a pop quiz on campus health insurance.

You attend a Catholic university.

Your university offers a health plan that covers everything but contraceptives and abortions.

The current administration pushes legislation through Congress that requires all health plans to cover contraceptives.

Your school decides that rather than making their health plan compliant with the law, they’ll drop it altogether.

Has the legislation in question improved your access to health care, or hurt it?

(Disclaimer: I am not a Catholic—or a Christian of any flavor—and I have my problems with the Church’s hostility to contraceptives. But I knew that stance ahead of time, and that’s one of the reasons why I chose not to attend a Catholic university.)

(Via Popehat.)

a few words on harry potter, storytelling, and christianity.

A few days ago, I finally had a chance to watch the last of the Harry Potter movies, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″. The movies run the range from excellent (Deathly Hallows Pt.2, Half-Blood Prince) to competent (the first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus) to odd and head-scratchingly inconsistent with the characters of the novel in places (Azkaban). Overall, however, they’re a remarkable achievement because they manage to replicate in movie form what makes the books so unique: they progress and grow with the characters through seven years.

After I finished Deathly Hallows, I had the impulse to read the books and watch all the movies again from the beginning because I was sad to see the story end. This is what makes great storytelling to me–when you feel a nostalgia and sense of loss for a world that never existed except in your head and that of the author. it also reaffirmed my personal theory of storytelling: that a novel ultimately stands and falls with the author’s ability to make us care about the characters. Ideally, a good novel has both great characters and a great plot, but a novel with a humdrum plot can still be great if we care enough about the characters and the world in which they move. On the obverse, the best and most airtight plot will not save a novel with bland and uninteresting characters. If we don’t care about the people in it, the story becomes uninteresting even when the author is firmly in command of the plot and throws in narrative razzle-dazzle.

Harry Potter isn’t about witchcraft and wizardry. Those are the dressing on the salad, the tinsel on the tree, the swirl on the pastry. Harry Potter is about friendship and love and loyalty, about family and the nature of life and death, and about what’s truly important in life, the qualities that define us as human beings. That’s why the criticism of the series from certain segments of Christianity is not only misguided, but profoundly unfair. So much of the Harry Potter books could actually serve as Christian allegory (and far more effectively than C.S. Lewis’ heavy-handed pap in the Narnia books) that people who accuse Harry Potter of being the Devil’s work only show that they either don’t have a clue what the books are about (and many haven’t even read them), or that their version of Christianity is a particularly loveless and grim one.

I know that most Christians don’t have a problem with Harry Potter. Most of the Christians I know, for example, read the books and let their children read them, simply because they’re good entertainment that ultimately champions good values. But I have come to understand why some Christians reject the books, and why they’re invariably members of the inflexible and fundamental branches of Christianity. You see, the Christians I know and get along with have an understanding that books are a way to make us understand our nature and our place in the world, and that nothing is literal in fiction. They apply this attitude to the Bible as well–Jesus speaks in parables, the lessons of the New Testament are to be seen in context, and the spirit of the book is in the totality of its message.

There’s another kind of Christian, though, and they treat the Bible differently. For them, the important thing is that parts of it have lists of black-and-white rules, lots of “Thou shalt not” and so on. They are the ones who see the Bible as literal truth. What’s important is not the message or the intent or the spirit of the book, but the lists of printed rules that can be followed. They absolve the believer from having to apply their own judgment, from having to examine an issue from all sides and see it both in the context of human experience and the spirit of the book’s message. That would require having to attempt to understand the issue, when it’s much easier to hold it up against the go/no-go gauge of Leviticus et. al.  The Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, Harry Potter talks of witches and wizards, ergo Harry Potter is anti-Biblical and therefore un-Christian. It doesn’t require understanding, or exercising judgment, or even reading the books in question. In reality, Harry and his friends embody values that Christianity claims as virtuous. They are kind, fair, loyal, and concerned with the suffering of others. They face evil with courage even at the risk of their own lives. Most importantly, they love each other and remain loyal to friends and family even in the face of persecution. Those are all professed Christian virtues, aren’t they? I mean, if you’re going to encourage your kid to read, isn’t that the kind of stuff a Christian would want their kid to read and like? When it comes to moral lessons in literature, you could do a lot worse than Harry Potter.

Do I believe in the literal truth of Harry Potter, that reading the books will make my kid turn to witchcraft? Not any more than I believe in the existence of God or gods or divinity in general. I don’t believe that I can point a wand at an object and make it levitate by saying “Wingardium Leviosa”. But I do believe in the power of love and friendship and beauty, the things that elevate us above just being meat–and those are the essence of the Harry Potter books, not wands and spells and witchcraft.

aw, jeez….not this shit again.

In a spectacular display of Not Getting It, some of the Republicans in the Live Free Or Die State are getting cocky about having a supermajority in the NH House and Senate again…and they’re trying to use it to roll back the gay marriage law.  Of all the issues on the table, they make gay cooties a priority once again.

In past elections, I’ve voted for a few Republicans for local office–whenever there wasn’t a Libertarian running, or whenever the Democrat on the ballot was more of a douche than the Republican.  Should the NH Republicans be successful in getting our gay marriage law repealed, I will never again vote for another Republican in this state.  I’m sick and tired of the debate.  We shouldn’t have it in a state that has LIVE FREE OR DIE as its motto.  We shouldn’t have it because the straight majority shouldn’t be able to vote itself special rights they can deny to gays, or blacks, or Jews, or Christians, or left-handed people.  We shouldn’t have that debate anymore for much the same reason why we shouldn’t have a debate about reintroducing miscegenation laws. This particular culture war is pretty much over.  There are just too many people nowadays, both liberal and conservative, who recognize that the state should have precisely fuck-all to do with licensing, condoning, or promoting marriage between two consenting adults.

Now, I realize that I’m once again poking the hornet’s nest with a stick by talking about homosexuality, and inviting certain commenters to leave their feces-obsessed ramblings all over this here Interblog.  I do, however, want to put a theory out there:

Most opposition to, disgust with, and fear of homosexuality in this country is simply male discomfort at the thought of male homosexuality. The arguments against homosexuality and gay marriage come wrapped in convenient religious or pseudo-biological arguments, but to me, it looks like it’s simply a moral cloak wrapped around the fact that a lot of straight American males are grossed out at the idea of two men having sex.  (Note the relative popularity of lesbian vs. gay porn among straight males—ask a college frat brother what he thinks of two hot chicks getting it on, and he’s much more likely to give that a thumbs-up than the idea of two hot guys getting it on.)

On a side note—I throw up a little in my mouth whenever I hear someone referring to the Defense of Marriage act.  Talk about a positively Newspeak name for a piece of legislature.  How do you defend something by making sure there’s less of it?  How does it “defend” my marriage when my home state doesn’t let a gay couple get the same legal benefits my wife and I enjoy?  And do come back to me when the straight marriages in this country don’t have a 50% divorce rate.  If social conservatives wanted to defend the institution of marriage, they should start with the straight folks first.  But I’m utterly convinced that most of the anti-gay marriage hullabaloo is just personal disgust and discomfort packaged in convenient selective bits of Scripture.

(And lest anyone accuse me of “being hostile toward religion” again…I have an awful lot of friends who are a.) Christian, b.) good people, and c.) in favor of equal marriage rights.  Keeping marriage and government apart isn’t exactly a new-fangled radical idea.  Render unto Caesar, and all that.)

a poll concerning reader demographics.

This is an anonymous poll. If you choose to participate, nobody will be able to see which option you picked.

i’ll start respecting them when they start burning piles of money instead.

In my humble opinion, there are only a few reasons why anyone would stage a public burning of some other peoples’ holy book:

  1. They want to show in public how pious they are.
  2. They want to score some brownie points with God.
  3. They want to blow raspberries at Team Not Us.
  4. They want to generate publicity to expand their congregation, go on the Tee Vee, and do something to improve the fill ratio of their collection baskets.

Which one of those reasons listed above would Jesus approve?

Every time I hear of a book burning somewhere, I think of this quote:

“Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings, too.”  –Heinrich Heine, Almansor (1821)

Do they have the right to do it?  Sure.  Is it a good idea, especially when the U.S. commander on the ground in Team Not Us Land says that it would endanger our troops?  Probably not.

(And the people in the Comments section who say that they’re Christians and they wouldn’t care if someone burned the Bible are very much missing the point.  To Muslims, the Koran is the literal, physical word of God in a way the Bible isn’t to Christians.  To them, it’s a sacrilege to defile one.  It’s like…oh, there’s no real analogy in Christianity I can think of.  Maybe taking a leak on the Shroud of Turin just for kicks, or picking your teeth with a splinter from the One True Cross, perhaps.)

Book burnings–not just burnings of someone’s holy texts, but the burning of any book–are an affront to humanity, culture, and civilization.  There’s no good or right reason to burn any book, anywhere, at any time.  People who do it anyway are illiterate, unenlightened savages, whatever their motivation.

jesus would kick you in the head.

Haiti has been hit by a major earthquake. Port-au-Prince is destroyed.  The local government estimates a possible 100,000 casualties. The dead are still buried under the rubble, and the dust hasn’t even cleared yet, but Pat Robertson already knows that the Haitians “have been cursed”, and that God got his smite on because Haiti “swore a pact to the Devil”.

Gah.  I swear, when I think of a good and admirable Christian who lives up to the professed ideals of their faith, I picture Pat Robertson…and then imagine his polar opposite.

one last thing for today.

I won’t say much about the shooting of the abortion doctor yesterday, because that subject makes religious debate seem downright reasonable and pleasant by comparison, and I have no interest in kicking over that particular bucket of ill-tempered worms.

I will, however, say this:

A genuine apology doesn’t have a “but” in it.  When you say, “I’m sorry, but…”, you automatically negate the apology.  You’re either sorry, or you’re not, and when you try to justify yourself in the same sentence as your apology, you’re not really apologizing.

On the same note, when you say “I’m sorry/appalled that he was shot to death, but…”, you render everything you said before the “but” invalid.

on self-deception.

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.  –Bertrand Russell

I largely agree with the quote above, but I have to amend it a little.  Humans have an amazing ability to rationalize their prejudices and preferences, to the point where they will refuse to believe something despite a mountain of evidence, or fervently believe something not only in the complete absence of evidence, but in the presence of a mountain of contradictory evidence.  (That’s why so many religions make unquestioning faith the highest of virtues, especially when that faith contradicts “worldly” knowledge.  That’s how Tertullian could proudly proclaim “I believe because it is impossible.”)  To modify yet another famous quote, I’d say there are only two things that are infinite: the universe, and the human capacity for self-deception…and I’m not so sure about the former.

Case in point: the Casey Anthony case, and the brand new “Craigslist Killer” case.

Craigslist killer accused’s friends say police “have the wrong man”.

The friends and relatives of the man arrested in connection with a slaying and several robberies of women advertising services on Craigslist are in denial about the situation, because the admission that their friend/fiancee is a robber and murderer would upset some of their core beliefs about themselves: that they are good people, and that they are good enough judges of character to not hang out with (or be engaged to) bad people.  His fiancee sent an angry email to ABC News, insisting that the whole thing is just “cops trying to make money off accusing an innocent man.”

“Unfortunately you were given wrong information as was the public,” Megan McAllister wrote to ABC News in an e-mail. “All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly! A police officer in Boston (or many) is trying to make big bucks by selling this false story to the TV stations. What else is new?? Philip is an intelligent man who is just trying to live his life so if you could leave us alone we would greatly appreciate it. We expect to marry in August and share and wonderful, meaningful life together.”

In the Casey Anthony case, her parents still insist that she is innocent and a victim of malicious prosecution, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  When they were in court to respond to a civil lawsuit recently, they lashed out at the lawyers and reporters, claiming all these people had destroyed the Anthony family and ruined their lives.  When they left the deposition, Casey’s mother shouted, “You have to have faith!  If you don’t have faith, you don’t have hope!”

That, of course, cuts right to the heart of the matter.  When people are faced with accepting a reality that is just too fundamentally threatening to their most dearly held beliefs, they have a vested interest in denying that reality just for reasons of mental self-preservation.  They will deny the evidence for that reality, and latch on to anything that will enable them to continue their self-deception.  It’s a natural–and very effective–defense mechanism.  The alternative would be to admit that you are indeed capable of making friends with (or getting engaged to) a murderer…that your daughter did indeed kill your granddaughter…or that demographics and geography have far more to do with your chosen religious affiliation than its inherent truth does.

The trouble is that humans are wired for seeking out truth, and that even the most elaborate act of self-deception can’t ever suppress the knowledge that it is, indeed, self-deception.  That knowledge sits in some corner of the brain, and its presence causes discomfort through cognitive dissonance for as long as its bearer refuses to match their world view with the facts. 

examining our biases.

A child is brought to a hospital because she’s complaining about severe abdominal pain.  Upon examination, the doctors find a large tumor.  The cancer specialist tells the parents that the tumor is highly operable, but that a failure to do surgery will almost certainly result in the child’s death within a year.

The parents refuse the surgery because of their personal beliefs, and take the child home for alternative treatment.

Variant A:  The parents are dyed-in-the-wool New Age granolas.  They live on a vegan diet, feed their pets vegan food, and raised their daughter on breast milk and soy milk when she was little.  They didn’t get vaccinations for their child because they are convinced that the vaccine causes autism.  Instead of surgery, they try to treat their child’s cancer with a special diet, herbal supplements, meditation, focus crystals, and “good energy”.  Ten months later, the child dies from complications related to the untreated tumor.

Variant B:  The parents are staunchly religious, and believe in the power of prayer to heal all sickness and disease.  They didn’t get their child vaccinated because they believe it is sinful to inject foreign matter into one’s body, and that only God has the power to cure diseases.  Instead of surgery, they put their complete trust in God, and try to treat their child’s cancer with daily prayer sessions.  Ten months later, the child dies from complications related to the untreated tumor.

  • Do you believe parents A should be charged with child neglect?  How about parents B?
  • If you believe that one should be charged, but not the other, why?
  • If you believe that both should be charged, should they receive a different sentence?  If so, what kind of mitigating circumstances do you see?
  • If you had a chance to be the deciding jury member in both cases, which one would you be more likely to pronounce guilty?

(This post was inspired by this current trial in a Tennessee court.  If you read the article, make sure you read the comments, too.)

The state of Tennessee has a law that allows parents to decline medical treatment for their children if their religious beliefs compel them to do so.  If the woman charged with neglect was a member of the focus crystal crowd, there wouldn’t be a jury in the whole of Tennessee that wouldn’t nail her hide to the wall, because she wouldn’t be able to claim religious exemption.  Is it right and just to treat the religious parent any different from the hippie parent, if the end result of their decision is the same, and their beliefs are equally sincere?

Freedom of religion: does it give someone the right to make life-and-death medical decisions for their child in contradiction of all medical evidence?  And if it does, why do we get all upset about religious groups marrying off young girls?  If the child can be subjected to the will of her parents when it comes to something as essential as critical health care, why shouldn’t she be subjected to the will of her parents when it comes to issues that aren’t crucial to her survival?

On a side note: I find it humorous how many religious groups claim that “atheism is a religion, too” when it comes to court matters where such an interpretation would favor the religious side (school prayer, science curricula, etc.), and then turn around and say that religious exemptions don’t apply to atheists when it comes to court matters where that notion would favor the atheist/secular side (tax exemption, parental health care decisions, nativity displays on public grounds, etc.)

Shouldn’t everyone be equal before the law, and subject to the same rules and standards, regardless of personal beliefs?  Or should Christians get favored treatment in the legal system because we are a nation of mostly Christians?  And if that’s the case, who gets to decide who’s a “real” Christian?  (I know plenty of Christians who would claim that the woman in that court case is not a real Christian.)  Is that not exactly what the Bill of Rights was designed to prevent–a tyranny of the majority?

I’m interested in your opinions.

the things we inherit.

I grew up in Germany.  Naturally, I was a soccer—–properly: fussball–fan.  When we were kids, we played fussball, because that was what you played.  There were other youth sports, of course, but I was only vaguely aware of them.  Swimming, running, basketball, and handball were something you watched other people do on TV; fussball was what you played with the neighborhood kids outside.

We played fussball in any kind of weather, even in rain and thunderstorms.  When a match was underway, nothing short of a major natural disaster (or a parent angry enough to actually come down to the pitch instead of just yelling from the apartment window) could end that match.  We all played fussball every day, and naturally, we all thought we were going to be the one kid on the block good enough to make the Bundesliga, playing for our favorite team.

We had favorite teams, of course.  Asking a kid about his favorite soccer team and getting an “I don’t have one” in return was as unheard of as asking someone their religion and receiving the same answer.  Everybody had a favorite team.  You wore their colors, knew the names of all the players down to the third tier reserve bench, watched their matches on Saturday afternoon TV, and got into fights with the kids who pledged allegiance to that other team, the local and traditional rival of your team (something that every sports team in the world seems to have.)

In our house, we were Schalke 04 fans.  There was simply no debate about this.  We wore the Royal Blue of Schalke 04, and we got into arguments with the neighbor kids who were dumb and misguided enough to like Bayern Muenchen, or 1.FC Koeln, or (worst of all) the blood enemies of Schalke, Borussia Dortmund.  (My brother will to this day not speak the name of that team out loud, and instead use the traditional Schalke insult of referring to Dortmund as “Doofmund”, or “Eintracht Luedenscheid”.  “Doof” means “dumb” or “thick” in German, and Luedenscheid is a small town near the location of Dortmund’s home stadium.)

We were Schalke fans, no doubt about it.  I am now far removed from the fussball-crazed turf of my childhood home, and I only take a mild and passing interest in the trials and triumphs of Schalke o4 these days, but my brother is still part of the Royal Blue culture.  He goes to most of the home and away games, and he’ll travel to Spain or Scotland to follow his team to important international matches.  (His wife is very patient and also very tolerant–she takes care of their three kids while he’s out for two days on a bus trip to a fussball match halfway across Europe.)

It never really occurred to me just why we were so solidly in the Schalke camp from the time we could kick a ball and pronounce the name of the team.  That was just the way things were.  Schalke is no more successful than most of the other old fussball teams in the Bundesliga–in fact, they haven’t won the national championship in fifty years.  There’s nothing about Schalke that makes them markedly different from, say, Bayern Muenchen, or even the loathed Borussia Dortmund.  Every team has its own history, but all those histories are strikingly similar in many ways.  Every team has its own culture, but those are just as similar.

These days I know precisely why we were Schalke fans, and the answer is quite simple: because our father was a Schalke fan, and he preached the gospel of Schalke to us when we were kids.  He was a Schalke fan because our grandfather was a Schalke fan, too.  We inherited a lifetime of tribal allegiance to a fussball team simply because our father and grandfather passed it on to us.

That got me to thinking:  how many allegiances that are profoundly serious and integral to our lives are simply the way they are because we inherited them from our parents without question?  How many beliefs and preferences we hold dear are merely factors of geography and familial heritage?  If you grow up near Gelsenkirchen in Germany, chances are exceedingly high that you will be a.) a Catholic, b.) a Social Democrat, and c.) a Schalke 04 fan.  If you grow up in the greater Boston area, chances are pretty good you’ll turn out a Red Sox fan.  If you grow up in Baghdad or Tehran, chances are you’ll grow up a Muslim. 
We like to think that we arrive at our convictions by choice, and that our particular choices are superior to all others.  (Why else would we have picked them?  And why else would our parents, the people we hold most dear in our youth, have picked them to pass down to us?  Wouldn’t questioning the inherent superiority of those choices constitute a rejection of one’s own family history?)  I did have the option of choosing allegiance to some other fussball team, or some other religion, of course, but how often do people go against the grain when it would mean that one’s entire family and circle of friends would consider it strange at best, and heretical at worst?  (In the case of choosing Dortmund over Schalke, it would have been all the way at the heresy end of that scale in our house.)

How often, then, do we then use our rational faculties to not examine our beliefs, but instead rationalize our emotional preferences, and then tell ourselves that we would have arrived at the same conclusions anyway because of the superiority of our choices above all others–in sports, religion, political philosophy, or even consumer brands?

People don’t like to think of themselves as being led around by the nose.  We all like to think we’re independent thinkers who arrived at our philosophies, beliefs, and preferences by way of reason and independent thinking.  Too often, however, we’re either denying that we were led to those beliefs, or we’re telling ourselves that we would have ended up at that particular destination, anyway.
For some people, it’s heresy to even consider that their religion or sports team allegiance is largely an accident of geography.  But when you think about it, it’s deplorable to see people argue with each other–or worse, kill each other–over matters that were largely decided by the location of their birth, and the preferences of their parents.