Thursday, March 25, 2004

Chicken little was right

Martin (whose URL doesn't seem to be working at the moment) pointed me to this editorial by Donald Sensing in the Wall Street Journal. Sensing concludes:

Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable. The fundamental basis for marriage has thus been technologically obviated. Pair that development with rampant, easy divorce without social stigma, and talk in 2004 of "saving marriage" is pretty specious. There's little there left to save. Men and women today who have successful, enduring marriages till death do them part do so in spite of society, not because of it.

If society has abandoned regulating heterosexual conduct of men and women, what right does it have to regulate homosexual conduct, including the regulation of their legal and property relationship with one another to mirror exactly that of hetero, married couples?

I believe that this state of affairs is contrary to the will of God. But traditionalists, especially Christian traditionalists (in whose ranks I include myself) need to get a clue about what has really been going on and face the fact that same-sex marriage, if it comes about, will not cause the degeneration of the institution of marriage; it is the result of it.

I completely agree (except, of course, for the part about all this being contrary to the will of God). Christian conservatives have been asleep at the switch for a long time, and not just about gay marriage. They're getting outraged about Janet Jackson's tit, when what they should be getting outraged about is "Frasier" (one my my wife's and my favorite shows) and "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days", both of which portray pre-marital sex as the norm even among the fuddiest of duddies. And this isn't HBO, this is prime-time network TV and a PG-13 romantic comedy, and they are hardly the eception. I can't remember the last time I saw premarital sex portrayed in popular visual media as anything other than a societal norm. But the religious right seems too busy getting passionate about The Passion to notice.

I am not axiomatically pro-gay-marriage. What I am axiomatically for is consistency and effectiveness. Either we're going to defend marriage as an institution designed to foster procreation or we're not. If we're going to defend marriage on those grounds that means making illegal (or at least taking strong stands against) pre-marital sex, birth control, and divorce (at least for couples with children), taking away tax breaks for infertile couples (and even fertile couples who for whatever reason don't have children within a certain time period), and then wrestling with the very sticky issue of artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization. Most people now laugh at the chicken-littles who warned that the sky would fall as a result of reproductive technology, but it turns out they were right: the sky is falling. Society is coming apart at the seams as a result. Old institutions, like marriage reserved for heterosexual couples, are becoming untenable -- along with suffrage reserved for men and freedom reserved for whites.

Personally, I think that's a good thing. If having society unravel the way it has in the last hundred years is the price we have to pay to realize the American Dream of liberty and justice for all, I say bring it on.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Wow, people are reading my blog!

I just realized that people are actually posting comments on my blog and I hadn't realized it. I thought I had it set up to notify me by email when someone posted a comment, but that doesn't seem to be working. I'll have to look into that.

In any case, a response to a noteworthy comment:

On the issue of the California State Supreme Court ordering Catholic Charities to include birth control in their medical benefits:

> What if this organization didn't believe in antibiotics? Would you still feel the same way?


This question seems to make a fundamental but common mistake, which is to assume that if a principle leads to an undesirable outcome that the principle must be abandoned. This is a logical fallacy that I call "proof by horror story." The problem is that most people don't stop to consider the negative consequences of abandoning the principle. In this case the principle is religious freedom, and the (hypothetical in this case) negative consequences are that some people will be deprived of life-saving medical treatment. Yes, being denied medical treatment is a terrible thing. But setting the precedent that the government gets to decide what does and does not qualify as a religion is vastly worse.

I would make only two exceptions: one is if the person being deprived of treatment is a minor (as sometimes happens with Christian Scientisits), and the other is in the case of truly egregious abuses, like if Microsoft tried to declare itself a religious organization in order to avoid paying taxes. But in the case of Catholic Charities it is quite clear that neither of these is the case. If an organization says it's religious it must be given every benefit of the doubt, otherwise we'll be left with nothing but state-approved religions.

Baby shortage? What baby shortage?

I am truly astonished at the number of otherwise apparently rational people who are advancing (and otherwise rational editors who are choosing to publish) the argument that gay marriage ought to be illegal because gays can't reproduce. For one thing, it's clearly not true. From the point of view of reproductive abilities, a lesbian couple is at least as capable (arguably twice as capable) of reproducing as a heterosexual couple whose male partner happens to be sterile or has had a vascectomy. So even if one accepts the premise that society has a vested interest in supporting the production of babies that does not hold up to scrutiny as grounds for opposing the marriage of lesbians.

But the premise is also clearly not true. There may have been a time when society had an interest in encouraging the production of babies, just as there was a time when it had an interest in encouraging everyone to produce (or hunt or gather) food. But those days are long gone. There is hardly a baby shortage in the world. What there is a shortage of, and what the institution of marriage was designed to foster it seems to me, is stable, loving families willing to invest the 18 years or so it takes to raise a child, and in this regard gays are just as capable as anyone else (more so if my gay friends are any indication).

I also wonder in passing how many Americans making the argument that gays shouldn't be allowed to marry because they can't produce babies simultaneously support stricter enforcement of our immigration laws. I don't have any data, but I suspect the number is large. This, I think, reveals this argument for what it truly is: a thin disguise for bigotry, because at the same time they wring their hands about the terrible shortage of babies they want to make sure that it's the right kind of babies. Mexican or Romanian babies just won't do. This mindset is no different from the one that led people to oppose interracial marriage in this country not so long ago.

As an aside, there is an interesting review of the history of homosexuality in society here. I'd take some of what he says with a grain of salt, e.g., "There is almost no evidence in any pre-Christian writer of hostility to homosexuality as such." Leviticus 18:22 says "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination," which certainly sounds to me like pre-Christian hostility to homosexuality as such. But maybe that's why he hedged with "almost."

I found another interesting passage while searching for that one: Exodus 22:16 says (or at least strongly implies) that pre-marital sex is OK as long as you marry the person afterwards.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

This is progress?

An interesting juxtaposition of headlines as the two top stories on Google News this morning:

Bombers in Iraq , Pakistan Kill 184 People on Muslim Holy Day , Hurt 590

Bush: America making progress against terrorists

Two lines from my favorite movie spring to mind:

Reporter: "But deputy minister, the bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year."

Minister (dismissively): "Beginner's luck."

Monday, March 01, 2004

Maybe pigs really do fly.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I'd find myself in violent agreement with a Bush judicial nominee. And yet, it is so.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that Catholic Charities employee health plan must provide birth control in violation of Catholic dogma. The grounds for this decision is that "the charity is not a religious employer because it offers such secular services as counseling, low-income housing and immigration services to the public without directly preaching about Catholic values."

The lone dissenter was Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who was nominated by George Bush to fill a to fill a Federal Appeals Court vacancy. Her nomination has been blocked by the Democrats in Congress. Brown wrote, ''Here we are dealing with an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization's expression of it religious tenets and sense of mission,'' Brown wrote. ''The government is not accidentally or incidentally interfering with religious practice; it is doing so willfully by making a judgment about what is or is not a religion.''

I completely agree with Justice Brown. The government must not get into the business of deciding what is and is not a religion. That is up to the religious organizations to say. Yes, this opens the door to all sorts of abuse, but that is the price of religious freedom.

In this case it is quite clear that the government is forcing Catholic Charities to support a practice that they obviously believe in good faith is sinful. A more egregious abuse of government authority is hard to imagine.

The U.S. Supreme Court should overturn this decision.

Logic envy?

I'm in the midst of an interesting discussion over in Rand Simberg's comments section that began as an argument about whether the death of Jesus on the cross was "the greatest injustice in history" and has turned into a discussion about whether free will is logically incompatible with an omniscient god (small g).

That argument is of course older than the hills, and so I won't rehash it here. What I find interesting is not so much the argument or its resolution, but rather the fact that people, and particularly religious people, keep arguing about it. What I find most fascinating is that on the religious side of the discussion the motivation seems to be not only to convince people that yes, man has free will and God is omniscient, but (and this is the interesting part) that there is no logical contradiction in this position.

Why is it so important that the religious position be seen as compatible with logic? After all, there is no logical reason to believe that logic is an effective guide to Truth (whatever that is); you have to take that on faith. Why can't religious people say, "No, it's not logical, but I believe it anyway?"

To be fair, many religious people do say that. But it seems to me that a substantial portion resist this position with all their might, and spend inordinate amounts of time trying to "reconcile" religion and logic or religion and science.

The only explanation I can think of is that many religious people suffer from "logic envy". Deep in their heart of hearts they think that there really is something to this logic thing, and they just can't bring themselve to dismiss it. But why? As I said, there is no logical reason to "believe" in logic. I have two theories.

The first theory is that our brains are just wired for it. There is an evolutionary advantage to being able to think logically and so humans are driven towards it by a mental hunger just as they are driven towards food by a gustatory one. (Or, if you prefer, our capacity for logic was given to us by God as a consequence of being created in His image.)

Theory the second: logic is not inherently "good" or "right", but it is effective. The computer I am using to write this (and the one you are probably using to read it) was not created by prayer, it was created by logic. Likewise for cars, antibiotics, light bulbs -- the effects of logic are pervasive in modern life. And so religion, seeing this effectiveness suffers from "logic envy". There is a visceral satisfaction that comes from being able to prove something. It is so poweful that religious people often lose sight of the fact that proof is fundamentally incompatible with faith.

What people on both sides of the discussion seem to lose sight of is that the effectiveness of logic has limitations. Logic is effective in the objective sphere, not so much in the subjective one. Logic provides little guidance when it comes to figuring out what is good, or just, or beautiful, or why sunsets are romantic, or what the meaning of life is. These are precisely the kinds of questions where religion has a vastly better track record of providing answers that are satisfactory for most people, and it's a shame that some religions do not seem to feel secure in this success.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are doomed to fail -- and that's a good thing. Humans experience both objective and subjective realities, and these two realities operate under different rules. Logic is an effective tool for dealing with the objective reality of computers and cars and light bulbs, but it has (so far) been (mostly) ineffective when dealing with subjective realities -- love, passion, and the need to have a purpose in life. To meet those needs, religion is for most people much more effective. So it's good that we have both.