, even though as I said I hope I'll do better next time. (Among other things, it's made me realize that I'm really more interested in constructive dialogue rather than debates between rivals.) Still, I was glad to do my part for the SSA. Do read Dan and my debate, and the many other interviews he did – there's some really thought-provoking stuff here.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Good music makes me happy. Good music that I have a fannish connection to, but that is also fresh and new somehow makes me especially happy. This is no exception.

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This is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," an Eagles song made famous as the theme for the best five-book trilogy ever written - or Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for all you non-froods out there. :-) Only this is a version played on the mountain dulcimer, with all the changes in style you'd expect there. Nice.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Yesterday I posted some graphics I had created to go along with my SSA interview for tonight. [profile] mrowe kindly took the "Hamlet" quote and turned it into a real work of art:

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The original image is an illustration of Smaug, by Tolkien illustrator John Howe.

On top of using it for the interview, I am using it as my new computer wallpaper. Thanks, Nath!

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Sometimes comics are too profound to be truly funny. Case in point.

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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My friend Dan Fincke is doing a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. This is a cause near and dear to my heart. There are lots of reasons for this - partly I think religion (and humanity generally) is better off when the smartest people in all groups think long and hard about our institutions and core beliefs. Iron sharpens iron, as they say. Even more than that, I can only imagine how cut-off secular humanist students are in many communities. If your life is organized around youth group and church friends (mine was at that age), then coming out as atheist means losing all that or at least having it strained. I'm all for giving kids the social support they need to deal with that constructively.

Many American high schools (mine included) have lots of clubs. These are student-led groups with a faculty member mentor that meet before or after class at the school. They're not part of the official curriculum or anything but they are sanctioned by the school; quite often you can't put up signs advertising them if they're not an official group, and you can't meet on school grounds. The SSA provides administrative support to these groups, including legal advice when necessary (in lots of places there simply isn't a club for atheists, and there's resistance toward setting one up), and they also organize conferences for student leaders, giving them a chance to network with the larger atheist community.

Dan's blogathon is part of a fundraising drive for the SSA. He's posting twenty-four original posts in twenty-four hours (*eep*) and as part of that he's interviewing lots of people. Interviewing is really the wrong word; it's more a conversation between equals rather than him asking questions and us doing all the talking. But I do say us because he's asked me to be one of the people whose conversations he features. This is the first time I've done anything of the kind, and I'm excited both because it's for a cause I support and also because it's great to get my thoughts out there. It's also a nice ego-boost that he asked.

(You can read more about Dan's blogathon here, including an invitation for people who might be interested in talking with him. As he says: if YOU are a big time atheist, or a scholar with a unique vantage point on religion, atheism, or philosophy, or somebody with a book to sell, or a believer who would like to mix it up with me, or are just another academic philosopher or long lost personal friend of mine, and you would like to join me in conversation for three hours sometime on Thursday June 14, 2012 or especially if you are available for the hard lonely hours late in the blogathon—from Friday June 15, 2012 midnight EST to 7am EST—then, then PLEASE don’t be shy!)

That's it for the announcement, but I do want to say a bit about Dan's bio of me. He writes: Marta Layton, a Fordham graduate student in philosophy and progressive Christian who writes many thoughtful retorts to Camels With Hammers posts will finally get some answers from me to all her objections. It's the "progressive Christian" label that caught my attention. If Dan had called me a liberal Christian I probably wouldn't have been too happy about it, but progressive strikes me as just right.

See, I hate hate hate that label of "liberal Christian." Part of it is that I don't feel like a died-in-the-wool liberal. (I know, I sound like one but that's mainly because modern day Republicans + Tea Partiers have gone so far into reality-denying idiocy these last few years. Also because many positions advocated by the right aren't really that conservative.) It's truly odd to think of myself as a liberal sometimes. Don't get me wrong; I think that liberty requires equality we don't have in many regards, and that welfare and other social programs are crucial, so I am a liberalism in other regards. But especially when it comes to my faith, I don't see myself as being particularly liberal.

More to the point, though, the name suggests that what we call liberal Christianity isn't "true" Christianity - that the homophobic and misogynistic "preachers" who get on the news are the real deal. They're not, historically. I'm not saying that Christians have always been big on rights for women and other minorities (they aren't that either), but what I'm really objecting to is the idea that Christianity = do whatever the Bible appears to teach on its surface. This is a tradition starting in the Bible (look at Jesus's reinterpretation of the law) but continuing on past it. The idea is that revelation is supposed to be dynamic so we learn things in different settings throughout history.

When I think about religious tradition I find myself reminded of that other tradition Americans participate in, the rule of law, and in particular a quote that comes up all the time on Law and Order: that the law must be stable but never stand still. Religion should be the same way. My religious tradition emphasizes love, for instance, but what does love mean? With Cain and Abel we learned it meant not being so jealous of those who had something you wanted; with Joseph (as in Jacob's son) it meant protecting your brothers even after they'd wrong you. Ruth and Boaz show us that love is due to other tribes if they will join with us (that filial responsibility is not inherited), and with Jonah and the people of Nineveh we learn they don't even have to become like us for us to have to love them. And then with Jesus, there's the granddaddy of all expansions: love your enemies. If one of those hated Roman soldiers should demand you carry his pack for a mile, go a mile beyond even that. Don't build yourself up over others but instead attend to your own sins. And on throughout later history - the debates over slavery, over sexuality, over so many other issues.

The point behind all of this is not that the Bible's teaching on love is perfect, or even good (though obviously I think it is). It's that it's growing as humanity grows. This is why I love Dan's description of me as a progressive Christian so much, because it gets at the issue much more clearly than the liberal label does. I do view Christianity as something that progresses throughout history, though obviously certain guiding principles will always be in play. The faith, to paraphrase, must be stable but must never stand still.

I'm still not crazy about the need for "progressive." To my mind, I'm just a Methodist. That means I hold to the Wesley quadrilateral, meaning that my reading of scripture is informed by both the trajectory of history and the light of reason. That doesn't mean every belief needs proof (we're not full out logical verificationists or anything) but it does mean that your beliefs can't contradict reality - and if they seem in tension, the solution isn't to ignore one or the other, but to try to understand both revelation and what the sciences/philosophy tells us about reality at a deeper level. Truth does not contradict truth. To my mind this is a core Christian doctrine that's been emphasized by most types of Christians historically, and it's a sad statement that we even need the qualification today. A part of me wonders whether we're not giving fundamentalists too much power in defining what "Christian" means when we say that. (I get a similar reaction to the way the label "Christian" is used in books and music - like Left Behind is a Christian movie but Moonrise Kingdom isn't?)

Anyway, none of that is Dan's fault. The "progressive Christian" label is at least a major step up from "liberal Christian." I'm looking forward to discussing these and other issues with him on Thursday.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I've been working my way through M*A*S*H. Of course I'd seen several episodes (probably a third or so of the show), but it's good seeing it all in order.

The episode "Yankee Doodle Doctor" encapsulates so much about what is great about this show. An army film-maker wants to make a "documentary" about the 4077th, starring Hawkeye. Only after the thing is shot do they realize it's actually propaganda with little relation to the truth of their situation. So Hawkeye and Pierce ruin the film and the director leaves in a huff. The gang decide to remake the film, and this is what they produce. (The voiceover is from the original "straight" version of the documentary.) There's slapstick, of course, but then there's an almost seamless transition into the dramatic monologue. It's all just so thoroughly human, with all the richness of life.

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Here is the monologue at the end, which is my third quote for the 100things challenge:

Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He's got a 50-50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That's what it's all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns, and bombs, and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie.

I think if more talk about war, honoring soldiers and all the rest kept this in mind, we'd all be better for it. And I'd probably be a bit less pacifistic. Hearing that monologue for the first time last night was like a breath of fresh air. Coming right after all the hilarious slapstick just made it work that much the better.

(Origihally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (religion)
Tim Kurek (a Christian author I follow over on FB) has a new book coming out. As he describes it:

In January 2009 I entered the closet a straight man and came out to my friends and family as a gay. I lived with the label for an entire year. After my life as I knew it had quickly unraveled into nothing, I began building a new one. I became a barista at a gay café. I played in a LGBT softball league. I protested in New York City with a group of gay activists that I had encountered years before while I studied Liberty University. And I even participated in a marriage equality event with the son on Jim and Tammy Faye, Jay Bakker. For a year I immersed myself, completely and utterly, in the small gay scene of Nashville, Tennessee, and experienced firsthand the agony of being isolated, repressed, and alone.

My book is the result of that year and it tells the story of the men and women that challenged, and ultimately changed my life’s path. It is a book about faith, and a book about doubt. But mostly it is a book about people, and how the men and women I’d always been taught to shun ended up saving my life.

He emphasizes that he is not writing about the gay experience, since (as he's not really gay) that's not a topic he feels competent to address. Rather, it's about a rather extreme exercise in empathy: a Christian trying to exorcise his inner-Pharisee, as it were, and to live with what many LGBT Christians live with "for real."

He's asking the same questions that spurred my own "evolution" on homosexuality, and changed me from someone who thought the Bible taught homosexuality was immoral to being convinced of the opposite. While I didn't go so far as Tim did (not nearly that brave, unfortunately!) I found myself asking questions like the ones that motivated his project. If I was gay, could I come out to my family and friends? Could I still be a Christian? What made any love I felt for another man better or more worthy of support than the love a gay friend of mine felt for his boyfriend? These on top of the obvious political problems of denying equal legal protections to anyone, based on a religious belief. It was this striving for empathy that really changed my position on homosexuality, and though this was private in my case - I lived with "what if's" rather than dealing with peoples' very real reactions to my actually coming out - I can definitely see the appeal of Tim's project.

Tim has a trailer out for the book...

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... and he is accepting donations to help pay for a publicist and final book editing. Even if you decide not to donate (which I plan to, and encourage - this really is an interesting story that needs to be told), I hope you'll check out the trailer and think about the experiences he describes. It'll be four minutes well spent. The book comes out October 11.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Apparently, in France even the kitties are existentialists.

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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A few days ago I heard that Desperate Housewives star Kathryn Joosten had died in her seventies, after a battle with lung cancer. This was a bit sad (it always is when a famous person dies) but not particularly noteworthy, as I hadn't ever watched that particular show.

I knew I recognized the name, though, and finally placed it. Joosten also starred as Dolores Landingham, the president's secretary in the first two seasons of West Wing. I loved her character and hated it when she left the show, because she was such a sense of strength and brought so much subtlety to her performance. So as a rather belated memorial, here are two clips from her.

First, a clip from just after her funeral when she talks to Jed about running for reelectiong. Quintessential Landingham.

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And then the scene from "In Excelsis Deo" when Mrs. Landingham tells Charlie about her sons. This is a masterpiece in powerfully understated emotion.

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What a class act, and what a great actress. RIP, Kathryn.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)


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