Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

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Response to a Facebook friend, re: exclusion of LDS kids in gay families

Here’s an old mission companion, on a thread about this:

Mormon Church to exclude children of same-sex couples from getting blessed and baptized until they are 18

Children living in a same-sex household may not be blessed as babies or baptized until they are 18, the Mormon Church declared in a new policy. Once they reach 18, children may disavow the practice of same-sex cohabitation or marriage and stop living within the household and request to join the church.

The policy changes, which also state that those in a same-sex marriage are to be considered apostates, set off confusion and turmoil among many Mormons after the policy was leaked online. The changes in the handbook for local church leaders for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were confirmed Thursday by church spokesman Eric Hawkins.

My former companion says:

>I received a witness of he Church as a young 19 year old as I pounded the streets of Perth with many of you.

Thank goodness when we knocked on doors, we didn’t have to say, “Hi! We’re missionaries from the Church of… er… your parents aren’t gay, are they? Good, we’ll continue.”

I’m wondering how missionaries today will keep from inadvertently teaching someone who isn’t eligible.

>I believe in God and I believe the LDS church is his church. If this is what God has decided then it’s not for me to argue.

I would say that this cruel and unfair policy is convincing evidence that either

  • LDS leaders are operating from a source other than a just and fair god — be it their own prejudices, or their own principles, or
  • the god that Mormons worship has an inordinate concern with the sexual behaviour of humans, but is unconcerned with justice. And, in my view, is not worth worshipping.

Or perhaps both.

>Maybe I’m too simple in my views but what I fought for as a 19 year old when I laboured with you all then has not changed now.

Our views should change as we get older. As Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I think homophobia is a childish thing, and worse, it harms people. In my life, I’ve made gay, lesbian, bi, and trans friends, and some co-workers. I’ve learned that there was a commonality to our life experiences, and that any prejudice I might have felt toward them was my own problem. And I’ve sorted it out. I’ve learned that every member of a society has the right to equal treatment.

Sadly, the LDS Church hasn’t learned this — speaking of the church collectively and not individually, of course. It has formed harmful and cruel policies, and now it has doubled down on them. Well, as an exMo, it would be easy to say, “What do I care — I’m no longer in the church.” But the climate of homophobia fostered by the LDS Church is having a harmful effect on LGBT people, especially the ones in the church. It is setting children against parents — a potential convert will have to leave the supportive environment offered by gay parents, turn their backs on them and denounce their relationships. Wow. That’s cold.

Kids (even straight kids) in blended families won’t be able to participate in the church they’ve grown up in, because one set of parents is in a gay relationship. Suddenly ineligible. And this is contrary to AoF2; the kids will be responsible for the actions of their parents.

Does all of this seem right to you?

Fortunately, most people in “the world” are starting to operate from a position of kindness. They are showing more compassion and love than the LDS leadership is currently capable of.

You may be too far into the LDS community to see how regular people regard this. When I tell my neverMo friends about this, or who they see it in the news — yes, it is hitting the news — they’re horrified. And it confirms to them that the church is a homophobic organisation. It is — as we call other groups when they exist to promote bigotry — a hate group.

The leadership will eventually change on this issue, just like they did with race and the priesthood. They’ll walk it back with an anonymous essay on the website, if we still have websites then. Until then, they (and you) are on the wrong side of history. They’ve chosen exclusion and bigotry.

What will you choose? Understanding and compassion? Or obedience?

The problem of evil and the incompetence of supernaturalism

Two articles crossed my screen today, and they’re a great example of the divide between rational thought and superstition.

They’re both about the gun tragedy at Sandy Hook, and the first one is written by a Catholic priest.

Now, believers in the Christian god have a bit of explaining to do when horrible things happen. That’s because they claim there’s a god who’s good, loving, and all-powerful, but who somehow fails to prevent evil things from happening. So after a tragedy, a reasonable question is: where was he? Is he really all that good if he has the power to prevent grade-school massacres, yet chooses not to? Here’s the theologian’s answer:

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger.

Well, that’s a bit pathetic. He doesn’t know? All that theological training, and he can’t answer a question that belongs in his discipline?

Seriously, read it; it doesn’t give any more than a shrug. And it’s not just this writer. This is literally the best they’ve got. (Oh, there are other religion guys out there who do claim to know, but their answers are so morally callous as to be not worth repeating.)

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

Great, so if you help others, it’s actually god’s love; not yours. (Hat tip to Stephanie for this thought.) And why would ‘soothing’ be a consolation? I’d exchange buckets of after-the-fact soothing in order to not have had that tragedy happen. Who wouldn’t? What’s wrong with this guy? But all we’re left with is: I don’t know.

It’s good to admit when you don’t know something, but if you have no way of finding out, and no way of telling whether your answers are good ones, you have a bit of a fucking methodological problem. And this is a sad sign of the inadequacy of supernatural thinking. See, I do science because science is good at scientific questions. People may say that science isn’t good at moral questions or spiritual questions, and we can argue that. (My answer is that it does just as well as anything else.) But by gum, science is good for doing science.

Spiritual reasoning, on the other hand, isn’t good at answering scientific questions, but it’s also terrible at answering spiritual questions. It’s incompetent within its own domain. It is a shitty way of reasoning. Pardon my language, but spirituality/religion/supernaturalism has one job, and it sucks at it, and this incompetence makes me angry, especially when we have people telling us that it has the answers to life’s great questions, and then when it comes down to it, all that its professionals can tell us is “We don’t know.”

On the other hand, here’s the same issue handled by someone who’s intellectually honest: the scientist, Laurence Krauss. He doesn’t have the same problem as the priest because he doesn’t have to tap-dance around demonstrably untrue theological claims. That means he can deal with things more directly, including the superfluity of gods in times of tragedy.

Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for “calling them home” seems beyond the pale.

We don’t need faith to empathize with the grieving in Newtown. We can feel real connections, whether we are parents, or neighbors of families, or simply caring men and women. And we can want to help simply because of our common humanity.

Note that he identifies ‘common humanity’ at its origin: with humans. The difference in approach is striking. So is the relative capability of the authors. It helps if you’re not burdened by outmoded dogma and superstition.

Global Atheist Con, Day 1: Student Workshop

Even though you know you’re going to be meeting up with the likes of Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and Laurence Krauss, it is still a bit of a shock when they all show up in a room at the same time.

Last weekend I was at the second Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. It’s a great chance to hear some excellent speakers, meet up with other atheists, and participate in a growing community of smart people.

Not much was happening on Friday, so as a faculty helper for the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society, I tagged along to the Student Leadership Conference. There were talks on organising and running a student freethinking group, and even how to do good stuff with religious clubs (which is something I’d like to do more of).

Which is how I found myself having cocktails with the aforementioned gentlemen. Richard Dawkins appeared in a puff of logic just to my left, and I roped him into a chat with a group of Perth atheists. You might think Dawkins would be rather brittle in conversation, but he was lovely and engaging, and quite happy to chat. I told him that I’d just finished reading his book “The Magic of Reality” aloud to Youngest Son, and he seemed pleased about that.

The substance of the talks:

  • Lyz Lidell of the Secular Student Alliance explained the importance of delegating in a student group: You can’t do everything yourself, and you won’t be around forever. That means you need to break the group’s tasks in manageable units, find volunteers, take the time to train them to do what needs to be done, and show your appreciation to your wonderful volunteers.
  • Debbie Goddard gave a brief history of the Center for Inquiry on Campus.
  • Chris Stedman gave suggestions on how and why to work with religious groups.

Why should we work as part of an interfaith effort? According to Stedman, it’s because we as atheists get a bad rap, and we get marginalised. By working together with religious groups, we can challenge misconceptions about atheism and accomplish some good.

He also gave some suggestions as to how to work with interfaith groups: work together on shared causes and values, and have mutual respect within a “mutually inspiring” relationship. This last one is a problem for me. I don’t feel ‘inspired’ by other people’s faith; I actually feel repulsed, or like I’m working with a hazardous substance. But that’s okay — I can work with people I disagree with, and I often do. I just think it should be clear from the outset that any ‘interfaith’ service project is a joint effort, operating from shared values — not religious, not atheistic, just human.

All up, a good start to the conference.

I dumped my World Vision kid

It had to be done.

On faith and gratitude

I was quite moved by the story of Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice.

It seems that he’s getting a second chance, and people are clamoring to have him do voice work. Now his biggest problem will be managing his success. I sure hope he makes it.

I have to say, it’s made me think about my attitudes about homeless people. Instead of averting my eyes from someone’s cardboard sign, might I not look closer and find a special talent? How many people passed right on by him?

Here’s a more recent interview.

Mr Williams is a religious man, mentioning his god a lot, giving his god credit for his good fortune. I don’t mean to take away from his story, but it seems to me that people, not gods, are responsible for his turnaround. The Columbia Dispatch reporter who discovered him, the Redditors who worked to find him and get him some things he needed, the employers who are seeking him out and lining up work. When he had his god without the people, he wasn’t doing too well.

It reminds me of the joke: Someone said to a farmer, “God certainly has been good to you with your beautiful farm.” And the farmer said, “God? You should have seen the state he had the place in before I came along!”

When someone has little control over their life, it’s a normal human tendency to be superstitious. And sometimes when I look at my life, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Even I feel like directing that gratitude toward the entire universe! But then I think how much better it is to direct it back to the people who make my life worthwhile.

It’s important to correctly identify the source of the good things that come to us. We humans can do a lot for each other, and we do, even when gods do nothing.

Weekday vegetarians

A quick TED talk by Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger.com. He has an innovative solution for people who want to go veg, but maybe aren’t ready to make the jump.

Text, for the non-video-watchers.

I realised that what I was being pitched was a binary solution. It was either: you’re a meat eater, or you’re a vegetarian. And I guess I just wasn’t quite ready. Imagine your last hamburger.

So my common sense, my good intentions were in conflict with my tastebuds. And I’d commit to doing it “later”. And not surprisingly, later never came. Sound familiar?

So I wondered: might there be a third solution? I thought about it, and I came up with one, and I’ve been doing it for the last year, and it’s great. It’s called Weekday Veg.

The name says it all. Nothing with a face, Monday to Friday. On the weekend, your choice. Simple!

Sounds like a good idea.

You know, I’ve been doing this for years, but with punching people. On weekdays, I refrain from punching people. Nothing with a face. Or in the face. On the weekends, my choice. (I confess I do go a bit nuts on the weekend.)

I’ve always known that it’s better for people’s faces and gonads if I didn’t punch anyone at all. I always told myself I’d stop leaving random strangers languishing in a pool of blood or leaving a trail of broken noses — ‘later’. But I figure: being a weekday non-puncher is something I can do. Surely cutting down on the pummeling is better than nothing.

Religious vultures in Haiti: Not helping.

As if the people of Haiti didn’t have it bad enough. After the earthquake, the residents now find themselves beset by a plague of opportunistic religionists, eager to tell Haitians that they themselves are the reason for their suffering.

These days, preachers are wandering through public squares, carrying Bibles and delivering sermons to the homeless residents of makeshift tents pieced together after the earthquake.

Mio Janvier is among the estimated one million who became homeless on Jan. 12.

The middle-aged woman spends her days sitting in front of her new home made of bedsheets, in the shadow of the smashed remnants of Haiti’s presidential palace.

She says she hasn’t been going to church; the preachers are coming to her.

And the messages she’s been hearing haven’t been all that stern.

“No,” she says. “They just tell us, ‘Jesus is coming back’.”

One of her tent-city neighbours disagrees.

He says that, yes, there have been plenty of preachers promising the imminent return of Jesus, but they’ve also had harsh words for their fellow Haitians.

He says the tent-dwellers are being told that the end is nigh, and that they’d better change their ways in time for Judgment Day.

Nickerson Gay says they’re being told they might wind up suffering the same calamitous fate periodically visited upon the infamous sinners of the Old Testament.

“They’ve been talking a lot about that,” said Nickerson Gay, a high-school teacher.

“They’re talking about Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re even talking about the floods in Noah’s time.”

“They’re saying God hit Haiti because there’s a lot of evil and sin going on in the country, which is why God hit us this way.

Absolutely infuriating, and completely in line with Christian doctrine. Richard Dawkins‘ has already blasted the hypocrisy of Christian doctrine with far more erudition than I could muster, but let me just say this.

If you take the Christian view, you must accept that your god caused or allowed the disaster to happen. And why wouldn’t he? It’s the same god that drowned everything on earth except Noah and his family, leveled Sodom and Gomorrah, and killed millions more because they were insufficiently faithful to him, or because he didn’t like what people were doing with their private bits. In which case, any Christian should recognise the hand of justice when they see it, and any thinking person should recognise a fishy story when they hear it.

Everyone tries to understand why bad things happen (in Haiti or anywhere else), and it’s human nature to accept a superstitious answer when things are out of your control. But it’s horribly ironic that people who have the least consistent explanation are having so much influence on an understandably jittery population. And they’ll keep loading these worried people into their churches, and pass the plate.

These people are still reeling from the tragedy that’s befallen them. Either help them to feel better, or leave them the fuck alone.

UPDATE: Just one more quote from the article.

Gracia Ganer Lemercier, also rendered homeless by the quake, is wandering in front of the shattered cathedral.

He’s active in his church and has had a decent career in the federal public service. Even though he now wears a scraggly beard and frayed clothing, he’s feeling grateful.

“The great Lord, who is the architect of the universe, I thank him for having saved my life – and for having saved the life of many of my brothers and sisters,” Lemercier says.

“I ask him to continue blessing us.”

But what is he hearing from religious leaders? Why would such a terrible string of tragedies befall Haiti?

“These are our sins,” he replies. “They are the sins of each Haitian on this Earth, which God has given us as our heritage.”

Tell me this doesn’t fit the profile of battered-spouse syndrome.

In lay terms, this is a reference to any person who, because of constant and severe domestic violence usually involving physical abuse by a partner, becomes depressed and unable to take any independent action that would allow him or her to escape the abuse. The condition explains why abused people often do not seek assistance from others, fight their abuser, or leave the abusive situation. Sufferers have low self-esteem, and often believe that the abuse is their fault. Such persons usually refuse to press criminal charges against their abuser, and refuse all offers of help, often becoming aggressive or abusive to others who attempt to offer assistance. Often sufferers will even seek out their very abuser for comfort shortly after an incident of abuse.

Helping Haiti the secular way

Those who are still wondering how to help people in Haiti may want to check out some secular ways of alleviating the suffering. Here are two.

Médecins Sans Frontières (Australia|other countries) is secular, and is making a real difference in Haiti. The server is busy right now — I hope that’s because they’re getting hammered with donations.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has an effort going to send money to MSF and the International Red Cross. I love seeing this kind of thing happening from the RDFRS, and I hope they keep it up. As the man says:

The myth that it is only the religious who truly care is sustained largely by the fact that they tend to donate not as individuals, but through their churches. Non-believers, by contrast, give as individuals: we have no church through which to give collectively, no church to rack up statistics of competitive generosity. Non-Believers Giving Aid is not a church (that’s putting it mildly) but it does provide an easy conduit for the non-religious to help those in desperate need, whilst simultaneously giving the lie to the canard that you need God to be good.

Here’s a chance to show what non-believers can do, even without an invisible fairy to reward us after we die. All right, so appealing to a sense of competition isn’t the worthiest of motivators, but when it gets money to people who need it, who’s going to complain?

Nashville again smacks down ‘English only’ law

A shout out to the good citizens of Nashville, who voted down an English-only proposal that would have prevented the use of other languages by government workers and publications.

The proposal was introduced by Eric Crafton, a metropolitan councilman. It was opposed by a broad coalition including the mayor, civil rights groups, business leaders, ministers and the heads of nine institutions of higher education.

“The results of this special election reaffirm Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city,” Mayor Karl Dean said in a statement.

As I’ve argued before, people advance these proposals claiming to want to save money and encourage English use, but they’re really just a more acceptable way of punishing immigrants.

Critics said the proposal would tarnish Nashville’s reputation as a cultural mixing pot and drive away immigrants and international businesses. They also accused Mr. Crafton of worsening anti-immigrant sentiment and wasting at least $350,000 of taxpayer’s money on a special election.

Nice to see it fail. Well done, Nashville.

Hero of the Week: L.F. Eason III

Jesse Helms was a bad man who hurt a lot of people with his unrepentant racism and homophobia. He died decades too late. Though he should not have been honoured in any way, the state of North Carolina ordered the flags flown at half-mast.

But L.F. Eason III, a technician at the Agriculture Department, said no.

“Regardless of any executive proclamation, I do not want the flags at the North Carolina Standards Laboratory flown at half staff to honor Jesse Helms any time this week.

“This is in no way a political decision. I simply do not feel it is appropriate to honor a person whose epitaph of government service was to have voted against or blocked every civil rights issue that came before the US Congress. His doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice cost North Carolina and our Nation much that we may never regain.”

“I made a decision to refuse to lower our flags at the NC Standards Laboratory to half mast in honor of Jesse Helms as soon as I heard of his death. I cannot in good conscience honor such a man who fought so hard against Civil and Human Rights throughout his life. Even to his death bed, he refused to apologize for the damage he caused. Now, I stand by this decision.

He got fired, and the flags went up anyway. It may seem pointless, like he should have given in. But he didn’t, and for that, Mr Eason is my hero of the week.

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