Monday, August 18, 2014

Parental rights trump a child's, including his right to life...except abortion, because, hell, that shit's murder!

There's a curious strain of contradictory thought in this country, that posits that, on the one hand, a parent should have absolute control over their child (what they eat, what they wear, what they learn, what healthcare they do -- or don't -- receive [up to and including deprivation of life-saving medicine], etc.); and, on the other, that a woman should not have the right to make choices regarding her pregnancy -- and should even be held responsible for choices made during pregnancy that might inadvertently impact the fetus involved. So a Christian Scientist refusing to treat his child for a treatable ailment, resulting in a wholly preventable death, is a perfectly healthy manifestation of "freedom of religion", but a woman terminating a nine week old fetus is the epitome of evil. A parent having the power to pull the plug on a child on life support is absolutely appropriate, but a woman pulling the plug on an unwanted pregnancy is MURDER!!!!

Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that all pro-life people think that parents should have the right to dictate every detail of their child's life, up to and including things that cause intense mental trauma and even death; or that only pro-life people believe that. But the observable overlap of people who believe those two ostensibly mutually exclusive concepts is fairly substantial. It's the right-wing, as part of their anti-choice efforts, that continually promotes "parental consent" laws -- that ultimately dictate that a minor's parents can decide how she will or will not use her reproductive organs (even if it costs her her life in the process). It's the almost exclusively anti-choice right-wing that embraces concepts meant to empower parents to have absolute control over their children. This is a cornerstone of right-wing fundamentalist belief: children are to submit, absolutely, to the authority of their parents. "Rebellion is akin to witchcraft", and in some strains it must be driven out with "the rod and staff", or the belt, or whatever instrument is deemed useful.

But it is not only among fundamentalists and hardcore right-wingers that we see this mindset flourishing, that a parent's control over healthcare, even life and death decisions, is appropriate outside of the womb, but not inside. Many persons of moderate persuasion still have a marked hesitance, or outright opposition, to a woman exercising her right to choose (even if they support the legal existence of that right). Why? Why is it more objectionable for a parent to choose to pull the plug on a comatose child than to terminate a non-sentient fetus?

There is potential in both scenarios for a healthy child to emerge, and parents have the legal right to make both decisions. Depending on the scenario, there might be a higher, even considerably higher, likelihood that the fetus will eventually become a sentient human being. Is that, then, the difference? The potential, the high likelihood that the pregnancy (barring some misfortune) will result in a healthy child?

To moderate people, I believe so: the averted potential is regarded as being unfortunate, even worthy of being mourned. But I don't think that is the cause among the religious right. In fact, I believe I can demonstrate conclusively that it is not; and that it should not be to others.

It is true that the average pregnancy, uninterrupted, will lead to a healthy child. But so what? In a world in which children starve to death, are murdered, and linger waiting for adoptive parents every day, the promise of eventually delivering another unwanted child is not a great selling point. Our species is hardly in danger of extinction through lack of numbers, so a "greater good" argument falls short as well. Ultimately, if you support a parent's rights to dictate the fate of, choose the medicine for, and so heavily impact the future of an actual child, you don't have much room to complain about what happens to a pre-child. Indeed, there's a much stronger argument for limiting the rights of parents when it comes to medical care and other such life and health-impacting choices for their actual children than there is for limiting the rights of women to make decisions regarding could-be children. The state recognizes the existence and interests of sentient beings, and has a duty to protect those. It does not recognize nor have a duty toward non-sentient pre-persons. Therefore it is in the state's interests to punish parents who knowingly withhold life saving care from a child dying of a preventable condition (and look at how long that journey has been going on, necessitating multiple children dying within the same family before a court finally did something -- in the one instance), but not to concern itself with a person's decision to continue, or not, the development of a fetus. At such time as the fetus becomes a sentient, born human being, the state has a duty toward it; before, well, I've yet to see a convincing argument as to why it should -- or one that adequately (or remotely) addresses the utter trampling of the rights of sentient human beings that such a decision would necessarily entail.

To some anti-choicers, whose focus seems to extend only to foisting forced births of perfect little cherubs on unwilling mothers (and subsequently letting the little moochers and their harlot mothers starve in the hedgerows, as Conservative Jesus intended -- Amen!), the unwanted nature is irrelevant, though. While a parent should have absolute say over what happens to their child, because children are to obey their parents, a woman should have no say over whether or not she continues her pregnancy, because "the babies!!" In the pro-life world, a fertilized egg is an embryo is a fetus is a Super Person, whose rights, even to life, trump its mother's. So the potential child is more important than the actual woman, and its interests trump hers. Considering the misogynistic, fundamentalist religious roots of the movement, the continuous focus on "punishing" sexually active women, etc. this is perhaps not surprising. Disgusting, but not surprising. The pro-life movement is not a pro-woman movement, whatever duplicitous pretenses to the contrary it might muster. Where this gets really dicey, though, is that the potential child has more rights than the actual child. "Personhood" and other pro-life legislation around the nation has not only elevated the fertilized human egg to the same status as the human child, but it attempts to confer upon it special privileges. A child can be subjected to intense physical and emotional trauma by parents (and, in many red states, even teachers); a child can be denied necessary healthcare, to the child's extreme detriment (and even death); and that is right and just exercise of godly authority over offspring. But if a Super Person is harmed as a result of its mother's drug addiction -- she is to be prosecuted, harshly. A human child without brain function can be removed from life support at its parents' direction. But the non-sentient pre-child, the Super Person, must remain in utero at all costs -- even its mother's life. Again, one assumes -- the only kindly way to interpret this fetus-obsession -- that this is due to the fetus' potential life: that the extraordinary privilege granted the fetus is granted because it carries the potential for a full and God-ordained life if birthed.

This is, demonstrably, an unjustified and incorrect assumption, however. Pro-lifers do not accord unmatched rights to a fetus because it is a child or potential child, a precious egg baby being robbed of its future; and we can easily determine this, in two ways.

First, potential children-making activities, and the lives that would result, are hotly, vehemently opposed by "pro-lifers". The same anti-choicers who will complain about the potential life lost through abortion for a child who "might have cured cancer" are very often the ones who seek to ban fertility treatments (because cancer cured by a rape-conceived or unwanted child is cancer well cured; cancer cured by a child both wanted and conceived with medical assistance is Nazism). It's the same crowd that fervently worries that using the Pill will prevent the conception of the child who might grow to cure cancer that spends a great deal of time, energy and thought on convincing people that sex is evil, no good, very bad and wholly disgusting (unless engaged in by heterosexual married people: one subservient, submissive, always sexually available but chaste, modest, and demure wife, and her dominant, God-fearing, head of the household husband). Again, cancer cured by the birth control-thwarted egg-baby is to be mourned; cancer cured by the out-of-wedlock baby isn't a concern.

There's an even stronger indicator, however, that it isn't the life or potential life of the fetus, the Super Person, that worries pro-lifers. This is the legislation and rules, and the reasons proffered for these, enacted by pro-lifers. Consider, for instance, Terry England, and his infamous push to force women to carry to term dead fetuses -- because he had "had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive" and "[d]elivering pigs, dead or alive", and, dangnabbit, if it's good enough for a cow or a swine to carry dead offspring to term, it's good enough for women! Consider the Catholic hospitals that force women to carry dying fetuses, at significant determinant (up to and including death) to themselves. The potential, in these cases, is already nullified. These are dead or dying fetuses; and yet pro-lifers would force women to continue carrying these dead or dying Super Persons. To what end? A dead fetus has no potential -- other than to sicken or kill its mother. The anti-choice crowd does not -- cannot -- oppose abortion, then, because of the fetal "potential": because it is perfectly willing to force a woman to carry a fetus with no potential (even if it destroys or ends her potential-filled life), which means that potential is not a relevant factor.

The "you can't play God!" nonsense is often thrown up at this point, as if that isn't precisely what medicine does: saves, extends & improves lives when they are imperiled or harmed. This is simply a non sequitur. Dead bodies and human tissue are disposed of as quickly and in as sanitary a fashion as possible. Forcing a woman to keep a dead body or dead fetal tissue inside her is as barbaric as it is disgusting and unsafe. It is decidedly non-medically minded, and has no more to do with "playing God" than any other medical procedure with the potential to save lives. Or, for that matter, disposing of corpses that exist outside of the body.

When really pressed, the anti-choice crowd will often throw in a little something else to their arguments. Sometimes it boils down to innocence: the fetus is innocent! Or the anti-"convenience"/selfishness argument. Or punishment for the mother. Or some amalgamation of these arguments. "Well, she chose to have sex, so why should the innocent child suffer for her selfish convenience?!" 

I've addressed this before, so I'll touch on it only briefly. Child-bearing isn't "retribution" for failing some puritanical strictures about sex (and this argument is itself nullified by the large body of anti-choicers who would force rape victims [who have no say in having sex] to carry to term fetuses). Child bearing is a choice, and one that should be made with the fullest intent to do right by the child. Choosing not to a bring a child into the world when you know you are not ready, willing or able to be a good parent is not being selfish. It is the only responsible thing to do. And, indeed, none of this is relevant in regards to the actual child, so none of it is relevant to the Super Person: parents aren't compelled to keep a child on life support because, "Well, you should have thought of that before you opened your legs!" Parents are not forced by the state to provide scientifically sound medical care if they choose to pray instead or rely on homeopathy (despite the demonstrable evidence of human suffering that results from its absence -- evidence that does not exist in the case of the Super Person) because they chose to have intercourse, or even chose to make a baby. If choosing to have sex, much less actively seeking to conceive, is irrelevant to a parent's life altering and even ending parenting choices outside of the womb, it's a poor substitute for an argument when the fetus remains in the womb. It becomes an excuse in lieu of an argument, not a legitimate reason why.

And, finally, the fetus' innocence is irrelevant. A fetus is not, cannot be, substantially more or less innocent than an average two week old, two year old, six year old, or twelve year old. A parent's decision-making power is not granted or revoked based on the innocence of the person or fetus involved. A mother has as much right to decide when and if to pull the plug on a saintly six year old as a tantrum throwing terror, when to refuse significant and even life saving care for the best of five year old's as for the worst. Good behavior, bad behavior, "innocence" and guilt are immaterial. If we are a society that grants life altering, even ending, powers to parents of actual children, whose capacity for thinking, feeling and suffering is certain and undisputed (unlike the fetus, who for much of its existence is incapable of thought or feeling); and since this is largely fueled by the right wing's obsession with "God-given" parental rights over children; it is patently absurd to suggest that granting the same powers to women over non-sentient pre-children is somehow a monstrous miscarriage of justice.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When a corpse has more rights than a woman

Look around the world. Consider the status of women in "pro-life" countries, particularly as relates to the "life of the mother". In countries like Ireland or the Dominican Republic, where laws that directly or indirectly grant "personhood" to fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses necessarily put pregnant women's lives in jeopardy -- because to interfere with said fertilized egg is tantamount to murder (even if the zygote/embryo/fetus has zero chance of surviving anyway, as its continued existence will kill the pregnant woman upon whom it depends). Even in countries where the law does not utterly prohibit the medical rights of women and girls, the Church is quick to insert its vitriol -- a nine year old impregnated by a rapist step father, whose tiny body will surely be destroyed if the pregnancy is allowed to continue (as happened in Brazil -- a country that allows abortion only in instances of rape and medical emergency), must be subjected to that hideous fate. Or else those who assist her, those who save her life, will be excommunicated (notably, the church did not excommunicate the rapist, who abused and endangered the child's life -- but the victim's mother and physician, who saved the child's life, that pious institution took to task).

In our own nation, where the Supreme Court has ruled that women have the constitutional right to procure abortions, the "religious right" maintains a fierce opposition to the procedure. And from tracking women who have abortions to shuttering abortion facilities on a state by state basis to introducing personhood measures on the federal level to murdering abortion doctors, they are not-so-slowly but very-steadily-indeed encroaching on that right. The difference between us and Ireland as far as women's health is effectively non-existent to a poor woman living in the deep south, where abortion clinics are being forced closed for hundreds of miles around; and with the "personhood" push, we, as a nation, are at risk of becoming yet another "pro-life" nation that slays pregnant women on the altar of fetal rights. In Catholic hospitals around the country, a pregnant woman's life is already in very real jeopardy -- because the heart beat of a dying fetus is more important to the pro-life movement than the actual life of the pregnant woman. (Is it any wonder that our rates of pregnancy related maternal death are so high in this country, when so many of our health care institutions utterly devalue a pregnant women's existence?)

But take a minute to think about what would happen if hardcore pro-lifers (who are the ones setting the direction of the movement) actually got their way here. American women would have less rights over their bodies than corpses.

A corpse's wishes as to what happens to its body are respected. If a person wanted to take perfectly healthy organs with them to the grave, we shrug our shoulders, and say, "Well, so be it. That's his choice." And no matter how many lives those organs would have saved, we tell the dying people what amounts to, "Tough shit. We have to respect that corpse's wishes." Not only are pro-lifers not actively campaigning to save these wasted organs -- and all the people that they'd preserve -- but many pro-lifers actually actively campaign against the dead giving organs (generally with scare tactics like these). So, to the pro-lifer, the corpse's right to stuff its organs into a concrete hole to rot is either undisputed or sacred. But a living woman, deciding who will use her body? Even if she's evicting a fetus that's killing her? Even if that fetus will not survive her death? Based on how anti-choice laws are implemented all over the globe and in "pro-life" medical facilities right here in the States it's clear: the "pro-life" view is that she does not have a right to preserve her own body and/or life. Unlike every other "threatening situation" (from, "oh my god, there's a black kid carrying skittles as he walks down the sidewalk!" to "I'm having a heart attack; quick, save me!"), the religious right argues that she alone doesn't get to take the steps necessary to save her life. She doesn't get to take the step necessary to preserve her bodily integrity. She has to die, even if the fetus dies too. Because, unlike the corpse, a pregnant woman's rights cease to matter in the pro-life worldview.

In areas -- be they countries, states or medical establishments -- where "pro-life" thought reigns, women's rights effectively cease to exist. Women, indeed, have fewer rights to bodily autonomy than a corpse. Women have fewer rights to life than a non-sentient glob of human tissue, that has zero chance of survival if the woman dies. In the pro-life worldview, women matter less and are accorded fewer rights than dead and non-sentient bodies. And the irony in all this? These lunatics and hypocrites declare their lunacy and hypocrisy to be the "moral" choice, and that anything short of imposing these barbarous restrictions on women's health is extreme immorality. And millions upon millions of well-meaning but deluded people nod in agreement, without ever stopping to think about what they're doing, or to consider the practical import of their opposition to women's rights: that they support a system that reduces their mothers, sisters, wives, or -- oftentimes -- themselves to a special class of citizen with less rights than a corpse.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Atheism & Mythicism: Danger, Will Robinson

I recently caught a program on the newly launched AtheistTV that featured an interview with Richard Carrier, which got me thinking about this topic. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Carrier, he is a leading "mythicist" scholar. And if you've never heard of mythicism, that it is because it is (for now?) a largely rejected line of thought, that contests the historicity of Jesus: he was, according to the argument, merely a "myth", a fake messiah, rather than a real person. (If you're interested on a primer of arguments, here you go). You may recall that, when Dr. Bart Ehrman published his book, Did Jesus Exist, a heated and bitter feud ensued on the topic. Carrier responded. Ehrman responded. Other people got involved. Carrier recapped. Since then, Carrier has also written a book on the topic (which those who watch the Atheist Experience might have noted, he will be discussing at this year's Austin Community of Atheists' Bat Cruise).

Now, let me make some acknowledgements right out off the bat. I'm an atheist, but I'm not convinced that Jesus was just a myth (I, obviously, don't believe he was divine; but I remain unconvinced that the mere existence of the person is a myth). My mention that mythicism is largely rejected is not a value judgment or an attempt to dismiss or diminish it (I deliberately avoided the use of the word "fringe", which I see often applied to it); this is something that Carrier and other mythicists freely acknowledge (and Carrier rightly points out that other, now widely accepted, theories were once 'fringe' ideas as well). I am not and do not claim to be an expert on the topic...but, going on what I've read from both sides, and based on what seems to be a growing embrace of mythicism -- and, in some cases at least, for reasons that are not necessarily sound ones -- in the atheist community (however small the overall number actually is), here are some thoughts on the topic.

1. Mythicism might indeed be completely accurate. We should not, however, embrace it for any but the soundest reasons. (And I am not convinced that we actually have those reasons, yet at any rate).
It is, of course, completely possible that Jesus was merely an invention. But the only sound reason to accept such a claim is the presence of very good evidence (I'll talk a bit more about that in a minute). There are a lot of very bad reasons to accept it, however.

Foremost among these, I think, is the appeal. In general, by virtue of having a firm opinion on the god question, you necessarily must assume that those who do not share your opinion are wrong -- you would not follow Christ if you believed in Allah, you would not follow Allah if you did not believe he existed, etc. Atheists believe that there are no gods. In America, particularly, where the Christian religion is predominant, a "magic bullet" that could show the vast majority of the populace the truth would be delightful.

And in so saying, I'm sure there will be religious people who feel this is an attack, but please believe that it is not intended as such. Imagine, for a moment, if you had a way to prove the veracity of your beliefs, to demonstrate to every atheist and non-believer that what you believe to be the truth is...would it not be a great thing, particularly if you care for your fellow man and care that he has the truest and best understanding of the world about him? I merely phrase it from the atheist perspective: that, as far as we can tell, the truth lies not in a god or multiple gods, but in no god. Whatever your opinion on the god question, I don't think it unreasonable to propose that solid proof, in one direction or the other, would be a great thing: the Truth, whatever it is, would settle the question that has set us at each other's throats from time immemorial, and we would, all of us, then be free to shape our lives in light of that revelation. That seems, to me, while highly unlikely, about as nice a thing as you can dream of.

At any rate, the appeal of such a discovery is undeniable. Like finding conclusive proof that Jesus not only existed but rose from the dead would be a monumental upholding of Christianity, so too would finding that there was no such person as Jesus be a tremendous boost to atheism (at least, in predominantly Christian nations, where most people already reject contender faiths in favor of the dominant one). But -- and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough -- the timeliness or usefulness of a claim is not reason to believe it. This holds true for anything, of course. Wanting something to be true does not make it true. Unfortunately, I've seen some very smart atheists jump on the mythicist bandwagon with seemingly no evidence, but a great deal of wishful thinking, to support the move. (It is only right to note that the aforementioned Dr. Carrier has also spent a considerable amount of energy admonishing other mythicists for misleading or flat out false work in promoting the theory. See here, for example). I'm not saying that the evidence can't convince (I am not convinced, but I fully admit that the failure might be in my reception of the evidence and not the evidence itself), but merely that, if it is to be accepted, it should be done on the basis of the evidence. Only.

2. A lack of evidence, forgeries in existing evidence, etc., is not in and of itself actually proof that someone did not exist. 
There are good points to be made about this, and Dr. Carrier in particular does a good job of doing this. This goes to you can't prove he did exist. That is not the same thing as I can prove he didn't exist, and they should not be confused. Even if every mention of Jesus in historical records was inserted after the fact; if there was no such town as Nazareth; if most of what we hear about Jesus is made up and utterly at odds with the historical person; this does not prove that there never was a Jesus.

By way of example...ancient Egyptian "propaganda" monuments and tablets were often erected to praise kings and important nobles. The deeds described thereon were wildly inaccurate; accuracy was not the goal, but rather puffing up the good name of the person before the gods (and man, no doubt). A historian may well conclude that much if not most of what these flattering portrayals allege are lies. Without additional, strong evidence, however, it would be an unjustified leap to assert that the person in question never actually existed just because they didn't actually win tremendous victories and bring peace to Egypt.

I have mentioned Dr. Carrier several times so far, as he strikes me as the most scholarly and "mainstream" mythicist, so it is incumbent on me to note at this juncture that Dr. Carrier has actually said exactly this in the past: "The only effective way to argue for non-historicity is to present evidence for non-historicity (and not just demonstrate the lack of evidence for historicity)." Far too many mythicists, however, fall into the trap of "lack of evidence for existence is evidence of lacking existence".

Now, I wholly anticipate someone objecting: "but you dismiss religion for lack of evidence of its claims. Why not the existence of Jesus?" In answer, I must invoke Hitchen's Razor: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claims of religion are extraordinary, and the evidence (as I see it) is simply not there. It is quite another thing, however, to claim, "there lived, some two thousand years ago, in the area of Roman Palestine a Jew, who probably was a religious figure of some sort, who may or may not have been a carpenter, and who may or may not have been killed for his teachings." That is to say, a person of whom we know almost nothing probably lived two thousand years ago. That is a statement so benign as to be almost uninteresting. It is worlds removed from supernatural beings with world-creating powers, sinister nemesis gods with torture chambers, etc. The one is so unexceptional that, were it not for the significance we have added to the fact (which we're only tangentially debating, in discussing the historicity of Jesus), it would not even need to be observed; the other so astonishing as to require a great deal of proving to be accepted.

3. Actually proving that an ancient person of little import (at the time) did not exist is even harder than proving that they did exist. One may say, virtually impossible.
Jesus would have been a teacher with a modest following at the time of his death. He would not have been the only one. He would have been one of many seemingly unimportant -- to non-believing contemporaries -- people. We can not prove that all the others existed based on contemporary records, so I, at least, am not overly surprised that the evidence for Jesus' existence is limited. Since the bare (not supernatural) facts of his existence are quite ordinary, it doesn't seem particularly questionable.

But what's even harder than proving that a relative nobody (at least in the eyes of his non-believing contemporaries) in ancient times existed? Proving that he didn't. If someone alleged that Jesus was born and alive today, in our modern era, with databases, modern record keeping, online records, etc., we might be able to prove that the allegation was either true or false. I say, might, because maybe Jesus' parents live in the mountains, and don't believe in social security numbers and hospital births; maybe Jesus isn't in the country legally, and so has to keep under the radar; maybe Jesus lives under a different name; "maybe" any of a plethora of scenarios that would inhibit definite knowledge, one way or the other, of the existence or nonexistence of Jesus. In this day and age, with all the means available to us to figure such things out. Resources that are certainly not available to us in regards to Roman Palestine.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the point is by way of a thought experiment. Pick an era in ancient times. Invent a character name consistent with the era. Now, would I be able to prove that he or she didn't exist? Even if I resorted to, "But I just told you to invent one, so this must be fake!"  ... what's to stop you from coming back with, "I ignored that: this one's real!" How am I to prove that it isn't? It's practically a non-falsifiable claim.

In Jesus' case, for mythicists this often comes down to parallels with other belief systems, to cultural factors that seem to be at odds with the alleged facts of Jesus' existence, etc. These may (or may not) be sufficient reasons to cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus, but it is worth noting that even strong doubt isn't absolute proof. Reasonable doubt may be enough to keep someone out of prison, but it is not a guarantee that they did not commit the crime.

It is further worth noting that belief has the capacity to overcome even very reasonable doubt. Theologians are adept at crafting clever, sometimes downright brilliant, responses to practical objections to their faiths, because they ardently believe them to be true. They operate under the assumption that the religion is true, therefore discrepancies must have an explanation compatible with belief. Thus, to convince a firm believer that Jesus is merely a myth would take a great deal of evidence, far beyond doubt. While a minor point from the perspective of history, the existence of Jesus is a crucial point in, the cornerstone of, Christianity; to illustrate its falsity to believers would take a substantial body of irrefutable evidence.

4. Whether Jesus actually existed or not is no more relevant than whether Buddha, Mohammed, or Joseph Smith lived.
I have several times now alluded to the fact that there is nothing -- when the supernatural elements are removed -- from the idea of Jesus' existence as to raise too many red flags in regards to historicity. Someone, of whom we know very little, inspired followers to commemorate and worship him. This has happened hundreds, probably thousands or tens of thousand of times throughout human history; quite possibly more.

It is no more evidence of the truth of Christianity that Jesus existed than it is evidence of the truth of Islam that Muhammad existed, or the truth of Mormonism that Joseph Smith existed. The average Christian does not reject Islam because he believes Muhammad was not a real person. The average Muslim does not follow Islam because he's positive that Joseph Smith never lived. A religious leader's existence is not evidence that their claims (or those attributed to them) are correct.

Sure, if you could definitively prove that religious figures never existed, you would sway most believers (there will always be a contingent who ignored the facts [see: creationists], but most people are rational and will adjust their opinions when confronted with solid facts). But, even if you are persuaded, it is true that definitive proof is lacking (Dr. Carrier, in the interview I mentioned, put the possibility for Jesus' existence at 1 in 12,000 based on his reading of the evidence, but admitted that by more conservative estimates it could be 1 in 3). Based on the nature of the topic, it's further very possible that definitive proof might never be forthcoming -- at least, not in the direction mythicists argue. (If Jesus was real, we may yet find evidence of that existence; if Jesus was not real, what convincing evidence could we find of his nonexistence?) All of which brings me to my final point...

5. Tacking mythicism on to atheism is a potentially unwise thing to do.
I understand the appeal of mythicism. It is the magic bullet, at least if you live in a predominantly Christian nation. It's as close to proof of God's non-existence as you can come to get. As such, it requires a great deal of proof.

In my mind, mythicism seems like a step too far based on the evidence we have -- the burden of proof is on the person making a claim, not the person who remains unconvinced by the claim. It seems that a person who insists that Jesus was real has to prove that to convince us; a person claiming that Jesus had supernatural abilities has to prove that to convince us. On the other hand, a person claiming that Jesus did not exist has to prove that as well. Not just to people who don't really care if he did or not, because they reject the larger claims surrounding him, but to people who believe that he was real.

It's all well and good to admit the possibility, to make the argument that the only evidence we have for Jesus' existence is flawed, suspect, even wholly unreliable. It's fine for scholars to make the case that the data, in fact, points in the opposite direction, that church leaders invented a perfect messiah (provided the evidence actually indicates that). The more accurate knowledge we have, the better; the more honest examination of facts, the better.

But I can't say I'm thrilled to see atheists embracing this as an "atheist" idea. Atheism isn't concerned with the historicity of Jesus. It's concerned with the divinity of Jesus (and Allah, and G-d, and all the other gods out there). If tomorrow evidence of Jesus' existence is found, if the city of Nazareth is unearthed, or Ted Cruz gets a copy of Jesus' birth certificate -- atheism doesn't change. I'm not saying atheists shouldn't explore the matter, shouldn't encourage research into the topic. But I do think there is a risk to atheism seeming to promote or endorse the idea as a tenet of atheism. There is one ultimate question on which atheism hinges: if a god or gods exist(s), we are wrong. If no god(s) exist, we are right. Jesus' existence is only relevant in that respect: is he a god or demigod, or not? To get hung up on historicity -- which has the potential to persuade no one to a new opinion, neither atheist nor theist -- is to potentially be wrong, on a point that can only be proven, if it ever can be proven, against us (that is, evidence of existence can be discovered, if it exists, but, short of a confession from the church founders, solid evidence of nonexistence is going to be impossible to locate). And, more importantly, on a point that is merely tangential to atheism.

If there is truth to mythicism, scholars will (if it's possible) unlock it in time. In the meanwhile, atheism's position is no stronger for sticking its neck out for a position that might well just be hokum.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Lemon-Blueberry Crumble Bread

Tangy lemon and juicy blueberries combine in a moist bread, under a delicious crumble topping, for a particularly delightful treat

Lemon-Blueberry Crumble Bread

1 1/2 cup blueberries (fresh)
2 1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons  milk
6 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
Juice and zest from one lemon (2-3 tablespoons juice, 2 teaspoons zest)

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 350. Using cooking spray, grease 9 x 5 loaf pan. In large bowl, combine eggs, vanilla, butter and milk.

Mix thoroughly.

If you're working with a fresh lemon, it is easier to collect the zest and then juice the lemon. Add lemon zest.

Add lemon juice.

Mix. If you're working with refrigerated lemon juice and dried zest, obviously, order does not matter. :) Add dry ingredients.

Blend thoroughly. Mash 1/4 cup blueberries, add with remaining, intact blueberries to mix.

Combine gently. Pour into prepared pan.

In a small bowl, combine brown sugar and butter.

Mix until smooth.

Sprinkle evenly over batter. It will be clumpy, but divide the clumps as much as possible. You want fairly even coverage, with no giant blobs of topping.

Bake bread for one hour, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Topping will be golden brown, and possibly deeper brown around the edges, but the color of the sides and bottom of the loaf should not be deeper than a golden brown.

Leave in pan for 15 minutes, remove to wire rack to finish cooling. Cool completely before serving. Enjoy!

Lemon-Blueberry Crumble Bread

1 1/2 cup blueberries (fresh)
2 1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons  milk
6 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
Juice and zest from one lemon (2-3 tablespoons juice, 2 teaspoons zest)

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 350. Using cooking spray, grease 9 x 5 loaf pan.
Combine eggs, vanilla, butter and milk. Add lemon juice and zest, mix well. Add dry ingredients, blending thoroughly. Mash 1/4 cup blueberries, add with remaining, intact blueberries to mix. Combine gently. Pour into prepared pan.
In a small bowl, combine brown sugar and butter until smooth. Sprinkle evenly over batter. Bake bread for one hour, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Leave in pan for 15 minutes, remove to wire rack to finish cooling. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Perfect cheesy ranch burger

So I find that my burgers often tend to be a little on the dry side. I've tried fattier hamburger, but I wasn't crazy about the result. I played with cooking temperatures and times, and, again, didn't achieve the right level of moisture that I was looking for. And then...then I hit upon a simple and yet perfect ingredient: cream cheese. The flavor is mild enough that seasoning hides it, and it not only adds moisture but the creamy texture helps hold the burger together. And, best of all, you don't need that much of it to make a difference. So, without further ado, I present:

Cheesy Ranch Burgers

You will need
1.5 lbs lean hamburger
1 packet (3 tablespoons) Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix
1 tablespoon minced onion
6 1-oz slices of cheddar, white cheddar, or jack cheese1.5 tablespoons cream cheese
Sprinkle of black pepper

In a large bowl, add ranch mix onion and black pepper.

Cut cheese into small cubes, keeping them around 1/8" x 1/8" x 1/8".

Add to bowl. Add hamburger and cream cheese.

Mix thoroughly. Cream cheese will create a paste-like texture.

Press into 6 1/4 lb burgers (more, if smaller burger desired).

Grill over low temperature until cooked (varies depending on grill). Serve with lettuce, tomatoes, onion and/or your favorite condiments.

Cheesy Ranch Burgers

1.5 lbs lean hamburger
1 packet (3 tablespoons) Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix
1 tablespoon minced onion
6 1-oz slices of cheddar, white cheddar, or jack cheese
1.5 tablespoons cream cheese
Sprinkle of black pepper

Cut cheese into tiny cubes. Combine all ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Press into 6 1/4 lb burgers (more, if smaller burger desired). Grill over low temperature until cooked. Serve with tomatoes, onion and your favorite condiments.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Wall of Separation between Church and State isn't an atheistic or liberal conspiracy...

The following is a collaborative guest post, with my sister, Sarah. In its original form, it was her response to a FB discussion about religion in politics. Sarah was specifically answering an individual who cited as fact a highly misleading opinion piece that attempted to peddle the revisionist narrative that the wall of separation between church and state was merely to insulate Christians against pesky interference by those distasteful "others": a shield against the state interfering with religion, and a weapon to Christianize the heathen through politic machinery. Seeing what a very good response it was, I asked her if we could rework it for a blog post. What follows is the result of that work. 

There is a revisionist strain of teaching in modern day American fundamentalism, furthered by frauds like David Barton, that the Wall of Separation is largely a myth. It was not, as the fiction goes, religion that the founders wanted equally protected -- and separate from government -- but Christianity and its various sects; and, rather than "separate", they were to merely live in harmony. The founders were all Christian, and, seeing the conflict between denominations, wanted to create a paradise for and by, and exclusive to, Christians. This paradise would not promote one denomination above the other, but it would be a Christian land, a theocratic paradise that would certainly impose religion on its citizens. But rather than promoting Presbyterianism in one area, say, and Methodism in another, and Catholicism in yet another, it would promote a generic (but always, in practice, far right) Christianity. Alas for the fundamentalists, this is a poorly constructed lie that any honest examination of history will easily demolish: the wall of separation of church and state was clearly and fully intended to keep all religions, including Christianity, out of government, and to protect all faiths, not merely Christianity's many incarnations, equally.

It must be stated from the outset, for it is often presented as a contradictory concept, that we do not suggest that the founders were irreligious or that they refrained from practicing their faiths. They were a largely religious body (although there were a fair share of deists and doubters in their ranks as well), and wise religious men at that – wise enough to understand the difficulty inherent in promotion of one faith over others.

Having seen both locally and overseas, in their present day as well as throughout history, the impact of theocratic tyranny, the founding fathers went to great lengths to protect against such a state of affairs manifesting in their country. Jefferson, drafter of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, had witnessed in Virginia, and long railed against, the practice of promoting one sect of one religion over all others. His efforts in promoting religious freedom in that state were not merely to protect individual sects, however, but everyone, regardless of their religious belief (or lack thereof). This is made clear in, among other places, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Jefferson's vision of religious liberty extended not merely to the man whose belief in Jesus was somewhat different than his neighbor's, but to the man who had no belief in Jesus at all. The principle was the same, regardless of what deities (or none at all) were involved. And rather than being troubled that freedom of religion might allow too much dissent, Jefferson believed this freedom would separate real truths from pretenders, that free inquiry would bolster truth, rather than harm it. 
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation.
This is, then, the mindset of the man who wrote the powerful lines:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
The use of language is important. Jefferson didn’t just say “God”, or “our God”, as he might of if he meant to narrow the field merely to believers in his deity of choice, or if he merely took it for granted (as revisionists pretend) that freedom of religion was only a Christian right. He specifically states that it is a matter between a person and “his” -- the individual’s -- god, and not any other. It is absolutely not a matter for the government, as it is an opinion and not an action. And then, most powerfully, he defines a barrier between Church and State. Not a protective wall to shelter one religion from state. A wall. And not a wall around one, a defensive line, but a wall between, a divider. In context of Jefferson’s words and writings, this is very clear: Jefferson did not intend that to be a wall that sheltered Christianity and allowed Christians to inject religion into politics, but a dividing wall, a separating wall.

"But, the early government employed chaplains!" the revisionist will declare. "They prayed. So, checkmate!" As with most of these claims, the revisionist draws wholly unwarranted and unsupported meaning from simple fact (when there is any fact involved at all). Meaning, more often than not, that they wind up with an interpretation that is entirely at odds with reality. From the first, there was concern among the founders as to what sort of interpretation might be taken from the fact that they prayed to their own god (concern well founded, as is evidenced by the fact that this discussion is even now ongoing). Madison, for instance, detested the notion of legislative chaplains. He declared that “[t]he establishment of the chaplainship to Cong[res]s is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles” because 
The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.
Madison also felt that military chaplains were unconstitutional. (Imagine the reaction from theocratically minded Christians of our current day if a contemporary politician were to advocate such a course of action -- and bear in mind, as you contemplate such a thing, the hysteria that ensued from, for example, the Air Force's decision to stop forcing cadets to pledge to a god they might not believe in, when they rendered the phrase "so help me God" optional).

But Jefferson took matters even further, beyond objecting to the governmental employment of persons in a strictly religious function, to refusing to even hold religious thanksgivings and fasts for fear that they would be perceived as having “some authority”. Adams regretted having recommended a national fast, saying that he feared it foreshadowed “seeds of an ecclesiastical history of US for a century to come”. He also noted at the time that the public spirit was so set against Presbyterians that the people would have preferred “philosphers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” Madison rejected public funds for religious charities multiple times, believing that a precedent “for giving to religious Societies” should not be set. Other founders did the same.

Furthermore, like Jefferson and the 20-god-worshipping polytheist, or atheist, whose rights to free belief he supported, George Washington declared to Jewish Americans (in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue) that the US “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”, and that “[i]t is no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the free exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Not that the nation "requires only that you acknowledge the Father and Son of my religion, or at least bow to their dictates". Not that they should delight that "the benevolence of the Christian majority, and its government by and for Christians, leaves the worshipers of Touro Synagogue unmolested." No indeed: the congregation of Touro, and all people, enjoyed free exercise of natural rights that no one could infringe upon; and all that was required, rather than bowing to the "right" deity or submitting to the majority faith, was that Americans conduct themselves as good citizens.

In a letter to New Church in Baltimore, Washington expounded on this notion: “In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” He further felt no qualms in recognizing the religious beliefs of others, as in his 1796 address to the Cherokee Nation: “I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great Spirit to preserve them.”

In short, our founding fathers and early presidents not only embraced a wall of separation between religion (including Christianity) and state, but envisioned a far more solid thing than the patched and leaking barrier that today remains. Contrary to revisionist claims that this wall is a new and radical invention, it is in fact as old as our country, and a far more (dare I say, too?) lenient wall than that which was originally established. The founding fathers had studied history's religious tyrants, and dealt with plenty from their own day; they saw what modern day would-be theocrats are either too blind to see or too foolish to understand: that the wall of separation is the only effectual assurance of true religious freedom, and as important for the majority as the minority.