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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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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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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.)
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*rushes in with noise-makers and cake*

Yesterday I had planned to write about pandemonium_213's birthday. I had every intention of writing her a nice birthday post, full of meaty science-and-faith thoughts. I'd even planned out a witty opening line about yesterday (now two days ago) being Charles Dawin's birthday, but even more importantly it was the day before our own pandë's. :-) But I got a bit obsessed with the unhappy juxtaposition of (1) Chris Brown making a "come-back" by performing at the Oscars and (2) the upcoming Valentine's Day focus on love. I couldn't quite get my thoughts to go other places, including what I'd wanted to write about.

So, first things first. Pandë, I really hope you had a first-class day. Our corner of the interwebs is better for your being part of it.

I also wanted to say a few words about the topic of atheism, religion, faith and science. I can't hope that both Pandë and Darwin would approve. Annual posts thinking about the kinds of questions I imagine Pandë asking me are becoming a bit of a tradition, actually! The rest of this post is dedicated to her, though of course the thoughts don't represent her position. But I do hope the labor of love inherent in pondering deep questions will be a fitting tribute to her. (And as always, Pandë, do feel free to respond honestly, if you want to.)

Read more... )

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A few days ago, I posted about the topic of God and goodness. Dan Fincke replied with lots of good points that need to be addressed (and I hope to get around to a few of them as time permits – unfortunately it's tight these days), but one in particular jumped out. Dan said he didn't see much about what I thought re: God's moral goodness. So I want to address that first.

I don't believe in a God that is morally good. In my previous post I drew a distinction between what I called moral goodness and ontological goodness, and I do think God is ontologically good but not morally good. So perhaps some definitions are in order. I defined moral goodness as the kind of thing we should praise. Having thought about it some more, I think I prefer a formulation more along the lines of Jaime in Dan's dialogue: effectiveness relationships in the natural world, with the proviso that they are effective toward achieving the kind of things humans ought to do (that lead us to become good humans, that complement and enable our human nature, etc.) Ontological goodness, on the other hand has to do with perfection and completeness. A car with a dent in the bumper is less ontologically good than a car without a dented bumper, for example.

I'm sure this will be controversial. So maybe I should explain more carefully what I mean. In my original post I said that I hadn't thought a lot about the story of the massacre of the Canaanites, which Dan had described as "intellectually responsible." I'd put it more in terms of being psychologically realistic. I have thought a great deal about the problem of pain (or theodicy) but not about the problem of how God could have done bad things in the past. There are issues there, technical philosophical issues that I don't think I can really address, and so I was trying to acknowledge that.

But the reason I haven't thought them through is simply because I don't think we have to turn to the past to find situations that everyone should agree were morally repugnant if they were done by a human. Once you see a dying child who has a cancer not because of something he's done to contract it but just because, you don't need to go much further for evidence that God can't be morally good. And then there's the larger scale. Droughts that take out entire regions. A human psyche that allows for things like "corrective rape" and extreme "disciplining" that leads to children's deaths. These things shock me, so much that I cannot think of anyone who would allow them as morally good.

But I have philosophical reasons as well. Probably the biggest one comes from the definition of "good" Dan proposed in his dialogue. Dan had Jaime define goodness as effectiveness relationships in the natural world. It is good to give to charity because this is a good way of eliminating suffering, something that is essential not just for our comfort but also if we're to become the best humans we can. (As the Jewish proverb goes, where there is no bread, there is no Torah.) I understand those effectiveness-relationships to be important because we need them. If we were entirely self-sufficient and perfectly good there would be no need to be in any kind of relationship with anything else that was an effective way to reach any goal.

It's also worth pointing out that even if there was some goal that God needed an effective way to reach, it wouldn't be the kind of good that a human needs to reach. I take this to mean that the ends that are good for humans would not be good for God, and so God would not be any less good for not acting in a way that would be good for humans to do. (I don't think this boils down to a kind of relativism or subjectivism, by the way. It is still an objective feature of the world that human flourishing is best-served through community and the social obligations that carries along with it (including the obligation to give to charity). Our brains are hard-wired to do well under those circumstances. But it is an objective fact about the world that is not actually effective to helping God be the best God He can be. First of all, because that implies some kind of change is necessary (or even possible); and second, because if such a need did exist, it would be a very different kind of need than our own needs as humans.

There's also the fact that I'm all too aware of the problem of language when describing God. Think of what we mean when we say, for example, "blue." The two most common accounts are that language is innate (in which case it's something we grasp in our minds even before we see the first blue thing), or else it's something we learn through the process of abstraction. Basically, you see several blue things, hear people make that sound of blue, and you look for a similarity between the objects to connect that sound to. Then in the future when you see an object with that same trait you can label it as blue. The problem is that most people who believe in God would say He isn't made of components the things we used to get our concepts from are made from, so any quality our words pick out aren't the kind of thing you'd expect to find in God. Now, God's not blue because He doesn't have a material body. But He's also not powerful, in the same way an A-Bomb or an earthquake is. Because the concept we derive from those experiences simply isn't the kind of thing that applies to God. It's a category mistake to ask whether God is good or evil.

That does leave some pretty big questions, I know. For one, it doesn't really match up with the claims the Gospel presents of a loving God, no need to fear for tomorrow, etc. And even if God has no obligation to be good, we certainly are entitled to say "this action You did is wrong," meaning it gets in the way rather than promoting those effectiveness relationships Jaime was talking about. The only way this is a problem, though, is if you suggest God has a special duty to promote human well-being as opposed to astral well-being or oak tree well-being or whatever. Expecting that seems to put some serious limitations on what God can and cannot do, which conflicts the standard picture of God. All of which makes me think that a world where God directly obeyed human standards of morality wouldn't be a God at all.

It's a grim picture, I'll admit, but it's honestly the only way I can see for the kind of God Christians claim they believe in to exist. I actually do think there's room for a healthy kind of love on this picture, the kind that doesn't ask me to destrioy who I am for your sake or for the sake of the relationship. If it is truly impossible for God to follow human morality without ceasing to be God, then I don't see a problem in saying a loving God would not change reality for our point but would support us as we have to live through it.

This is a topic that can't be answered fully in a blog post, I don't think. (It's a topic we've been struggling with since Epicurus.) I'll keep pegging at it as time allows since it is important, and I may well change my position as I continue to think about things. But, as for right now, those are my thoughts on God and moral goodness.

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As an aside, the title comes from Epicurus's famous statement of the problem of evil (as laid out by Hume): Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a dialogue looking at the connection between goodness and God. He's created two fictional characters, a Christian named Robin and an atheist named Jaime, who start out by discussing whether it makes sense to call the God described in the Bible good. They later move to the topic of whether it makes sense to think of goodness at all, if God did not exist to create it. Jaime eventually works his* way around to an argument that the Yahweh described in the Bible can't be the God Christians claim to believe in.

I want to explain why Jaime's argument (at least some of it) doesn't really hold up for me. But first I want to go on Plato safari, because a lot of the arguments Jaime uses are eerily familiar to the Euthyphro dilemma about Divine Command Theory. I don't think I've ever explained that philosophical concept before, so I'll take the opportunity to do that now. That's section I. Then there are some important distinctions I think Jaime needs to take into account, which I'll explain in part II. Finally, I'll try to bring all these concepts together to critique Jaime's position in part III. If you know the basic gist of the Euthyphro dilemma you can probably skip down.

But first, a quick comment on Dan's dialogue. Dan usually takes great pains to use gender-neutral names in these dialogues, but these particular names sorted themselves into he's and she's rather quickly. That's because to my mind Jaime that name is pronounced HIE meh, a distinctly masculine name. As for Robin, I had a good female friend with that name so I thought of her immediately. Since gender-neutral pronouns typically drive me crazy, I'm going to go with "he" for Jaime and "she" for Robin, out of convenience. I don't mean anything else by assigning gender roles, and I hope Dan won't mind too much.

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Part I: The Euthyphro Dilemma )
Part II: There's Good, and Then There's Good )
Part III: Critiquing Jaime )
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I'd be interested in other peoples' thoughts. Do you think it makes sense to describe God as good, in either sense? (Assuming you believe God exists, obviously.) How do you make sense of things like the genocide of the Canaanites? And I'd welcome opinions from theists and atheists on any other point I raised, or that Dan raised and you want to talk about. Have at it!

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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The NY Times "Opinionator" blog has an interesting piece up:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/teaching-law/

Essentially, there was a story earlier this week where David Segal addressed the complaint that law schools are teaching things that aren't of any practical value to lawyers. The line of argument reminded me of a great line in the "Law and Order" episode "Aftershock," when lawyer Claire Kincaid complains to her father, a law school professor, that people take contracts courses without ever reading a contract. She's overwhelmed by the realities of practicing law and feels her education didn't prepare her in the slightest for what she had to face. Her dad's response? She went to a law school, not a lawyer school.

That's the basic distinction here. Dr Fish describes a course he taught this semester at Yale, on the religion clause in the U.S. Constitution where his students studied philosophers like Kant, Locke, Rawles, Hobbes, and the rest. These aren't texts that will feature into a philosopher's legal briefs, Dr. Fish admits, but he thinks being exposed to them is worthwhile none the less. I very nearly said "useful" just now, but that's not it at all. In fact, Fish points out that the use of study isn't the point at all. He quotes Dr. Brian Leiter, who I associate with a major philosophy blog but who apparently is also a law professor: The criterion of scholarly inquiry is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge and understanding, not whether it ‘helps.’

I don't disagree with them. I'm studying philosophy and teaching it as part of my fellowship, and one of the questions I hate hearing is what use a certain topic is. You can question why some topics are interesting or important, to be sure, but don't demand its use, its application to things with a practical benefit. Philosophy is an art, and I think Dr. Leiter's right: the important question is does it illuminate, does it lead to deeper and truer and more nuanced understanding? Not whether it puts money in the bank.

The trouble is, law school does have to prepare you to be a lawyer. Students go into debt, often incredibly deep, and it's not fair to them if (a) law school is required to practice law, and (b) it doesn't really help them practice law. Things get even more complicated when you talk about public funding. There are sometimes special programs where the government will pay for your schooling if you work so many years in a D.A.'s office rather than in private practice. It's more common in other professions (nursing, education), but I know my M.A. school had a program like that for law school. And I find myself wondering, as a taxpayer: is that just?

I think it comes down to how we view education. If education is all about preparing people to fill a job we need filled, and we support it through taxes (whether for special programs like those, public school tuition, subsidized loans, whatever), I think you can make a case that we should only be paying for things that actually serve a public purpose. We help the best future doctors pay for med school because we want those people to go to med school - it's in our interest. But you don't take vitally needed money from other services and spend it on something that will maybe help the person become a better individual, but won't actually contribute to the roles society needs them to fill.

I personally think that's the wrong model. Democracies rely on everyone being well-educated and critical. ANd part of the purpose of society is to help each individual flourish as a human, and a big part of what that means is the freedom to think deep thoughts and learn more about things that are worth thinking about even if there isn't a practical payoff. People talk a lot about the dignity of human life; part of that dignity is the dignity to be fully human, fully rational no matter your wealth. Put it simply: subjects like law and philosophy and all the rest shouldn't just be a "luxury" for the rich. Under this model, I'd say it makes sense to help pay for even "impractical" subjects. Because even if they don't prepare you for a job, they help you become a better person.

That of course involves caring about what is best for other people and not just what they can do for me. I personally think that's a deeply moral stance, but it's one that requires a genuine sense of community. Whether that still exists in this country? Not so sure on that one.

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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Over at LJ we were asked:

What do you want done with your body after you die? (View answers)


This is actually something I've thought about. My first priority is practical good. So if my eye corneas can give someone sight or my bone marrow can save a sick kid with leukemia, then I'm all for it. I spend too much time in the pediatric oncology ward not to be all for it. And yes, I am officially an organ donor.

Beyond that, I see three goals that need balancing: comfort to those I leave behind, a philosophical statement about my values, and ecological preservation. Personally I think there is something beautiful in cremation: the sudden reduction of the body to ashes, the reincorporation with the earth. Personally I would prefer to be scattered somewhere, perhaps in the wind, so I can think of myself as being reintegrated back into the things still alive. It's like embracing the world. Ecologically, cremation makes a lot more sense than burial, too.

That stands (maybe) against the views of those I'll leave behind. Some family members probably prefer a traditional burial, and I can understand that. I wouldn't have a problem with it for their sake; any benefit I get out of imagining myself cremated is negligible, compared to the benefit they get after I'm dead of seeing me buried in the traditional way (if that is what they want). But to the extent that what's done with my body - after organ harvesting, of course - should depend on what I want now, I think I'd prefer not to be eaten by worms. :-)
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I seem to be getting into the same conversation over and over again: who gets to decide who "we" are.

Case #1: In a political blog post dealing with the GOP assertion that Mormonism is a cult, I said that while I didn't think Mormonism was a cult or any better/worse than other religions, I also didn't think they were Christian. I explicitly said this wasn't intended as a judgment in any way (I honestly don't think you need to be any religion - or religious at all - to hold public office!). Rather, it was a factual statement. Christians disagree over how to interpret their holy texts, but they do start from the same canon. That's some similarity.

Case #2: Over at [personal profile] celandineb's blog I recently got into a conversation over what made someone a member of a certain faith community. Basically we were discussing whether there was such a thing as militant atheism. Certainly people kill in the name of religion (the Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc. for Islam; Anders Breivig for Christianity; etc.) But I keep asking in my mind, do such people represent Christianity or Islam or whatever, even if they claim the title? Is a group's belief just determined by what the majority of people claiming the label think?

I can see why you would think that - after all, the numbers and how much noise those numbers make influences what people mean when they use the concepts of Christians or Muslims or whatever. For many Americans, Christianity is connected to anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-feminism. And Islam is often connected to outright misogyny and to terrorism. There was a point when the public opinion changed, so there was a time when people believed one thing, and those people who believed the now-common associations were turning from how the religion was. You could say the same thing for any cultural element. I honestly do not believe that Anders Breivig was a Christian, though I do believe many parts of Christianity are responsible for the rhetoric that let him read our canon that way. Similarly, I don't think the Taliban comment on all Muslims, however they describe themselves, though I do think that it's the Muslims' jobs to safe-guard how their text is interpreted.

Case #3: Just a few days ago, over at my fannish blog I asked whether fanfic was different from speculative fiction, and whether fanfic could be speculative fiction. I had a question lurking at the back of my brain, who gets to decide what specfic is.

In my mind, I keep coming back to this thought: that just claiming a label doesn't give you the right to reshape the idea or identity; that just because you choose a name doesn't mean whatever you do reflects on the group you claim. In philosophical words, identity is an a priori concept, something we relate to rather than shape. At least in part.

This matters deeply to me, because I see things I care about being remade time and again by others. I see the Tea Party remarking how my friends talk about the South. I see the culture wars reshaping what it means to be a Protestant. I see people like Ayn Rand corrupting what people think of when they hear the word Christian. And it feels like bits of who I am is getting taken away, piece by piece. Maybe there's no real change (how much of this is me seeing how people have always viewed things, but never bothered to talk about)? I don't know.

So if I keep banging my head about this, at least you know why!

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