Archive for December, 2009

Sticking to Your Narrative vs. Trying to Falsify it

December 29, 2009

David J. Linden, author of The Accidental Mind, in an interview on Point of Inquiry with D. J. Grothe, 2/6/09:

Our brains are built to have us create narratives out of disparate sensory experiences or facts. We try to take fragments of information and weave them into a story. This cognitive process is the basis not just of religious faith but also of scientific thought.

The first act of science and the first act of religion are the same act. In both cases, you are making an hypothesis. You are saying, I have an incomplete set of information, and based on that incomplete set of information, I believe X to be true. Now if this is the scientific faith, you are then saying, “All right, then this could be falsified by such-and-such an experiment or such-and-such an observation.” If this is the religious faith, then you are saying, “Nope, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. That’s my faith and I’m not going to subject it to those modes of inquiry.”

Science and religion are two branches of the same cognitive stream.

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The Known Universe

December 25, 2009

NY State Senator Diane Savino Takes on the “Sanctity of Marriage” Argument

December 22, 2009
The same-sex marriage debate has been around so long that the rhetoric on both sides has started to become stale. The right trots out the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it scenarios and the slippery-slope-toward-polygamy-or-OMG!-bestiality scenarios, while we—the ones who want to look lovingly into our partners’ eyes and say, “I’m so glad I married you!” instead of “I’m so glad I entered into a domestic partnership arrangement with you!”—sometimes sound legalistic, conventional, and boring with our appeals to fairness and common sense.

There seem to be two broad categories of arguments against same-sex marriage—those that conceal their religious basis and those that put it right up front and center. Though the authority of scripture and religious teaching has been weakened in our secularized society, it still has broad appeal, and so we hear—or perhaps “overhear”—the argument that same-sex marriage is a threat to the “sanctity” of marriage. Conservative Christians seem to know what is meant by this claim, and few dare to question it because it is planted squarely in the realm of the sacred, which is of course bristling with taboos. Same-sex marriage advocates may just back off rather than follow the debate into the minefield of religion.

But we don’t need to venture onto that minefield to pursue the argument. Diane Savino, NY State Senator, has shown us how. In a recent (12/2/09) speech on the floor of the NY State Senate, Senator Savino reminds us of how badly the institution of marriage has been abused over the past several decades—and by the opposite-sex crowd! Here is what she had to say:

I know many people are concerned about the destruction of the sanctity of marriage, as well, and they view this as a threat. But let me ask you something, ladies and gentlemen, what are we really protecting when you look at the divorce rate in our society? Turn on the television. We have a wedding channel on cable TV devoted to the behavior of people on their way to the altar. They spend billions of dollars, behave in the most appalling way, all in an effort to be princess for a day. You don’t have cable television? Put on network TV. We’re giving away husbands on a game show. You can watch “The Bachelor,” where 30 desperate women will compete to marry a 40-year-old man who has never been able to maintain a decent relationship in his life. We have “The Bachelorette,” in reverse. And my favorite show, which thank God only ran one season because it was truly distasteful, was “The Littlest Groom,” where 30 desperate women competed to marry a dwarf. That’s what we’ve done to marriage in America, where young women are socialized from the time they’re five years old to think of being nothing but a bride. They plan every day what they’ll wear, how they’ll look, the invitations, the whole bit. They don’t spend five minutes thinking about what it means to be a wife. People stand up there before God and man [and] they swear to love, honor, and obey; they don’t mean a word of it. So if there’s anything wrong, any threat to the sanctity of marriage in America, it comes from those of us who have the privilege and the right, and we have abused it for decades.

So to those who view same-sex marriage as a threat to the “sanctity” of marriage, we say, “Look to your own record. What have heterosexuals done to the institution of marriage?” If gay and lesbian married couples had such a sorry record as straight ones, it would be cited as proof that they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Why, then, don’t we question the legitimacy of straight marriages, nearly half of which end in divorce in this country? The real “threat” to the sanctity of marriage is not coming from same-sex couples.

The point of raising this question is only to bring perspective into the debate, not to seriously suggest that heterosexuals should be barred from marrying. The more serious and enduring question is about where our focus needs to be if we are concerned about either the health or the “sanctity” of marriage as an institution.

View Senator Savino’s entire speech here. Read the transcript here.

Cornerstone Forum Joins Smear Campaign Against Kevin Jennings

December 14, 2009

Kevin Jennings

Gil Bailie, lay Catholic scholar and president of Cornerstone Forum, has recently channeled a story that attempts to smear and discredit Kevin Jennings, founder and former Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Jennings currently serves as Director of Safe and Drug Free Schools in the U.S. Department of Education. Bailie’s post (“The Unreported Scandal…”, 12/10/09), consists mostly of material copied and pasted directly from an article in Creative Minority Report. When asked if he stood by the claims made in his post, including the CMR accusations, Bailie did not reply.

The Creative Minority Report (CMR) story is about sexually explicit educational materials promoted by GLSEN, and about a Q&A session in a workshop that was part of a GLSEN conference. CMR links to various evidence supporting its claim that Kevin Jennings is unfit to serve as Director of Safe and Drug Free Schools because of his associations with GLSEN. CMR’s language is shrill and hyperbolic (e.g., “absolutely disgusting,” “horrific,” “gory.”)

Relying mostly on information provided by MediaMatters.org, I investigated two of the links provided by CMR so that I could reply to a blogger named “Ignatius,” who apparently believed the slanders against Jennings. What follows a revised and expanded version of my reply to him.

Ignatius,

Please take a close look at the title of the following linked article, which appears in Gateway Pundit:  

Breaking: Obama’s Safe Schools Czar’s Question to 14-year-olds: “Spit vs. Swallow?…Is it Rude?” (audio-video).

I identified five direct or implied claims in this title:

  • The story is breaking news.
  • Kevin Jennings asked a question.
  • The question was asked of a 14-year-old.
  • The question was “Spit vs. swallow?…Is it rude?”
  • The incident may be viewed on an audio-video file.

Only one of these claims is supported by the facts.

(more…)

Manhattan Declaration Issues Not High on Jesus’s Priority Stack

December 10, 2009

Ellen Haroutunian’s recent piece about the Manhattan Declaration, posted on her blog site (Seeking Our Living Orthodoxy), is a powerful call to Christians to live their faith.

The Manhattan Declaration, crafted by a group of conservative Christian leaders, identifies three main areas of concern for modern Christians: abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. Has anyone noticed anything strange about this selection? Yes, that’s right. It doesn’t map to the concerns of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. Jesus did not even mention them.

This is not to say they aren’t important, but why are they so high on the priority stack, and why is there no mention of Jesus’s own priorities?

For starters, I would have expected to find a list of concerns based on Jesus’s teachings about how we treat the poor, the sick, and those who suffer persecution. The Manhattan Declaration might have called for universal healthcare, an end to genocide and human rights abuses, and a concerted effort to end poverty and hunger throughout the world. Instead, the three issues spotlighted in the declaration reflect the political agendas of its authors, for whom poverty, healthcare, and human rights abuses are apparently peripheral or unimportant.

Once again, I would like to know when conservative Christians and the Catholic Church are going to speak out against Uganda’s persecution of homosexuals. Is the Church silent about this because of Uganda’s large Catholic population, or is it because the Church doesn’t really believe the words of its catechism about homosexuality? (Homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”) New legislation requiring the death penalty for homosexual acts will probably be enacted soon. I would expect that Christians, whose savior died at the hands of his persecutors, would speak out against the persecution of homosexuals. If not, then I would like to know what Christianity is for? Is it only about condemning abortion and homosexuality and constraints on its own power?  

I found the following paragraph from Ellen’s piece particularly compelling:

To take a real “stand” that flows from love would mean an incarnational and consistent engagement with the people that this document affects. Seriously, how many babies are we willing to adopt? How much child care will we subsidize out of our own pockets? Have the declaration writers invited their gay neighbors to dinner yet? Have you? Are the authors willing to move to the Congo and die alongside those being extinguished by ethnic hatred there? Are any of us willing to go that far? You have to admit, a bunch of middle- to upper-middle-class white guys doing that would certainly grab media attention and maybe make an impact that would shake the core of this self-centered world. It might even make a real difference the way that sanctions and bombs have not. Call me cynical, but something tells me this is not in the plans for the writers of this document.

Gay Marriage in the Manhattan Declaration: The Same Dull Edge as Before

December 7, 2009

About a month ago, a group of conservative Christian leaders penned a document identifying three main issues of concern to modern Christians: abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. The document, called “The Manhattan Declaration,” has been publicized and disseminated through conservative news and opinion media, and supporters are urged to sign on for what is hoped will be a massive display of resolve and solidarity.   

It will come as no surprise that the declaration opposes same-sex marriage. But one might expect that, after years of intense debate over this issue, opponents would finally have honed their arguments to the point of maximal clarity and persuasiveness. Instead, their case has the same dull edge as before. The only thing that has been perfected in this document is its sickening and insidious “love the sinner, hate the sin” veneer. 

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum has been urging his site visitors to sign the declaration. “Read its carefully written and quite sober defense of traditional moral and social realities,” he writes.

I would emphatically disagree that the Manhattan Declaration is “carefully written.” In particular, the key paragraph justifying the privileging of heterosexual marriage is verbose and nearly incomprehensible. I believe it could be reduced to a single sentence. Here’s the unreduced version:

Marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit. This is because the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person, but truly part of the personal reality of the human being. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies. The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being–the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual—on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation. That is why in the Christian tradition, and historically in Western law, consummated marriages are not dissoluble or annullable on the ground of infertility, even though the nature of the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation.

In the first sentence, we read that “marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman…” This highly subjective opinion is presented as a “given,” and the authors quickly move on, apparently in the belief that no clarification is needed. But we are entitled to point out that sexual complementarity does not always occur between men and women, and so the authors’ generalization is unwarranted. Sex is about much more than gender. It is driven by a host of psychological and hormonal factors. Therefore, any gender combination (M-F, M-M, or F-F) can experience sexual complementarity—a mutual experience of attraction that is expressed sexually. The authors are plainly wrong to assert that sexual complementarity can be experienced by only one of these combinations.

But wait, there’s more. The clause also asserts that this particular sexual complementarity (between some men and women) makes marriage possible. Well, no, it doesn’t, unless we redefine marriage to include only recognized unions between men and women who experience sexual complementarity. But marriage is not universally defined that way. Same-sex marriage is legal in many locales, including five European countries and Canada, with more to follow before long. The definition of marriage has already broadened to include same-sex unions.

The author (Chuck Colson, perhaps) appears to be expressing a belief rather than presenting an argument. His belief is that marriage should be reserved for male-female couples.

But let’s read the entire sentence to see where it takes us:

Marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit.

So, in his view, marriage might include procreation. That’s fine. I can agree with that. (I hope he’s not suggesting that marriage must include procreation. A lot of childless couples might bristle at the suggestion that their marriage is sub-standard or inauthentic!)

And then, about mid-paragraph, there’s this gem of verbosity:

Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being—the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual—on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation.

The spouses become one flesh by fulfilling the behavioral conditions of procreation. Is that clear? They can only become one flesh when there’s some kind of underlying biological, procreative…potential? Or mimicry of procreativity? (Going through the motions? Acting “as if…”?) No, that couldn’t be it. Whatever it is, I’ve lost it. I really don’t grasp the concept.

Okay. I think I’ve got it. He seems to be saying that males and female produce babies, so only sex between males and females is good.

Again, if that’s what he’s saying, he’s not producing an argument but stating a purely subjective belief, and the entire tedious paragraph could have been reduced to a single sentence:

Marriage should be reserved for male-female couples because only males and females can make babies together.

He is of course entitled to that belief, but reader beware: If you came to the Manhattan Declaration looking for reasons, justifications, or clarification about the mysteries of matrimony, you won’t find them here. As Alice B. Toklas said of the city of Oakland, “There’s no there there.”

From Bullying of LGBT Youth in U.S. Schools to Persecution of Homosexuals in Uganda: An Open Letter to a Catholic Writer

December 6, 2009

Uganda's President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni

The following is an open letter to Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum (http://cornerstone-forum.org/) and is adapted from comments I submitted following his post of 12/4/09 titled, “Safe Schools Indeed.”

___________________________________

While investigating GLSEN’s Web site, I ran across a link to a 2004 article in Momentum, a Catholic publication. The article, published in two parts, is by a Catholic priest (Robert Mattingly, SJ), and its title is, “Gay adolescents in Catholic Schools: Avoiding the Topic Won’t Make It Go Away.” 

Mattingly writes the following:

The litany of risks for gay teens is overwhelming. The suicide rate is five times higher for gay adolescents; gay suicide attempts are much more lethal; 40 percent of homeless teens are gay; gay teens are three times as likely to engage in substance abuse; and 60 percent of new HIV cases occur among 15-to-24-year-olds. Many gay adolescents feel completely isolated and alone. One described the situation as “living in a box.” Self-destructive behaviors are not intrinsic to being homosexual, but they flow from the external negative reaction to it, which then becomes internalized.

To the extent that isolation and hateful messages decrease, there is movement from self-destruction to self-integration. The failure of a school to help its homosexual students feel loved and included is not simply doing nothing. Rather, a lack of action contributes to isolation, which leads to further self-deprecation.

Mattingly offers a fleeting glimpse into the lives of gay teens who face prejudice, taunts, and bullying while at school. Many of these youth then face misunderstanding, abuse, and moral condemnation when they return to their families and churches. The rates of depression, suicide, homelessness, and substance abuse among these youth are truly scandalous and heart-breaking. We should all have to stop what we are doing for a few hours and listen to some of the stories, but unfortunately most of them will be ignored and forgotten.

Last month, you posted a short video that encouraged Christians to be more loving toward gays and lesbians (“A Nice Reminder,” 11/13/09). I remarked that the video contained no call for action—action to end discrimination and stigmatization and to support programs that address the bullying problems faced by gay youth in the schools. I felt that the sentiments expressed in the video were nothing more than empty piety.

Later in the month you posted a video about the UN Human Rights Council’s selective condemnation of human rights violations (“What has become of UN Human Rights?” 11/29/09). I pointed to egregious human rights violations now occurring in the African nation of Uganda and asked for your support in condemning them. Under current law, homosexuality in Uganda is punishable by life imprisonment, and they are now considering legislation that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality in some circumstances and would also require a seven-year prison term for anyone—even a foreigner residing in Uganda—who publicly defends a gay or lesbian person.

As I said, I asked for your support in condemning these violations. There was no response from you.

Recently, evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren was asked whether he supported or opposed this legislation. (Warren has been a powerful figure in distributing AIDS funding in Uganda and is a longtime ally of Martin Ssempe, who authored the bill.) His response, in a Meet the Press interview was, “I never take sides.” This is, of course, a lie. But more important, it is classic avoidance of the same sort that motivated the Catholic Church’s neutrality in Rwanda and Nazi Germany.

Uganda has a huge Catholic population—40% of about 32 million people—and the Church has so far been silent on this issue. Why? It would seem like a no-brainer, wouldn’t it? The human rights violations are plain to see, and both the death penalty and the brutal and unjust treatment of homosexuals are against Catholic teaching. (The Catechism states that homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”)

Because Uganda’s Catholics now have such a high profile, their silence—and that of the Church—will be become increasingly unsustainable.

So, on these two topics—school bullying of GLBT youth and criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda—what position are you taking?

In the case of school bullying, do you have any proposals or support any existing programs that address this problem?

And can you join me in urging the Catholic Church to issue an unequivocal condemnation of human rights violations against homosexuals in Uganda?

The “Fever of Denialism” About Climate Change

December 4, 2009

Johann Hari, columnist for the London Independent, writes the following in an article published yesterday, titled, “Twelve Days to Save the World.”

A ream of scientific studies now suggest we could be on course for 6°C of global warming this century. It doesn’t sound like much at first. But the last time the world warmed by six degrees so fast was at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago. The result? Almost everything on earth died.

The only survivors were a few shelled creatures in the oceans, and a pig-like creature that had the land to itself for millions of years. The earth was racked by “hypercanes” – hurricanes so strong they even left their mark on the ocean floor. Oxygen levels in the atmosphere plunged to 15 per cent; low enough to leave any fast-moving animal gasping for breath. These six degrees of separation stand between us and a planet we do not recognise and cannot live on.

The fever of denialism is natural. This is so far outside our experience that is seems intuitively untrue, wrong, or even mad. I desperately wish the deniers were right: I would jump on the next flight to Tahiti for a month-long party. But the scientific consensus is overwhelming – as strong as the consensus that smoking causes lung cancer, or HIV causes Aids. The deniers are a discredited fringe with virtually no scientists currently working in the field. If you release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on an industrial scale year after year, the world will get much warmer, and many of us will die.

I have seen it happen. In the past few years, I have reported from three places where global warming is having a catastrophic effect – the Arctic, Bangladesh, and the borders of Darfur. I spoke to Inuit who are watching in disbelief as their historic hunting-lands disappear and the ice-sheets crumble into the sea. I stood on the drowning coast of Bangladesh as villagers pointed to a spot in the middle of the sea and said: “That is where my house was.”

“When did you leave?” I asked.

“Last year,” they said, shaking their heads.

But it was in Darfur that I got the plainest glimpse into a much warmer world. The settled farmers and the nomadic pastoralists had developed a peaceful way to share the water supplies of the area – but then, in the Nineties, the water started to vanish. As one refugee put it to me: “The water dried up, and so we started to kill each other for what was left.” (The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has said this is due to global warming, summarising the reports of his leading scientists.) When the things we require to survive vanish–water, food and land–we don’t wait to die. We kill for them.