The Biblical Cruelty of Child Beating

In 1877, the great freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll wrote these words about the then-common practice of corporal punishment:

I tell you the children have the same rights that we have, and we ought to treat them as though they were human beings. They should be reared with love, with kindness, with tenderness, and not with brutality. That is my idea of children.

...I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind.

Even back then, Ingersoll recognized the barbarity of punishing children with beatings and pain. Even then, he was a much greater man, a more loving man, a more compassionate man than the evil, sadistic fundamentalists who still exist today - the ones who believe that whipping a child is an appropriate response to disobedience, that parental decrees should be enforced with fear and pain. Two such people have just been sentenced in California after pleading guilty to beating their 7-year-old adopted daughter to death.

Lydia Schatz's parents were followers of Debi and Michael Pearl, whom I've written about before - the Christian couple who believe that an abused wife's only recourse is to pray to God to strike her husband dead. The Pearls also teach that beating a child is the proper way to make them obedient, and they specifically recommend implements to use for the purpose, such as belts, wooden spoons or quarter-inch plumbing supply tube.

The CNN interview shows the disturbingly large influence the Pearls have in the Christian community - their warehouse full of books, covers boasting "660,000 Sold". Predictably, they deny all responsibility for Lydia Schatz's death, though the interviewer probes no further than that. He also doesn't mention that, in one respect at least, the Pearls are correct: the Bible does teach parents to beat their children. In fact, the Bible treats child-beating not just as one method of discipline among others, but says clearly that it is essential:

"He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

—Proverbs 13:24

"Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying."

—Proverbs 19:18

"The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly."

—Proverbs 20:30

"Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."

—Proverbs 23:13-14

So, yes, the Christians who advocate whipping children are following the Bible. That's how we know the Bible is a wicked book, one that teaches a flawed and savage morality far inferior to the compassionate humanism of Robert Ingersoll. Punishing children with beatings doesn't make them moral; it makes them cruel, by teaching them that inflicting pain is a legitimate way of solving a problem. As studies have found, corporal punishment correlates with aggression, antisocial behavior, mental illness, and abuse of one's own family later in life.

The harm done by religion to helpless, vulnerable children is enormous: whether it's religious sects which shun medicine and let their children suffer and slowly die from treatable illnesses, or religious sects which advocate mutilating a child's genitals, or religious sects which actively teach the goodness of beating and torture, or religious sects which simply teach children to be terrified of being attacked by demons or of burning forever in a fiery hell. Lydia Schatz is dead because of cruel and evil teachings like these, and she probably won't be the last. (Did her parents call themselves "pro-life", do you think?) Robert Ingersoll had advice that seems like it was written just for the Schatzes, advice that I hope they'll follow some day, hopefully many years in the future, after they're released from prison:

If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!

August 24, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink35 comments
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Be Careful What You Wish For (Why I Hate Hate Crimes Legislation, But I Love Hate Speech)

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 - 02/02/10)

I saw a woman in niqab on the UC Berkeley campus the other week. I was shocked. I didn't approach her. I didn't speak to her. She was with two other women in hijab, on the opposite side of a wide walkway.

But, I was shocked. And, appalled. Here was a woman (or, at least, I assume she was a woman), in the heart of what is arguably the most politically liberal university campus and city in the US, a fount for civil rights and 60's hippie culture, engaging in a brazen act of gender segregation and slavery in the egalitarian public space of a secular, liberal, constitutional, democratic republic. I think it is a great shame for a woman living in a secular democracy to perpetuate a barbaric, patriarchal religio-cultural tradition when women are fighting and dying across the globe to be free from gender segregation and slavery.

My views on public anti-mask laws (burqa bans, colloquially) as both public safety and gender desegregation measures are well known. We can no more tolerate gender segregation in the public space than we can tolerate racial segregation in the public space, above and beyond the simple fact that we can neither protect nor prosecute those whom we cannot identify, creating an untenable public safety and security hazard.

I expressed my great upset at witnessing this barbarism on the UC Berkeley campus on the English-language facebook page, which I maintain for Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) is the amazing women's rights organization, with global headquarters in Paris, France, which grew out of the outrage over the egregious gender violence being perpetrated upon the Muslim immigrant women and girls of the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding the major cities of France. I maintain this page to spread the Ni Putes Ni Soumises message of Secularism, Gender Equality, and Gender Desegregation throughout the English-speaking world.

There are a handful of misogynistic Islamists who occasionally try their hand at debating me on such subjects as US constitutional law and abortion rights on my NPNS facebook page. There's little I enjoy more than publicly humiliating them online. In truth, I owe them no small amount of gratitude. Every time they bait me, and I engage them, my readership jumps precipitously. And, I relish the opportunity to vent a little of my barely contained rage.

So, of course, my misogynistic Islamist readers couldn't pass up a choice opportunity to point out my obvious anti-immigrant racism and bigotry. (I'll admit to being purposely and purposefully provocative in describing the event as an abomination.) But, after comparing the burqa/niqab to the offense of having to watch a woman walk across campus in a mini-skirt, my Islamist interlocutors took a more interesting tack.

They accused me of having perpetrated a hate crime against Muslims and threatened me with hate crimes prosecution, under the guise of being terribly concerned that I not place myself in legal hot water, of course. It was a public service on their part, really. Of course, I pointed out that, not only did I reject their presumption of the role of spokespersons for the Muslim community as a whole, but that gender-based hate crimes are also included in the federal hate crimes act, not to mention the fact that I refuse to be deterred from exercising my constitutional right to free speech.

But, here's the thing. They're right. I have reason to be worried. And, they don't. Because it's always ok to hate women in America. This is why they felt no qualms about hatefully haranguing women with impunity and turning around and intimating that I was opening myself up to hate crimes prosecution by attacking the niqab. (In fact I said nothing hateful whatsoever about Muslims, or even Islam. Ni Putes Ni Soumises is not anti-religion or anti-Islam, just anti-religionism and anti-Islamism. Most of the women advocating on behalf of secularism for NPNS are Muslim immigrants themselves.)

But, they understand that religious groups enjoy a privileged position, which is denied to women. They understand that the likelihood that they should ever be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime is all but non-existent, while the possibility that I could ever be prosecuted for a religion-based hate crime is quite real. They understand that even if they should decide to go on a raping rampage against women, that their misogynistic diatribes will never be unearthed, nor will any serious attempt ever be made to unearth them, in all probability. Because no one cares if you hate women in America.

For the rest of my life, if I should ever get into any kind of a dispute or altercation with anyone who claims to be Muslim, I could conceivably be prosecuted for a hate crime. My vehement anti-religion, and especially anti-Islam, ramblings on facebook, my personal blog, the Freedom From Religion Foundation's website, and Daylight Atheism could be used against me in a court of law.

What my misogynistic Islamist pals don't know, and how could they, since I was representing not myself, but Ni Putes Ni Soumises during our little exchange, is that literally nothing can deter me from exercising my right to free speech to advocate on behalf of women's rights as universal human rights without compromise. I am a loner. I will never marry nor have children, which is a tactical choice. I am responsible for no one. I have no possessions. I have no money. I have no family. I have no community. I have no allegiances to any person or group or organization or corporation. I am as free as can be. I have my freedom, which is the only thing I value. I am beholden to no one and nothing, save my dead brother's memory and my own conscience. Jacob's suicide freed, enraged, and empowered me. I also know a thing or two about the law. In other words, you can't scare me. What are you going to do? Kill me? Put me in prison? We're all going to die someday. I choose to take advantage of every possible moment, while I'm still here, to leave a glorious legacy for my beloved sibling and myself. And, I choose to use my freedom and my knowledge to fight for secularism, gender equality, and gender desegregation.

Since I hate to mince words, let me just say: Hate crimes legislation is stupid. Seriously stupid. Abominably stupid. I hate hate crimes legislation. But, I love hate speech. Hate crimes legislation has a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association. This is why hate crimes legislation is in direct contravention of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Under hate crimes legislation, anyone who has ever said anything, which might be deemed hateful, directed at one of the groups protected under the legislation, opens themselves up to hate crimes prosecution in perpetuity, if they should ever find themselves in a dispute or altercation with someone who claims membership in any of those aforementioned protected groups. I want the haters out in the open, in the disinfecting sunlight of free and open discourse in the public marketplace of ideas. When people feel like their voices aren't being heard, that's usually when violence erupts. Thus, the paradox of hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation couches the criminal penalty for hate speech within a crime of violence. But, in my opinion, nothing moves one to violence so much as being denied the right to speak one's mind.

Hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation. Hate crimes legislation criminalizes the motive behind a crime. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing the why. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing thoughts. A hate crime is an additional penalty, above and beyond the penalty imposed for whatever crime of violence. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her motive. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her thoughts, for his/her reason for having acted violently. This is thought crime. Pure and simple.

But, since we don't live inside a Philip K. Dick story, we can't read people's minds, which is why we can only know someone's thoughts by their speech, or, in some cases, their actions. Which brings us back to my point about the chilling effect that hate crimes legislation has upon free speech. If my speech opens me up to legal liability in perpetuity, then I'm not going to speak. (Well, I am, but my imperviousness is rather anomalous, I would think.)

There are two most commonly cited justifications for implementing hate crimes legislation, and both are egregious errors. First, proponents of hate crimes legislation argue that we already penalize perpetrators of crimes for their thoughts, because mens rea (mental intent) is always an element of any crime. Second, proponents argue that, even if hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation, this is ok, because it is thought crime legislation, which is only ever prosecuted after the point at which the perpetrator has acted violently against someone.

Mens rea (mental intent) and motive are NOT the same thing. Mental intent is always a required element of whichever crime. We don't punish people for perpetrating crimes, which they do not intend to perpetrate unless they should have been aware that they were perpetrating crimes. We don't charge people who have seizures behind the wheel, precipitating fatal car accidents, with murder. But, if they were aware of a dangerous medical condition and failed to take reasonable precautions, then that degree of negligence or recklessness could rise to the level of criminality.

The Model Penal Code defines mens rea as having done something purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or in a grossly negligent fashion. What should already be obvious to even the legal layperson is that none of these criteria for satisfying the mental intent element of a crime addresses the issue of motive. Motive is a wholly separable and severable issue. Motive is equivalent to the reason behind having perpetrated a crime. Motive asks the question, "Why did the accused perpetrate this crime?" Motive does not ask whether or not the accused intended to perpetrate the crime. If I am behaving in a criminally negligent fashion, I still have a motive, presumably, for my behavior. Perhaps I am aware of a dangerous medical condition of mine, which induces seizures. Perhaps I fail to take reasonable precautions. Perhaps, I get behind the wheel, because I am feeling incredibly ill, and I intend to drive myself to the hospital emergency room. I have a seizure and get into a fatal car accident. What was my motive? My motive was to drive myself to the hospital emergency room for medical care. What was my mental intent? Did I intend to have a seizure and get into a car accident, resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders? Should I have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? Was my degree of negligence gross? Does my motive tell you anything about whether I should have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? What if my motive was to drive myself to the movies?

Motive is never an element of any given crime, EXCEPT in the case of hate crimes legislation. Motive can be admitted as evidence of mental intent, but it is not an element of the crime. If I chose to drive myself to the movies, and I bought a ticket online immediately before getting behind the wheel, this can be admitted as evidence that I behaved in a grossly negligent fashion. But, I am not being penalized for wanting to go to the movies; I am being penalized for failing, in a gross manner, to act as a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances. Likewise, without inventing an even more extravagant scenario, perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, in the case of my having chosen to drive myself to the hospital, which led me to believe that I had no other options than to do so.

Conflating motive and mens rea is a serious error, which places our entire American legal system in jeopardy. Allow me to explain why. I'll continue with the preceding example, because I find that examples serve best in explaining difficult legal concepts. And, these concepts are difficult for everyone, lawyers included. Let's say that our legislators, responding to a popular mandate, decide to promulgate stupid crimes legislation, wherein those who perpetrate crimes of criminal negligence for particularly stupid motives, like, say, going to the movies, face additional penalties, and that this legislation is a response to moral majority outrage over the loss of life and the infliction of serious bodily harm while engaging in frivolous activities for frivolous purposes. The public is incensed by the flagrant disregard for public safety and welfare.

Stupid crimes legislation entails the imposition of vastly harsher penalties for particularly stupid motives. But, it only imposes those penalties upon those who actually end up negligently killing someone or inflicting serious bodily harm. The legislation is justified as a response to the increased and senseless harms inflicted upon the general public for especially stupid reasons. If you accidentally kill someone in the course of attempting to save someone's life, you're ok. You might still be punished for your criminal negligence, but you won't face additional penalties. But, if you accidentally kill someone in the course of going to the movies, you receive additional penalties, if convicted. The laws penalize only those motives, which are considered frivolous or stupid. Entertainment activities are generally considered frivolous or stupid.

Makes no sense, does it? It's going to make you think twice about going to see that brand new movie release or concert, won't it? Either way, you didn't intend to either purposely or knowingly kill someone. Your intent is no different. You weren't aware that you would kill someone, but you should have been aware that you could kill someone, and that negligence on your part was gross. But, now, you're going to receive additional penalties on the basis of the stupidity of your motive during the course of perpetrating a crime of gross negligence. Because the jury will be morally outraged that you ended someone's life while doing something as frivolous as going to the movie theater. You're not actually being criminalized for going to the movies, but for wanting to go the movies.

Does it make a difference that you won't actually risk these penalties until you've killed someone? None whatsoever. You're still being penalized for the additional crime of wanting to go to the movies, of thinking that you want to go to the movies. Which evokes a myriad equal protection concerns. Someone who wants to go to the movies is being punished differently than someone who wants to save someone's life. For the same crime. The only difference is motive.

Additionally, hate crimes legislation violates the constitutional rights of the accused. You can almost always bring in evidence of a defendant's motive to prove mental intent. However, Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence still applies. Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence says that if the prejudicial nature of the evidence outweighs its probative value, meaning that if the evidence is going to so inflame a jury so as to call into question the defendant's right to a fair trial, then the evidence is out, no matter how on point and illuminating it is. But, hate crimes legislation throws the Federal Rules of Evidence out the window, as well as their goal of protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Hate crimes legislation specifically says that if evidence of motive is so inflammatory that it calls into question the constitutional right of the accused to a fair trial, because it will provoke moral outrage in the jury, then it's admissible. And, not only is it admissible, but it is an element of the crime, and the accused faces harsher penalties, because of the inflammatory and morally outrageous nature of the evidence. It is no longer about merely proving mental intent. It is about purposely and purposefully enraging the jury. It is about criminalizing morally outrageous thoughts/speech. It is about penalizing the perpetrator for his/her morally outrageous thoughts. Hate crimes legislation tells the jury, "If you are morally outraged, then not only consider this evidence, but convict and punish on the basis of your moral outrage." If we uphold the Federal Rules of Evidence, then the Federal Rules of Evidence, which prohibits egregiously inflammatory motive evidence, will negate the existent of hate crimes legislation.

Regarding the second justification for hate crimes legislation, let's return to the Philip K. Dick story, in which we seemingly live. Hate crimes legislation is essentially future crimes legislation. If you speak hateful speech, then you will be penalized both now and in perpetuity, by the imposition of a legal liability, for some future violent crime, which you may commit. You will forever be in a position of legal vulnerability, especially with respect to anyone who claims membership in any group protected by hate crimes legislation. You are no longer fully and equally protected by the law. You are no longer a full citizen of the US.

Finally, hate crimes legislation is the granting of rights and legal personality to social groups, placing individual human rights, especially women's and children's rights in jeopardy. Proponents of hate crimes legislation also put forth the argument that hate crimes don't just affect the individual who has been transgressed, but that these crimes are harms against communities of persons, social groups. But, I'm afraid that someone is going to have to define these protected groups with some degree of certitude, including their boundaries, their membership, their protocols for inclusion/exclusion and acceptance/rejection (coming, staying, and going), their rules, their leadership, etc., etc..

Human beings are real. Social groups aren't. Not nations, not religions, not ethnicities, not cultures, and not races. Group identity is inherently arbitrary and illusory and fluid. There is no objective definition of a social group. The experience of being a self-identified member of a social group is a wholly personal and subjective experience, which only exists in the mind of one or another group member. It matters not that human beings are social creatures that evolved to live in social groups and make decisions communally. This says nothing about the objective reality of social groups. Each member of a social group experiences the group in an entirely different way than any other member. He/she understands his/her role, value, and status within the group differently. There is no objective leadership, no objective set of rules of conduct, no objective protocol for entering, maintaining, or leaving a social group. And, this is as it should remain. Social group identity should remain an arbitrary, illusory, and fluid entity, entirely the process of self-initiation. In the same way that government should pay no heed to religion whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter, government should pay no heed to social groups whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter.

Why? Why should this be so?

Just think about the consequences of legally defining social groups. By recognizing a social group as an objectively definable entity, and legalizing this so-called objective definition of whichever social group, and granting this legal fiction rights and legal personality, we do nothing so much as violate the personhood, autonomy, integrity (bodily and otherwise), and humanity of whichever social group's members. Group identity is no longer an ephemeral process of self-identification. It is now a process of government indoctrination. Typically, the government cedes its authority to write this legal fiction for whichever social group to the "leaders" of the group, which almost always means the powerful group members, and usually means men. Legalizing group rights is a license to oppress the less powerful members of a group, rendering individual human rights meaningless.

A recognized group with legal rights and personality is an entity, which will seek to perpetuate itself. The group leaders, powerful male group members most likely, will seek to control the means of reproduction of the group members, i.e. women's bodies and children. Is it any surprise that group leadership will define women group members, who may or may not have had a choice in residing within or without the group, as the sexual and reproductive property of the group? Is it any surprise that a legalized group will defend its right to police its own members, promulgate and enforce its own laws, and defend itself against attack by other groups? No one suffers more under religio-cultural / legal communitarianism than women and children. No one loses more rights than women when groups are granted rights.

Religio-cultural / legal communitarianism is a threat to our secular democracy. Legal communitarianism renders equal protection, rule of law, individual human rights, and secularism meaningless. If a religio-cultural social group can hold itself apart from our secular law and democratic institutions and make itself immune to our Constitution, then our democracy will not survive. And, our government will not be able to protect the most vulnerable and least powerful group members from egregious human rights abuses. Hermetic groups, which are impervious to government intervention, are human rights abuse laboratories. Power differentials coupled with a lack of transparency inevitably lead to human rights violations. And, women and children suffer most of all in these scenarios.

You might think I extrapolate too far from the purpose and effect of hate crimes legislation, but I don't. We lose a little more of our secular democracy each day. I want to take some of it back. I want to start with the repeal of hate crimes legislation.

I would extrapolate even further. We are a single, global human family. A single, global human race. We are one tribe. One global community. We are one. Nothing divides us. If we are not able to come to terms with this fact, then we will not survive. It is really that simple.

Promulgating criminal law based upon a subjective sense of moral indignation, be it moral majority outrage or otherwise, always sounds like a good idea until you're on the receiving end of that moral indignation. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Additionally, hate crimes legislation raises Due Process and 5th Amendment Double Jeopardy questions. But, this essay is already sufficiently lengthy. Suffice it to say that Due Process questions particularly arise in the instance when the accused is subjected to sentencing enhancements determined by a judge, in lieu of determination of guilt by a jury. Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy issues are evoked, because the accused is being prosecuted twice over for the same crime.

There are so many ways to think that hate crimes legislation is stupid. Even if you're not convinced by one argument, it is hard to imagine that anyone can remain immune to the persuasive power of the aggregation of arguments against hate crimes legislation.

And, now we see why it's always ok to hate women in America. Women having full access to their humanity is a direct threat to the existence of social groups. Both women and groups being able to wield the power of hate crimes legislation at the same time, against one another, renders hate crimes legislation meaningless. They cancel each other out. Like matter and anti-matter.

And, so, we wait for someone to be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime.

And, we wait. And wait.

Excuse me if I don't hold my breath.

August 22, 2011, 10:20 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink60 comments
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I Am An Atom of Atheism

The blog Ungodly News has created a whimsical periodic table of atheism, and I was surprised and pleased to find out that I'm on it:

I'm an actinide, if you can't find me - one of the green rows on the bottom, labeled as "The Wicked of the Web". I'd never have counted myself as one of the basic and indivisible elements of atheism, but given the distinguished company I'm listed among, this is a true honor! You may now commence the jokes about making compounds of atheists...

In other news, here's a quick link roundup:

• I was happy to hear that Geert Wilders has been acquitted by a Dutch court, putting an end to the shameful prosecution of a man for exercising the right of free speech. Whatever one thinks of Wilders' ideas, the correct way to respond to an argument is with another argument, not the threat of punishment. The court's ruling recognized this principle, even if it disappointingly described his opinion as "the edge of what is allowed".

• The self-help guru James Arthur Ray has been convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three people in a sweat lodge at an October 2009 retreat he organized. Woo is not harmless, not even the vague and fluffy-headed New Age variety.

• Via Andrew Sullivan, this haunting and gorgeous short film of Saturn and its moons, made by splicing together thousands of still images from the Cassini mission.

• In the wake of (unfortunately small and sporadic) protests by women across Saudi Arabia asking for the right to drive, a Saudi Arabian doctor has appealed for the right to choose her own husband. The fact that women are still denied these incredibly basic human freedoms ought to be a cause for national embarrassment in this ignorant and backwards theocracy.

• Via Slacktivist, an evangelical pastor tries valiantly to silence his own flickers of conscience over the doctrine of eternal damnation:

"It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell... are troubled by its implications."

Maybe those evangelicals should consider listening to their consciences for once.

June 26, 2011, 4:07 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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Do the Right Thing, New York!

I wrote in May about the legalization of civil unions in Delaware (which has now been signed into law), and the ongoing push to pass a marriage-equality law in my own state, New York. Although New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in any of the neighboring states that allow them, passage of the bill would be a huge symbolic victory and would give more momentum to the national push for equality.

As I write this, the bill hangs in the balance in the State Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-to-30 majority. Three of the Democrats who voted against it last time have changed their positions, making Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx the lone Democratic holdout (unsurprisingly, he's an ordained minister). Two Republicans have also announced they'll switch their votes to yes, leaving us just one vote short, and several others have suggested they may change their minds. By the time you read this, we may know what the outcome is. (And if we don't, and you're a New Yorker, call your senator!)

What's most noteworthy about this story is the wavering and uncertainty of the Republicans, who sense that gay-bashing is losing its force as a touchstone culture-war issue. Equality is becoming the accepted position, and the vocal bigots are dwindling in number. On the other hand, some groups are firmly cementing their stand on the wrong side of history. Chief among them is New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who said about the proposal:

Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea. In those countries, government presumes daily to "redefine" rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of "family" and "marriage" means.

This confused diatribe would have a point if the government was forcing citizens into same-sex marriages who didn't want them. But it's completely clear, to everyone except head-in-the-sand bigots like the archbishop, that the push for marriage equality is coming from the people: human beings who seek the freedom to pledge their commitment to each other and receive the same legal rights and protections granted to opposite-sex couples. Passing marriage equality isn't "dictating" anything to anyone, but legitimizing the choice already made by millions of people in love, which is already real regardless of whether the Catholic church admits it.

But in one respect, the archbishop is more right than he knows: we do indeed live in the United States of America, a secular republic whose governing authority comes from we the people, not from holy books or churches who presume to speak for God. The analogy he uses is completely backwards: it's the religious groups, like the archbishop himself, who wish to act as an omnipotent, absolute authority dictating to the rest of us how we may live our lives, how large our families may be, how we may be born and how we may die. In that sense it's the anti-gay bigots, not supporters of marriage equality, who resemble the despotic tyrants of China and North Korea.

Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits: It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.

This is farcical, false, and historically illiterate. Procreation is not a precondition of marriage. We don't test prospective partners for fertility or make them sign an affidavit declaring their intention to have children, nor have we ever.

And as the learned archbishop should know, marriage as the union of "a man and a woman" is a recent development. In many times and places, including in his own Bible, marriage has been defined as the union of a man and one or more women, and often in the manner of the man as the purchaser and women as the property. We've changed this to make marriage more like a partnership of equals, and instituting marriage equality will approach this ideal closer still.

Before we consign the archbishop to history's dustbin, one more quote:

Yes, I admit, I come at this as a believer, who, along with other citizens of a diversity of creeds believe that God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.

Although it's nothing we didn't know already, it's nice to hear confirmation that opposition to marriage equality is purely religious in nature and has no secular justification. The Catholic church, like all religious fiefdoms, can set whatever rules it wishes for its own members. But its writ extends no further than the church walls. It has no right to enact its peculiar prejudices into law and demand that everyone else be forced to live by them. That's the meaning of living in a secular nation, which is something that the Catholic church and all other aspiring theocrats in New York will, I hope, find out soon enough.

EDIT (6/24): Tonight, love won. Congratulations, New York!

June 16, 2011, 5:57 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments
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News Flash: Psychics Still Useless

You may have heard about this bizarre story out of Texas this week, where a self-proclaimed psychic called police with a tip that a certain home was the site of a mass grave containing dozens of dismembered bodies, including the bodies of children. A swarm of reporters, FBI agents and Texas Rangers promptly converged on the address, bringing cameras, news helicopters and cadaver-sniffing dogs.

At first they found spots of blood on the porch, seemingly proving that the psychic tip-off was good as gold. But after obtaining a search warrant and examining the property in more detail, they found that the blood had a mundane explanation, and there were no bodies, no mass grave, and indeed no indication of any crime at all.

"With the assistance of various agencies out here at the scene," Captain Evans said, "we were able to search the premises after the arrival of a search warrant, and we have no indication that there are in fact any bodies located in the residence, the shed, or any property here at the scene."

(Some news agencies excitedly and mistakenly reported at first that bodies had been found, only to be forced to retract that claim subsequently.)

Are any of us surprised? Of course not, because as this story demonstrates further, all psychics are worthless frauds and con artists. Shame on the Texas police for not knowing that from the beginning and treating her "tip" as the useless hoax it was. How do they justify this colossal waste of time and resources chasing a wild claim from a posturing charlatan?

"Some of the information that was provided to us did specifically match information we found at the scene," Mr. Evans said.

Ah yes, of course. Because there was in fact a house at the location described by the tipster, that means that the wild claim of a mass grave was plausible? This reminds me of the Christian apologists who say that if the places described in the New Testament were real, that proves that Jesus really did walk on water and come back from the dead. You can't justify an extraordinary claim with merely ordinary evidence.

The obvious explanation for how the tipster was able to describe the house is that it's someone who knows the people who live there. That was in fact suggested by one of the homeowners, who believes the source was a mentally unstable neighbor with a vendetta against them. The Texas police say they plan to track down the tipster and charge her with filing a false police report, as they should, and I hope this embarrassment is an object lesson to them the next time some deluded person calls in with another wild story.

But the most comical part of it all is the "real" psychics claiming - wait for it - that this sort of thing makes them look bad!

"Oh my God, now we're all going to get a black eye," was Jacki Mari's first thought when she heard that a false tip from a psychic had led law enforcement officers on a fruitless search for a mass grave in East Texas on Tuesday night.

Ms. Mari, also known as Sherlockjackie, has, by her own reckoning, helped solve more than 400 murders and missing persons cases around the world -- all without leaving her office outside Chicago. Her own psychic powers -- she calls it "extrasensory intelligence" -- told her that the informant's tip was spurious, Ms. Mari said...

You'll also note that, once again, a credulous media has given a pretender unrebutted column space to claim they've "helped" in dozens of cases, without debunking this claim or even asking for follow-up details about which cases these were. The standard M.O. for psychics in a real police investigation is to provide dozens of tips, ranging from the absurdly specific but unverifiable to the uselessly vague ("The body will be found near water," "The body will be found near a church"), and then claiming that they "helped" if any of those statements turn out in retrospect to be true - even if many more of them are wrong, and even if the "psychic"'s advice played no role in actually helping the police find the body or catch the criminal. (Another classic example was the "remote viewing" company which wrongly claimed kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart was dead.)

When a psychic can provide a convincing demonstration of their powers in a controlled test, I'll believe there may be something to their claims. Until and unless that ever happens, the only reasonable conclusion is that psychics are all either self-deluded or deliberate fraudsters, and don't deserve to be taken seriously by the police or anyone else.

June 10, 2011, 12:22 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments
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Justice for the Victims of Faith Healing

I'm still working through a backlog of interesting stories that accumulated during my vacation, so here's the first of them.

As freethinkers know too well, claiming that your religion requires you to do or not do something is an almost all-purpose excuse for immoral behavior. It's frustratingly rare for believers to be punished for wrongdoing when they invoke their faith as a shield. That's why I'm so unexpectedly pleased to see that rationality is getting a foothold in Oregon, where more and more parents are being prosecuted for withholding medical treatment from their children in preference to faith healing.

Most of the attention is on the Followers of Christ, a small sect that, like the larger Christian Scientists, completely rejects modern medicine and "treats" disease only with prayer. Unsurprisingly, members of this church have a tendency to die of curable illnesses - but if they really want to throw their lives away, that's their choice, as stupid and senseless as it is. Far more troubling is that their minor children, who can't give rational assent to these beliefs, are also being allowed to suffer and die for the same reason.

The Followers of Christ first came to light in 1998 when local media reported that the church had a graveyard full of dead children, many of which could easily have been saved if they'd gotten medical attention. Prosecutors wanted to intervene, but their hands were tied by an Oregon law which protected parents who relied exclusively on faith healing. Showing some commendable good sense, the legislature repealed this exemption soon after, but it's taken years for the police and prosecutors to begin moving cases through the pipeline. The first one was in 2008, and more are coming, like this appalling example:

At birth, the girl, Alayna, was a pink-cheeked bundle, but by 6 months, a growth the size of a baseball had consumed the left side of her face, pushing her eyeball out of its socket. The Wylands, members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect whose members shun medicine, would not take her to a doctor.

These parents are rightly standing trial for this horrific neglect, and their daughter was taken away from them to get the care she needed so badly. In another case, a couple was prosecuted and convicted for allowing their teenage son to die - of a blocked urinary tract, for truth's sake, something I'm guessing any doctor could have cleared up in five minutes.

But Dr. Douglas S. Diekema, a medical ethicist at Children's Hospital in Seattle, says that more harm than good may have been done to Alayna Wyland... "For me, the real question is, could you not have done that without taking the child from the parents?" he said. "I think you could accomplish getting some of these kids treated by getting a home health nurse -- and if you need a police officer there, that's fine. But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don't understand that."

This is a truly absurd suggestion - that sick children of faith-healing cults should be kept at home, while the police show up every time a treatment is needed to restrain their parents. This is a ridiculous waste of scarce police resources, and shows how some people will bend over backwards to protect the unearned and undeserved privilege accorded to religion.

Under most circumstances, I'd agree that it's better for children to be left with their parents, but these aren't most circumstances. These couples are a clear and present danger to the lives and health of their children; they've proven themselves unfit to be parents, just as we consider drug addicts or violent abusers unfit parents. The motivation may be different, but the end result, unless the state intervenes, is the same: children dead, for no good reason or purpose.

Nor would sending parents to jail change their preference for faith healing, Dr. Diekema said.

That may well be true, as it's well-known that religious fanatics consider their beliefs to trump the laws of democratic society. But so what? You might as well say that it's pointless to jail al-Qaeda leaders because it won't persuade them to renounce terrorist violence. Justice demands that people who've done wrong be punished accordingly, whether or not they admit the wrongfulness of their conduct.

I was happy to see that this article quotes Rita Swan, who's made it her life's work to protect children from being harmed or killed by faith-healing delusions, and equally happy that her campaign is bearing fruit. It takes time and persistence, but people's opinions can be changed. For the children who badly need society's protection from the dangerous delusions of their parents, that change can't come quickly enough.

June 2, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments
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News Round-up

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I just thought I’d do a quick whirl through some stories of note in the papers this week:

Firstly, and probably most obviously, the Rapture failed to materialise. The herald of doom for this event, Harold Camping announced his shock and surprise that a literal, physical Rapture did not arrive in exactly the way he prophesised. Instead, the Rapture was of a spiritual nature, and we are still on track for a 21st October Armageddon. To his credit, he did guardedly offer an apology to those who feel wronged by him (and much good may it do them). I confess I raised an eyebrow that he’d make another prediction dated for so soon. He might have fumbled his way through one failed prophecy with most devotees still loyal, but surely two in the space of five months will be a fatal blow to his credibility? Or am I crediting his followers too much?

Secondly, a doctor in Britain is being threatened with the sack for refusing a written warning for counselling patients with talk of Christian faith. Alone, the incident might be unremarkable, but what troubles me particularly is the way it has been portrayed in the British media. Many of Britain’s leading papers are none-too-subtly right wing, and though the church holds far less power and influence in Britain than in the USA, the right still equates Christian values with traditional British values to be conserved at all costs while society goes to Hell in a handbasket. Taken along with the Christian van driver who would not remove a crucifix from his work van, and a couple who owned a B&B and were sued for refusing double beds to non-married couples, citing their religious beliefs for justification, the pattern is hauntingly familiar: religious people feel entitled to special dispensation and feel discriminated against when they do not get it. The papers report it this way and a worrying number of their readers dance to their tune. Sensationalism still works, even on an audience semi-aware to look out for it.

Debate rages over whether the world’s last remaining samples of the smallpox virus should be destroyed. The lethal virus was officially eradicated in the wild in 1979, leaving only small samples in laboratories remaining. But fears that samples could be stolen and used for biological terrorism have prompted fresh pleas for their destruction. In truth, this issue has been smoldering at the World Health Organisation for the last 25 years, lost in a cycle of deferring verdicts and appeals.

Seven Italian scientists were indicted this week in Italy for not predicting the April 2009 earthquake which devastated L’Aquila. Weeks before the quake, locals were worried by tremors, but the seismologists described a big forthcoming quake as “improbable”. The following disaster killed over 300 people. On the 20th September, the scientists will face charges of manslaughter. Many scientists have rallied around and tried to defend their colleagues – there is still no reliable way to predict an earthquake. A devastating case, and once which raises extremely important questions about the faith we should place in science and the culpability we should lay at the door of the experts.

Finally, I'd like to indulge you all in a bit of British trash. Our papers have been rather preoccupied with a story about a top, well-respected footballer, married with children, who was found to have had a six-month affair with a model and ex-reality TV star. So far, so unsurprising. But the case is of note firstly because of its legal implications - the footballer took out an injunction against his former lover, while she was thrown to the wolves. This sparked, as much as anything, a rethink of the uses of injunctions for personal cases. In the end, the truth got out via Twitter, and the police could not prosecute several thousand people breaching the injunction. But it also makes me reflect on a particular essay by Richard Dawkins in which he decries sexual jealousy. Far from being the appropriate default response for a jilted lover (justifying, apparently, all manner of revenge), he argues, we humans should try to rise above such jealousy. I'll leave it for you to savour in his own words here. It's an old essay, and the particular affair which prompted it is unrelated, but still it is a very stimulating read.

May 27, 2011, 12:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments
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Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping

Yesterday, I came across a story that was so appalling I had to write about it. It shows the true depths of the Christian right's hatred for gay and lesbian people, and the lengths they're willing to go to - up to and including defying U.S. law - in the name of that hatred. (HT: The Wall of Separation)

The story in a nutshell: A same-sex couple in Vermont, Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, were married in 2000 and had a legally recognized civil union. Two years later, they had a daughter, Isabella, with Lisa the biological mother. In 2003 they separated, and a court ruled that Lisa should have primary custody of Isabella and Janet should have visitation rights.

But Lisa Miller moved to Virginia, joined an evangelical Christian church (for reasons that remain unclear to me) and decided that she had been "cured" of being a lesbian. Since Virginia doesn't recognize same-sex unions, Miller filed suit to overturn the Vermont court's custody decision, arguing that under Virginia law her former partner wasn't a parent to their daughter and should have no parental rights. In this effort she was assisted by Liberty Counsel, a religious right legal group founded by Mat Staver, who's also the dean of the law school at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

This didn't go well for the religious right. The Virginia Supreme Court denied Miller's petition, citing a federal bill called the Parental Kidnapping Protection Act which was passed specifically to prevent this kind of forum-shopping. Meanwhile in late 2009, finding that Lisa Miller had been consistently refusing to permit Janet's court-ordered visitations, the Vermont family court overturned its earlier decision and awarded sole custody of Isabella to Janet Jenkins.

The deadline for the custody handover was set for January 1, 2010... and at the appointed time, Lisa and Isabella didn't show up. The police obtained an arrest warrant, and since then both of them have been missing.

That was the last update in this case, until now. It was reported this week that the FBI has arrested a Tennessee pastor, Timothy David Miller, and charged him with helping to arrange for Lisa and Isabella to flee the country and travel to Nicaragua, where he had worked as a missionary. More, according to the affidavit, he wasn't acting alone:

Ms. Miller and Isabella stayed in a beach house in Nicaragua that is owned by a conservative businessman with close ties to Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., and whose daughter works at the university's law school, according to the affidavit...

[Mat Staver] said he knew nothing about the accusations involving a law school office assistant, Victoria Hyden, and her father Philip Zodhiates, the beach house's owner...

Much of the evidence in support of the criminal charges and other accusations, the affidavit said, was obtained through court-approved, covert searches of e-mail accounts, uncovering messages from Mr. Miller that appear to arrange the mother and daughter's 2009 flight to Nicaragua and from Mr. Zodhiates arranging to send them supplies.

Let's not mince words: If these charges are true, then the FBI has uncovered an international Christian child-kidnapping ring, a premeditated conspiracy to defy the law and keep same-sex parents apart from their children - and one, moreover, that has close ties to Liberty University and the religious right's political infrastructure. Notwithstanding Mat Staver's denials, I have no doubt whatsoever that even if he didn't personally participate in any illegal act, he either knows where Lisa and Isabella are or could find out if he wanted to.

Unfortunately, it seems that under the relevant law, the most that anyone could face is three years in prison. That's not nearly enough - a religious fanatic who believed he needed to "save" a child from the love of her same-sex parent could easily wait that sentence out and consider it a small sacrifice, and of course, he would be hailed as a hero by the religious right upon his release. If the law allowed, say, 20 years in prison rather than three, that might be enough to make even the most defiant zealot consider cooperating with the authorities - and give him an incentive to name the others who were part of this conspiracy. I have little doubt that the full list of names would be a major embarrassment, possibly even a crippling legal blow, for the Christian right. (I wonder if federal prosecutors have considered using RICO against Miller.)

But most of all, my heart breaks for that little girl, who must be going through intense brainwashing sessions in an attempt to poison her mind against her legal mother. I hope with all my heart that she resists and that she understands the crime that was committed against her. In the name of "protecting" her from exposure to gay people, the religious right has taken her out of the country, torn her away from her friends and family, quite possibly destroyed any hope she'll ever have for a normal life, and is no doubt trying to indoctrinate her into a cult of bigotry and hate. Are these the people who dare to call themselves "pro-family"?

April 26, 2011, 6:46 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments
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The Abuse of the Doctrine of Standing

In what's becoming a depressingly predictable trend, there's bad news on the church-state front: the Freedom from Religion Foundation's legal victory over the National Day of Prayer has been tossed out by a federal appeals court. A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the FFRF lacks standing and ordering that the lower court decision be vacated. The FFRF plans to seek an en banc rehearing before the entire Seventh Circuit, although this is a long shot at best.

Sadly, I'm not surprised. It was always more likely than not that this ruling would be overturned; the only real questions were how high it would get before this happened and what legal fig leaf would be used to dismiss Judge Barbara Crabb's carefully reasoned ruling. In this case, it turned out to be the doctrine of standing, which says that only people who have a concrete interest in the outcome of a legal controversy can bring suit.

In general, there has to be something like this - as Glenn Greenwald says, the courts can't be "free-floating omnipotent tribunals" with the power to decide any controversy. A person or interest group should have to have a stake in the outcome of the case to participate in a lawsuit. But standing should be a low bar to clear, blocking only frivolous and pointless legal claims. Instead, the courts have twisted it into a convoluted and arcane rule where only certain highly specific kinds of injury are permitted as grounds to sue. This means that many meritorious claims, even those relating to the violation of constitutional rights, can never be heard.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit found that the FFRF had suffered no injury from the National Day of Prayer. Apparently, this is true even if public money is used to sponsor and organize the day's events, even if participation is restricted to certain religious sects that work hand-in-glove with elected officials, even if NDP events specifically endorse one version of religious scripture over others, even if said events include official statements questioning the patriotism, morality or citizenship of those who refuse to participate. Never mind all that - when the President tells you to pray, you can say no, and that's all it takes for your civil rights not to be violated!

Such reasoning could only come from the mind of someone who's spent their entire life comfortably in the religious majority and has never had to experience the exclusionary effect of being told that they don't belong to a privileged circle of political insiders. Under this new era of legal thinking, Congress could pass a law declaring Christianity the official religion of the U.S., and still no one would have standing to object as long as they weren't being forcibly marched into church by government agents. (And maybe not even then - after all, right-wing judges would reason, they aren't forcing you to agree with what's being preached, now are they?)

Turning "standing" into an all-purpose excuse to dismiss a lawsuit is an increasingly common tactic of conservative judges. Another example is the awful 2007 Hein decision which held that expenditures of money by Congress to promote religion confer standing to sue, but expenditures of money by the executive branch somehow don't. This nonsensical and indefensible decision was obviously decreed by conservative justices in order to reach their desired policy result: permitting the faith-based initiative to continue. (I fear that there are now five members of the Supreme Court who are prepared to bless any church-state violation whatsoever.)

Yet another example would be the Bush-era legal position, shamefully perpetuated by the Obama administration, that even if the government is spying on American citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment, no one has standing to bring a lawsuit unless they can prove that they personally were illegally surveilled. This is a ludicrous claim that creates a horrendous perverse incentive: the government can get away with any lawbreaking conduct as long as they can successfully cover it up, in which case the courts will do nothing to adjudicate the truth.

The evisceration of the standing doctrine creates a legal paradox: it may well be that some actions by the government are unconstitutional, but no one can do anything about it because no one has standing to have their objections heard. This position makes the Bill of Rights meaningless. The laws set out in the Constitution aren't just noble aspirations our government should try its best to live up to: they are strict and settled limits on what our elected public servants can and can't do, and the reason we have a system of checks and balances is to enforce that guarantee. The court, in effect, is abdicating its constitutionally given role by denying a hearing to citizens with a grievance. A more rational position, though one that stands no chance of passing in our current political climate, would be that any governmental action which breaches the Constitution confers standing on any citizen to sue.

April 19, 2011, 5:44 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Greta Christina posts her completed list of atheists of color.

• In early 1981, Carl Sagan sent this letter to the Explorers' Club - an international society dedicated to scientific exploration - regarding their men-only admission policy. Several months later, the first female members were admitted. (HT: Geek Feminism Blog)

• Johann Hari writes about "the myth of the panicking disaster victim" and what it implies for humanity's inherent moral sense.

• Catholic anti-abortion groups are trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to "save" a 13-month-old infant with a severe neurological disorder who is not and likely never will be conscious, after Canadian doctors proposed removing his breathing tube. Peter Singer asks if this is the most "pro-life" use of all that money.

• Following a devastating grand jury report, the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia has suspended 21 priests named as child molestation suspects. Also, Maureen Dowd profiles the first U.S. district attorney to criminally charge church officials for covering up child abuse - including sickening details from the grand jury report describing exactly what they helped to cover up.

• In a welcome and long-overdue development, the British government proposes reforming the country's archaic and plaintiff-friendly libel laws to stop abuses such as "libel tourism". (See my earlier post on this.)

March 22, 2011, 8:01 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments
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