Monday, May 28, 2007

Noted in the News: Religion, Gender and Sexuality

A lot of religions seem to have major hangups about women and gays. A bunch of stuff about both issues (enough to get a blog post out of) all swam into my personal universe on the same day. So here it is.

First, from Iran: Islamically correct bicycles for women -- velocipedes with partial cabins so good Muslim men can't be tempted into paroxysms of lust by the sight of (burka-clad!) female legs pumping those pedals. Geez, guys: take a cold shower or something. Riding a bike wearing an oversized robe must be hard enough already.
[Hat tip to Ooblog]

Next, from Pakistan: Shumail Raj and his wife
Shahzina Tariq have been jailed for three years. Their crime? Shumail is trans-gendered (female-to-male), and despite the fact that he has had sex-change surgery, he's not man enough to satisfy the Pakistani legal system, which considers same-sex marriage "un-Islamic". They were deemed to have lied about Shumail's gender, and accordingly were convicted of perjury. (Perhaps not surprisingly, it was her family who laid the complaint -- talk about the In-Laws From Hell!)

But it's not only Islam that is letting its hangups hang out today. Gay Teletubbies aren't just for Jerry Falwell any more. Ewa Sowinska, the Polish government official responsible for children's rights, has ordered psychologists to investigate whether the pre-school TV show is corrupting its audience by promoting homosexuality. This move is consistent with a recent pattern of homophobic policies by the government of this deeply Catholic country. Back in March, Minister of Education
Roman Giertych introduced a bill to ban "homosexual propaganda" in Polish schools. The children! Please think of the children! Giertych is head of the League of Polish Families party. Why is it, anywhere in the world, it seems that any political party with "Family" in its name, it's invariably a synonym for "Reactionary Bigots Party"?

One country over, an attempted gay rights parade in Moscow was broken up yesterday, first by Russian Orthodox and nationalist thugs who beat up the marchers -- and then by the police who arrested the beating victims and allowed their assailants to walk away (among those detained were Members of European Parliament). Unfortunately, this is hardly surprising in a city whose mayor has described homosexuality as "Satanic". Encouragingly, the mayors of London, Paris and Rome have written to Moscow Mayor
Yury Luzhkov deploring the violence.

But there's always a counter-current to the forces of oppression. Yesterday in Toronto, a dissident Catholic group called Womenpriests ordained five women (and a married man). The ordinations were carried out by Bishop Patricia Fresen. It hardly needs mentioning that the RC Church recognizes neither Fresen's status as bishop, nor any ordinations performed by her. I have mixed feelings about this kind of thing. On the one hand, as my Christian phase recedes ever further into the past, I find internal church disputes over arbitrary claims regarding fictional matters increasingly irrelevant and uninteresting (especially in a denomination I never belonged to anyway). But on the other hand, given the institution exists, I think it would be a good thing if women could participate in an equal basis in the mythology of their choice.

Crime and Punishment

One of the unpleasant facts of life is that a small proportion of men are creeps who go around harrassing women at random -- exposing themselves, making lewd comments, etc. Men who do that need some appropriate combination of restraint and treatment. However, I have to admit that this guy has come up with a, um, novel pervert pitch. He approaches his female victims and requests that they kick him in the groin.

Seems to me his crime contains its own punishment ;-).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

No Big Surprise

I especially liked the question about Jason Gastrich ;-).

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


Apathetic Atheist


Spiritual Atheist


Militant Atheist




Angry Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

(Hat tip to BigHeathenMike).

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reactions to Reactions to Falwell

Everyone, it seems, either loved him or hated him. On the fundamentalist side, there are tributes in a predictably hagiographical mode, along with complaints about the vitriol spewed by "liberal blogs". While some of the comments I've seen in such circles go beyond my personal comfort level, considering some of the things Falwell said when he was alive, I have to say: "What goes around comes around". Or, as Falwell's favorite book puts it: "....for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." For myself, due to some combination of principle and temperament, I cannot work up much of either a "dancing in the streets" attitude, nor a sense of great tragedy. We all die eventually, and if 73 is about ten years less than the lifespan we in the medically-advanced West have come to expect, it's not all that short either -- Falwell did, at least, make the Biblical threescore years and ten. But more to the point, he lived long enough to have done most of the damage he was ever likely to do, and to leave behind influence and institutions to carry on his "good work". So I don't see that his death does anyone much good (so to speak).

Meanwhile, on the "Christian Left", Jim Wallis gives an oddly ambivalent "tribute". To me, it reads like Wallis is doing his Christian duty to be charitable to Falwell, by finding something positive to say. He acknowledges what the two of them had in common: they both tried to bring evangelical faith out of the privacy of home and church; to get Christians to apply their values to the larger issues of the day. Where they differed is on exactly which issues, and on which side, they thought those values applied -- a fact that I think tells us something about the reliability of "Biblical faith" as a consistent or clear moral guide. Frankly, given the specific advocacies that Falwell took up, I'd just as soon he had remained cloistered.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell (or, How I Joined the Moral Majority, But Never Did Learn to Love the Bomb)

So Jerry Falwell is dead. Some have suggested that it would have been sweet retribution for him to discover that there is no afterlife, but I don’t suppose he is discovering anything at all at this point. (Maybe that’s just as well for Jerry, since Westboro Baptist insists he is in Hell, for which they are praising their God, who seems to be even more nasty, petty and hate-filled than Falwell’s.)

30 years ago, while a Canadian teenage student at a US university, I inadvertently joined the newly minted Moral Majority. I was, in fact, a Christian at the time (a few years post-conversion). However, even though my religious inclinations at the time were evangelical, my political leanings were decidedly liberal, pacifist, and even socialist on many issues. I had a subscription to Christianity Today, and there Falwell posted a survey soliciting opinions about the sorry moral state of the US. As I recall, there were questions about prayer in schools (I was opposed), priority of arms spending (I thought there should be less), and sex education (I thought it should be retained and improved in schools, and added a written comment that it should be in churches as well). Much to my surprise, a few weeks later I received a letter thanking me for having joined the Moral Majority! Maybe they only counted envelopes received, and didn’t bother actually looking at the content of the responses.

Whatever the cause, I was now on Jerry’s mailing list. Jerry apparently had lots of money, as he got his hands on a mail generator that would automatically insert the name and location of the addressee at strategic points in the email. Of course, this sort of thing is old hat now, but was rather amusing to see in its primitive state – the letters appeared to have been pre-printed with the bulk of the text, then the personalizations were inserted, often in a slightly different font, and not quite lined up (eg: …you, Theo Bromine, at your home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02139…). Before moving to the more recent rhetoric of blaming gays and liberals for 9/11, Jerry spent his time trying to goad his “Moral Majority” into supporting the Military Industrial Complex, stating that God was showing his growing dissatisfaction with America’s lack of commitment to him as evidenced by the fact that the US was falling behind the USSR in military supremacy.

I suppose Falwell (and his preacher cronies from the 1980s) made a significant contribution to my slide from evangelical Christianity to a more liberal faith, and thence to my current position of provisional atheism. Whenever I told someone I was a Christian, I always felt obligated to add the disclaimer that I was not *that* sort of Christian, thus bringing a new meaning to the term “apologetics”. Unlike Christopher Hitchens, I don’t think that Falwell was really a cynical unbeliever just using the trappings of religion to gain personal wealth and power – I think Falwell sincerely believed in most of what he did and said. On the other hand, I think that existence and relative prosperity of people like Falwell is evidence *against* a loving personal god.

My Eulogy for Jerry Falwell

There is an informal rule in our culture that one should not speak ill of the dead, especially not right after their demise. I'm not sure how this taboo arose, and certainly I would not advocate waltzing into the funeral and trash-talking the dear departed to the grieving family. But it seems to me that public figures at least deserve no more immunity from criticism in death than they did in life, and the near post-mortem period is the proper time to begin assessing the legacy of the deceased. Memorial services traditionally include a speech called the "eulogy", a term meaning literally "good word" -- but also "true word". So here in the second sense, is my "eulogy" for Jerry Falwell.

I first heard of the man around 1977, from my then girl-friend (see her post), during the height of my fundamentalist period. In the following years, Falwell became my own poster-boy for everything that most dismayed me about the way so many of my American brethren practiced our then-mutual faith -- the jingoism that identifies the USA with the Kingdom of Heaven; the uncritical endorsement of free-market capitalism as the One True Biblical economic system; the support for militarism and the nuclear arms race; the identification of True Christianity with voting for a particular candidate (with the implicit and explicit demonisation of dissenting views). To me, this verged on idolatry -- a confusion between the Christian's duties to Caesar and to Christ; a blasphemous conflation of one's own temporal interests with God's eternal ones. These are the people who went on to elect Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Sometime around 1990 (a period in which I was increasingly influenced by the pacifist and social-justice message of people like Sojourners) I realized that Falwell and I were no longer practicing the same religion. Oh, we read the same Book, and used the same language about God and Jesus -- but somehow, what we each meant by them, and our priorities, seemed diametrically opposed. My favorite artist of the period, Bruce Cockburn wrote his haunting song "Gospel of Bondage", in part about Jerry Falwell and his brand of Christianity.

By coincidence or not, on the same day Falwell died the BBC website ran an article about different attitudes to global warming among American Evangelicals. The article contrasts attitudes at two Christian colleges, both in Virginia. At Eastern Mennonite University, global warming is seen primarily as a scientific issue, about which action needs to be taken (perhaps not surprising in a denomination with a long tradition of social action). But at Falwell's Liberty University, it's "not proven". Says Liberty's senior theologian, Thomas Ice:
I think global warming is being used like many political issues to try to move the world from nationalism to internationalism or global governance.
How pathetic can you be? To make a determination of empirical fact, not based on the evidence of the phenomenom, but on which alternative fits your favorite conspiracy theory?

So what is Falwell's legacy? Well, when I encounter American political discourse on the 'net, I am constantly struck by the level of rancour displayed. Everyone, it seems, has declared themselves a "liberal" or "conservative", and pronounced anathema on the other side. Well, not quite -- perhaps I'm biassed, but it looks to me like most of the vitriol, the blanket spitefulness, started with and comes from the "conservative" side. Is it too much to trace this partition, this decline in the public dialog necessary to a functioning democracy, to Falwell and his Moral Majority (which, as was pointed out at the time, was in fact neither)? Even as an outsider, I don't think so. He was among the most prominent leaders of the rise of the Christian Right, and reliably sounded the familiar (and vote-getting) themes: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-feminist, the uncritically pro-Israel stance of Christian Zionism (based not on any love for the Jews, but on the bizarre and obscene hallucination that is pre-millenial eschatology; in which Jews and Palestinians -- indeed all the peoples of the earth -- are just contestants in the ultimate reality TV show). He set the stage for the unapologetic (but oh-so-Christian) hate-mongers like Ann Coulter.

Just to be fair: I've read that he started some sort of Good Works like substance-abuse recovery houses etc, though I don't know anything about that. But I thought I'd mention it.

One last legacy of the man, that he left me personally: I credit Jerry Falwell with being one of the factors which lead to my alienation from fundamentalism. I suppose I should be grateful to him for that much.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Posters and Paranoia

Jeffrey Shallit brings to our attention that, over at Uncommon Descent, Denyse O'Leary is most upset that someone has put up, in her Toronto neighbourhood, posters advertising a movie critical of Intelligent Design. And these posters weren't put up by just anyone (like say, the staff of the cinema?). No: it was "Darwin's brownshirts".

Holy Godwin, Batman! First they postered the parking kiosk, and I said nothing. Next they postered the lamp-post....(you get the idea). The comments on Denyse's post are worth reading (assuming you find paranoia amusing).

As it happens, I visit my native city a couple of times per year. One thing I notice is that the downtown is just about wallpapered in posters advertising....well, nearly everything: upcoming nightclub acts, community yard sales, lecture series, art shows, guitar lessons, you name it. The surface of every power pole (where they can be seen) is almost solid with the rusty staples of posters long since torn down or weathered away.

Of course, Toronto Darwinazis aren't the only ones postering. At right is a sample of a poster that went up around my suburban neighbourhood last week, advertising a Christian rock concert being held at a local church. Would this be the local Evangelical brownshirts? Or maybe pinkshirts (nah -- that would be too gay). As O'Leary suggests, maybe they're not popular enough to afford "regular advertising" either.

As it happens, I don't object to this event (other than my general antipathy to evangelical religion), though I do wish they would send the postering brigade back out to remove the damn things.

The point of all this rambling is: Yes, the poster plague is a bit of an eyesore, and quite possibly illegal in some towns (albeit difficult to enforce) -- but I find it, um, remarkable that O'Leary chooses to protest this poster, as if it were the first time anyone had put one up in her neighbourhood. Methinks she doth protest too much.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Paris In The The Slammer?

When I was a wee kitten, I came to a realization: you humans exist to provide me with entertainment. I intend to use this space occasionally to comment on some of your more amusing follies. I call this feature "Couch Czar Stupid", and this is my first post.

A few years back one of my humans was regularly getting spams advertising a "Paris Hilton Sex Party Video". Pop-culturally oblivious as he is, for the longest time he assumed this referred to an orgy at a hotel in the French capital. It was only quite a bit later that he learned, no, there is an actual person called Paris Hilton (who is in fact a member of the family that started the hotel chain).

Really, he didn't mind not knowing. He'd have been quite happy to live out his life never having heard of her. He didn't really need to know that there exists this spoiled rich brat who has now been convicted of driving with a suspended license, after a previous conviction for impaired driving, and sentenced to a 45-day jail term.

The Couch Czar Stupid part is this: There are some humans who feel that their "mundane lives" would be massively incomplete without Paris -- even for a few weeks -- that she provides them with hope and beauty and excitement, and have got up a petition for clemency to California Governor Schwarzenegger, to grant poor Paris a Get Out Of Jail Free card. When it comes to celebs and their fans, you can't make this stuff up. Anyone who needs Party Girl Hilton to give their lives meaning desperately needs to try this. Or even just chase spiders. Really.

Fortunately, not all you humans have gone mad (fortunately for you that is -- I wouldn't care so long as you keep feeding me), and there is also now a counter-petition, asking the Governator to stay out of it. However there is an even better reply to Hilton's silliness: inspired by the circumstances surrounding her legal misadventures, the same sculptor who previously brought us controversial depictions of Hillary Clinton and Britney Spears has now created Paris Hilton Autopsy. It depicts Hilton as a naked cadaver, laid out for post-mortem exam on the coroner's table, still clutching a cellphone and champagne glass. The sculpture even comes apart to reveal internal organs, and is accompanied by an anti-drunk-driving campaign.

At last: something useful comes from Paris Hilton's life.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Dawkins on CBC-TV

Just watched Dawkins being interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulos (I don't know how long the site keeps those clips around). It's late and I'm off to bed now, so all I'll say is: Stroum did a good interview and Dawkins rocks.