Archive for the ‘Censorship’ Category

Another Purge, More Melodrama at The Cornerstone Forum

November 22, 2012

Not long ago, Gil Bailie was considering a run for public office. But voters beware. If he were to run an administration anything like he runs his Cornerstone Forum website and Facebook page, his periodic ideological purges would rival those of the Politburo.

The Cornerstone Forum is certainly no forum, if by “forum” we mean a place where ideas on a particular issue can be exchanged. Those who step up to the microphone must be prepared to parrot the prescribed line, or they’re out on their duffs. The ideological purity exacted from commenters is extreme and even extends to prohibitions against factual corrections.

Mr. Bailie’s bottom line is that the Catholic Church can do no wrong. She is the gold standard for all that is True and Good. She has never erred. Her teachings are not to be questioned. And in Mr. Bailie’s little empire, one does not question them. Or him.

Dorothy Jospin was the latest unwary visitor to Mr. Bailie’s Venus Flytrap. It all started when Mr. Bailie posted the photo shown to the right, with the following caption:

This is what we all looked like at 12 weeks in the womb. Legal to kill in all 50 states. Anyone think its not a person? Pass this along. It literally might save a life.

Dorothy responded:

This photo actually shows a plastic baby replica made by Mattel. It sells for $25, and you’ll find it on Mattel’s website.
For a photo of a real 12-week-old fetus (which looks nothing like this one), go to YouTube and find the video called “Week by week fetal development showing fetal development stages.”

At week 5 the fetus is the size of a poppy seed. At week 12, it is about two inches in length and weighs less than an ounce. It’s not until week 17 that it becomes the size of an orange.

The majority of abortions (88% to 92%) occur during the first trimester (the first 12 weeks), and the majority of those are well within the embryonic, pre-fetal stage of development. Most abortions occur sometime after the blastocyst attaches itself to the wall of the uterus.

The blastocyst has 70-100 cells (contrasted to a fruit fly, which has 100,000).

Mr. Bailie responded:

Quite literally, the devil is in such details. Poppy seed. Fruit fly. All these dismissive metaphors, and all the technical equivocations, so profoundly miss the essential point that it is hard not to assume that that is their purpose. Whatever the fetus looks like at 12 weeks – or 12 minutes – it remains perfectly clear to anyone who has not hardened himself against reality that abortion takes the very human life of the most innocent, powerless, and voiceless among us.

To which Dorothy had the effrontery to respond:

If the case against abortion is really compelling, then misrepresenting the facts makes it seem that the facts are not on the side of the pro-life movement. I believe it would be best to studiously avoid any tinkering with images or transparent attempts at propagandizing. They only discredit the movement.

At about the same time, Mr. Bailie posted a photo of German Lutheran pastors filing in front of Nazi officers, with the following caption:

This photo is a march of Lutheran pastors who allowed themselves to be useful idiots to the Nazis, and march under the banner of the deutsche Christians. Do they look like idiots today or what?

Dorothy responded, pointing out that the Catholic Church also collaborated with the Nazis, and not just the Nazis but with virtually every fascist regime of that era. The Church saw these regimes as bulwarks against Bolshevism and French anti-clericalism. Dorothy mentioned the 1933 Konkordat between Hitler and the Vatican. This is something that one must never mention on The Cornerstone Forum.

Mr. Bailie “clarified” by referring to Catholic and Lutheran “heroes” and conveniently ignoring the Vatican’s complicity as well as that of rank-and-file clergy of both confessions:

There were heroes among the Lutherans and Catholics in the face of Nazi thugs. But most of those who complain that the Church failed to stand up to savage oppression are cowered into submission by the threats of political correctness. It doesn’t inspire confidence that these same people would resist something far more threatening. More to the point, those who criticize the Church for not doing more to resist the mass murderers of yesteryear are the first and loudest to condemn it for resisting today’s mass murder of the unborn. You can’t have it both ways.

…Nor should Mr. Bailie. But that was it. Dorothy disappeared. Every trace of her. All that was left were Mr. Bailie’s responses, dangling like half an arch in the air.

At this point, Sophie Sommers, who must have been following the awkward exchange, spoke up to ask, “What happened to Dorothy??” and “Was that really a Mattel baby?” She reminded me of the gangster’s moll played by Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” stumbling into a restaurant just as one of the diners—a Mafioso—has been gunned down at his table. She looks at the assassin, who is still holding his gun, and says in her shrill Brooklynese, “Oh my God! You KILLED Mr. Luciano! I SAW you shoot him!” (View clip here.)

As if that weren’t messy enough, Ben Boyce, a parishioner from St. Leo’s Parish in Sonoma, left this comment:

Oh, Gill [sic], what happened to you? You’ve drunk the Konservative Kool-Aide, and now you see the tepid centrists of the Obama Administration as some kind of anti-Christ threat to religious liberty in America. You might have known that this was ridiculous at one time, but now the logic of orthodoxy has backed you into defending this absurd thesis. The greatest blow to the last remnants of the moral authority of the Catholic bishops was delivered by their own unhinged attack on Obama and making common cause with the most reactionary elements in American society in the 2012 election. Thank God the Catholic laity had more sense than their bishops. When Bishop Jenky denounced Obama as a threat to America like Hitler and Obama, and not a single bishop had the courage to standup for decency and common sense to distinguish themselves from this outrageous comment, I knew that the American Catholic Church has hit bottom. Men of that caliber have no spiritual teaching worth listening to.

Whereupon Mr. Bailie brought out the big guns again:

It pains me, on the day before Thanksgiving, to have to repeat—once again— what I have said multiple times about this Page and our comments policy. But below is a word-for-word repetition of what I have said many times. Those who ignore this, and especially those who insist on slandering the Catholic Church or mock its teachings, should not be surprised to find that they are blocked from further comment.

Mr. Bailie then, for the fourth or fifth time, pastes in his entire speech about the purpose of The Cornerstone Forum.

Mr Boyce responds:

Apparently, my comments have precipitated this response. I do take exception to being described as some kind of random outsider who is coming in to stir up trouble on your Facebook page.I am a weekly Mass attendee at St. Leo’s parish in Sonoma, where you lived and worshipped for many years.I have listened to every audio tape you made over a twenty-year period, until you took a turn to the dark side by falling under the influence of the Religious Right. I have attended a number of your lectures and have always held you in high regard until this latest chapter in your career. You can ban me from the page, but that will not be because I am making inappropriate or offensive comments. Yes, I and my Catholic colleagues are directly challenging your assertion that you and your conservative Catholicism represent the gold standard.

Mia Farrow as "Sally" in Woody Allen's "Radio Days"

Mia Farrow as “Sally” in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”

And Sophie again, in her best gangsta moll voice:

So THAT’s what happened to Dorothy! Was it her comment about the plastic baby? Or pointing out that the Lutherans weren’t the only ones who collaborated with the Nazis? These things are both true, aren’t they? Don’t you want to know when something you’ve shown or written on your Facebook is untrue? I always taught my children that truth was important–not just “Truth” with a capital T, but “truth” with a small one. The little truths all add up, and when you punish those who speak them, pretty soon you lose the big Truths, too. I know this, because I have family who lived in the DDR before Reunification.

I think you owe Dorothy and Ben Boyce an apology. But you’ll probably throw me off now, too. How many of us have there been?

Mr. Bailie responds:

I shared a post by my friend Jennifer Roback-Morse and the photograph she posted. I never said Lutherans were the only ones who collaborated with the Nazis. My gosh. What nonsense. I made my point clear in the follow-up. Who thought that the fetus in the palm of the hand was an actual fetus for goodness sake? Of course it was a replica —and of course it was not bloodied and covered with fetal fluid. My gosh. To make such a big deal out of that—all the while ignoring the real point—the systematic killing of millions of unborn babies in the womb—is simply amazing. You wonder why I’m uninterested in that kind of dialogue. I know it will be a badge you will wear proudly, but unless you can show some respect for the purpose of this Facebook page, you will be obliged to find another outlet for your positions. Don’t expect further response.

Sophie’s bold response:

I know you won’t like this, Mr. Bailie, but what you said about the Catholic and Lutheran heroes suggests that they were in opposition to their churches’ official positions, because both churches supported the Nazi regime. The Vatican was not heroic; it collaborated and cooperated with fascist regimes. If Catholic priests in Germany were heroic, it was because they spoke out not only against the Nazis but also against their own magisterium. This is what you don’t seem to be able to acknowledge, and I wonder why you can’t. It is the truth.

And an offline comment from Dean Hansen:

Golly Jeepers, Sophie!  Golly gosh!
Bullshit.  Thou dost protest too much. You fully believed the fetus was real:  “….This is what we all looked like at 12 weeks in the womb. Legal to kill in all 50 states. Anyone think its not a person? Pass this along. It literally might save a life.”  Why would you ask others if they thought it was a person unless you thought it one yourself?  If you knew it was plastic, it would cancel out the rhetorical assertion in your question. “Anyone think it’s not a person?”  (Well, you don’t of course, but will nevertheless use any kind of trickery to get a concession from your captive audience even if it means lying to yourself.)  I’m sure that once you Googled the images and realized your error, you had two options.  Come clean and acknowledge that you were fooled, or lie and pretend ignorance.  The second option seems to fit you well, but it makes you look no less foolish.  Why make a big deal out of that?  Because you have decided to make abortion your Waterloo; your rubicon.  When you use the word “killing” and “murder” indiscriminately to define what women do when they are pro-active in their own decisions, it is a big deal.  It’s a big deal because 1) You are barred from the actual experience of birth, and need to show some humility when it comes to other people’s plight.  2) Life actually begins before conception (sperm and ova are alive) but they don’t make babies, therefore, since life is a continuum, you draw the line at conception, which, along with birth, are both false thresholds.  At what point does a baby become a person?  Fertilized eggs, like the gametes that precede them, cannot live on their own, or think or feel.  They are biological life in the strict sense, but they are not human life.  Since they are not human, you are not guilty of murder if you abort them.  3)  Look beneath the heated passions on the surface and you will find there is a remarkable lack of polarization on the issue, save with old guard Catholics and picketers at abortion clinics with concealed handguns. Most people think that abortion should be allowed but not encouraged. That is the de facto reality.  And most people choose the first trimester as their own threshold because of what science, biology, nature, and common sense tell them.  It is why only 1% of abortions occur after week 20, and usually only when the life of the mother is in danger, or the fetus is damaged and not sustainable.  (Most women who waited 15 weeks or more to get an abortion did so because it was so hard to find a clinic where the operation could be performed, and not because they were resistant to basic information about gestation and pregnancy).
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The Cornerstone Forum Silences Critics

October 11, 2012

Just beneath the calm surface of Gil Bailie’s Facebook page for The Cornerstone Forum (TCF), the waters are roiling. Bailie, a paleo-conservative Catholic whose life and career have become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the magisterium, uses TCF as a Gatling gun against all those perceived “enemies” of Catholicism gathered outside the walls: homosexuals, pro-choicers, secularists, and especially the more moderate Catholic voices, the voices of protest and reform. But he is attempting to insulate himself—on Facebook of all places—from any return fire. Bailie has built a fortress that also functions, as one visitor put it, as an echo-chamber and a hall of mirrors—a make-believe world where those who are faithful to the Church can go on pretending that the institution is eternal and that its teachings are unassailable.

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum

Except that it’s not and they’re not. The make-believe world is under attack, most significantly and vocally by Catholics themselves. And Bailie is armed and ready for its defense. Those who disagree with the views expressed on TCF are enemies who must be wiped out, not through negotiation or reasoned argumentation but by making them simply … disappear, like the “desaparecidos” of Chile and Brazil under authoritarian regimes, or those fractious Politburo members whose images were erased from official photos. Bailie regularly purges the site of troublesome visitors. This year’s casualty count is now at around eight. These were all, with one or two exceptions, intelligent reform-minded Catholics. Others were of unknown or no faith affiliation but respectful and thoughtful in their comments. All had carefully crafted their objections to the tone and content of TCF and deserved to be heard, if only by each other.

The latest of the “desaparecidos” is S. Darrick Northington, in whose honor I am posting the conversation that occurred today regarding the HHS mandate:

(more…)

The Cornerstone Forum Once Again Refuses to be Confused by Facts, Alternative Opinions, Data, Evidence, Documentation, Reliable Information, or Scientific Studies.

June 13, 2012
“I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”  — Sir George Sitwell, English Eccentric

Since its inception, Gil Bailie’s Facebook page for The Cornerstone Forum has sought to interpret and respond to contemporary culture “from a Catholic perspective and in fidelity to the social teachings of the Church.” This is because Bailie sees Catholic faith and practice as increasingly caught “in the crossfire,” as he puts it. And he is a faithful son of the church.

Benedict XVI and Gil Bailie

But Bailie’s use of the “crossfire” metaphor is a mite disingenuous. It implicitly casts the Church in the role of an innocent bystander or a disinterested third party—despite all indications that it is not and has never been either of these. Just in recent months, Catholic institutions have sued the U.S. government over the HHS contraceptive coverage mandate, thrown their full weight behind anti-same-sex-marriage initiatives, chastised nuns for focusing on poverty and hunger rather than abortion and homosexuality, bullied the girl scouts over including a 7-year-old transgendered girl, excommunicated doctors and nuns for saving lives, and joined Republican efforts to restrict women’s access to abortions at the state level. Over the years, Church institutions have lied about contraceptives to poor Africans, obstructed patient access to accurate information and services in secular hospitals, and purged scholars who attempted to build bridges to other faiths. (For details on several of these points, see “8 Ugly Sins of the Catholic Church,” by Valerie Tarico on Alternet.)

There can no longer be any doubt either that the Church has a horse in the race or, in the case of Gil Bailie’s unfortunate metaphor, that the king has no clothes: the Church is not “caught in the crossfire.” It is firing mortars at its enemies.

Bailie’s attempt to propagate an essentially hermetic and authoritarian ideology via the Internet was a tricky proposition from the start. The Internet is by design an open, expansive, inclusive, and anti-authoritarian medium—a “real” forum, unlike the “gated” one Bailie would like to cordon off within it. People come and go, expressing all kinds of opinions willy-nilly, in a real marketplace of ideas. It’s like a Turkish souk alive with chatter and dissension. You can buy anything there, but you’ll have to negotiate—sometimes loudly.

So, The Cornerstone Forum has indeed had visitors from all kinds of people from all parts of the world—England, Austria, China, Italy, and Australia, to name a few—and, surprise!—not all of them have expressed views that perfectly match Bailie’s own. Some of their voices have been more strident than his. Some of them have been highly articulate and even argumentative, as if they had no idea of the gravitas of The Cornerstone Forum’s founder or the unassailability of his views.

Flat earth orbited by sun and moon

A large part of the disputation at The Cornerstone Forum has concerned issues of truth. The thread I have reproduced below is typical: Bailie informs his readers that the earth’s population is in precipitous freefall, and then he seems genuinely offended that they don’t buy it. (Well, actually, some do.) At that point, facts and logical arguments are offered—always by readers, virtually never by Bailie—and he ignores or dismisses them with smug little retorts like, “We’ll see.” A few weeks later, he puts up another post informing his readers that the earth’s population is in precipitous freefall.

This has been the pattern during the many years that I have visited The Cornerstone Forum’s pages, where we’ve learned that climate change is a hoax, homosexuality is gravely disordered, same-sex marriage will cause civilizational collapse, religious freedom is under attack, the Obama presidency is precipitating totalitarianism, the Muslims are taking over Europe, and secularism is to blame for everything that is wrong with the world.

About a month ago, Bailie reacted to the growing chorus of dissent by issuing a warning similar to the one you will find in the thread below. When it was not heeded, he issued a second one and expelled one of the most insightful and articulate of his critics, George Dunn. All traces of Dunn immediately disappeared, and dozens of threads no longer made sense without his voice. If you’ve ever seen photos of Stalin’s politburo with purged officials airbrushed out, you’ll get the picture.

Today, Bailie issued a third warning. This time, the one expelled was I. Here is the conversation:

Gil Bailie:

I am currently researching the worldwide demographic decline and its enormous consequences. The evidence for the decline is overwhelming, but so are the studies that trace it and the data confirming the researchers’ conclusions. I cannot claim to have a complete grasp of the problem, but I have arrived at a preliminary hypothesis:

Whereas some animals don’t breed when in captivity, humans apparently don’t breed when in metaphysical despondency, regardless of how unacknowledged and embedded in material prosperity that despondency might be.

Doughlas Remy:

There is no “worldwide demographic decline.” However, there are declining birth rates in certain countries, such as Japan and some countries of Europe. The world’s population, now slightly over 7 billion, is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. That’s really rapid growth, so rest assured there’s no lack of breeding going on.

I’m not sure how you measure “metaphysical despondency” or whether there is in fact such a thing. But surely people in certain high-growth societies (e.g., in parts of Africa and East Asia) have much more reason to experience metaphysical despair than Europeans and Japanese, and it is not slowing them down.

Birth rates in Europe and Japan are falling because women are now better educated and have more options. And yes, low birth rates can pose social challenges, but so can high ones, as we discussed earlier. See my article about this on The Bent Angle.

Darrick Northington:

This seems like an impossible argument to make. I echo Doughlas, given that every human belongs to some demographic and earth’s human population is in fact growing rather than declining, the claim that we’re experiencing some kind of “global demographic decline” is false.

Gil Bailie:

We’ll see.

Doughlas Remy:

@Darrick: I’m surprised The Cornerstone Forum is again making this bizarre claim after the earlier discussion we had, where so many facts were laid out. And these facts are incontrovertible. Population growth, fertility rates, and youth/elder bubbles can all be measured. We’re talking hard data here.

It’s like one of those strange experiences where somebody points up to the blue sky and tells you it is green. You say, “No, it is blue, and my spectrograph will back me up on that.” And they say, “No, to me it’s green. And what’s a spectrograph?”

Patrick Daoust: 

The Economist recently published a book called Megachange, the world in 2050. I’m currently reading the chapter on demography. Mr Remy’s numbers fit with data in the book.

This said, we must ask ourselves why so much of Europe has such a low fertility rate – I think it’s about 1.3 in Spain and Italy. This is quite a problem for policy makers to deal with. My intuition is that in modern western societies the freedoms normally associated with men are seen as more desirable. A lot of feminist movements fight for equal rights with regards to salary, women in high profile jobs, etc. As a whole, our society seems to have stripped away all pride in motherhood.

Darrick Northington:

‎@ Patrick, it sounds like you think mothers have to be second-class citizens. In my opinion, motherhood and fatherhood are both consistent w/ equality, and any definition that necessarily subordinates one to the other is wrong. To suggest that our society doesn’t take pride is wrong, too. I think this kind of talk has more to do with white male dominance than motherhood…the kind of thinking that says a woman’s place is in the home, in the kitchen, and a man’s place is king.

By the way, birthrates in Spain have increased every year for the last 12 years.

Doughlas Remy:

@Patrick. In connection with your final sentence, about society stripping away all pride in motherhood, here is an interesting opinion from Gail Collins of the NYT:

If you look back on what’s happened to women over the last half-century – how the world has opened up for them to have adventures, pursue careers, make choices about the kind of lives they want to live – it all goes back to effective contraception. Before the birth control pill came along, a woman who wanted to pursue a life that involved a lot of education, or a long climb up a career ladder, pretty much had to be willing to devote herself to perpetual celibacy. That’s what contraception means to women.

Iron Woman. Photoshop rendering by Dean Hansen

So, maybe other life paths are simply more attractive to women. Motherhood, after all, is damned hard work, it’s unpaid and under-appreciated, and raising a child is more expensive than ever. Yearly tuition at state universities in Washington State, where I live, is now over $12,000.

In the face of all these obstacles, we have in this country a political party that wants to cut nearly a billion dollars of food and other aid to low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies, and kids. These cuts are part of a larger proposal to cut social services block grants to the tune of $17 billion over ten years. These grants support Meals on Wheels, child welfare, and day care for children. State legislatures are also unable to raise revenues in the face of anti-tax initiatives.

Child-bearing may also about to become riskier to women if hospitals are allowed to let a woman die rather than perform an abortion necessary to save her life.

Because of the work that I do, I’ve had countless more-or-less unstructured conversations with Japanese mid-career professionals over the years, and we always talk about Japan’s birth dearth. They say raising a child is just too expensive. They value quality education and would feel shamed if they couldn’t give their children access to one.

I think there are ways women can be incentivized to have children, but governments like our own seem intent on disincentivizing them. Banning contraception is not, of course, an option, and it shouldn’t be. Women’s need for choice in these matters is paramount. The demographic problems will take care of themselves as we begin to think creatively about them.

Gil Bailie:

Let me try once again to explain why this Facebook page exists. It exists to offer encouragement to those who share its point of view. It does not exist to argue with those who don’t.

This is not a bulletin board or campus kiosk. It is a Cornerstone Forum page, and its purpose is that of the Forum, namely: to encourage and, with God’s grace, occasionally to inspire, those who share our vision and concern. The Forum and this Page exist to give an account of the contemporary cultural and moral crisis from a Catholic perspective and in fidelity to Magisterium and the social teachings of the Church, and to do so, when appropriate, by drawing on the extraordinary anthropological insights of René Girard and the theological riches of Benedict XVI, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar and others. It is also our purpose here to bring these perspectives to bear on the sundry cultural and moral issues we now face, paying special attention to what we regard as the gravest moral and civil rights issue of our age – abortion – and the gravest anthropological blunder – the evisceration of the meaning of marriage and the demise of the traditional family.

“Censer,” by Dean Hansen

We are not surprised to find that many do not share these concerns, and we offer our best wishes to those who don’t, but we will no longer allow this Facebook page to become an outlet for points of view that are wearily familiar to us, the refutation of which would be as tedious an exercise for us as it would be entirely unconvincing to our naysayers.

To those more sympathetic to our efforts, we are grateful for your interest, and we will continue to try to be as useful and encouraging as possible. If we occasionally point to certain unhappy developments in our cultural life, it will only be for the purpose of encouraging resistance to them for the sake of our children’s children.

Doughlas Remy:

Gil, I think your only option may be to “de-friend” those who do not share your point of view, as you did to George Dunn about a month ago. The Cornerstone Forum will no longer be an open forum, but at least you will have an echo chamber where you can get validation from your supporters and carry out your mission of channeling the church’s (and dare I say, the GOP’s) talking points on issues of the day. I hope you will be fair with your visitors, however: Let them know up front that they will be de-friended if their opinions diverge too much from your own.

As I said in an article on my own blogsite, it’s obvious you don’t value the time and thought that your readers devote to responding to your posts. That is a shame, and it is why I hope to provide a truly open forum on The Bent Angle for some of the issues that you raise. As you will notice, I have already begun to port some of the discussions over there, for fear they will suddenly disappear from TCF. So far, the idea hasn’t caught on with your visitors, and it may not, but I’ll continue the mirroring effort, as I think it is important.

I continue to maintain that truth is important and that none of us has a lock on it, or exclusive rights to it. We reach the truth through dialog.

Vatican Scolds Nun for Book on Sexuality

June 5, 2012

By Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio / The New York Times, 6/4/2012

Image

Sister Margaret Farley

The Vatican’s doctrinal office on Monday denounced an American nun who taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School for a book that attempted to present a theological rationale for same-sex relationships, masturbation and remarriage after divorce.

The Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the book, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” by Sister Margaret A. Farley, was “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology,” and should not be used by Roman Catholics.

Sister Farley, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an award-winning scholar, responded in a statement: “I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”

Continue reading this article.

Trapped

February 20, 2012

From PhotoShop artist Dean Hansen:

Is There Too Much Morality in the World?

December 21, 2011

Steven Pinker

In his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (Viking, 2011), Steven Pinker begins a section called “Morality and Taboo” (p. 622) with the following short and provocative declaration:

The world has far too much morality.

Yes, I, too, had to re-read that sentence. Is he about to say there should be more immorality? Well, thankfully, not. He explains:

If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice [revenge, vigilantism, honor killings, etc.], the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor killing of unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples.

What Pinker is telling us is not too surprising when you think about it: the human moral sense can go off the tracks.

Unless one is a radical moral relativist, one believes that people can in some sense be mistaken about their moral convictions; that their justifications of genocide, rape, honor killings, and the torture of heretics are erroneous, not just distasteful to our sensibilities.

Pinker is careful to distinguish between behaviors that are deemed immoral and ones that are merely disagreeable, unfashionable, or imprudent. Only the moralized infraction is universalized, actionable, and punishable within the culture that prohibits it.

Some of these prohibitions are truly universal, or “pan-cultural.” In every part of the world, murder, theft, perjury, and extortion are considered moral infractions. Our revulsion at such acts reflects our species’ core moral values of fairness, justice, and the prevention of harm. Such values pre-date not only religion but indeed the appearance of homo sapiens sapiens. They have been promulgated exclusively via religion—and sometimes horribly abused and violated by it—only in societies where religion has been culturally all-pervasive.

But other “infractions”—e.g., apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and idolatry—have been shown to be culturally contingent rather than universal. They are violations of archaic purity and sanctity codes that might have served some purpose in iron-age tribal societies but that are useless in modern pluralistic democracies. They persist wherever the secular state has not developed or has not completely disentangled itself from religion.

A society that values individual freedom and autonomy cannot bind its citizens to sectarian claims about what constitutes a moral infraction. We cannot all be required to forswear martinis or short shorts because they are forbidden by sharia law, and Mormons cannot expect us all to forswear lattes and black tea. Why then, do so many Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons hope to universalize their prohibitions against homosexuality? These prohibitions have no rational basis and are as culturally contingent as the scripture-based codes from which they are derived.

Yes, we have far too much morality. Maybe it’s time to return to the true moral universals and reassess our culturally contingent ones. Instead of asking whether a behavior was forbidden by ancient scriptures, let’s ask, “Who is being harmed?” Or, as Sam Harris might ask, “How does our behavior affect human and animal flourishing and the health of our planet?”

Rick Perry’s “Environmental” Officials Gut Report on Sea Level Rise

October 17, 2011

Galveston Bay

Texas Governor Rick Perry was quoted in August as saying that “the issue of global warming has been politicized.”

It certainly has.

About a month before Perry voiced this complaint, officials in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which is headed by Perry appointees, gutted a report that they themselves had commissioned concerning the state of Galveston Bay. The report, produced by the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), concluded that rising sea levels—an effect of anthropogenic climate change—will inundate large areas of coastal land now bordering the bay.

Two top TCEQ managers—Katherine Nelson and Kelly Holligan—agreed to delete references to sea-level rise and global warming in the report. These references were in a chapter written by John Anderson, the Maurice Ewing professor of oceanography at Rice University, whose research was carried out over ten years in partnership with other scientists. It had previously been peer-reviewed and published by the Geological Society of America.

Anderson showed the expurgated document to Mother Jones magazine, which published it complete with the deletions.

Anderson’s opinion, expressed in an interview with the Houston Chronicle:

I don’t think there is any question but that their motive is to tone this thing down as it relates to global (climate) change. It’s not about the science. It’s all politics.

What does a reputable scientist do in such a situation?

Anderson and every other scientist who contributed to the report instructed TCEQ officials to strike their names from it.

So we would like Governor Perry to tell us, “Who has politicized the issue of global warming?”

Update here.