Friday, March 21, 2008

Taking Tolerance Too Far

There is a great op-ed at the Arizona Republic. But while the author – Linda Valdez – is dead right about the fact that religious tolerance, something carefully pushed by the GOP, is infringing on individual rights, there is one thing that bothers me about her piece. She is adamant in her assertion that “it is time for some lines”. But this seems to indicate that we need to work on balancing our tolerance of religion with individual rights. I disagree. Rather, I think we need to scrap this idea of religious tolerance altogether.

Religion has been given a special place in our society. A prime example in current events – the successes of pharmacists who are fighting not to do their job because of religious beliefs. But why should we be tolerant of religion? Sure, tolerance in general is a good thing. But under this idea of “religious tolerance” lies the repugnant notion that religions and religious dogma cannot be challenged, cannot be questioned. Think about it. Someone tells you that they believe an embryo has a soul, as does an individual in a persistent vegetative state. You ask for their reasons. They tell you its part of their religion. This is almost always a conversation stopper, unless you are willing to “attack their religion”. And if you do that, then you are immediately open to a charge of intolerance. Why? Because religious tolerance involves deference to religious practices and, in this case, religious beliefs. Any attempt to undermine those beliefs from outside the religion in question is automatically intolerant.

Ms. Valdez is correct that religious tolerance leads to infringements on individual rights. But her desire to draw lines between tolerance and rights is misguided. Dogma does not respect the boundary of individual rights. You cannot insist that that creationism is false, and hence should not be taught to children, and still be deferent to religious origin myths. You cannot claim that women have a right over their bodies, and yet still be deferent to religious claims that they do not. You cannot claim that homosexuals should be treated like everyone else and still be deferent to religious claims that homosexuality is an act worthy of stoning. You cannot draw a line between deference to religious dogma and rights, for any line you wish to draw will immediately be seen as intolerant.

Now, in claiming that we should scrap the idea of religious tolerance, I'm not advocating any sort of legally forced belief systems. Nor am I advocating discrimination against those who hold these religious beliefs. We should be tolerant of other people. But tolerance of people who happen to religious is not the same as tolerance of religion. Our tolerance of religion has not been just a tolerance of the people who adhere to religion. That is as it should be. Rather, our tolerance of religion has extended itself to encompass a different sort of tolerance entirely - a tolerance of belief without evidence, one that requires that we not challenge this special class of religious beliefs the same way we would challenge other sorts of belief. If we are to protect our rights, that sort of tolerance has to stop.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

McCain the Maverick? Not on Reproductive Rights.

There are a good number of people in this country that view John McCain as a bit of a maverick, a man who is willing to stand up to the Republican party has a whole, cross the isle in search of effective compromise, and stand behind his own beliefs even when they conflict with the dominant views of the party. This may very well be true with regard to some issues, but despite some public misconceptions to the contrary, reproductive rights certainly isn't one of them. There are some who have, due to McCain's image as a maverick, taken him to be pro-choice, or at least less anti-choice then the likes of far-righties like G.W. Bush, Mike Huckabee, etc. NARAL has started up a website where you can, according to them, meet the real McCain. And if you follow the links in search of info on McCain's record, you'll be led to a compilation of McCain's anti-choice votes and statements.

If you read through that list, you might be surprised to discover that:

*McCain is staunchly anti-choice, openly in favor of overturning Roe, and determined to nominate judges who will ignore the rights of women.

*McCain has voted to support abstinence-only education programs, which have been shown to be ineffective and often involve disseminating falsehoods to kids. He's also voted for substantial funding for such programs to be allocated from the fund for HIV/AIDS. That means that rather then putting our money toward effective means of reducing HIV/AIDS in areas of the world that are experiencing a devestating epidemic, the money is being wasted on ineffective, and dogmatically motivated, programs.

*McCain has voted to support the global gag rule, which precludes any openly pro-choice international organization from obtaining federal funds, even if they use non-federal money to provide abortion services or do not offer such services at all. This prevents these organizations from giving much needed family planning and women's health services to some of the poorest women in the world, and places a burden on other organizations which they may not be able to meet, thus leaving women out in the cold.

*McCain has voted against measures that would make birth control more accessible to women, and has actually voted for parental notification laws that would make it more difficult for teens to access birth control.

*McCain voted to end Title X, which provides women in need with all sorts of medical services, from birth control to vaccinations to cancer screenings.

Now, even if you're opposed to legal abortion, you've got to admit that McCain's record is not just anti-choice, but clearly unconcerned with the reproductive rights and reproductive health of women here in America and around the world. Unless your place on the ideological spectrum has you nestled between Dubya and Pat Robertson, some of McCain's record is going to leave a bad taste in your mouth. After all, if you're interested in reducing abortions, increasing access to and knowledge about contraceptives should be at the top of your list. It's not at the top of McCain's. If you're worried about the AIDS crisis in Africa, then making sure that we are funding programs that have the greatest effectiveness in reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS should be one of your concerns. It's not one of McCain's. If securing the rights and improving the health of women in the US and around the world is something that is important to you, McCain may not be your candidate, because his record clearly demonstrates that it's not important to him.

McCain may have the image of an ideological maverick, but when it comes to reproductive rights and women's health he's right in line with the far right. We should all be aware of that fact when we enter the voting booth this November.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

PZ Says It All (Or at least most of it)

There is a great post over at Pharyngula handling some of the most common arguments against and misconceptions about atheism. Check it out.

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Hey Career Woman - Hurry Up And Have A Baby!

Penelope Trunk of the Boston Globe has an important message for women – if you want kids, then you best get busy. Your biological clock is ticking. And don’t worry about that career – you’ll have time for it later.

Well, Ms Trunk, first, we career women are all painfully aware of the fact that our biological clocks are ticking. And we know better than to believe those who say “Oh, you still have time for kids later”. But while the field of journalism may be such that you can make your career happen long after your little ones have entered school, not every woman has the same opportunity. In my field – academic philosophy - for example, it is necessary to obtain one’s degree as quickly as possible since this makes it more likely that you will obtain a tenure track position. And believe me, it’s not easy being in a field that is over 70% male. They don’t give you special treatment. The fact that you got married and had a baby doesn’t impact their thoughts when they look at your CV. In fact, in some departments you have to work twice as hard as your male colleagues to even gain their recognition as an equal. Now, if you manage to get a tenure track position (difficult even for males in this field), you then have five years to publish, publish, publish so that you can get tenured. The tenure clock starts ticking the instant you take up your position. During this time you are also expected to teach a full load and perform all the nasty grunt administration tasks that the tenured faculty don’t want to deal with (like directing the undergraduates). This is not easy to do even without young children. And while some universities will stop the tenure clock for women who are having children, there is no guarantee that you'll be able to get a job at one of those universities. You have to take what you can get in this field. Finally, if you live through all this and manage to get tenured, you are now in a position to start a family. Best case scenario, after a four year BA, 5 years post graduate and a 5 year tenure clock, you’re 32. And that's really a best case scenario.

I’m not saying that the world of academic philosophy is any harder than any other career path. That’s just the point. Women face the same sort of challenges in the sciences, in the legal world and in the business world. So what you’re telling us, Ms. Trunk, is that we have to choose. We have to pick between having children and fulfilling our dreams. We already knew that we were likely to face this choice, unless we could manage to somehow be superwomen (and some women do.) But we shouldn’t have to choose. So rather than wasting your time telling us we have to make this choice, Ms. Trunk, perhaps you should be using your position as a journalist to make it clear how unfair the choice is in the first place.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

A Little Angst - What the Heck Does it Mean to Be Spiritual?

This has confused me for some time. Lots of people will say that they are spiritual, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on what this means. Some “spiritual” people tell me that they believe in ghosts, others laugh at the idea; some tell me they know how many kids I’ll have based on the lines on my hands, others say that’s a bunch of hogwash. Some say they can feel good energy and bad energy; others say there is no such thing as good or bad energy, only how you use it. According to Sam Harris’ understanding of ‘spiritual’, I’m spiritual; according to the guy in the coffee shop, I’m not. The only thing that seems to be consistent with the “spiritual” people I’ve met (Sam Harris likely excluded) is that they all seem to treat me with the same attitude – “Oh little atheist, you’re young. You just don’t understand. Eventually you’ll come to know what I know, and then you’ll be spiritual too”. Well, okay. I’m listening. Quit condescending and help. What should I learn? What is the sweet, young, misguided atheist missing? Because I’m starting to think that people who are “spiritual” (Sam Harris excluded) use this as a blanket term for “I believe in woo, and being spiritual involves believing in the woo that I believe in.”

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I'm In Love!

Okay, okay, it’s just intellectual infatuation… with a youtuber named ProfMTH. If his videos are any indication, this guy gives great lecture. A taste of the sort of video he puts out below the fold, but I would suggest checking out his channel page and watching some more. The videos are so good I can even ignore the fact that he supports Obama!

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Expelled - New Trailer

Via Pharangyla.


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Horton Hears A.... What?!

This is just too rich. Anti-abortion protestors decided the perfect venue would be the premiere of Horton Hears A Who - a children's flick. I don't know whether to laugh out loud or let out a big long sigh.

The reason the anti-choice crowd has latched on to this flick? It's theme is "A person's a person no matter how small". Well, duh! But guess what? That doesn't translate to "A person's a person even when it's just a collection of pluripotent cells". And once again - it doesn't matter if a blastocyst/embryo/fetus is a person! No person has the right to use another's body without their consent. Sheesh. How long are we going to talk past each other?

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Vote Obama and Lose the General Election

This is just another reason that I support Hillary Clinton. I’ve been warning my Obama supporting colleagues for a while now. On top of the fact that he’s all show and no substance, the man can’t pull off a win for the Democrats in the fall. Well, I’ve said it to my colleagues and I’ll say it here now – if Obama gets the nomination (which seems likely) and then loses the general election (which also looks likely), I’m blaming you.

I’m praying that I eat my words in November.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Proposed Bill Makes CPCs Inform Patients That They Can Lie

This is good news. It’s about time that someone did something about these stupid Crisis Pregnancy Centers. What would be better if the bill actually made it the case that they have to tell the truth. But this is a start.

Joseph Bartlett, a Republican who opposes the bill, had this to say in defense of allowing to continue the centers to operate the way they have been:

The premise that we're going to require these organizations to disclaim that they don't have to tell the truth is just about the silliest thing I ever heard," he said. "We certainly don't do that in the case of politicians, do we?

Well, no, Joe, we don’t have a law that tells politicians that they have to admit that they don’t have to tell the truth. But as much as CPCs are more like politicians than they are like actual clinics, these places are falsely giving the impression that they are medical centers, which can be sued for lying to their patients. They aren’t medical centers, and as a result they are free to disseminate all the false information they want without penalty. And they do. Well, if we’re going to allow them to continue parading about like actual medical centers, we can at least make sure that women who go to them are aware of the stakes. What’s really silly here is the fact that you seem to think it’s okay for people to pretend to be offering medical services and then lie to the women who come to them for help.

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why do atheists care about religion?

So, while I was meandering around YouTube (rather than doing the grading I ought to be doing... I'll go back to it in a sec. Promise) I discovered this great video explaining why atheists care about religion (with Pantera playing in the background. Nice!) I thought I would share it. You can find it below the fold.

I often get asked why, as an atheist, I care about religion, or why I spend so much time talking about god. Well, I care about religion for much the same reasons the youtuber who made the video cares. Religion has a detrimental impact on my life and the lives of others. And I spend so much time talking about whether god exists or not because almost all religions (particularly the most harmful ones) are based around a deity. Do away with the deity, do away with the religion.

The number one reason that I spend so much time and effort talking about religion and god, though, is that religious belief and theism are based on the same thing - faith. Faith is a bad epistemic method. And continuing to accept it in our society is damaging in more ways than one. Not only does it breed religious belief, but it also leads people to accept spurious claims - to rely on woo, waste time searching for ghosts, and to reject the opponents of faith. Opponents that have brought us so much good (and, yes, in the wrong hands, some bad - but way more good). I talk about religion and god because I support reason and evidence. Because I support science, and because I see the foundation of religion and theism -faith - as antithetical to these pursuits.

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New Blog to Check Out

I've just discovered that one of my favorite youtubers, TheAmazingAtheist - who is often vulgar, but always fun for the *ahem* choir to watch, has a blog! Go check it out, if you dare.

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Women are Dumb?

One dumb woman - Charlotte Allen - seems to think so. I can't believe the Washington Post published this. Nor can Katha Pollitt (read her article; it's great). The lack of cogent logical argument is enough for me to use this as an extra credit assignment for my Intro Logic students - find all the fallacies! One big (non-logical) contradiction that makes me really wonder about Allen's piece, though, is if she really thinks she's that stupid, and that women should

relax, enjoy the innate abilities most of us possess (as well as the ones fewer of us possess) and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home.

why is she bothering writing for the Post? Women like Allen embrace this practical contradiction all the time. Phyllis Schlafly is a perfect example. She's out writing books, giving talks, writing columns and running an organization with the sole purpose of telling women that they should be at home rubbing their husband's feet. Don't these women see this? Oh, wait, I forgot. They are women. And women, we know, can't do logic.

Some other responses to Allen. And a Q&A with her on the article. The Q&A reveals just how misinformed and crazy Allen really is.

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Oh, Atheist, Your Life Must Be So Empty and Depressing

I hear this all the time from theists and “spiritual” people alike. And I get really sick of it. Apparently, PZ Myers doesn’t like hearing it either. Well, theistic or “spiritual” people, my life is not empty or depressing. A lack of theistic belief does not take any beauty out of the world, or any meaning from my life. In fact, one of the most liberating aspects of recognizing that there is no god is the realization that the world is so incredible, that it is all here as the result of a slow and painful process of development out of itself. That is incredible. That is awesome. I don’t need to add a conscious superbeing to nature to make it beautiful or incredible. It’s that way already. I don’t need to think of certain beautiful places as sources of “healing energy” or “power” in order to see them as beautiful. I can have a phenomenological experience that changes my understanding of myself or the world without thinking something supernatural made it happen.

Another of the liberating aspects of abandoning theism is the realization that I am not dependent on something wholly external to myself for the “meaning” of my life. I give meaning to my life, and I am responsible for my life. I strive to be the ubermensch – to “give style to my live”. And this allows me to feel much more powerful, meaningful, and alive. I know what the meaning of my life is because I am the one who determines it. And I would think not knowing what meaning or purpose your life has, along with knowing that you have no control over the purpose of your own life, would be very depressing.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Let's Go Be Lazy in Wisconsin

So, anti-choice pharmacists in Wisconsin don't want to do their jobs. I've given my take on this before. If you can't perform the tasks of your profession, get another job. Don't ask the state to give you an exception. But the anti-choice, anti-birth control pharmacists of Wisconsin are in an uproar about more than just the prospect of dispensing what the doctor prescribes. They're ticked off about the Birth Control Protection Act, which not only protects the rights of patients by forcing pharmacists to do their job, but also defines 'abortion' so as to exclude the effects of contraceptives.

According to ChristianNewsWire, this is beyond the pale, since

It is a medical fact that the morning-after pill (a high dosage of the birth control pill) and most, if not all, birth control drugs and devices including the intrauterine device (IUD), Depo Provera, Norplant, the Patch, and the Pill can act to terminate a pregnancy by chemically altering the lining of the uterus (endometrium) so that a newly conceived child is unable to implant in the womb, thus starving and dying.

Well, no, actually, it's not a medical fact. If you define pregnancy as beginning at fertilization, then yes, IUDs do result in the termination of a pregnancy. And hormonal methods may have the same result, albeit very rarely, since their primary function is to prevent ovulation and thicken the mucus lining the cervix to prevent sperm from penetrating. And usually, if they don't succeed in that, the result is not an embryo being flushed from the woman's system, but implantation. But not only is it not a "medical fact" that pregnancy begins at fertilization, it's silly to even think of defining it as such. If that's the case, then many sexually active women have been pregnant numerous times and had miscarriages. Of course, they can't inform their doctors of this, since they don't know. Additionally, imagine attempting to expand this definition out, given the advances in reproductive technologies. When a doctor fertilizes a woman's egg with her partner's sperm in a pitre dish, is she pregnant? If a store of her fertilized eggs is preserved in deep freeze, does she remain pregnant until her blastocysts die? If she dies while those blastocysts are still being preserved, does that mean that a dead woman can be pregnant? If a couple enlists the aid of a surrogate mother, who is pregnant? It's obviously not the biological mother. But then the woman who has preserved blastocysts can't be pregnant either. If pregnancy begins at fertilization, then someone has got to be pregnant, though. The egg is fertilized, after all. Is the tank pregnant?

ChristianNewsWire's nutty statements of "medical fact" aside, what really caught my attention was this:

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right to freely exercise one's religious convictions. The Wisconsin Constitution expressly protects the rights of conscience. Under Article 1, Section 18, of our state constitution, "any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience" shall not be permitted.

Now, obviously ChristianNewsWire and the anti-birth control pharmacists who are pushing this line against the Birth Control Protection Act are thinking that they are going to stop this legislation by claiming it violates their religious freedom through their rights of conscience. Here's the problem. Not every one who is anti-choice is religious, or is anti-choice because of their religious convictions. Are these Wisconsin pharmacists suggesting that it's okay to force someone who is anti-choice, but has no religious affiliation, to dispense birth control? I doubt it. But if this really is about conscience, and not about religion, then the Wisconsin constitution would seem to protect the rights of conscience of vegetarians who work at McDonalds and don't want to serve meat, or vegans who work at Mervyns but refuse to sell wool or leather, or school nurses, or doctors, who believe that vaccines are evil and refuse to distribute them to kids. Or heck, some renegade pastafarians who refuse to serve spaghetti, but insist on working at Italian restaurants. It's their right of conscience, after all. I guess anyone who has scruples against doing something required by a profession can work in that profession and yet not do their job in Wisconsin. My new set of principles - never prostituting my labor out for pay. I think I'll go get a job in Wisconsin.

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