Scalia’s “belief” in molecular biology?

A great 9-0 ruling from the Supreme Court: you can’t patent natural, unchanged genes. A huge victory for cancer patients, among other people. It does leave an opening for modified genes to be patentable, but does not necessarily imply that they can be.

But here’s the weird thing: Justice Scalia felt he needed to submit a separate, one-paragraph concurring opinion in which he expressed that he was “unable to affirm [details of molecular biology in the main ruling text] on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

Did Justice Scalia just put out an opinion specifically so he could point out that he doesn’t *believe* in molecular biology? I mean, I understand him saying that the molecular biology detailed in the opinion is not something he is clear on, but saying he doesn’t *believe* in it?

Maybe molecular biology can’t be reconciled with an originalist interpretation of the Constitution?

Electronic surveillance and freedom of speech

Via the EFF and a UN report: the “chilling effect” that electronic surveillance has on a country’s freedom of speech.

“The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. … An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”

Here’s the interesting implications of this discussion: it’s been established that people change their behavior when they know they are being observed. It’s so embedded in our psyche, that just being aware of a pair of googly eyes pasted on a wall can change the way we act and the opinions we express. I know that sounds like a joke, but it’s not.

When the government is pursuing ridiculous attempts to weaken cryptography and security to allow for wiretapping, as if we learned no lessons during the cryptography developmental years of the 70s and 80s, the concept of limiting our technological development in order to allow authorities to keep an eye on our communications should be completely unacceptable. Instead of weakening our protections, we should be regulating governmental surveillance even more using these same technologies, and protecting the free expression of opinion as strongly as we can, strengthening laws and legal standards wherever we can.

The end of a most awesome day.

At the end of what has been a most awesome day, I have a wish: it’s that the people who stood opposed today may some day change their hearts and come to experience the happiness that we did, when love won the day.

I wish them peace, acceptance, understanding and some day: love.

I try to not be happy because they lost, but I won’t lie and say I’m not. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy we won, I’m ecstatic that we won.  But I am also, just a little, happy that they lost. Not proud of that, and I’m still working on it.

I had a few conversations with them today. Even as an atheist, I can recognize that there are different interpretations of the Bible: some of them come from love, others come from a dark place of anger, hatred and lashing out at what they don’t understand. Those there today at the Capitol were from the latter group.

I hope they can turn away from that someday. It’s not good to live in that kind of pain, and the contrast between the suspicion and anger in their faces and the joy, love and openness that overwhelmed the rotunda today was stark. I am reminded of the phone conversation I had last year with a mother who had rejected her son because he was gay, and hadn’t spoken to him in years, because her pastor told her it was the right thing to do.

May you never have to feel that kind of pain in your life, as that she held locked up in her heart for who knows how long, as that she spoke of through gritted teeth to a stranger on the phone. Maybe today she can recognize the change the rest of her state is going through, and start down her own path away from that pastor’s terrible, painful advice. There are plenty of faith congregations who would welcome her AND her son with loving, open arms.

The world is terrible, because we make it so.

The world is beautiful, because we make it so.

Today just happened, because you and I made it so.

So here’s the thing…

So here’s the thing…

'cause this will happen.

’cause this will happen.

I can’t believe it was less than 24 hours ago that I posted my previous note starting with that phrase. I can’t tell you how nervous I was last night. I slept hardly at all, and what sleep I had was filled with dreams about being in debate class. The concept of arguing and defending a spirited point of view was obviously on my mind.

And yes, I know we still have to get through the Senate vote on Monday, and yes it still needs to get signed by Gov. Dayton, and yet we have to wait ALL the way until August 1st for weddings to start happening… but it’s a pretty done deal, folks.

I also can’t believe it was almost exactly two years ago that we were dragged into a fight we didn’t ask for. Belligerent busybodies who weren’t content with the fact that a group of my dearest friends already had limited rights, tried to up the ante in the dying days of their worldview and cement their discrimination further into law, before the younger generation could come along and ruin it all with their more “liberal attitudes” about who among us has the right to declare what kind of love is acceptable. The tide is turning, let’s get the boats out quickly.

“What are YOU going to do?” they challenged us. “We’ve already won 30 states before yours, there’s nothing YOU can do about it.”

Yes, there was. We committed to not becoming number 31. We decided to become number 12 instead.

We didn’t ask for that challenge; but we were certainly up to it. Months and months of phone banks, training, personal conversations, door-to-door canvassing, talking to strangers and friends and coworkers alike, and hours upon hours of registration and get-out-the-vote activities. And in one awesome night last November, at about 2am, the first part of that challenge was met, and turned back.

And this afternoon, this awesome, awesome afternoon, our full response was decisively heard:

DO. NOT. Mess. With. My. Friends.

We didn’t ask for the fight, but you shouldn’t confuse a peaceful disposition with cowardice. Don’t assume that just because we prefer to avoid the confrontation means we’ll flee when you provoke it. And don’t hit unless you’re willing to learn what it means when we defend ourselves.

In this case, it means that we’ll turn a state around from having no marriage equality to full marriage equality in two years. I’m guessing that somewhere tonight, those who proposed and supported the amendment in 2011 hoping for an easy win, are staring at a pretty large hole in their foot and wondering what the hell happened.

The numbers game

So here’s the thing: the vote tomorrow in the Minnesota house on HB 1054 (the Marriage Equality bill) matters to my friends, because it affects them and their relationships personally. It matters to the state, because it affects how it will treat these couples. It matters to me, because (insert nicer way of saying “fuck the haters” here). But it also matters to the country, because it’s going to have a significant psychological impact on the mental state of the Supreme Court Justices as they weigh the Prop 8 and DOMA cases.

It's time.

It’s time.

Both Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg have expressed reservations in both oral arguments for these cases as well as interviews (see the March 11th New Yorker) about pushing society too fast: large-scale social change shouldn’t come from the courts. We can disagree on that perspective (I do): especially so when the courts are addressing civil rights injustices that shouldn’t even have to take into consideration whether the ruling is “popular” enough yet. But it’s a concern they have raised, and one they have to be mulling.

But if the change is already observed happening from the bottom up, then this reservation evaporates. I don’t know what the magical number of states is to convince Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg that change is already happening; but I do know that 2 is better than 1, and that 12 is better than 11 (plus the District of Columbia, of course).

So this may very well have a significant domino effect, and all within this year, within a period of months.

We know that change is happening, we’ve felt it happen in Minnesota over the past year. Hell, we MADE it happen, you and I, with our phone calls and our conversations and our VOTES. But we’ve also seen pushback and defeats in the last 12 months, in other states and in other court cases, all of which could make a conservative (in the traditional, non-political sense) judge rather wary of leading the charge for action.

So the question is: what happens if the number is 12, Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg? Is 12 enough to signal that you are no longer leading social change, but actually trying to catch up instead? 12 states is a quarter of the country, and means over 55 million citizens living in states where same-sex marriage is legal. We decide national elections by tiny fractions of those numbers.

Sandra Day O’Connor has recently and very publicly expressed regret at taking on Bush v. Gore in the 2000 elections. I hope that Ginsburg and Kennedy, in 12 years as they look back on the year 2013, don’t have to express similar regrets about incorrect decisions. We’ve come so far in just the past 12 months: think of how much further ahead we will be in 12 years, and how misguided a decision to delay social justice today will look then.

A loss tomorrow does not doom the Prop 8 and DOMA cases for our side. It doesn’t even cause a major dent in the reality of marriage equality for Minnesota, in the long run. Hell, it’s just a delay either way.

But 12 looks like a really good number to me right now. What number looks good to you?

The Ultimate Martyrdom Myth

My interview with Notre Dame Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Candida Moss, author of “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom” (buy here) for Minnesota’s Atheists Talk radio show is now available streaming on this site, downloadable, or subscribable via podcast or iTunes.

I did miss the opportunity to press a little bit further on the discussion around how Biblical scholars determine that some martyrdom stories are myths. In essence, they seem to use questions such as the following to calculate the level of trustworthiness of a given story:

– Were the stories written by non-eyewitnesses, long after the event?
– Do the stories seem to be retellings, recastings or appropriations of older mythic stories from other cultures?
– Do the stories contain anachronisms? References to ideas, institutions, people or places that were not current at the time of the events but were at the time of the writing?
– Are there multiple, inconsistent versions of the story, changing over time?
– As the stories change, do they become more hagiographic? Do they make the “star” of the story even more saintly, the acts even more miraculous?
– Do we lack confirming testimony from other, independent sources, of the events or people in the story?
– Do the stories seem designed to push a specific orthodoxy, perhaps against an idea of the time that was becoming popular but others wanted declared heretical?

Now my question (which I did ask in the show) was that all of these issues above, when asked of the traditional 4 Gospels, have an affirmative answer. Consider for example the transition from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John, where Jesus goes from a suffering, questioning crucifixion (“Why hast thou forsaken me”) to a stoic, accepting death (“It is finished”) over the years between which the books were written, multiple decades after the events in question.  A stoic death was very admirable among martyr myths in antiquity, as we see in Socrates’ case or in the disgust over the sniveling death of a Trojan prince at Achilles’ hand in Homer’s Iliad.  This example easily covers 4 or 5 of the points above, with a potential 6th depending on how much of the crucifixion story was addressed specifically at, e.g.,  the Marcionites and Ebionites.

So why did scholars (such as the Bollandists), trying to weed out whether the martyrdom myths were true or not using the criteria above, not end up casting an eye towards the Gospel books and deciding that there was probably as little proof of those being true as there is of many of the apocryphal martyrdom stories?  Was it only because the “original” Christian martyrdom story was untouchable by definition?  It would seem to me to be a prime candidate for this kind of analysis and (given the results from scholarly responses to the questions above) eventual rejection as apocryphal, for the exact same reasons the Bollandists reject so many martyrdom stories from the first centuries.

I really enjoyed having Professor Moss on the show, and I’d love to invite her back to talk about this.

Re-defining marriage

Bill Donohue is the president of the Catholic League. I don’t claim that he speaks for all Catholics, since I know too many Catholics who disagree with him, but he claims he does; for some reason all the media keep inviting him back on to their shows as an expert on the topic when same-sex marriage comes up.

And this interview is a fascinating insight into his mind, the mind of the (not-insignificant) number of Catholics who DO agree with him, and the mind of the people presenting the cases before the Supreme Court regarding marriage.


“The whole purpose of marriage is to have a family. It’s not about making people happy. It’s not about love.”


Now let’s compare that to the brief presented by the petitioners for the Hollingsworth v. Perry case (regarding Prop 8) before the Supreme Court: in that brief, the lawyers representing the group of citizens that stepped in to defend Prop 8 after California officials refused to, argued that the state’s interest in marriage was procreative only. In other words, the state should only be interested or involved in marriage in the sense that it creates more citizens for the state. A similar argument to the above, a slightly different angle, but with the same foundation: marriage is not about love.

The Prop 8 brief doesn’t mention the word “love” once in 65 pages.

And compare that to Paul Clement’s brief in U.S. v Windsor supporting the DOMA in the other same-sex marriage case currently before the SC: marriage, as described in that case, is for taking care of “whoops! babies!”. The argument used in that brief was that marriage is necessary NOT because people love each other, but because two people with particular combinations of sex organs might accidentally produce an unplanned baby, and therefore they should be married in order to provide stability for that baby. And that is ultimately the state’s primary interest in marriage: generating more citizens.

The DOMA brief doesn’t mention the word “love” once in 60 pages.

Never mind that the only reliable way to have a stable family and give it the highest opportunity for happy, healthy children is for that family to be based on the love of the two people that were there first.

I would like to ask Bill Donohue and Paul Clement exactly how many marriage vows he has heard in his lifetime that don’t include the word “love” somewhere. I wonder how many marriage ceremonies has he attended where no one says “look how in love they are!”, instead preferring the utilitarian “see how fertile they look! They will be very procreatively productive!  Won’t the state be happy!”

I was married for 9 years before we had a kid, but apparently those years I spent falling in love with my wife over and over don’t count as really being married.  And the years we spent building a stable, healthy relationship into which a child could be welcomed and raised were probably just a waste of time because we weren’t popping out kidlets like ping-pong balls to keep the state happy.

But marriage isn’t about love.

Let that sink in.

“The whole purpose of marriage is to have a family. It’s not about making people happy. It’s not about love.” – Bill Donohue.

A man who just happens to be divorced, by the way: a state of affairs (not pun intended) that is mentioned multiple times in the Bible as being completely unacceptable to God, if that’s who your authority on moral issues is.  I assume it is for Bill, but I have to wonder.

The people fighting against same-sex marriage cannot use religion as the basis for their legal arguments, since they would run into obvious separation of Church and State issues by doing so.  So they have to come up with alternative, secular reasons, and the well there is… pretty dry.  So the argument becomes that the whole reason marriage exists is so that citizens can become baby-making machines to benefit the state apparatus, presumably as a source of new tax income.

And yet somehow it’s same-sex couples who are redefining what marriage means.

Persecution vs. Persecution Complex

An interesting perspective, and the book “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom” by Prof. Candida Moss is going on my “to be read” pile, along with a couple of other ones she’s published (see “tsundoku“).

The most important point of the article, in my opinion, is that presenting yourself as “persecuted” does not exactly foster a relationship of conversation and equal exchange of ideas. It sets up the person who disagrees with you as evil and relentless, when in fact many of the concerns about “persecution” today in the US are about disagreements concerning issues like same-sex marriage, access to women’s healthcare and birth control. While these issues engender a lot of disagreement, it would be hard to classify that disagreement as “persecution”.

But a particularly vocal group wants to portray that disagreement as coming from a fundamentally evil source, and cast opponents as persecutors, which is useful to those making the claim and portraying themselves as martyrs, but completely ruinous to the conversation. You don’t, by definition, have a pleasant conversation about differences in opinion with a martyr.

See “The War on Christmas“, now in its seventh consecutive year of re-runs, or the recent flaps about how Obama is persecuting Christians because he supports access to contraception as part of a comprehensive healthcare package.

The other point of note here is the rejection of a common claim that backs up Christianity as the “one true religion”: how many people have given their lives for the idea. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t do so if it wasn’t true, right? Unfortunately the problems with that claim are two-fold: (a) many different, mutually-incompatible religions have their own martyrs, and (b) over the course of history, people have proved to be quite willing to die for ideas that end up being wrong. People die on both sides of wars and inquisitions, after all. In fact many of the religious conflicts in history have generated martyrs for both sides, which are fighting in direct opposition to each other, and therefore cannot both be right. The fact that we are willing to die for ideas that may or may not be correct demands investigation into why we humans have a tendency to do so, but it serves poorly as a demonstration of the veracity of any faith claim.

An author I’d like to try to get on the radio show, if possible.  Her book is available here.

Update: a better article from the Daily Beast here.

Which version of Christianity, exactly?

The irony about having discussions about Christian theological issues is that, in order to have the discussion, you first have to figure out what the person actually believes.  You have to actually define first what version of Christianity they agree with, out of the 40-odd thousand different versions that are out there.  You’d think that having a common religious text would mean some level of common religious belief; but even though everyone claims to be the ones who were fortunate or smart enough to be able to interpret the Bible correctly, there’s no guarantee which each person’s definition of a defensible, “Christian” position will be on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, literal creationism, evolution, the death penalty, the roles and rights of women in their organizations, their families and in society, whether the fires of Hell are literal or metaphorical, whether Hell is eternal or temporary, whether Hell even actually exists or not, what happens to children who die before they are baptized, whether baptism is even necessary or not, whether salvation comes through faith or through good works, homosexuality, whether the “Fall” was literal or metaphorical, which of the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy still apply and which we can ignore (tattoos, anyone?), slavery and whether it was ever acceptable, at what point does a soul “enter” the body, what’s the correct way to determine when a human life begins, stem cell research, euthanasia, end-of-life dignity, healthcare and contraceptive care, etc. etc., ad infinitum.

It’s not that people can’t have different opinions on these issues: they can, and they do.  But you can find denominations that support both sides of each of these issues, and both will claim absolute certainty and Biblical authority for their position, and find no reason to be concerned that other denominations reach the exact opposite position using the exact same text.

You can’t all be right, you know.  You can all be wrong, but that’s a different conversation.

As an outsider looking in, when you realize that the phrase “I’m a Christian, therefore I believe X” is true for all possible combinations of positions on the issues above, for so many values of X, you start understanding that perhaps people are bringing their own morality into the equation, and then just choosing the interpretations of their religious text that agree with their pre-existing position.  Believe in support for same-sex marriage?  Sure, you can justify that biblically.  Believe that gay people should be stoned to death?  Yup, you can justify that biblically too… and in fact you can do that one much more directly and with less logical leaps interpretation (you see, it says you’re supposed to, pretty clearly).  Therefore, it seems people’s morality precedes their religious beliefs, which technically makes the beliefs themselves unnecessary (other than as selective post-facto justification) as the foundation of a moral framework.

A quick Google search will easily prove that, no matter which position a person supports on the issues above, there are plenty of religious authority figures who have posted long, detailed explanations of why theirs is not just the best interpretation of the religious texts, but is in fact THE ONLY possible logical interpretation.  Truth!  And they have the piles of quotes to support their view and the context to prove their way of thinking, and the arguments about why anyone who uses other passages to prove a different point is missing the bigger picture and doesn’t understand the context.  If you disagree with it, it must be a metaphor for something else, or it meant something else at the time it was written and therefore mustn’t be taken literally, or it no longer applies because of this other passage.  If you agree with it, it’s just true.

I’ve spent a large part of my life having discussions with people about issues like the ones above, and it never ceases to amaze me.  Perhaps I should be less surprised, considering how fractured the interpretations have been since the very beginning: even in the first centuries of the Common Era, various sects were sniping at each other over fundamental issues like whether Judaic law still applied, whether Jesus was actually a regular man with a divine spirit inside, whether Jesus ever even took physical form or was just a kind of ghost that people saw… I mean, these were groups of people who, just a few generations removed from when the guy was supposedly walking around, couldn’t come to an agreement on what it all meant.  You’d think someone who had the power to create the entire universe could have made his message a bit clearer, instead of using all that awesomeness to imprint his image on toast.  Because how clear can your message be when your followers have created over 40 THOUSAND denominations with different interpretations of it?

To answer the most common question I get when posting this kind of message: why do I have the discussions in the first place?  Well, because the people I have the discussions with are in the position of making decisions or passing laws or voting on issues that affect me, my family, and the education, well-being and rights of the people around me.  They use religious reasoning (or rather, religious rationalization) to reach a decision on what votes to propose, what standards of education to apply, how to vote.  If they didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have to have these discussions in the first place.  But I do, and the arguments before the Supreme Court starting tomorrow, Tuesday March 27th, 2013, on the constitutionality of prohibiting same-sex marriage, are proof that these conversations still NEED to happen.

Mind you, I probably still would still have the conversations: for learning purposes, since the way the brain processes information is fascinating to me.  But I wouldn’t HAVE to.

And this should be the first lesson to impart in all of these conversations, but it’s almost always the hardest. No matter what you believe on quite literally ANY of the religious truths you hold dear, in the context of the whole world, you’re in the minority.  That doesn’t necessarily make you wrong, and it doesn’t make the majority right: but you do have to live with those other people, and the plurality of thought and belief they represent.  My first recommendation, if you want to get along, is to start working on reasonings for your positions that work *without* relying on your unique interpretation of your religious text: most people just won’t believe it applies to them.  Just judging by the numbers, it’s most probably wrong anyway.

Exitio Papa

I can’t wait for the ceremony where they retire his number: a giant Pontiff hat, emblazoned with “XVI”, being lifted up into the rafters at the Vatican Staples Center.

What strikes me as amusing about this whole deal is how… *medieval* it all is. People running around consulting the rules to see if the Pope is even “allowed” to resign, and whether he resigned appropriately, following the correct, completely made-up procedures that last made sense some 600 years ago. And the rules being consulted are the same ones that up until mid-last century required the Pope to be banged on the noggin with a special silver hammer to confirm that he was dead.

What would they do, one wonders, if it was decided he *wasn’t* allowed to retire? It’s a safe bet that somewhere in the arcana there’s a whole written procedure for that too, involving sequestering the Pope onto a golden throne with a magical golden Pope lasso, and appointing a Cardinal to interpret God’s will using phrenology or–Himself forbid–uroscopy. All perfectly ritualized and followed strictly and religiously to the letter, when not a jot of it appears in the Bible anywhere.

I’m not gloating over his resignation, as many others have over the social media, in a “Ha ha! Ding dong, the witch is dead!” kind of way: it’s not like they’re done churning them out… there have been 265 Popes in a (non-sequential) row. I’m sure there will be another one along soon, and I can guarantee it won’t be a woman, or a gay married black man. Nor will the newly-elect have a better attitude towards those two groups than the current one. Or the previous 264 for that matter.

Well, maybe Pope Joan.

But for now, I’m happy to watch the whole medieval process unfold. I’m hoping he will follow the retirement path of another controversial public figure who quit the job they had once insisted God had specially chosen them for: Sarah Palin’s. A reality show, a job as a commentator for Fox News, a series of public comments demonstrating how out of touch with reality they are, losing the commentator job and then a quick spiral into irrelevance and obscurity (minus the occasional Tweet from @X-Pontifex).

Meanwhile, I’ll sit by the phone and wonder if the Cardinals will ever call, while writing “Pope Pacheco” over and over in the pages of my 13th-century vellum Trapper Keeper.

Sigh. Humans are weird.