Category Archives: News

The new Cosmos

Guys, I just watched the first episode of the new Cosmos.

It is so good.

Cosmos

Sitting in the dark in my living room while Neil DeGrasse Tyson walked me from planet Earth to the edge of the observable universe, I cannot describe how Small I felt, or how Large science seemed. It is remarkable what we have done in so short a time, and what we have learned about so long a timespan. I’ve read about all this before, and yet every time it gets me.

Along with the splendor of what I was watching, I couldn’t help but feel something less positive. I thought of my little cousins, who, by sheerest accident, happen to have been born to parents who don’t accept evolution. And it made me angry.

In Cosmos, Tyson tells us that we’ll need imagination to explore the natural world, but “imagination alone is not enough, because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine.” It’s true – the natural world is full of phenomena that we’ve only been able to grasp by pulling back layer after layer. Gravitation, the atom, the evolution of life – none of these were easy to get right, and it took us many tries before we successfully developed models that were as weird as reality. We really weren’t able to imagine these things beforehand.

But as my cousins grow up, their minds will be stunted by parents who present them with ideas that are easy to imagine.

I want more for them than that.

It’s a beautiful thing that Tyson is doing – exposing young (and old) minds to some Big ideas. I imagine that Cosmos will play a part in creating a lot of future scientists. So spread the word.

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Filed under Creationism, Evolution, News, Religion, Science

Religious directives dictating healthcare

Occasionally I have discussions with people about whether it is a such a big deal that Catholic hospitals follow their own set of religiously-inspired directives when treating patients. Shouldn’t a private institution be able to do whatever they want? Isn’t a breach of religious freedom to tell religious organizations how to operate? This is how I respond.

On December 9th, the New York Times Editorial Board summarized the issue regarding Catholic hospitals and standard of care:

Beyond new state efforts to restrict women’s access to proper reproductive health care, another, if quieter, threat is posed by mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals operating under religious directives from the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. These directives, which oppose abortions, inevitably collide with a hospital’s duty to provide care to pregnant women in medical distress.

They go on to describe a case from 2010 in which a pregnant woman from Michigan had her water break at 18 weeks. The doctors at the only hospital in her county – a Catholic hospital – did not inform her that her fetus had almost no chance of survival, and that terminating the pregnancy was the safest option. Despite the danger to her life, the woman was sent home twice. The doctors had been following the religious directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which apply to all Catholic hospitals in the nation.

Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available.

This isn’t the first time that religious directives have conflicted with proper medical treatment in the US or abroad. In 2010, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving a life-saving abortion for a pregnant mother-of-four. Last year, in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning because doctors weren’t permitted to perform the abortion that would save her. In short, Catholic directives require that doctors withhold information or withhold treatment from patients, and the consequences can be tragic.

No hospital should be allowed to operate this way. There are standards of care that healthcare institutions must adhere to, and the ACLU is currently suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for enforcing directives which contravene those standards. No one knows if they’ll win the suit, but I applaud them for trying. The bishops are right to call this is a matter of religious freedom; specifically, it’s a matter of whether our healthcare system will be free from the bishops’ religion.

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Filed under Catholic Church, First Amendment, Government, News, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

After trip to Brazil, Pope realizes that gays are people

Pope Bergoglio in RioPope Bergoglio said on Monday something that was completely revolutionary to hear in the year 2013 – that gay people should not be marginalized from society. This came as a shock to nearly everyone.

Bergoglio went on to say that he would not judge gay people, and that he respects their efforts to avoid the sinful, morally wrong way in which they express romantic love for one another.

In his interview, the Pope compared gay lobbies to the “lobbies of greedy people,” and said that such groups were problematic. “We can’t have people working together to effect legislation that would better preserve their rights as human beings,” he said. When asked if he thought it was hypocritical that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops spent $26.67 million on lobbying in 2009, the Pope replied “Uh… no.”

Bergoglio then spoke with reporters about some old issues in the church. “We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more,” he said. “But of course women can never be priests, because that would just be silly.”

One attendee at the Pope’s rally, Marianna Vericiano, asked reporters, “If the Catholic Church cares about people so much and has so much influence, shouldn’t they use their speaking time to tell people to fight poverty, or adopt clean energy, or use condoms, or fight for women’s education in third world countries? And is the bar really set so low that we cheer whenever the Pope says something marginally positive about gay people?”

No one else at the rally had any idea what she was talking about.

 

Image source: Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil)CC-BY-3.0-br

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Filed under Catholic Church, Homosexuality, News

Beatriz lives

I’m really happy that this woman lived.

Beatriz is a 22-year-old mother of one. She waited months for the government of El Salvador – a highly Catholic country – to approve a medically necessary abortion. They would not approve, even though Beatriz’ fetus was non-viable. Many people, including myself, signed a petition by Amnesty International to change the government’s decision.

In the end, the government didn’t approve of the abortion. However, the fetus became old enough that doctors could deliver it and it would count as a “birth.” The baby died within hours (it was missing most of its brain), and Beatriz is recovering.

I’m happy that Beatriz lived, but I’m angry that this ever became a problem. El Salvador’s laws on abortion are the kind of laws that organizations like the Catholic Church would like to have in America. Even though there’s no evidence that such laws do any good whatsoever, people still push for them to become reality. (For a look at the harm that El Salvador’s abortion laws do, see this harrowing report from the NY Times.)

As someone who used to be anti-abortion, I can say that many abortion opponents do not display half of the humanity that is displayed in that NY Times article. We are taught by our religions or our cultures to think in absolutes, to ignore grey area, and to believe something because somebody told us to. We should never make decisions for other people based on so little understanding of their experiences. Doing so leads to the death of women with hopes, plans, fears, lived experiences, and social and familial ties to others.

If anyone disagrees, I’d love to hear what you think here or in private (you can email me through my Google+ profile).

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Filed under Catholic Church, Human Rights, Morality, News, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

Standing at a crossroads

It was only last month that the verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case, in which two boys raped a girl while she was unconscious, and seemingly an entire school community played a part in publicly shaming and harassing her via social media. The case was notable for its demonstration of rape culture, as well as the cruelty and insensitivity of mass numbers of people.

Rehtaeh Parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons

This week, a disturbingly similar case was reported in Canada. 15-year-old Rehtaeh (ruh-TAY-uh) Parsons was allegedly gang-raped by four boys at a party. The boys took pictures, and distributed them in their school and community. Rehtaeh was then relentlessly bullied and harassed via social media. 17 months later, at the age of 17, Rehtaeh hung herself.

It’s hard to know how to contextualize or understand these tragedies. Teenage suicides due to bullying have reached seemingly epidemic levels in the past few years, and the details of each case are always appalling. According to Rehtaeh’s mother, one of Rehtaeh’s rapists was giving a “thumbs-up with a big smile” in the picture of him raping her. Somehow the circulation of this picture resulted in Rehtaeh being harassed. As a classmate explains in the article above, students at her school were “putting the blame on Rehtaeh.” I don’t know what on earth they were blaming her for, but apparently her faults were enough to justify unrelenting harassment, in the form of boys asking her to have sex with them since she “had sex with their friends,” and girls texting Rehtaeh just to call her a slut. The mind boggles at the level of cruelty and insensitivity. Is there not a point at which even a callous person has a moment of conscience, and declares “this has gone on long enough – I won’t be party to it any longer”? Sadly, we know from cases like this that if those moments of conscience do come, they are too few and far between.

The next question then is what can we do about it.

To begin with, a great deal of educating needs to be done on the subject of rape. Many people frankly do not know much about rape – what it is, who it is perpetrated by, what emotional scars it leaves. The popular discourse is full of comments from people who think that if you penetrate a woman’s vagina with your finger it isn’t rape, or that if a person is drunk it isn’t rape, or that as long as she didn’t say “no” (regardless of whether she had the chance) it isn’t rape. A high school English teacher, Abby Norman, writes about the time she discovered this moral confusion among her own students. Her class was discussing the Steubenville rape case:

I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.”

Well there you have it! The girl was out cold – clearly anything you do to her couldn’t be considered an assault!

Norman continues…

These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.

Clearly, our teenagers need to be having these conversations now.

And they are done a disservice by adults who minimize the consequences of rape, as many news organizations did in their coverage of Steubenville, or who perpetuate the myth that rape is committed only by evil criminals who will stop at nothing. Most rapists are their victims’ friends, boyfriends, neighbors, or classmates – people they know and trust. Most rapes are committed by people who could have acted better, had they been taught more about compassion and less about entitlement. We know that telling rapists not to rape works. So let’s do that, and not accept any attempts to distort the issue.

There is also the need to take bullying more seriously. From the description of Rehtaeh’s case, it sounds like there was no small number of students making hell for her over the fact that she was raped. You mean to tell me that her school knew nothing? They were able to do nothing? Throw an assembly! Sit the entire school down for a talk! There couldn’t have been a more important teachable moment than the time when an entire community gangs up on a child. Let no one repeat the lie that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. The results are in on that experiment, and it is hogwash. How many more children have to take their lives, or come close to it, before adults decide that we are not going to let this happen?

The hard-to-face truth about the bullies and the rapists that we’ve seen in the international media is this: they’re normal teenagers. They aren’t monsters, or psychological outliers. They’re the kids we knew growing up – our neighbors, our friends, and our classmates. They are a manifestation of human possibilities. Here’s Amy Norman again:

It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.

So we have to teach them.

Adolescence is a formative time in a young person’s life – every teenager will make decisions about what paths to take. We need to do a better job of pointing the way.

Image source: Youtube

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Filed under Bullying, Human Rights, News, Psychology, Rape, Women's Issues

Making headway in the Boy Scouts

BSA LogoWell, I must say I’m impressed, and cautiously optimistic – the Boy Scouts of America seems to be seriously considering changing its policy on gay members.

I got an email from them this week asking for my feedback on the policy, as an “alumni of Scouting.” The survey they linked me to asked detailed questions on how I would feel about specific scenarios that might result from a change in policy. Even more impressive, there was a section for open-ended responses. Here are two of the questions and my answers:

1) What is your greatest concern if the policy remains in place and openly gay youth and adults are prohibited from joining Scouting? (Please be specific.)

I responded: My concern is that wonderful scouts and scout leaders will be denied participation in a wonderful program, simply because of an outdated social bias. And I think that the individuals denied participation, as well as the BSA, will be worse off because they weren’t allowed to benefit from each other.

2) What is your greatest concern if the policy is changed to allow charter organizations to make their own decisions to admit openly gay Scouts and leaders? (Please be specific.)

I responded: My concern is that the charter organizations who would be most likely to discriminate would be those in parts of the nation where anti-gay discrimination is at its worst, and therefore the gay scouts and scout leaders who most needed the BSA’s support would be the least likely to get it.

The point of a nationwide change in BSA policy isn’t, in my mind, to accept gay scouts and scout leaders only in areas where people are already of an accepting mindset. The point is to do the right thing, to be convinced of what that is, and to *lead others to do it too.* That’s what the Boy Scouts are all about.

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So keep your fingers crossed, friends. And keep signing petitions and writing letters, if you can. This is a serious opportunity to change something for the better.

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Some happy news

WBC Protest Two sisters have left the Westboro Baptist Church! Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, ages 27 and 19, have left everything they know behind and are starting new lives.

There’s a good profile on Megan and the story behind her decision to leave over at Medium. I don’t have much comment to add, other than “Good for them.”

Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church

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