One of those Days

Some days we are just not meant to work. This past Monday, I had a severe nosebleed just as I arrived. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before, lasting in excess of 3 hours. It’s already out than I’m the source of the bio-hazard that closed the restroom down for more than 4 hours–after occupying it for close to 3. I’m the guy that carelessly left a big, dangerous mess for someone else to find and deal with.

For the record, I tried to keep it from coming to that. Trying to cleanup an area while the source of the contaminate continues to pour in, around and over nearly everything is a comedy of errors–a bit like asking muddy kids to mop the floor with boots on! So I left and tried to get things under control elsewhere before returning with intent to clean “for real” this time, but the “couple of minutes” I intended to be away actually took a couple hours. and environmental services had already been called, the “do not enter” sign had been placed and the “whoever left this mess is inexcusable” message already went out to EVERYBODY. My status as an outcast is being shored up, and possibly commented in place. I wish I could say it won’t happen again, but I’ve had two more just like it in the past week; I was just fortunate enough to be home.

So a sincere sorry for those who were directly involved in cleaning up the mess or made to worry by the photographs floating around, provoking either genuine concern for the person bleeding or justified anger for the person who made the mess. It was me, it was an accident, and I can’t say that it will never happen again. However, I do promise to call environmental services at the start next time rather than after all else has failed.

Who What Why Wednesday: Morality

Todays topic: By what standard to you judge morality if not from the God and the Bible?

This is probably the single most common question I get from Christians. I’ll be charitable today and assume that most people are asking honestly in hopes of gaining a better understanding and not as a means to spark a debate that flies headlong into either Pascal’s Wager or the C.S. Lewis Trilemma before careening into the kalam cosmological argument. I will also grant that it is one of the hardest to answer, but not for the reason that believers assume.

The problem is that it is not one question. Packed in are several assumptions and thoughts that need to be dealt with individually. First, we must define morality. The believer will assume that morality is both universal and knowable, with a should or should not answer to every hypothetical scenario. Second, we must deal with the existence of God and whether he can be defined coherently. Third, we must decide whether or not God and morality intersect and the mechanism of such intersection. The theist generally assumes that one defines the other, but it is important to separate them, for they are not necessarily the same thing. Finally, we must determine whether the Bible can be a source of knowledge of God, morality, or both.

When I was in Bible College, relativism was one of the scariest concepts. How could there be different standards of right and wrong for different people in different times and places, or for the same person in two similar, but not identical situations? In our minds, morality was treated like the answers to a sum, either 2+3=5 or it doesn’t (base 4 connoisseurs excepted). I certainly believed this was at least possible going in, but I was quickly disillusioned when I found red-faced, heated arguments nearly coming to blows over simple doctrinal points such as whether or not it is okay to baptize an infant if the parents so wish. The student body was more or less evenly split on the issue, and proponents of each side wondered whether the other were even reading the same Bible. (I didn’t take a side on infant baptism, but I sure was opposed to the pumpkin carving going on come October!) One wonders how such hot-heads could handle truly complex issues. It is a trivial matter to short-circuit the logic chip of a binary mind. Who does get the last life vest, the mother of two or the pastor of many? If human embryos really are people and the fertility clinic is on fire, do you save the thousands in the freezer before worrying about the coughing pregnant woman who is about to succumb?  What is the acceptable number of civilian casualties when dropping bombs on a leading terrorist? These are not trivial deflections. Even perfect foreknowledge fails to lead to universally acceptable answers, and these are relatively simple questions.

Point two, the existence of God, is something of a first principle. To the believer, literally everything is proof of God and to the atheist nothing is, at least not so far. So let’s just go ahead and posit that a perfect being exists and that it is absolutely and inalienably without flaw—omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and, most importantly, omnibenevolent. This is where this initial question comes to a head. Quickly now, define omnibenevolence. I find perfect power, presence and knowledge to be conceivable, if unlikely, but I am at a loss as to define perfect goodness without resorting to tautology. I struggled with this for literally decades. Two pastors agree and say “God cannot lie.” And I say “why not?” The first says “if God said ‘your shirt is blue,’ your shirt would turn blue the instant he said it.” The second says “no, no, God cannot lie because it is contrary to His nature. God cannot say ‘your shirt is blue’ when it is plainly not so.”

Point three derives from this very paradox. In the first case, God defines what is right by virtue of his power—might makes right—and in the second, there is a standard of goodness apart from God, to which He is also beholden. The Bible seems to support the first case, though I as a believer I always tended toward the latter. It is certainly possible that God and goodness exist apart from one another. Some gnostic sects believed, for example, that the god of the Old Testament was cutoff from the perfect Aeons, existing in his own realm, believing himself to be all powerful and good for wont of evidence to the contrary, when in fact he is quite flawed. This is, of course an oversimplification of a complex and nuanced religion with many variants, but the point remains—what makes God good, and why would I follow God instead of whatever it is that makes him good? If He is merely good by default, then could not another sentient entity lay claim to goodness by other means, perhaps by laying out a more logical form of ethics? After all, God is at once jealous (the First Commandment) and against coveting (the Tenth Commandment). It is the first form of “okay for Me, but not for thee.”

All of brings us to the Bible as a source of morality. It isn’t. No doubt many future pages will delve into deeper and more specific answers, but when it comes down to it, virtually no one, anywhere, is actually getting his or her morality from the Christian Bible. Those that come closest are the hardest to deal with, living with such extreme rigidity as to be outsiders at best and hatemongers at worst. They either wind up on a hippie commune after reading Acts Chapter 3:44-45, where the first converts held all possessions in common or as hateful bigots after reading Leviticus 18:22 (and maybe Genesis 19). It is easy to say that you can’t pick and choose which parts to follow but it’s quite another to come up with a cohesive form of ethics without doing just that.  The Bible has everything from the oral traditions of Bronze-Age nomads, to matter-of-fact tellings of military conquest to poetry to letters from early church leaders that could not agree on finer points of whether or not to circumcise men, let women speak, or eat certain foods. You’ll have to excuse me if I question the perfection of a being that expects me to reach a sensible system of ethics from such varied literature.

The reality is that my source of morality is no different than those who pose the question in the first place. I picked it up through myriad sources from my upbringing to the culture at large to countless hours of self-reflection and many complex experiences that shaped me into the person I am today. I fervently opposed universal healthcare—until I was sick without insurance despite working hard full-time at one job and sometimes keeping a second on the weekends to make ends meet. I was anti-homosexual—until I made goods friend with one. I also tried to turn the other cheek no matter what—until it came down to whether or not my kids were protected from an awful situation. I always opposed torture and mistreatment of others, but nothing drives that home like actually standing at Auschwitz and taking in sheer immensity of the horrors that took place there.

There is no shame in nuance, nor is there weakness in moral agnosticism. Personally, I think “God” is the name some people give to their own imperfect understanding of morality. Funny how jihadists and religious pacifists can both claim the same inflexible inspiration, each thinking the other is truly deceived. It may feel more justified when an all-powerful deity agrees and is there to back you up, but it is no more valid. That does not mean that I’ll put up with injustice, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, inequality oppression as “to each his own.” I know some things are right and others are wrong, I just stop short of pretending to have the universe’s largest bully in my corner in case you disagree.

The Worst Day of my Life

If you ask me what the best day of my life was, I could not give a consistent or even cohesive answer. It is more an amalgamation of many instances that literally made my day, week , year or even life. There are the fleeting moments of otherwise mundane days that were somehow filled with sexual or religious ecstasy, or the realization that my favorite team really did when the championship. Then there are the whole days that seemed somehow perfect, whether spent alone outdoors or inside listening to music,  or perhaps with a companion—be it a seemingly endless make-out session with a partner or just a concert, movie or show with a good friend. Maybe the best days were the “big ones,” like a wedding day or finally graduating from college with high honors at age 37. And of course all of those are dwarfed by life-changing reality that goes far beyond what could ever happen in a single day—the whole process of finding out I’ll be a father (and a father again, and again, and again!) through finding out through the process of marriage or parenting that I really can somehow love more deeply and intimately than I did seemingly moments before. Even the most mundane of days can easily be remembered joyfully when taken in as the context of the whole of what is really a pretty average life.

Ask me about the worst day, though, and I can answer without hesitation. Yes, I’ve had some very bad days. There was the hernia repair surgery was painful beyond my previous imagining, though I’m sure many people have suffered much worse. There were countless trips to Emergency Departments where mental illness had gotten the best of me and I was convinced I was dying from an a hidden illness that the doctors simply had not found yet. There were temporary setbacks, like the loss of a job, and the more profound losses, like the deaths of family members, friends or classmates. There was more profound and prolonged mental illness that left me largely confined to my room for the greater part of a year, barely wanting to eat and becoming hooked on pain-killers because my family doctor was treating the symptoms or abdominal pain without realizing that is was mere somatization from undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.

Then there is the worst day—September 22nd, 2013. That was the day my wife of 16 years and mother of my children came home from pretending to be at church and confessed to having an affair before quietly packing up a few belongings and leaving for good. When she told the kids she was leaving, they at first thought she meant it was for a trip before she explained that she was “divorced going away.” Up until a few weeks before, things seemed to be going fine. It was probably the year I would remember most fondly in retrospect. I was finally making enough money to buy her gifts that I knew she always wanted but could never afford. We took an amazing trip together to Chicago that included a chance to see the Book of Mormon musical. We were featured in Christianity Today magazine as an example of a couple that excelled despite our religious differences. Her band was getting more and more gigs and commanding greater and greater pay.  Her podcast (largely about our sex life) was gaining popularity. Her agent indicated that a book deal was probably forthcoming. If ever there was a year for celebration, 2013 was it.

And then it was not. The feature in Christianity Today brought to fruition the double life hiding behind all of success. He was a mutual friend. Our families took a trip to the zoo together. He was the paid worship leader at her church and the guitar player in her wedding and dance band. The two of them had always gotten along exceptionally well, even speaking at a conference about how gender should not get in the way of a good friendship—and most people believed them, including his wife and me. As it turned out, I was one of the last to know. They had already told the worship team at church that they intended to leave their respective families for one another. His wife had already moved out after catching them making out in the driveway (among much more damning evidence). He had cheated before, but this was the last straw, and he wanted out of the marriage anyway.

The divorce was quick and clean, avoiding even a court date. She did not want anything she had not already taken. There was no money left in savings and little in checking. All of the utilities were set to be cutoff. Homeowner’s insurance had lapsed for want of home repairs I didn’t know anything about. I called the credit card companies and auto-insurance and cut her off.  I would keep the house, the stuff the retirement account, and custody of the kids. She only wanted him. I found myself wishing she had died rather than left, because at least then I would not have suffered the personal rejection. She was pregnant with his baby before either divorce even made it through. So much for Christian morals.

I wish I could say that it all worked out in the end. Maybe kids are resilient and adaptable to this sort of change. But they are not. They went from being stars in the gifted program to failing nearly every class. They have wrestled with thoughts of suicide, in some cases requiring inpatient care and intensive therapy.  Maybe I would find a woman who loved me more deeply than I could imagine and my kids as her own, but I have not. The women I dated all flatly stated that my life is simply too complicated for them to contemplate anything deeper. I have, for the moment, given up on trying to meet anyone else.

The reality is that six kids and two exes struggle every day with the financial and emotional devastation wrought by this fiasco, while the perpetrators live as carefree newlyweds. Sometimes there is Child Support, and often there is not. Sometimes the kids have great days at school and home and it feels like the our non-traditional family could not be better, but often it is a mess.  For me, it is a struggle to even get out of bed. I like my job and love my kids, but I’m just wired to love and be loved. I often have dreams where my ex and I just do ordinary, everyday tasks together, but then I wake up alone on my side of an otherwise empty queen-size bed.

My ex and I don’t really talk much beyond the logistics of when she’ll pick up the kids every other weekend or help get them to this or that appointment. Sometimes I wish we did. I would really like to be in a position to ask “was it worth it? Emotionally crippling the kids, getting kicked out of church, losing professional creditability, and ultimately suffering through a stillbirth—for what?  But I’m afraid of the answer. I asked about her most hurtful statements once before the divorce and she flatly stated that she meant it all. Maybe it really is worth it—and what does that say about me? I guess I’ll never know. It is probably better that I don’t.

Who What Why Wednesday: Genesis 1-11

The Who What Why Wednesday series will answer questions I get, either online or in person. Leading off the series will be a question about the first 11 chapters of the Christian Bible. 

Question: Many Christians believe Genesis to be a literal historical account, inspired by God. What is your opinion of Genesis, particularly chapters 1-11, which deal with Creation, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

 My position is that textual analysis indicates that these chapters are not meant to be read as history.  Genesis 1-11 does not read like anything remotely resembling a literal, historical account. It is literature, encompassing varied genres such as allegory, myth and legend. It opens with a myth, which covers the origin of the world, giving way to fable, which teaches a moral lesson using elements such as talking animals and symbols from nature—trees in this case, giving way to legend, in which people with human attributes accomplish extraordinary things giving away to something much closer to the general Western notion of history in later chapters.

The text has a man called “Human,” a woman called “Mother” a talking animal specifically named as being the Devil elsewhere in the Bible, a tree that can grant everlasting life, another tree that can grant knowledge, an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God that walks around in bodily form and says that he is surprised and what appears to be two completely different creation stories. Then, it has Cain who upon killing Abel is already worried about being an and having his life put in danger (by who?) before going off to found an entire city of people whose origins are unexplained, and who simply “exist.” Soon afterward, there are angels sleeping with human women and creating some kind race of giants who conveniently get wiped out in a world-wide flood without leaving any evidence behind.

Few would think the accounts were historical if they encountered them for the first time in an archeological dig. If we found something like this in China or North America, everyone would agree that the work should be compared to similar literature from the same general geographic location and time period, yet some people want to exempt anything in the Christian Bible from such scrutiny.  The early chapters of Genesis have all the hallmarks of traditions that are told around the campfire from one generation to the next until differing traditions are merged into a more canonical written form.

Further, I don’t think we’re giving the ancient Israelites much credit if we take their literature as history or prophecy and any other such thing.  It would be like future generations digging up tales of Paul Bunyan and claiming that we really believed that a giant lumberjack and big blue ox roamed the upper Midwest in a bygone era. Even without contrary science, the literal view fails on textual analysis alone in my opinion. 

Finally, the historical angle is just not supported by the evidence.  Fields of study as diverse as biology, physics, chemistry, climatology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and genetics have found it to be every bit as far-fetched as the Book of Mormon’s notion that Native Americans are descended from Israelites.  This is not some one-off miracle where you have to decide whether or not the eye-witness accounts concerning an empty tomb are reliable.  Everyone knows that such a thing does not generally happen, but many accept that it could have happened once.   A world in which Genesis 1-11 actually happened, however, would be fundamentally different from the one we observe. It is far more reasonable to work back from what we do know than to simply believe and stop searching. 

Welcome

Greetings to all the first time and return visitors. I can’t say how pleased I am that so many people have dropped by today.  For those that do not know my backstory, I was once an extremely committed Christian, playing on praise teams, going to conferences and festivals, serving as president of the Bible Club in High School and attending a Fundamentalist Bible College for a year. I “fought” demons, spoke in tongues, and spent as much time at church as possible.   Over a long period, I gradually realized that I simply did not believe in God or anything supernatural anymore. I kept up at going to church and helping in what capacity a good for some time afterward, hoping that no one would notice while I went through this “phase,”  but eventually I had to come out and tell my wife–and later the world–that I couldn’t keep up appearances anymore.

The specifics of my de-conversion story will come out in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to post any comments or questions about my past, my moral stances, political views, stances on science issues of the day or anything else you can think of. I will do my best to answer at least one a week in the newly launched “Who What Why Wednesday” series.

Other series are soon to come. I appreciate those that have already commented on past posts and I look forward to the dialogue ahead.

Sincerely,

Token Atheist

 

 

 

You Call Yourself a Christian? (Revised)

This is an edit of my original “coming out” as an Atheist several years ago. Since I have not posted for a while, it seemed appropriate as a sort of “reboot.”

It has become an all too familiar question—How can you call yourself a Christian and x? X is usually something that has positively nothing to do with the Christian religion or with overt behavior could classically be defined as “sin.” No, the “x” is usually something like “and vote for Barack Obama,” or accept that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has held up to immense scrutiny for a 150 years ,” or “propose that maybe removing well-trained, experienced soldiers from duty because they happen to be attracted to members of their own sex.” Of course, all of the above objections are inevitably tied to some conception of an absolute and perfect moral authority, presumably from God. However, this perfect and unchanging authority has proven to be remarkably pliable, not to mention contradictory. It has been used to justify slavery and inspire the abolitionist movement. It has been used to justify misogyny and to tear down racism, held tantamount to patriotism and as justification for civil (and not so civil) disobedience.

And that’s just in the last few centuries. Going back through history, the picture does not get any better. The Catholic Church has only been able to hold itself together by adopting new doctrine and practice every so often, calling into question the notion of a structure that is simultaneously infallible and in need of revision. The Protestants seem to have dispensed with even attempting to reconcile their doctrines, choosing instead to splinter at the slightest hint of disagreement, creating in excess of 30,000, yes, thirty thousand denominations, not counting all of the independent churches with no authority beyond their internal hierarchy. Christians with similar enough beliefs get along well enough at conferences, but it is clear that their respect for doctrines of other Christians, even Christians themselves is directly proportional to the level of agreement on certain points of doctrine, all the while disagreeing as to which doctrines are worth squabbling over–squabbling over squabbling, as it were.

The Hebrew Scriptures are revered as authoritative to the extent that a given passage reinforces a particular notion and ignored as “Old Covenant” when they do not serve the purpose, which, again, calls into question what absolute authority one is appealing to exactly when he claims that no Christian could possible think or say “x.” It only gets harder when one begins to search the doctrines of similar monotheistic religions to find wider disagreement still, despite all claiming to have access to the same universal truth.

All this got me thinking, why does God’s opinion always to match up with the person claiming to speak for him? It seems like something that could be settled objectively, scientifically. If there really is a will of God, why doesn’t anybody seem to be able to demonstrate that they know what it is? Even if it were subjective, like, say the statement that pizza is yummy, shouldn’t most people agree on most issues? Were that politics were so easy! What should we do? What God wants. All in favor? Aye! It’s Unanimous. Let’s go out for pizza and celebrate! But alas, it is not easy.

Likewise, if God inspires superior morality, would not his followers demonstrate superior morality, as defined by their own standards or that of society? It is a hypothesis that has been subjected to rigorous study and polling by believers and secularists alike, and there is no demonstrable, statistical difference between those who attend church regularly and those who do not. Christians are every bit as likely to have been divorced at least once, been drunk or used drugs, to have purchased or viewed pornography, committed adultery—you name it—as anyone else.

No matter what the scripture or doctrine is, people have a nasty tendency to either write scripture that they themselves agree with or, if scripture already exists, to point out the parts that resonate with what they are already thinking. You see, the scriptures do not change people, people change scriptures, either overtly, by writing new ones, or quietly and gradually, but shifting emphasis and attention to whatever point is salient at the time. The reason Ultimate Morality appears to be so elusive is because it is a phantom, held up as some kind of heavenly trump card, “if you disagree with x, you disagree with God, who is right by definition, meaning you are wrong.” This effectively ends all questioning, all exploration and all discussion. But truth cannot be established by fiat. It can only be discovered, which is why universities place so much emphasis on research.

Several years ago,  they day came when I could say with absolute confidence and perfect peace of mind that no one needs to ask how I can call myself a Christian and. . .? Nor did anyone have to substitute any trendy new phrase, like “Christ-Follower,” as if changing the words changes the reality.  I could finally say what I’d thought for quite some time,it just so happens that I’m not a Christian. I’m not “spiritual.” I’m not a “Christ-Follower,” a “seeker” a “believer” a “theist” or even agnostic. I am also not a “Bright,” or a “None,” or a “Darwinist” (which don’t exist, but the way). I could really do without the labels, and I’m not particularly fond of negative labeling—defining people by what they are not instead of by what they are. Nonetheless, I shall dispense with the rhetorical games going forward.

You may notice that the title of my blog changed and is now under the “tokenatheist” url. I am not anti-religious, merely irreligious. I think church is sometimes interesting and sometimes fun, and that spiritual organizations have a big role to play in our society. I am not about to tear them down. My kids like church and they will continue to be a part of a faith community so long as that is their desire. Their mother and I are doing just fine as an inter-“faith” couple. I’m inclined to think Romans 14:16 is pretty good advice for people of all cultures, religions and philosophies. Nonetheless, I grew tired of living in the closet, playing pretend, going through the motions when no part of me accepted the literal existence of any god, devil, angel, ghost, soul, afterlife or disembodied consciousness. I think the Universe is sufficiently wondrous all by itself and life is what we make of it. I also think religion has a place, at its symbols clearly resonate with people, the stories contained therein telling us as much about ourselves as we could hope to gain from psychology textbooks.

Skepticism, the notion that sometimes asking questions is the answer, has affected me in profoundly and positively, something akin, I’m sure, to the religious conversions others have gone through, when they have their own epiphany as to what ultimate truth is for them. I feel liberated. I no longer have to wonder why I don’t fit it any church, why I feel the need to attend a new one every couple of years or why I have always been more comfortable with skeptics than believers. I no longer have to worry about a bad day being a punishment from God or an attack from the Devil. I have found joy and peace and hope and happiness. I found the confidence to go back to college, something I had been unable to do for 14 years because of stress-related breakdowns, and not only pass and graduate, but excel, making Dean’s list or higher every single semester. Perhaps my atheism is a phase, but if so, it’s a pretty long-lived one. I prefer to think of it as the destination after a very long and arduous journey. In my case, it is science that has brought about a more abundant life, and seeing as how it is the only one that I will ever have, I intend to live it to the full. If that means taking an unpopular path, so be it. At least I’ll sleep better, knowing I have the courage of my convictions. My private and public personas will be in agreement. I will continue to seek out ultimate truth, wherever it leads. I encourage everyone do to the same.

Which First Amendment?

The Obama administration ruled on a policy. And as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the conservative talk-shows are lit up with (feigned?) outrage over what is being construed as a Constitutional travesty. The past few years have shown us that there is perhaps nothing the President can do without drawing fire. Tell kids to work hard and stay in school? Indoctrination!  Stoop down to shake the hand of a shorter king? Treason! Order Dijon mustard on a sandwich? Too French. Go home to see family for Christmas? Waste of taxpayer money.

Despite all the crying wolf (and deer and bird and caterpillar), I can at least see where the Religious Right are coming from this time. Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health & Human Resources has clarified that all employers receiving federal money must comply with the mandate in a duly passed law that employees be provided with insurance that covers women’s health services and products, including birth control pills. Contraception control of any kind is prohibited by the Catholic Church, so naturally they are claiming discrimination.  There is an exception carved out for strictly religious organizations, such as individual churches, but not to large institutions like hospitals and colleges, both of which benefit substantially from federal money in the form of Medicare or Student Loans and grants.

When an organization has long gotten its way, it is understandable that it will feel slighted when asked to change. In response to the requirement, Catholic Church officials essentially making two arguments: First, they are claiming that this has never been the case in the past. Second and more interestingly, they are claiming that this is not only discrimination, but a violation of the First Amendment to the (U.S.) Constitution. The first point is easily dismissed. Argumentum ad antiquitam (Appeal to Tradition) is a logical fallacy. Defending a policy simply because it has always been the policy is a logical fallacy. Despite the sentimental appeal of such arguments, they are not a reasonable justification for passing laws or ignoring mandates. The second, I think, derives from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

Anyone with strong religious convictions likes to think that the First Amendment is primarily about free speech and freedom to practice religion. And most of us are grateful for that part. There is simply nothing quite like the U.S. protection of speech and religion anywhere else in the world. A person really can say almost anything, no matter how vile, discriminatory, critical, or just plain weird through any number of media and be protected on the federal level. Persons can also practice any religion, whether it be one of the “big five” of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, or one for a few or one practitioners, or, my favorite, no religion at all. Simply put, the government cannot prevent anyone from practicing his or her own religion. This is the argument on which the Catholic position lies.

But there is another part of the Amendment; one that prohibits establishment of a state religion, which has been determined to also extend to favoring one religion or another. This is the part where the Catholic argument fails. Indeed, the government cannot prevent anyone from going to Mass, praying the Rosary, writing religious songs, or even attempting to convert others. The government also must allow Muslims to build mosques and pray as freely as Christians do, and accommodate religious attire to the maximum extent possible. Sometimes this goes so far as to allowing Sikhs to carry ceremonial daggers into places where weapons would otherwise be prohibited.

These actions all have something in common—they are positive expresses of faith, by individuals or groups. The protections of religious actions follow necessarily from the freedom of speech. However, a religious policy designed to prevent legal behavior or established rights for religious and only religious reasons, cannot be protected without running afoul of the First Amendment. Catholic Hospitals and Universities employ people of all faiths and genders—people who are guaranteed to have the same options for healthcare as anyone else. The argument against the Administration is legally and logically backwards. Discrimination lies in telling non-Catholics that they must give up rights that the Church does not acknowledge. One cannot expect to use taxpayer money to pay the bills on one hand while working against the larger citizenry on the other.

I think the Administration has a winning argument based on a whole, rather than selective reading of the Constitution. That does not mean it has a winning political argument. Already, there is talk of finding a compromise or amending the policy so as not to offend conservatives. It is an election year after all.

What do you think? Who is discriminating against whom here? Does the Catholic Church have a winning argument from a Constitutional, rather than political point of view? Should the President stick by a sound policy or would it be better to simply pick another hill to die on?

I Was Wrong.

This is Gay Pride week on the campus of my alma mater and countless others. It should come as no surprise to those that know me that I am likely to support civil rights, including marriage equality until my dying breath. Now equality seems obvious. It is so fundamental to the values of a free society that they are said to be self-evident and inalienable–all humans should be equal in the rights and protections afforded by their government. That there are movements afoot to enshrine to enshrine the prohibition of a right for one group that is taken for granted by another is sad. That such movements are achieving success is frightening. Make no mistake, a century from now, the leaders of the National Organization for Marriage (which exists solely for the purpose of preventing marriage) and like-minded groups will be remembered no more kindly for the actions in the beginning of this century that those who fought against women’s suffrage in the beginning of the last.

Alas, truths that seem self-evident at one point seem unthinkable at another, even in one’s own lifetime. Sixteen years ago, I was on the wrong side of history. When the day came to show support (or at least a passive lack of contempt) bisexual, gay, and lesbian students by wearing blue jeans, I went out of my way to wear something else. I could have simply worn Dockers or slacks, but those may have been mistaken for work clothes. Here I was, coming off a year of indoctrination at a Fundamentalist Bible College, full of ignorance and pride, burning with a desire to nip this “pride” in the bud. I needed to show my classmates where I really stood What would happen if people did accept “them” as normal? People had to know the truth. Civilization depended on it. If they won, “good,” whatever that was, will have lost. So I chose to clothe myself in camouflage over a handmade “Sodomy is Sin” T-Shirt. That would show them. Surely all would see who had the plain, “loving” Truth on his side against those who “hated” society.

That stunt cost me some friends. It cost me respect. I’m lucky it didn’t cost me my relationship with the love of my life. I deserved derision, yet I was the one handing it out on people whose only goal was acceptance. It was quite possibly the worst, most hateful thing I have done.

So this week, I’m here to say to anyone who might have seen me that day, I was wrong. Not just for acting out, but for even considering that other students were somehow less deserving than I was because I like to look at women instead of men.

I was wrong. I will not pretend that I kind find some metaphysical solace through penance, prayer or forgiveness. That is not the way I want to be remembered. Yet, for some, it will be. I like to hope that those who did see me that day have simply forgotten by now. But I know they haven’t. They couldn’t? If I was not the worst thing that happened to them, I should have been.

I was not merely misguided. I was wrong. I cannot have that day back, but I can do my best to be an ally to those who want to love and share, and an example to those who would rather hate and hide. To my bisexual, gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I hope that you will accept the companionship of one so undeserving as I.

To those who supported my actions that day sixteen years ago, if you still feel that way, please consider applying the Golden Role to this situation. Do you really want other people deciding whether or not you can get married and to whom? Do you want someone to find it “gross” for you to hold your spouse’s hand, or for their first thoughts when meeting you to involve your actions in the bedroom instead of the community? If the answer is “no” to any of these, then please, do what you know is right, not what you think might be. Future You will thank Present You for the peace of mind.

How Long and How Far?

There are few things more frustrating than individuals who advocate a suspension of liberty in order to preserve it. Yet time and time again, leaders do not merely get away with advocating such nonsense but actually earn admiration for it. Most recently, leaders of the right such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have given impassioned arguments against the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, their arguments have been strong on emotion and weak on facts. Such tactics are no longer surprising in this country, but they are nonetheless disappointing. History is full of attempts to scapegoat the powerless or unpopular. From witch hunts and inquisitions of old to discrimination of immigrants in the United States ranging from Italians to Irish at the turn of the 20th century on through Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment camps, the Red Scare, and now the Muslim-American community. It is obvious in retrospect that those who advocate or actively participate in discrimination were on the wrong side of history, but it is sometimes more difficult to recognize consequences of wrongful attitudes in the midst of populist uproar. However, once the attitude has been recognized and pointed out, it is immoral to continue down the same path as generations past, knowing where it leads.

The objections to the Cordoba Initiative’s project to build a new community center tend to rest on the notion that there is something inherently offensive and deliberately provocative about the plans. It is often said that the planned location, which is two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center is too close and therefore distasteful. It is also sometimes argued that the location would be acceptable had more time passed since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It is also implied that Cordoba has some kind of nefarious intent for its building. These arguments are as disingenuous as they are vague. How long should Cordoba wait or how far away must they build in order to satisfy their critics? So two blocks is too close—how about 10? 20? Two miles? The same borough? City? County? How many years? One? Five? Fifteen? The acceptable distance in time or space is never stated, probably because it does not exist in the mind of opponents. Similar projects as far away as Tennessee have come under fire, so I doubt the site really has anything to do with it. Cordoba has a track record of providing a moderate voice that condemns extremism and fosters interfaith dialogue.

However, let us take the objection at face value and examine possible motivations for choosing the proposed site. It could be that the location is intended to be a monument to the attackers, demonstrating that Islam somehow has achieved victory in one of the Great Satan’s former strongholds. But for that to be case, one would expect that the people behind the initiative are going out of their way to meet at a site that is far from their normal gathering place. This is not the case. The Imam behind the project has been leading a congregation in the area for 27 years. They were meeting ten blocks away from the World Trade Center long before the attacks took place, and they have remained in the area since. They are as much a part of the area as any other business or organization. One might say that they were twice victims. First, their kin were lost, their homes, stores and houses of worship suffered from damage and debris just like everyone else. Then, they were blamed for somehow contributing or having an affiliation with the terrorists, despite being as different in values, faith and practice from Al-Qaeda as Methodists or Catholics. One could understand a momentary lapse of judgment under such extreme conditions, but as the protests show, it is still going on ten years later.

Which brings us to the point that it perhaps it is too soon to build in lower Manhattan. Applied consistently, this argument is more philosophical than legal or moral. A movement to turn the entire neighborhood into a memorial park of some sort in order to honor the lives and memories of the victims might warrant some consideration. I’ve pointed out in the past that Americans, as a people, have all but forgotten how to mourn. However, there is little precedent, past or present for memorials, nor have there been serious efforts in this regard in Manhattan. Every nation has thousands of former crime scenes and battle sites, and nearly all of them are cleaned up and put back to commercial or residential use. In the case of Cordoba, the objections are not rooted in preservation, but prevention. People do not want a particular group to build a particular kind of facility, but they have not taken the effort to examine the source of their prejudice. It is not fair, logical or even practical to suspect millions of Americans of terrorist ties on the basis of their religion and heritage. We instinctively recognize this when terrorists look and dress like us. We know that the abortion clinic bomber or mafia boss is not representative of his faith or race. Yet, somehow, people that are different are mentally blended and classified as “other.” There is an area where the Golden Rule is sorely needed. Were the shoe on the other foot, would the Palins and Gingriches of the world really want people from a thousand miles away accusing them of terrorist associations because a handful of White Christians committed an atrocity?

The final objection commonly raised is that not Cordoba is something other than the peaceful organization it claims to be. The talking heads continue to imply that something untoward is going on, but their accusations do not pass logical muster. A secret, shadowy group does not go around building a multi-story facility in a conspicuous location. The implication completely ignores the role and judgment of local authorities, which are otherwise the heroes of the Right. Constructing a new building in a major city is no small undertaking. The property must be procured, and the plans approved by zoning boards, commissions studying safety, construction and impact on the area. Throughout this entire process, the government officials of New York City the ones who are most likely to have first-hand knowledge of the individuals behind the project, have approved the undertaking at every step along the way. The planned building is neither not ostentatious or out of place in any way. It is not as if there will be a towering minaret that would be more at home in Medina than Manhattan. It is a simple community center, complete with a museum, library, and swimming pool. This will certainly be an aesthetic improvement over the damaged building that currently occupies the site. If someone has genuine information to back their assertions, it would be more prudent to bring their evidence before law enforcement and intelligence officials than a talk show audience. If there is no evidence, then it is not the motivations of Cordoba that deserve suspicion. Frankly, I have far more reason to suspect the integrity of those who would impugn the character of their fellow citizens for political points than I do of people that have been living peaceful, quiet lives despite unwarranted oppression and discrimination.

It seems to me that the intended purpose of terrorism is the instilment of fear—fear that is profound enough to fundamentally alter behavior and values. By that standard, Al Qaeda seems to be making progress in America even as they are losing on the battlefield overseas. They seem to have an entire political movement playing right into their hands, spreading more fear, hate and discrimination that their own numbers would allow. Our officials have justified torture, warrantless wire-tapping and indefinite detention without charges. A thriving, peaceful community is coming under suspicion for sharing nothing more than similar ethnicity to our enemies. This is disheartening indeed. Much is said about the “shadow of ground zero,” but what of the shadow of the Statue of Liberty? It is bad enough to lose buildings and lives, do we really need to hand over our values as well?

Three A.M. Thursdays #3

In which Elwood shares his late-night musings:

When someone told Lot a crazy story, did he take it with a grain of wife?

Does Nexium cause people to move in and out of the Matrix at random intervals?

Do elephants ever suffer from trunk envy?

Do tigers ever wonder how their eyes could possibly relate to boxing a wrestler?

Why do ghosts haunt old houses? Why not find one with a pool and a big TV?

Miss Muffet’s Revenge:

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet

Drinking her lemonade

Then when the spider

Set down beside her

It got hit with a full can of Raid

And now that it’s dead

Let it never be said

That Miss Muffet was ever afraid

Ever feel like parts of Genesis Chapter 1 have been redacted? (Missing text in italics):

8And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Then God created the thousand-cubit Sky Jellyfish, but it just didn’t look right,

    And kind of gave him the willies, so

9God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

And God called the dry land Saskatchewan, and the waters Lake Xochimilco

But they were really hard to spell, so

 10God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters he called the Seas: and then it was good.