Saturday, April 12, 2014

GOP candidate claims disabled children are God’s punishment for abortion

GOP candidate claims disabled children are God’s punishment for abortion:

Marshall, a Virginia GOP state delegate and congressional candidate, is standing by his obnoxious, irresponsible and baseless claim about the supposed “divine” link between abortion and disabled children, according to a report issued by Right Wing Watch. 
Marshall says that “Nature takes its vengeance on subsequent children,” and that “Christians would suggest,” “It’s a special punishment.” 
Back in 2010, at an event calling for an end to state funding for Planned Parenthood, Marshall originally suggested a divine connection between abortion and disabled children, claiming that women who have abortions are more likely to face “vengeance” from “nature” in children with a greater likelihood of having developmental disabilities. 
The Wire reports Marshall is “the Culture War’s Four Star General.” And he has the outrageous, Christian conservative credentials to rate such a rank. 
Marshall has repeatedly defended his stance against abortion in all cases, even in the case of rape and incest. 
Marshall explained in an interview with the Boston Globe in 1989 that he wouldn’t make exceptions for abortions, even in the case of rape and incest, stating: “What if incest is voluntary? Sometimes it is.” 
About abortion in the case of rape, Marshall said: “[T]he woman becomes a sin-bearer of the crime, because the right of a child predominates over the embarrassment of the woman.”

Jon Stewart, and Noah objections

Well...there were a couple of reasons I wasn't a big fan of the movie Noah, and thought it more or less took advantage of believers' anxiousness to see a Bible movie... Jon Stewart highlights some of the more, umm, questionable objections to the story (like, "they show something that the Bible actually said happening happening..."). Funny stuff.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Republican response to Pay Equality summed up in one segment from "Yes, Minister"

For those not familiar with the series, "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" are British political comedies from the 80's, full of brilliant commentary about the political process -- as applicable to our own system as to that which it satirized. Rarely are parallels between the machinations of the fictitious Sir Humphrey Appleby and our all-too-real political leaders as poignant as the discussion of women's rights. But in this case, rather than "positive discrimination", consider it in light of "pay equality".  I give you the Republican stance:


Compare this to what they've actually been saying, and tell me I'm wrong...

WI's worst public schools are doing a better job than their for-profit, religious and "school choice" peers

Since Scott Walker took office, with the prodding of a Republican dominated legislature, the state push toward voucher schools has expanded from select areas & low income residents to squarely middle class families, and families statewide.
[S]tudents can come from a family making about $78,000 annually and qualify for a private-school voucher in Milwaukee and Racine.
For the statewide program, students can qualify for a voucher if they come from a family of four earning up to almost $51,000 annually.
Some of the voucher funds have been undeniably and completely wasted, but proponents argue that voucher schools offer free-market competition, "school choice", that improves students' chances.

Turns out, not so much. Even WI's worst performing school districts -- for whose students the program was initially introduced -- outperform their for-profit peers by several percentage points (data is limited on a state-wide basis, but public schools rate twice as high for competencies there). In mathematics, 4.5% more students from Milwaukee's public schools (compared to "Milwaukee Parental Choice Program" enrollees) were ranked proficient or advanced; in reading, almost 3% more. Both are below public school state-wide averages. Of note,
The percentage scoring proficient or advanced among Milwaukee choice students increased 2.6 points in mathematics from last year and 1.1 percentage points in reading. Achievement is up 6.5 percentage points from the 2010-11 school year in math and 3.5 points in reading for students in the Milwaukee voucher program.
These low rankings are actually improvements form previous years for the "school choice" programs (by contrast, Milwaukee public schools have remained fairly consistent). While neither the public nor private schools in these disadvantaged areas are performing well, it's worth noting that the so-called solution to problem schools is actually performing worse than the "problem". We're throwing money the way of institutions that are doing a worse job than those we're supposed to be countering.

Which brings me to a crazy thought. Maybe, just maybe, funneling school funds toward for-profit, often religious, institutions that are not even held to the same standards as public schools isn't a way to improve our schools.

Monday, April 7, 2014

David Silverman speaks at Mormon Mass Resignation

It's stuff like this that makes me optimistic about tomorrow, even with the upswing in fundamentalism in politics. For more info on the convention he talks about, click here. Wish I could go, it sounds awesome. :)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Whose problem is the OT's wrathful god?

So I was wasting time on the internet :), when I came across a piece on CNN's religion blog by author and Yale Divinity School associate professor Joel S. Baden, regarding the movie Noah -- and the problem of a vengeful, blood-thirsty god. It being unusual to see an honest acknowledgement that the topic even exists, much less followed by a discussion of it, my interest was piqued. It's a good discussion of some of the larger questions surrounding not only the flood story, but many aspects of the Bible.

In particular, Baden discusses the ever jarring contrast between the god of love and mercy and sunshine that modern Christianity references, and the god of blood-lust, vengance and darkness that the Old Testament reveals. He observes that "the merciful God reigns" today, but that this was not always the case.
The God of the Old Testament is not uniquely protective of children. After all, this is the same deity who commands the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, “man and woman, young and old.”
The same God who accepts without comment Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter, who allows children to be mauled by a bear for taunting one of his prophets, who threatens Israel with such devastating famine that they will be forced to eat their own infants.
Innocent lives are rarely a moral problem for Israel’s God.
Baden offers a good list. I suspect a comprehensive list of massacred children would be quite large. Off the top of my head, in addition to those Baden mentions above, and, of course, those wiped out during the flood, the Bible alleges that the following children were likewise butchered at the hands or command of god.
  • all of Egypt's firstborn, preceding the exodus
  • David and Bathsheba's firstborn
  • unruly children killed by their parents/city elders
  • numerous instances when god punished Israel with foreign conquerors/massacres

(Of note to pro-life Christians: these lists also ignore the incalculable fetuses, embryos and zygotes that your god is alleged to have massacred. If you're curious, I explore that topic more here).

At any rate, Baden is absolutely correct that the Biblical god is hardly the kindly creature of today's mainstream Christian theology. And, it's worth noting, even there he is no so kindly as it might at first seem. He's not just a god of deliverance and self-sacrifice and forgiveness and paradise forever after; he's also a god who decided that unbelievers deserve to be burnt for all time. He's a god, as the story goes, who metes out infinite punishment for finite crimes, a god who gives free will and exacts an impossibly heavy price for the exercise of it. Granted, there are Christians who downplay and even reject hell, who genuinely have a merciful god who offers a reward for his followers but does not demand a sadistic penalty for failure to comply; but such theology is -- alas -- in a minority among its peers.

Still, though, the Christian god who actively orders massacres and mutilations is nowadays relegated to pages of the old testament, and the minds of select psychopaths. So what are the moral implications of that? For those who -- as I saw recently stated, rather cleverly I thought -- "take the Bible too seriously to take it literally" the vengeful mass murderer of the Bible is the product of people attributing their own foibles, flaws and furies to a perfect deity. This is a view that I do not hold, but can at least respect. It is intellectually consistent in that God is and always has been loving/kindly/forgiving/merciful/etc. -- instances that allege otherwise are the result of human error, and do not reflect God's divine nature. It is a humane and non-harmful -- I've no doubt, for some people, very helpful -- philosophy. Fair enough. I don't believe it, but can respect it.

The other options are less easy to respect, however, because they are less consistent and very far from benign. Baden lays them out rather well, so I'll cover them one at a time.

One possibility is simply to take the Bible at its word: All of humanity, and indeed all of the animals too, was wicked, and even Noah was not entirely righteous but only the most righteous of his wicked generation, as an ancient Jewish tradition stated.

The moral problem is then not why everyone perished, but why — as the movie version asks — anyone was saved at all.
This option leaves an essential question unanswered, and is by its very nature horribly pessimistic and defeatist: we are a wretched species whose existence was only prolonged so that our ancestors, many years ago, could kill animals (also wretched beings) to appease our vengeful maker. This bleak understanding of humanity gives rise to its own set of problems -- not least among them, what sort of all-knowing, all-wise, all powerful creature would bring to life such a flawed and miserable set of creation, knowing from the get-go that it would do exactly the opposite of what he wanted, he'd get insanely pissed off at it, and eventually have to all-but wipe it out? Knowing from the beginning that his plan would be a failure, carrying through with it despite that knowledge, and then winding up angry and vengeful? It is completely illogical, and paints a portrait of a disturbed and foolish being -- not an all-knowing, wise one. And certainly not a merciful one.
Another possibility is to attribute a shift in personality to the deity: from wrathful to merciful, in line with the division between the Old and New Testaments.
For those who believe in a new dispensation with the arrival of Jesus, this option seems relatively easy. For those who don’t, not so much.

This is where Christianity often finds itself today -- that was god then, this is god now! This interpretation in turn gives rise to a host of its own problems, all as self-defeating as the original question. Religion often bolsters itself with the concept that, while other things may be temporal, God is eternal. Religious morality, eternal life, god, etc. -- these things are all eternal. It's a firmly held belief by many that moral relativity is a satanic construct devised and embraced by people who have lost sight of the eternal wisdom and unchanging nature of God and his laws. This absolutism, this claim to a definitive truth, is a core strength of religion's: "your godless secular ideas are temporary, our god-given ones are permanent."  Certainty is comfortable, uncertainty is not...but to admit that god changed his mind, that what was once right (massacring children, enslaving nonbelievers, etc.) is no longer is to admit that God's morality is not eternal. It is not constant. If God is changing, you've more or less gutted the last few millenniums of theological thinking. Not to mention contradicted the Bible multiple times ("I the Lord do not change" [Malachi 3:6], "God is not human, that he should lie,  not a human being, that he should change his mind" [Numbers 23:19], etc.). So short of embracing one of the other options listed,  this leaves you with two choices: either god is unchanging like the Bible says -- and thus the blood thirsty monster described -- or he has "changed", rendering the Bible and Christian theology since the inception of the religion a completely unreliable source for knowing your god -- since the unchanging nature of god is a cornerstone of that.

In other words, this view is entirely self-defeating: it either doesn't answer the dilemma it set out to answer, or it cuts even deeper to the core of that belief than the question it sought to nullify.
A third choice is to fall back — quite easily — on the essential unknowability of God.

We are not granted the same understanding or perception as is the deity. Which is to say: We have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I cannot see this is something that can be done "quite easily" -- not while maintaining an intellectually honest or mature conversation. It is, essentially, the grown up version of the childhood cop-out "because".

"Why do you get to go first?" 
"How does massacring almost everyone in the world for behaving exactly as you knew they would when you created them make sense, God?"
For an argument like this one to work, definitive proof of the deity would be required. This is lacking. Furthermore, proof that the stories told in the Bible (or just about any holy book, for that matter -- these flaws, the petty vindictiveness attributed to supposedly divine and perfect beings, transcend specific faiths) were accurate would also be needed. Again, this is lacking.

Ideally, religious searching is a way to discover truth...not to shrug it off as unknowable. It's the ultimate cop-out. Instead of confronting the big questions that arise from an honest examination of most strains of Christian theology, it's simply sidestepping the question altogether with, "The answer -- indeed, whether it's even a question or not -- is beyond our knowing."

Unfortunately, this, or some hybrid of this and one of the aforementioned answers, is all too common. I think it is ultimately the worst answer of all those presented: whereas the others display faulty reasoning, this displays none. This is the "don't even try" solution.

While Baden doesn't offer an opinion on any of these choices, he concludes that

In other words, it is our changing concept of God, over two millennia, that is responsible for the moral dilemma. It’s our problem, not the Bible’s.
I think it's an interesting perspective, and I am inclined to agree in a sense. The Bible, as a piece of literature, is just a collection of stories, a chronicle of beliefs and myths mankind has held to for some time. That the brutal god it depicts comes into conflict with a god consistent with modern morality is not its problem, any more than it matters that that the morals held by the divine brutes of Greek mythology are squarely at odds with our morality. They are stories. The theology is what we build around them. It's our problem when we decide that those stories are meant to be read literally -- and that the immorality depicted therein must, somehow, be moral, because to be otherwise would be to conflict with the unmerited reverence our species has attached to a literal interpretation of those stories. When viewed as a collection of stories, the wrathful, blood-thirsty god of the Bible is just a character. Not a terribly likable one -- but are any of humanity's gods?

But if we take seriously the Bible's claim that it is truth -- which, really, is why there is even a conversation:  because enough people do that it impacts us all -- it becomes a moot point. It might not be the Bible's problem, per se, but it is Christianity's; and the two are so inseparable that it renders the distinction, while technically accurate, more or less devoid of meaning. Particularly to me, as an atheist who sees all religion as a product of humanity rather than divinity, the question is pointless. The Bible is a book, created by men. The theology attached to it is a philosophy, created by mankind. It is, all of it -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- ours. Of course, to a religiously minded individual, this might not be the case. Regardless of perspective, though, I'm not sure the distinction -- while technically true -- is necessarily useful.


Turtle Brownies

Fudgey, gooey caramel covered goodness, with made-from-a-mix simplicity

 Turtle Brownies
1 13" x 9" size brownie mix, plus ingredients to prepare it (OR 1 recipe of homemade brownie batter)
3/4 cup pecan pieces, divided
1/4 cup caramel syrup, PLUS additional syrup for top

Preheat oven and prepare brownies as directed on box. Note that I left out half the directed water, since I would be adding caramel syrup, and the texture ended up perfect. If you're using a brownie mix that results in moist brownies, consider doing the same; if your brownies are generally drier, you should be fine. Add 1/4 cup of pecan pieces to mix (if working with pecan halves, further divide this portion before adding to mix [you'll want the topping pieces to remain halves, if they are]; you can see I missed a few :) ).


 Blend. Pour into prepared pan. Drizzle one-quarter cup caramel syrup over mix. 

With a fork, swirl into brownies. 

Sprinkle remaining pecan pieces evenly over top; do not further break pecan halves. 

Bake as directed on brownie box, monitoring for doneness. Remove from oven and let cool in pan.

If you're planning to serve warm, let cool 15 minutes before drizzling caramel syrup over cooked brownies. Serve warm. Otherwise, let cool completely, then drizzle syrup over brownies.


  Turtle Brownies
1 13" x 9" size brownie mix, plus ingredients to prepare it (OR 1 recipe of homemade brownie batter)3/41 cup pecan pieces, divided
1/4 cup caramel syrup, PLUS additional syrup for top

Preheat oven and prepare brownies as directed on box. Add 1/4 cup of pecan pieces to mix (if working with pecan halves, further divide this portion before adding to mix). Blend. Pour into prepared pan. Drizzle one-quarter cup caramel syrup over mix. With a fork, swirl into brownies. Sprinkle remaining pecan pieces evenly over top (do not further break these pecan halves). Bake as directed on brownie box, monitoring for doneness. If you're planning to serve warm, let cool 15 minutes before drizzling caramel syrup over cooked brownies. Serve warm. Otherwise, let cool completely, then drizzle syrup over brownies.