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 Life mile-stones have a way of making us reflect on where we are and where we'd like to be. In many ways, the fact that I'm facing a milestone just now is pretty inconsequential – it comes down to the fact that humans evolved five fingers on each hand (ergo: base 10 counting) and the way the human psyche thinks round numbers are important. But someone wise once said that the unexamined life is not worth living, so I try to grab those more reflective moments when they come along.

On top of turning thirty, I also was profoundly affected by several things over the last few months. Some of them were political, like the "success" of Proposition 1 in North Carolina – something about that whole political event, the way it was framed and the way I reacted to it, woke up something inside of me. Before that event I had more or less worked myself around to believing the standard picture that Christianity condemned homosexuality was wrong (IMO theologically, but also on general principles as well) – but my reaction to that political event was the first time my gay rights activism felt natural. It was actually a very Aristotelian moment; I was no longer doing things because rationally I thought it was what I was supposed to do, but because deep within myself it seemed like the most natural action given who I was and what I knew to be true and good. There have been other things, too, such as the end of a fannish event I've been involved in for eight years, and other little things in my life. I've just felt more at home in my own skin than I have in years. Some days I'm more at home than others, of course, but even in spite of being exhausted and working too many hours, it feels like I come closer to eudaimonia these days than I have in my adult life.

I'm not saying all of this as a "look at how enlightened I am!" kind of moment. Far from it. What I am trying to say is that part of being self-aware, figuring out what makes me tick and how I can be the best Marta possible, is paying attention to the world around me. That means paying attention to the world around me, and since a lot of how I view the world is through the various news pubs I read (Der Spiegel, the NY Times, and various Al-Jazeera blogs lately, and of course Stewart/Colbert videos), it's news stories that tend to spur on that self-reflection. So perhaps it's not all that surprising that I've been thinking a lot about the Aurora, Col. shootings. Things like this are how I define myself. And James Holmes, the alleged shooter, was a church boy.

I don't know whether he was a Christian or not. I rather suspect that comes down to what you mean by "Christian." The Christian Post bills him as a "'normal Christian boy" (possibly with mental health issues), whereas the Telegraph points to a profile where he described himself as an agnostic. I've seen some sources describe him as very involved in his local Presbyterian church whereas others just say he came a few times and sat in the back. His family was also a long-standing member of Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego, though that could just mean attending services a few times a year. The safest biography I can come up with is he grew up to some degree involved in a mainline Protestant Church, and then as he grew older, he drifted from it (but probably not entirely). The bits I've read about him remind me of people I know, who grew up in church families but for whatever reason become less involved as he went into adulthood.

There're a lot of people like that, and I'm not sure how much we should hold Christianity accountable for these peoples' actions. That was the whole point of the taxonomy I was trying to work up a while ago; there just seems to me to be a big difference between someone who's really involved with a church (even if it's only socially), and someone who just claims that affiliation without getting particularly involved. That said, it's pretty obvious to me that Holmes was a church-goer, even if not a particularly involved one. It was a Lutheran church youth group he would have bee involved in as a kid, and it was a Presbyterian church that didn't catch him before he went off like he did. I'm not into blaming either of those groups, but if people are ready to blame Islam for the Taliban or atheism for Josef Stalin (as I've heard many Christians do), it's only fair to hold Christianity accountable for the James Holmes of the world.

Which leaves me… I'm honestly not sure where, actually. It's so convenient for me not to want to assign blame, since it's my own group that comes closest to being to blame here. I'm not one of those who claim that if you commit murder you were never a true Christian. ("True Christians" have done as much horrific things as any other group.) But even so, I find myself not seeing what good that blame game does. It doesn't seem like it would prevent the next catastrophe, and I suspecct it would make those already affected by this tragedy feel that much worse. At the end of the day, though, I can't escape (nor am I trying to escape) the stark reality: this carnage was created by someone who looks like me in so many ways.

I think in the end that's the most honest thing I can do. I don't know what made James Holmes do the things he did, or why any God that exists lets things like these happen. Believe me, I've been trying to understand that last puzzle for longer than I've been blogging, or studying philosophy, or even writing fanfic. Wrapping my head (or more properly, my heart) around the effing ineffable plan and the idiocy of theodicy, as I call it in my more light-hearted moments, since I've known what it meant to suffer. And I still don't know. But this seems like precisely the kind of situation where honesty and integrity requires I not fill that void in with cheap certainties.

Fancy words, I know, and they feel like lies as I type this, or at least so much of an over-simplification of things that they can't possibly be true. They're entirely too neatly put-together for situations like this. All I can do is sit with the fact that I have no answers here, and live with that (and maybe some day live beyond that?). That seems poor pittance in light of tragedies like this; but, sadly, it's all I've got.

(Originally written at LJ.)

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A comment over at FB reminded me of this, and it was good for a laugh. Thought I'd share.

God hates figs!!! )

(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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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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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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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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The other day at FB, Dan Fincke posted a quote that has stuck with me. Specifically:

"Dear liberal, enlightened Christian: I'm not lumping you in with fundies – you are. Get a new name and new holy book to selectively cite." (Matt Dillahaunty)

This is actually a topic I've thought about a lot myself, and I hinted at it in my post on gender last night. While I definitely consider myself a Christian, I get the sense a lot of times that I don't practice Christianity the way a lot of people do around here. "Here" to my mind is the United States, particularly the various places I've lived as an adult (rural NC, in a mid-sized NC city, in Cleveland, OH, and now in NYC). I guess we should also include the various the various online outlets where I discuss religion, most notably Sojourners, Christianity Today, and Fred Clarke's blog over at Patheos. (I also read and for years Brad Hirschfield was a big influence as well, but as those are Jewish groups and I'm talking about Christianity here, I suppose that's not all that relevant.)

Anyway, the Christianity of my experience really can be broken down into two groups. First, there are the fundamentalists. Certainty and even simplicity here is the key; the whole movement started with revivals urging people to get back to basics, IIRC. I'm not a big fan of fundamentalism, so much so that I have a hard time giving a sympathetic description of them. I know that I associate them with the "God said it, that settles it" approach to theology. More distinctive are the social and ethical positions like the idea that women and men should fulfill different roles in society, that all extramarital sex (and by extension, homosexuality, contraception, and sex education) is deeply immoral, and that life begins at conception. There are also distinctive political positions, like the idea that America should be distinctly Christian and that Israel must be supported.

As I said, I'm sure someone could give a more sympathetic description here. I don't mean to beat up on fundamentalists. But if you follow this blog or know me at all, it should probably be fairly obvious why I'm not one.

When people don't just identify Christian as fundamentalist (which doesn't happen often enough), they may have in mind what Matt calls "liberal enlightened Christians." Sojourners is a great example of one such group. Politically, the focus is more on environmental issues, social justice, and immigration reform. And the approach tends to differ as well. Liberal Christians are usually more focused on relationships and grassroots work than passing big laws. Those interested in LGBT activism are probably the big exception. Some of them hold similar views to fundamental Christians (like with abortion – many are very anti-abortion, but prefer to work to avoid pregnancy through contraception and to make adoption a feasibly option, rather than focusing on making abortion illegal.

I'm mostly on board with their social/political project. The theology, on the other hand, always rubs me the wrong way. Matt's quote is right on that much; many liberal Christians will keep their Bible interpretations vague, along the lines of "God is love so how can God be against two adults loving each other?" Now, as it happens I believe the Bible doesn't condemn what we moderns consider homosexuality. It does teach against specific temple practices that are more akin to sexual slavery than anything, But this isn't something good theology should just brush over by ignoring passages fundies point to to explain why homosexuality is an abomination. Similarly for other issues, like global warming and immigration reform; the connection to the Bible is often tenuous and general at best.

I'm not a conservative in the sense used in the sense American political pundits mean – a Republican or a Tea Partier or whatever. But I am enough of a traditionalist that I don't just want to throw out the history and writings and culture of a certain religious tradition. I think living with those things and making sense of them is a good thing (and I know everyone here won't agree with me on that point). It's like Aristotle's aporiai, the puzzles between intuitions and experiences that seem to contradict each other. Religion, done right, forces people to confront the mystery. Both fundamentalism and liberal Christianity fail here because just ignore those factoids that lead us to the puzzle rather than exalting in it.

In light of that I find myself wondering, should I call myself a Christian? Why would I want to, when I reject so strongly most of the associations people have when they hear the word "Christian"? Because I'm definitely not a fundamentalist, but neither am ever going to match what people expect from a liberal Christian. Because, you know, I'm not that either.

But back to Matt's basic point. He suggests that liberal Christians (or those who reject fundamentalism even if they don't embrace liberal Christianity) have only ourselves to blame for being lumped in with fundamentalism, because we insist on calling ourselves names. That's not really fair, though, because it lets fundamentlaism define Christianity. Say I was Irish-American and was frustrated by the way my millennia-old culture got boiled down to leprechauns and Guinness – would you say I was wrong to insist that "Irish" meant more than that? Just because something is the most obvious association a lot of people have, that doesn't mean it's the right one.

I had a similar reaction after Anne Rice "quit" Christianity two years ago. She famously said:

"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

At the time, I found myself agreeing with everything she said, right up until that last sentence. I'd add one more thing, though: I refuse to let the fundamentalist define Christianity as being any of those things. Christianity is not anti-feminist at heart; anti-feminists twist it and use it to support it. And on down the list. Explaining why would take a post – probably multiple posts – on each point. But here's the thing: if you say Christianity is these things, then you're giving away the game before that conversation has ever happened.

That's reason #1 why I won't ever stop calling myself a Christian. Because, contrary to what you hear in the news, the bishops protesting birth control mandates and the Baptists saying we should round up all the gays and put them behind electric fences aren't all Christianity has to offer.

And while we're at it: simply because I say the world wasn't created in seven days or that the Leviticus verse calling "a man lying with a man" an abomination doesn't mean what fundamentalists say it means doesn't make mean I'm reading selectively. I'm not ignoring those passages; I'm simply using a different hermeneutic. Simply because my reading of the Bible is more consistent with liberalism and secularism than the fundamentalist's reading, that doesn't mean my position is watered down or inauthentic. The "real" Christianity isn't necessarily the one that contrasts best with secular humanism, as nice as that might be.

Reason #2 why I insist on calling myself a Christian is related to what I said a few days ago on my post looking at why atheists should want smart theists. I think it's in everyone's best interests to have an intellectually sophisticated faith. And not just intellectually sophisticated; nuanced full stop. Claiming, as Anne Rice did, that Christianity is (say) anti-science offers people a stark choice: your God or your microscopes.

That's a false choice, but even if it wasn't, I'm not sure we'll like the results of forcing it onto people. It's simple psychology: people are reluctant to give up something they have and they like, even for something you tell them is better, because that other thing simply doesn't seem "real" yet.

If you want to get them to "evolve already" (as I heard lots of non-religious people say in response to Obama's statements that his views on gay marriage were evolving), you get them to ask the question: can I be for LGBT equality and still hold on to my other beliefs that I'm committed to? You don't ask them to change all those beliefs at once, because it's too scary for them, and even more important, sincere moral change is a process of evolution. You can't change all your beliefs at once, or quickly, if you want the person to have thought through and really accepted those beliefs.

If Christianity = fundamentalism then the conversation stops there. But if Christianity can be something more nuanced, then you have a much better chance to get your average pew-sitter to do some (if I can be excused the religious phrase) serious soul-searching that leads to real character growth.

So with all respect to Mr. Dillahaunty, he's wrong here. Fundamentalists don't get to unilaterally decide what it means to be a Christian, nor do any other group. It's an open question that's been going on since at least the days of Peter and Paul – and I highly suspect it will continue on until Christ returns or the sun burns out, whichever ultimate ending you prefer.

That's not a bad thing, btw. 

(Originally written at LJ; please comment there.)
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  I had two experiences. First, I went shopping and finished off my teaching wardrobe - several pairs of black linenslacks, white blouses, and a light-weight blazer jacket. All from women's stores, but the style is always a bit tom-boyish. As am I; my voice has always been low-pitched and I've always favored short hair, jeans + tees, and no make-up. 

Item the second: While on the train, I read a really interesting article from the New York Magazine about transgendered children: "S/he." It's well worth the read but longish, so here's the gist. Many transgendered people realize their cis-gender (the one assigned at birth by their parents and society; usually the biological gender). This being New York, you had some reasonably progressive parents trying to make sense of this and support the kids. It's a nice glimpse into transphobia even at that level (one parent's response I found particularly interesting was from a dad who didn't want to suggest to the child there was anything wrong with being a girl, and so he was at first hesitant to get on board with his cis-female son's identifying as male.)

But there's more to it than that. Say your kid tells you at the tender age of five that "she" wants to be treated as a he - that he really believes he is a boy, despite being anatomically female. That may be more-or-less feasible at five (setting aside transphobia the kid may have to deal with), but what about at thirteen? Because while Marcia may answer to Mark and dress and act and play as a boy, but there's still estrogen flowing through his body - meaning that puberty will come quickly, and with it the breasts and the menstruation. It would be traumatic. The problem is, doctors suggest the transgendered not start taking artificial hormones until they're at least sixteen. That's years of being trapped in a body that feels less and less like yours, with all that carries with it regarding social interaction and expectations. And we thought gay bullying was bad. I mean, it is, but this? :-S

So to address the situation, some parents have turned to what's called puberty-blockers - drugs that keep a body from going through puberty, until the child is old enough to start hormone treatment and go through puberty as their chosen gender. (The kid can also go through puberty as his or her cis-gender, simply by stopping the puberty blockers.) But it's a tough call. Several of the parents refer to it as "playing God" or think it marks transgenderism off as a disease (which most LGBT allies, myself included, wholeheartedly deny). 

Reading all this, I felt an immense sympathy for anyone going through this. Even with supportive parents, it strikes me as an enormously tough needle for a seven-year-old to thread. And given that most parents probably aren't supportive - either through their own beliefs or simply being a bit mystified by it all - I can only imagine what that's like. By the experience of transgender children as it's explained here resonated deep within me. I'm not transgender, but I'm enough of a tomboy that I never felt drawn to many of the traditional teenage things - dating, dances, and the like. I liked being one of the boys and was most comfortable where gender simply didn't matter. More to the point, I'm all too familiar with the no man's land between different groups. With religion/atheism in particular but other issues as well, where it sometimes felt like I could never be my whole self with anyone - like I always had to fashion my identity. This isn't a criticism of the people I grew up around, or the people at my church who I always seem to be too liberal or too traditionalist to truly fit in with (depending on the group), or my secular humanist friends who try to make sense of why an intelligent person would continue to claim a religious label. But sometimes it feels like, on an issue of great importance to me, I can't fully "be myself" - either because I don't know who I am or because I'm not brave enough to put myself out there, but in either case it's a true mind-warp at times.

None of this makes me transgendered. But I think it makes me particularly sympathetic to people who have a hard time getting who they really are "seen" by others. And maybe in my case the blindness of other folks is all in my head. But whatever the reason, my heart just breaks for these kids having to navigate this world and maybe feeling like even their own parents don't really see them for who they really are. That's hard.  

(Originally posted on LJ; please comment there.)
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Recently I read an article about Miley Cyrus and how she wasn't acting like she was twelve anymore. Miley says some really interesting things about what it means to find yourself when you're a child-star, and also talks about sex and the double-standard women face in Hollywood. Now, say I posted a link to that article here with a comment along the lines of how nice it would be if she turned out to be a Christian.

Something like that happened recently on a friend's FB page, only there my friend posted a link and a third party commented saying he hoped Miley was an atheist. That comment really got me thinking, because if I had said something similar coming at it from a Christian perspective, I'd expect some raised eyebrows around here. At a minimum. Such a comment would imply one of two things: either I thought Miley's comments couldn't be good unless they came from a Christian, or else I wanted all good things to be associated with Christianity. Either way, I can see how you guys might get a bit offended, or at least be confused why I should be concerned. A claim like that, if I heard someone else make it, would strike me as oddly provincial. And also selfish; whatever's good, I'd want to make it available to the most people possible. And since people tend to listen to their own groups more than they do "outsiders," that means I'd want wise people and thought-provoking comments coming from all corners of society – not just mine.

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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My last exam is graded (well, except for the one student who has to make up the exam next week), and while I still have some research due for my advisor, I can breathe a bit at last. So I want to go back to a point I just mentioned at the end of my last post. Namely: if you vote against gay marriage, does that mean you're just a homophobe? The story-line is pretty standard: Gay marriage won't destroy straight marriage since straight men aren't going to suddenly leave their wives or anything; the only impact it has is letting homosexuals marry; so if you're against gay marriage you must be homophobic. Is it really that simple?

I don't think so. Now, I'm actually in favor of the state having one status (civil unions, marriage, whatever – I'm not picky about the label) open to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. As a Christian, I actually think Christian churches should open up the marriage sacrament to gay couples as well, but that's a totally different topic. But I also get why some people think of marriage is for straight couples only. And it has next to nothing to do with homosexuality, let alone homophobia.

Read more... )

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I was going to leave well-enough alone over the North Carolina amendment. It was really hard to think of "my" state doing this, and like many people I felt a bit of shock and almost mourning over the law's passage. For a day or two I'd see talk of organizing boycotts against NC and graphics painting Tarheels as uneducated and rednecks. But then President Obama made his announcement and the focus shifted away from NC (sort of), so as I said, I was just going to back away from this topic.

I still see wisps of NC-bashing every now and then, though. Case in point is Leonard Pitts's latest column, where he referred to NC's amendment as "one state's atavistic backwardness" and "the stubborn intransigence of those who desperately need to wake up and smell the 21st century." So maybe it's best to write another post on the topic. Because, really, I'm not sure NC did too badly here.

To be clear: I'm not defending the constitutional amendment. I think it's a badly-written amendment and a bad policy position, and also that it's needlessly hateful toward homosexuals since gay marriage was already illegal in the state. But I also think that, first, the bill didn't pass as solidly as it seems like at first glance, and second, that people might have a first-flush opposition to gay marriage in NC without that meaning they hate gays. I'll explain why in a minute. This wasn't NC's finest hour, but I don't think it's nearly as bad as some people seem to be implying it is. So let me take some of the various charges I've seen floating around one by one and try to explain why.

Read more... )
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Apparently some alumni of Ganzaga University (a Jesuit school in Spokane, WA) is scheduled to have Desmond Tutu deliver their commencement address. Some of the alumni aren't too crazy about the idea. Their beef?

Patrick Kirby, a 1993 Gonzaga graduate, said Tutu is pro-abortion rights, has made offensive statements toward Jews and supports contraception and the ordination of gay clergy and shouldn’t be honored by a Catholic institution.

Frankly, I think it's a huge honor to have Rvd. Tutu speaking at your commencement. I would have been inspired by it, as a student or a parent. If his views on sexuality are able to outweigh all of the work he's done on racial justice and positive peace, that's a sad state of affairs indeed.

This is what so disappoints me about institutional Christianity these days (and this really isn't a uniquely Catholic problem, though their own emphasis can drive me as batty as anyone else's at times). There are so many other issues. Callousness toward the poor, racial hatred, misogyny, culture of perpetual war, fetishization of power, lack of connection with the environment, pick your issue - any of them would be a better recipient of the time and energy we devote to talk about contraception + abortion + sex ed.

Honestly. Sometimes my country feels like an eight-year old boy, chuckling because someone said "Titicaca." I respect the right of various faith communities to work out their ethics and grapple with these issues. I just wish they'd prioritize a bit better!

(Originally posted to LJ; please comment there.)
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  (Written for the March 2012 synchroblog; links TBA.)

I have a secret: for years now, I've wished I was eligible for the selective service.

In my country, at the age of eighteen all the guys have to register for the military draft. They don't actually have to serve, and chances are negligible that they'll be called up, since (for all our wars) America has been an all-volunteer army since I believe Vietnam. But ever since I've figured out how committed of a pacifist I am, I've wanted the ability to declare to God, country, and the world at large that there wasn't anyone representin me in this war, either.

I want to be clear about something: I respect what our veterans are trying to do. I nod at them out of respect when I see them on campus, and I've gotten in the habit of picking up pastries every week or two for my veteran neighbor, as a small token of gratitude. I also would gladly pay any tax asked of me to improve their safety while in service and their recovery once they leave. It's the generals and the contractors I have a beef with. I don't think our current wars are just, and given our track record of judicial process for people accused of war crimes and quasi-legal neverending wars, I think it will be a long time before I'd find an actual war I could support. And that's my point. I want the right to register as a conscientious objector to document this fact. Because I am not expected to fight, someone else "covers" me by default, so I get no say in the matter.

It's not just that theoretical point that bothers me, though. At the tender age of seventeen, I was a registered Republican and generally supported the idea of bringing democracy to the world, but I also wasn't sure now I felt about killing someone for that cause or any other, and so I asked my history teacher what were my options if I was morally opposed to war. He told me that I wasn't required to register for the draft, and when I asked why he explained that "Uncle Sam" didn't want to take mothers away from their children, or put children in homes with a mum suffering from PTSD. I'm now a few months shy of thirty years old, still happily single and happily child-free, in a doctoral program that I hope will lead to a professorship. In the meantime I am happy with my hobbies, my volunteer work, my church, and my friends both online and offline. I am living the life of the mind in a truly vibrant city, and it's a good life - just not the one my high school teacher thought I was destined for.

I thought about all this when I heard someone use the phrase "war on women" for the umpteenth time in a newspaper editorial this morning. Again, let me be clear: I think preventive birth control is a good thing, and I think subsidized or insurance-covered birth control is an even bett thing because it vies lower-class women the same liberties I have to manage their sexuality and its consequences. But every time I hear that phrase I bristle just a little bit (and sometimes quite a lot), because it carries with it the suggestion that as a woman I am defined by the bits of anatomy between my legs. It also suggests that if I personally didn't think of fertility like a disease, I would not be included in the collective of womanhood that was under attack. I've been on the receiving end of people telling me what it means to be a real woman, to feel comfortable with that. 

Given that this is a SynchroBlog post, I feel a strong pull to somehow tie this back to my religion. I could cite the many different roles women serve throughout the Bible, from Miriam to Esther to Mary Magdalene, and those stories are relevant. The problem is, they're part of a fabric that stretches beyond any one religious or literary tradition. I could just as easily point to Eowyn and B'Elanna Torres and Brenda Leigh Johnson and all the other strong women of literature. They weren't all shieldmaidens, either. Often as not, womanhood is as varied as human nature (as well it should be!). Our battle-cries need to reflect that.

(Originally posted to LJ; please comment there.)
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 I actually saw this one coming a mile away:

What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in Common

A few weeks back I wrote about a journal article proposing that infanticides just after birth should have the same legal status as abortions just before. Meaning that they should be legal if the mother's welfare was at risk, and not even called infanticides. I find this claim preposterous, and I tried my best to explain why. Basically, I think there's a big distinction between legal status and moral status.

ChristianityToday, a major online and print magazine in the evangelical (not necessarily conservative, not necessarily fundamentalist, but just evangelical) publishing world made the above post in one of their associated blogs. Basically, the argument goes, this whole debate over infanticide comes from the recognition that there's no recognizable distinction between a fetus and an infant, meaning we should give  all the rights of an infant to a fetus. Think the personhood bills you've seen put out in U.S. states like Mississippi and Colorado.

The problem here is that the concepts of "fetus" and "born human" (to say nothing of human and person generally) are really not so simple, and we're using them like they are. I tend to think the whole abortion debate would be much, much easier if we thought about what we meant by a fetus. I'll grant that a fetus a minute before birth has more in common with an infant one minute after birth, than it does with a fetus one minute after conception. I'll even grant that some of the ways these three things are similar and different are morally relevant. All that proves, though, is that a fetus is a distinction where the members in it don't all have the same moral status.

There are a lot of big philosophical words floating around in there, so let me try to make this simpler. I'll give you that it's morally wrong to kill a fetus one minute before it's born. (Allowing the usual exceptions for self-defense, etc.) That doesn't mean it should be morally wrong to kill any fetus. And, just for the record, it doesn't actually mean it should be illegal to kill a fetus one minute before birth. The law's a blunt instrument and may not be up to the task of splitting that moral hair. It just means that not all fetuses are in the same position, morally speaking.

While we're on the concept of distinctions, it's worth looking at one more: human vs. person. On one definition, it's quite obvious that a newly-fertilized zygote is human. So is an amputated leg or fingernail clippings. Human here just means "has human DNA" or "has human cellular structure." But a doctor who amputates a leg to save the patient doesn't have to go through a hospital board inquiry, and I didn't have to explain to the police why I cut my nails last night. There's another definition of "human," which philosophers both prefer to call "person" to avoid speciesism and to avoid the confusion of using human in more than two ways. Persons are members of the moral community, things that have rights and responsibilities. Some philosophers use  the ability to feel pain; more common is the sentience idea, or the ability to act on something other than just instinct. But when a scientist or a bioethicist talks about a fetus being human, they don't usually mean it in the personhood case.

So to sum up:

  1. Yes, fetuses are (genetically) human.
  2. No, not all fetuses are humans/persons in the moral sense.
  3. The solution is not to call a zygote a person – it is to recognize that fetuses exist along a continuum, and while some may reasonably be called a person, not all can.
  4. So: drop this drive to call a zygote a person. It's not helping.

I am actually as dismayed by this journal article's claim as anyone else. The solution, though, isn't to double down and insist all fetuses are people. It's to recognize the very real difference between a zygote smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and an eight-month old human baby that could survive on its own outside the womb.

It also wouldn't hurt to distinguish between a late-term fetus's right to life, and the mother of a late-term fetus's obligation to preserve that life. She may have such an obligation based on her past actions of not terminating the pregnancy, not using appropriate birth control, etc. (depending on the situation – this is a big if), but it's not all about a "right to life." There are other concerns that play out here, and the dueling claims in this situation are complicated. You don't do anyone any good by pretending this is a simple issue.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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 When I read something that takes what I believe and carries it to its natural conclusion (or what seems like that), I find it very upsetting – almost violent. That happened today, when I saw a moderate-conservative friend on FB commenting on an article:

Ethicists Argue in Favor of 'After-Birth Abortions' as Newborns 'Are Not Persons'

Now, there are lots of things that made me skeptical about the post. When I loaded the article it had an ad for Goldline and Glenn Beck TV. An issue that seemed mostly secular ethics was listed under "Faith." The first two columnists listed on their contributors page are Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum. And so on. But the article certainly isn't raving. If anything, it seemed remarkably matter-of-fact given the subject matter. Apparently some university-affiliated ethicists down in Australia are advocating for a legal right to what they call "after-abortion," and what the rest of us (including me) call infanticide or just plain old murder.

The thing is, there's a lot in that basic argument that's similar to some things I've argued in the past. I don't believe a zygote produced from a human sperm and a human egg is a full-fledged person. And I don't think the fetus magically acquires the traits that make us human in one fell swoop when its head passes out of the mother's womb. Its moral status the moment before it is born is more or less its status just after it's birth. But I stop way before we get to the point suggested this article suggests those Aussie ethicists take it to, so I thought I'd try to work through why. This may only end up being interesting to me. :-)

First, the false start: that a law outlawing infanticide doesn't actually say you should kill your children, but just that it should be an individual choice. I know pro-choice people (myself included) tend to talk about giving people the right to choose an abortion even when we believe it's the wrong choice. I think there's something to be said for letting people make their own choice – and making everything illegal takes away possibilities of doing the right thing for the right reason. But as Michael Sandel put it in his very well-done book Justice, this in itself is a moral position and rests on the assumption that people can reasonably disagree over whether the fetus is a person. I would never say e.g. that people should have the right to decide whether to kill their eight-year-old child. Or even their one-minute-old child.

But I do think there's a legitimate difference the Blaze author is skipping past. There are real moral differences between a newly-fertilized ovum and a fetus about to be born. I can't necessarily point to a specific day when it is a person and before it wasn't. This is one of the things that drive me crazy about the abortion debate: as if just because I can't point to a hard dividing point, that means there's no difference between the extremes. (Evolution tells us there are all kinds of intermediate states between a chimpanzee and homo sapiens, so perhaps in some case you would struggle to know whether one of the linking individuals between the two groups, but no one would mistake one for the other.)

I am willing to accept the very real possibility that a fetus is sentient or even rational at some point in its development, and so would be a person. This was actually portrayed very well in the last Twilight movie, where Edward senses Renesme's thoughts before she is born and suddenly she seems real to him and worthy of moral consideration. As it happens, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle that distinction, but I'm thinking about the issue more from a morality standpoint anyway. Even before then, there can be reasons – good reasons – why it's wrong to kill a non-human animal. It's just not murder.

There's also another distinction that the Aussie ethicists totally overlooked if they're being fairly reported. I have no hard evidence that the Blaze is taking them out of context, but do consider the source. Also, this is so basic that if they're university-affiliated philosophers I'd be very surprised, since this is a rather significant and well-known distinction. It's that simply because you have a moral right to an abortion, it doesn't mean you have a moral right to kill the fetus. You have a right to keep it from using your body, and it may be a scientific fact that without those nutrients it will die, but that doesn't give you the right to cut its throat or shoot it if somehow it survived being separated from your body. So the mother could maybe say she didn't want to care for the child after giving birth to it, and she could surrender it to the state or someone else.

I find that a bit iffy, actually, given that the mother's had nine months to decide whether she wants the child, but I can see a few exceptions – like if she had carried it to term with the express intent of giving the child up for adoption, or if there were some new circumstances she hadn't planned on (like a birth defect where she wasn't prepared to raise the child). But this idea that it might be cruel to the mother for her to know her child is out there somewhere doesn't hold up for me. Lots of things are cruel, and we usually accept that as long as they aren't intentionally cruel. Life just stinks sometimes, whether as a consequence of our own choice or something done to us. Society can do what it can to mitigate the suffering (perhaps keeping the mother's identity a secret from the child if that's what she wants, or placing the child with parents in a different part of the country to minimize the chances mother and child will meet up.

But only up to a point. Certainly not up to the point of killing another person. I don't know enough about obstetrics or early pediatrics to say for sure this child is rational or for sure this child is sentient from the very second it leaves the womb. But it's well on its way, and it at least has the potential for those traits – a nervous system, for instance. The mother never had the right to kill the fetus, but even if she did, I'd say she had less and less of a claim to that right as the fetus/child approached personhood.

By the way, National Catholic Register, when you wrote:

The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn't, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand.

You're breaking your own standard in the space of two sentences. If you're saying anything with human genetic material is a human, that is a definition of human. And when you're excluding acts like biopsying (living, genetically human) cancerous cells from your definition of murder, you're also excluding some genetically-human, living organisms from the classification of humanity. We all do philosophy; some of us are just more explicit about this fact than others.

All said, I think those ethicists are either misreported or went too far (and how). That doesn't make my position that life doesn't begin at conception wrong, though.

(Originally posted at LJ; please Comment there.)

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Whatever else the recent blowup over the ACA contraception mandate might have shown, it's that Americans need a better epistemology. The news story has interested me on many levels and will probably pop up in blog posts from time to time. But one philosophical idea kept seeming to float to the forefront, at least in my mind as I read the different news stories. Namely, that the people participating in this debate seemed to be using concepts in very different ways. They weren't even consistent within the different sides.

This becomes clearer if you think about different groups. There was a lot of talk in left-leaning circles about "the 98%" – a statistic that 98% of sexually active Catholic women had used contraception at least once, and that a high number (I think in the neighborhood of 70-80%) used it regularly or were currently using it. The implication was that this meant Catholicism no longer had a major problem with birth control. I previously argued that religious institutions like the RCC don't operate like unions or PACs, where all you need for a position change is a new consensus view. The RCC, like all religious institutions represents its tradition, not the current view of all its members; and the members get to vote by agreeing to be a part of it or not.

So it's in the church's best interest to make its positions relevant to its members, through education and dialogue. I may not agree with the position (in point of fact I don't), but it's not my opinion – or any Catholic parishioner (which I'm not), or the majority opinion of those parishioners – that decides here. Here, what it means to be a Catholic is controlled by those people charged with interpreting and guarding Catholic tradition. The bishops and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.

The liberals have it wrong here. I say this as a liberal! But on this particular point, they're off base.

Interestingly, they're also wrong on a related issue but for exactly the opposite reason. This one came up in the context of hearings on this same mandate. There was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that there weren't any women on the first panel that appeared before the committee, and specifically that one witness who had been denied contraception by her Catholic employer that she needed for non-reproductive reasons wasn't allowed to testify. The charge of "Where were the women?" was pronounced immediately by Nancy Pelosi and soon went viral. I wasn't convinced even at first, because this particular hearing was over whether the mandate posed a challenge to religious freedom, and the woman they wanted to testify didn't have any comment on that particular issue. Do I wish the various religious groups had highlighted some of their female leaders (which do exist)? Yes, if only to drive home the point that religion is not all male-dominated, and that the lashback was tempered by an awareness of the reality women live. But the proposed witness was none of these things, and so I didn't feel excluded on those grounds.

It's what came next where things got really interesting. See, as it turns out there was a woman on the second panel that testified before the hearing (two in fact), but they didn't testify in favor of the mandate. So the idea that no women had testified was revamped a bit to say no women had testified for women. This irked me in the same way that the line that anti-abortion access laws are somehow a war against women. I don't like those laws, I find them insulting in their insinuation that women's decisions couldn't possibly be well-reasoned and I think some of them (like the recent narrow miss down in Virginia) are awful assaults on women and turn the doctor-patient relation on its head.

But I don't think attacks on them are a war on women, because lots of women do resent having reproduction labeled as an illness. Women tend to be among the most ardent pro-lifers, and they probably see abortion as an assault not only on a child but also on their way of life. I don't agree with them, but it is disenfranchising to them to suggest that unless you hold a certain view, you are not speaking for women or you're not a real women. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are women, and as much as I hate what they stand for on nearly every issue, they represent the viewpoints of many women.

The difference here is that "women" are not an institution like a church is. So here, you can't say you are protecting the institution of womanhood. If you were talking about a specific institution organized along gender lines (NOW, for instance) then, yes, we have a right to say that such-and-such a legislation is anti-NOW or against the interests of NOW. But the larger issue that a legislation is anti-woman? That only makes sense if you think of women as a monolithic group. We aren't that, and again the Democratic party is on the wrong end of it to suggest we are.

I've made my feelings on this mandate clear in recent posts, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize sloppy sentiments when I see them. Ironically, the left-leaning blogosphere is contradicting itself when saying on the one hand the RCC must take every member's position into account with no regard for history when determining the RCC's position, and then on the other hand that "women's issues" should only be decided by the "right" kind of women. Ironic that they get it wrong in both cases, really.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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 My friend Dan Fincke has an interesting post up about "covert" atheists and theists. He starts by describing two types of atheists:

There are at least two broad kinds of avowed atheists who take two distinct kinds of stances on the status of their belief. One is the atheist in the widest possible sense-one who claims to passively lack any belief in any gods by simply refraining from believing in them rather than outright making a metaphysical claim that "gods do not exist." The other broad kind of avowed atheist also lacks belief in all gods but is willing to say she either disbelieves in gods or believes (or even knows) based on the preponderance of evidence that there are no gods.

Dan then goes on to develop what you might call a functional test for these kinds of atheism. Essentially, if you act like these groups, so that there is no practical difference between you and them, it may make sense to call you an atheist. Or conversely, if an atheist acts like a theist even while claiming not to believe in a god, that person can perhaps be classified as an atheist. This is the heart of Dan's post, actually, and he leaves it open-ended: should we classify someone as X if their actions make them indistinguishable from other X-ers, even if the person swears up and down that she's a not-X?

Dan gives two examples to help us think about this. First, there's the problem of grief. Dan asks, "To what extent do [the theists'] normal fears of death and deep mourning of lost ones they ostensibly believe in heaven betray functional disbelief in heaven?" Basically, as I understand him, Dan's saying that if you believe in an afterlife of some kind you shouldn't be sorry that a loved one has gone on to it, or be afraid of dying yourself. The fact that the theist does feel these things proves that she isn't really convinced there's an afterlife after all, Dan suggests. (He also offers a similar analysis of covert theists, that is, people who claim to be atheists but when in distress wonder whether they should pray.

Now, I have some problems with this account. First of all, I don't agree with Dan's point that it's inconsistent to believe in an afterlife and still grieve the death of a loved one or fear your own death. Essentially I think that bodily life is a good thing cut short by an early death, and that you don't gain anything by going on to any kind of an afterlife sooner rather than later. So whether or not it's wrong to believe in heaven and hell or their various analogs in any other religion, there's not really anything inconsistent in those two beliefs. I also have my doubts about functional definitions because you can get the same result with two very different beliefs (for example, someone who thinks she should turn in a found wallet to the police and acts on that belief, versus someone who thinks she should keep the wallet but lacks the strength of character to act on that belief).

But those points aside, there's a really interesting issue in the distinction Dan draws between these two types of atheists. As I understand it - and keep in mind, this is the pre-coffee Marta, which shall be purchased and consumed on my way to campus in a bit - Dan is talking about people in both cases who have a specific concept of a god and we don't think anyone meets that definition. One type ­rejects the idea that any of the usual (or unusual, for that matter) candidate is in fact a god; the other makes the positive claim that "no gods exist." But in both cases, you have an idea of what would constitute a god, and you're taking a position that nothing actually meets that definition.

The trouble is, as soon as you have an idea in mind, I'd say you're already letting God exist in a sense. This is Anselm's basic point: to even talk about something (including God) meaningfully, you have to know what it is you're talking about, but to do that you have to have an object of thought. At a minimum a god "exists" inside your mind even if it doesn't exist anywhere else. The thought is that it's wrong at that point to say "There is no God" unless you're very careful to talk about the concepts as what other people mean by them rather than ideas you've internalized.

Anselm explains the distinction here through the painter analogy:

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Anselm has just said that whenever we hear or say a word – if proper communication is occurring – we must know what we're talking about, implying that we have the idea in mind. We can disagree about whether there's anything in the world beyond our mind, sure, just like the painter can wonder whether the idea he has in his mind actually corresponds with an idea he has in mind or whether it's just an object of thought at that point; but it's an object of thought, whatever else it might be.

The way around this is that if you're going to say the concept of God is ill-formed. Basically, if you think it's a concept that involves a contradiction, so it's theoretically impossible that anything meets the definition (as opposed to it being possible but as it works out no one actually meets the definition), then you aren't communicating in the normal way. When you say "God" it doesn't describe a concept you have in your mind. Rather, you're using it in a way my adviser calls parasitically: you're taking on someone else's concept and using it on their terms, but you're not really saying it makes sense to you. So if you think (e.g.) God can't create a rock so big He couldn't lift it so nothing could be omnipotent, you're likely to say that any conception of a god who has the characteristic of omnipotence isn't even possible. Meaning you can't have Him as an object of thought, though you could still talk about other people's (faulty) conceptions of Him.

I personally think this distinction is helpful toward making sense of language. Consider the statements (a) "Legolas is the Prince of Ithilien" and (b) "William is the prince of England." (b) is objectively true since there's an individual named William and, yes, he does hold that title. (a) turns out to be false but for entirely different reasons. There is a fictional character called Legolas, and he is a prince, but he's not the prince of Ithilien. However, none of this depends on the objective reality; it's just a set of fictions developed by an author and known by fans of the book. The statement is false because if you denied any of the claims I listed above you wouldn't be describing the situation depicted in the book. But it's not like we can consult the official records of Ithilien and fail to find Legolas listed among them. There's a different standard of truth; indeed, a different concept of what it means to be true is at work. Similarly, a statement that works with a contradictory concept wouldn't be true or false in the same way either of these are; if in fact you could say true or false apply at all.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Dan's position, btw. As I said this is Marta pre-coffee (soon to be rectified), and it's possible I've misunderstood what Dan was getting at with his post. But even if I am misreading him, I do think it's useful to distinguish between the atheist who simply doesn't believe anything in the world satisfies the definition of God, versus someone who says the concept itself is nonsense. The kind of evidence we'd expect in the two cases would be completely different.

Now off to get my java-fix. Feel free to tell me what you think of all this in the comments.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
The good news is: today's undulating wave Google Doodle is beautiful in its simplicity. Something about the undulating wave (honoring Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who was the first to transmit and receive radio waves) really struck my romantic fancy. Think of how many ways the radio-wave has influenced us all, and how easy it maks it to reach out to other humans and be connected across distances.

The bad news: after Dr. Graham's recent remarks, I really needed the inspiration. He was asked in a recent interview whether he thought various presidential candidates (and current presidents) were Christian, and as usual his answer was just... *blech*. Honestly, the only thought going through my mind when reading his comments was something along the lines of "Christianity: you're doing it rong." I don't make a habit of speculating about the state of other peoples' salvation, so I'm not going to make the same move Dr. Graham did, but when it comes to the practice of Christianity, comments like this are so wrong they're physically painful for me.

Basically, Dr. Graham said that he couldn't be sure Obama was a Christian. That's an honest enough answer according to Christianity, actually. We're not supposed to be judging people in that regard, and it's not the kind of thing you can easily judge anyway. The problem is that Franklin then turns around and says he's sure that both Santorum and Gingrich are Christians.

Gingrich, the serial adulterer.

And Santorum, whose views on morality, authority, and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's are frankly some of the most unbiblical I've ever seen. To say nothing of the utter disregard for imago dei on show when you compare gay sex to bestiality.


Aside from the lack of Christian charity evident in many of the GOP contenders' position, one thing that interested me is how sure Dr. Graham is that a Catholic is a Christian. This is by no means a settled question in this particular quarter of Christian, and again by Dr. Graham's test of someone who grew up in a church family vs. someone who actively sought it out, Obama's biography makes it more likely he's a genuine Christian than does Santorum's.

That's all bad enough, but unfortunately it gets worse. Speaking of Muslims, he says, "All I know is under Obama, President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries." The context in other accounts of the interview make it seem like Dr. Graham is actually suggesting that maybe the president is a Muslim, because he's looking out more for Muslims than he does for Christians. I don't agree with the statement that Muslims have gotten an easy go of it under Obama (look at how lukewarm his reaction has been to supporting Arab Spring protesters, for example; and it was George W. Bush who explicitly said he was not at war with Islam), but even if that had been the case, I'm more than a bit flabbergasted by Dr. Graham's position. Has he honestly forgotten the Biblical command to love our neighbors and even our enemy? Where there is suffering, my Christianity commands me to do what I can to ease it.

Look, I'm almost certainly not voting for Obama come November. I have no interest in the question of whether he's a Christian or not, first because in his speech and actions I see as much a reflection of Christian social justice and good works without parading about it that I see in any of the major politicians, and second because I don't need the president to share my religion. Give me a Muslim or an atheist or whatever president who respects the rule of law, who inspires and unifies America and has the courage to get things done - he'll have my vote. I prefer a president who is either active in some faith-community or its nonreligious equivalent, because I think being president is taxing emotionally and you need somewhere to turn for support as you bear up under it. But I don't need my president to go to the "right" church or say the right words.

What I do need is a bit of Christian charity when it comes to people whose faith doesn't take the exact form yours does. And a recognition that being a good Christian is about so much more than being good to Christians. On that count, Dr. Graham has failed miserably.

All of which makes me think that "doing it rong" thought wasn't too far off, anyway.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)

I've been following the controversy over birth control coverage for some time. It touches on an experience I had several months back, when I discovered that my student health insurance (I'm a graduate student at a private Catholic university). I was either misinformed or else the policy changed, because I recently learned that I could get birth control if I saw a private doctor and the insurance would pay for it. But I remember how upset I was when I thought I was being forced to live by someone else's morality – and do bear in mind I don't actually need or use birth control! – so I have a lot of empathy for the women whose health care choices are being forced into the public square.

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
It's a lovely, unseasonably warm afternoon. The faculty dining room had good food I could stomach (the quality is always good; but I'm an exceptionally picky eater with shrooms and veggies). Week's grading is done and I think I've finally settled on books for summer school In short, I'm having a good afternoon by any of the normal metrics. I haven't been sleeping well (basically since I've seen "The Grey" two days ago), but for once relaxed and at peace rather than exhausted beyond all measure.

All of which sets up your standard Marta epiphany. Read more... )

(Originally posted in LJ; please comment there.)


fidesquaerens: (Default)

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