Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pro-choice or Pro-life? How about: when does it become a matter of two lives rather than one?

I am curious how people answer the following question:

Q1.  At what point (if any) would you say that a human fetus/infant/child becomes a human being deserving equal protection of the right to life (right-to-life equal to the mother's)?  Note that I am only talking about equal right-to-life, not necessarily any other rights.

Some possible options: 
   (-e) 18 years old
   (-d) 4 years old
   (-c) 1 year old
   (-b) 1 month old
   (-a) 1 day old
   (a) first breath
   (b) umbilical cord cut
   (c) moment of birth
   (d) moment of crowning
   (e) 1 minute before crowning
   (f) 5 minutes before crowning
   (g) 1 hour before crowning
   (h) 1 day before birth/beginning of labor (whichever is last)
   (i) 1 day before/beginning labor (whichever first)
   (h) 2 days before birth
   (k) 1 week before birth
   (l) 1 month before birth
   (m) 2 months before birth
   (*) when the fetus is viable outside the womb without intervention (beyond C-section)
   (**) when fetus is viable *with* intervention/life support
    ...and so on... (set your own time or conditions)

Q2.   At what point does the fetus/infant/child have right-to-life that outweighs a mother's *pure* choice (*not* a case of rape, incest, nor any known health risk to mother beyond normal risks of normal pregnancy)?
(use same options as above or make your own)

Q3.  How far into the pregnancy to you feel absolutely certain that the fetus is *not* a human being with a right-to-life?
   (0) 5 minutes
   (1) 1 day
   (2) 1 week
   (3) 1 month
   (4) 2 months
   (5) 3 months
   ... and so on... (set your own time or conditions)

My answers:

Q1:  I'm definitely not comfortable any later than 1 week before birth, but really later than 1 or 2 months before birth makes me pretty squeamish.

Q2:  Somewhere from 1-3 months before birth is very uncomfortable to me.  Or somewhere between viable-without-intervention and viable-with-intervention.

Q3:  I think up to about 4 months, I feel 'certain' not a human being.

So from about 4-8 months, it gets blurry for me.

I err in my opinion on the side of choice where it is blurry.  But putting it in plain terms, I would not oppose a law that basically said "after 8 months, you better have a damn good reason".  I'm sorry if that offends anyone -- but the whole point is the question of "when are their two people to consider and not just one".  And thinking "1 minute, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week... before birth", has got to get you thinking.

Where would you draw the line(s)?  At what point is there a human being there such that the law should have a say in protecting it?

Please answer and give your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In Defense of the Religious

In light of the title of this blog, what I am about to say will seem a bit incongrous.

I am an atheist.

There.  I said it.  It will come as no particular surprise to some.  It may be a bit of a shock to others.  I have family who read this blog, and while they know my secular and anti-organized-religion views, by and large they have never heard me bluntly say "I am an atheist".  But now it is out there.  No take backs.

But that is not what this blog post is about.  It is about the recent fiasco in the news about pastor Terry Jones' planned Qu'ran burning. (here, btw, is a Christian response to Mr. Jones' plan that I find agreeable).  It is also about the subject of criticizing, ridiculing, or disrespecting religious beliefs in general.

The first thing to address and get out of the way is the question of free speech.  Mr. Jones absolutely has the right to express his opinions.  Our laws do not permit government intervention (other than attempts at verbal persuasion), and I agree with those laws.  Any guilt for any violent acts committed by angry Muslims in response to the book burning lies squarely on the shoulders of those who actually do the violence.  There is simply no comparison between the harmless burning of a pile of wood pulp and ink on the one hand, and murder or maiming on the other.

What of the ethics of this book burning?  Personally, I find the beliefs of Mr. Jones to be almost as unpalatable as those of the "radical Muslims" to whom he wishes to "send a message".  Obviously Mr. Jones believes that Islam is at best misguided and at worst evil.  But what message is he sending?  Is he critiquing the beliefs of Islam, is he simply expressing disagreement?  No.  It is quite clear that he is deliberately sending a message of war, of hate.  He is figuratively spitting in the face of Muslims.

Mr. Jones has every right to express his opinion.  We should not attempt to muzzle him by force of law.  We live in a society where free speech is enshrined as one f our highest laws.  The best answer to "bad speech" or "evil speech" or "hate speech", is for the rest of us to speak up and speak exercise our own free speech and speak up loudly.

If Mr. Jones goes through with his plan, I hope that a large body of protesters is on hand to loudly condemn his action.  Likewise our president should condemn it (which he already has).  We won't be able to prevent radical Islamists from using media coverage of the event to stir up violent protest, and riots.  But hopefully much of the Islamic world will see just how "free speech" works.  They will see that Mr. Jones is a fringe radical himself, and that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not agree with his action.

The notion that the way to fight bad speech is not to censor but to speak up loudly to criticize or condemn it (i.e. not by limiting free speech, but by using more free speech to combat the bad or wrong speech) comes from a blogger notorious for his outright contempt and ridicule of religion:  PZ Myers.  (At least I think is was in his blog -- I can't find the article now.  Maybe it was a commenter on his blog.)

PZ is an outspoken atheist, scientist, and skeptic who pulls no punches when it comes criticizing and, yes, ridiculing, what he considers to be dangerously irrational beliefs (religious beliefs being only one of many).  In his blog he does not scruple about his choice of language.  He makes no attempt to be "nice", shall we say.  So if you follow any of these links, consider yourself warned.

About a two years ago, PZ infamously engaged in an act that became known as "Crackergate".  He stuck a nail in a presumably sanctified Catholic communion wafer and through it in the trash, in the privacy of his own home, took a picture, posted it on his blog.  Bear in mind that Catholic doctrine believes that once sanctified, a communion wafer is literally part of the body of Christ.  Predictably (although apparently not to PZ) the response from the Catholic community in general extreme outrage, and PZ receive loads upon loads of hate mail, including not a few threats on his life.

PZ did this, in part to protest the harassment of a student who put a communion wafer in his pocket instead of eating it during a Catholic mass.  He also wanted to make the point:  "It's just a cracker!"  He also wished to make the point that just because someone may be offended by what you say or express, you still have the right to say it or express it.  He certainly had the right to do and say what he did, and to write about it in his blog.

Now I certainly agree with PZ on the following:  religions, religious organizations, and religious beliefs should not be immune to public criticism and debate. Even some degree of mockery and ridicule, while perhaps not nice, are not necessarily out of bounds, when attempting to point out something which to you simply appears absurd.


No matter how silly and superstitious someone's sacred belief may be, no matter how much you may disagree with their beliefs, if you are going to treat their sacred symbols with contempt, figuratively or literally pissing on them, then, you are no longer simply critiquing, disagreeing, debating.  You are not even simply ridiculing that which you perceive as 'ridiculous'.  You are communicating gross disrespect, contempt, enmity, and quite possibly hatred for the people who hold those symbols sacred.

I am not saying that even this level of offensiveness should be banned in any way.  It is still protected free speech.  This is simply me, exercising my free speech to condemn such expressions as hateful and divisive.

Can you imagine trekking deep into the Amazon to find a remote tribe, and then pissing on their sacred burial ground or stomping some feathered totem into the ground?  You might as well spit directly into their faces, or worse.  Quite understandably they would be shocked, and react to you with the hatred that they perceive you directing at them.

There is also the problem of painting with too broad a brush.  Even though many if not most Christian denominations do not believe communion bread to necessarily be literally the body of Christ, they general do all regard it as sacred.  The Crackergate incident directly expresses contempt and enmity to all Christians, of all stripes.  This may not have been PZ's intention, but this certainly is the effect.

This does not in any way justify violence or threats of violence in response to the offensive act.  But it certainly is predictable, at the very least, that the at least some of the people you have offended will revile you in return.

Where exactly is the line?  Certainly no religion's 'rules' should be forced upon non-believers (neither should the rules be forced on the believers, for that matter).  Making a point of breaking the rules of some religion, in order to demonstrate that you disagree with that rule, is not showing gross contempt and enmity.  

There are more than a few among the so-called "New Atheists" (I prefer "Gnu Atheists") who very openly mock, ridicule and antagonize both religious beliefs and religious persons. 1  Often these attacks are made with sweeping generalizations, rather than targeted directly at a specific belief or at an individual who has said or done grievous things.   At the risk of being painted as an "accommodationist" or a "concern troll", I am going to suggest that this is not productive.

If we have any hope to bring humanity (or most of humanity) together under a common, inclusive, compassionate, accepting, secular and humanist morality, it will not happen by making enemies needlessly.  There are those (i.e. religious extremists and other extremists)who will insist on making enemies of themselves.  If and when they do, so be it.

It is far better to regard the majority of religious persons as friends, family, of the atheist/agnostic/skeptical community (to the extent that such a community even exists -- one does seem to have formed over the past decade).  We may have profound disagreement, but they are still "family".  A large fraction of Christians certainly adopt nearly the same moral code as the secular humanism subscribed to by most atheists.

And now I come full circle.  I announced at the beginning of this post that I am, indeed, an atheist.  What that means, and why I have come to it, and even why I choose to announce it, are all subjects for a later time.

Religion will be far from the only thing I discuss on this blog, but when I do, I may be quite pointed in my criticisms.  However, I will always attempt to direct both explicit and implied criticism at very specific beliefs, practices, and at specific individuals or groups whom I find to be particularly objectionable (Westboro Baptist Church, anyone?).  I will, for my part, never mock nor ridicule, for all the reasons discussed above.

So here is my defense of the religious, not that their beliefs should be immune from criticism, rather that all persons, of any religion or lack thereof, deserve basic respect and courtesy (possibly excepting those guilty of performing or advocating reprehensible acts).  My objection both to Mr. Jones' Qu'ran burning and PZ's crackergate are the same:  both display a deep contempt and disrespect for broad swaths of people.

We all deserve better.

UPDATE:  Apparently as I was writing this, Mr. Jones decided to cancel his Qu'ran burning.  But the Westboro Baptist's have decided to take up the mantel.

1 Lest I be misinterpreted, in my view, I have never seen any of the so-called "Four Horseman of the New Atheist Movement" (authors Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) do anything that I would consider to show gross contempt and enmity for religious persons. No burning of holy books. No defacing of sacred symbols. They do offer very pointed and often blunt critiques, and they speak there minds passionately and according to their respective consciences. Dawkins and Hitchens do use a razor sharp wit that can no doubt sting. Dawkins certainly does not hesitate to name absurdity when he finds it. Harris and Dennett, from all I have seen, are quite soft spoken and compassionate in their approach, if no less passionate. I am not among so-called 'accommodationist' atheist who think any of these gentlemen are "too strident" or "shrill". Accusations that any of these four are "extremists" or the "atheist equivalent of fundamentalists" are patently ridiculous.  No one should fear to read or listen to what these writers have to say, whether you agree or disagree with them on any level.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

You say "I couldn't care less" is what I meant? I could care less...

Blog post the Fifth.  Have you ever said "I could care less" only to be corrected by the person you are talking to (or a bystander) that what you 'meant' to say was "I couldn't care less"?  I know I have been corrected on this once or twice.

This is often given as one of those inexplicable linguistic phenomena where an expression morphs to a wording with literal opposite meaning while the intended meaning remains the same.  I stumbled across this history of the evolution of the two phrases as an example of just such an expression.  At first glance, it does seem that "I could care less" is 'wrong', and so the word mavens seem to be right.  But are they?

Imagine yourself saying "I couldn't care less." Notice how precisely you must enunciate.  Notice how careful and precise you are in your meaning:  "I care as little about this as I possibly could."  There is something about this choice of words that suggests effort, emotion, and mental calculation.  It is as if instead of saying "I don't care", you are saying "I really really really don't care," but you are saying it in a very precise way.  There is something about all that effort to express "I don't care" which is suggestive of one who doth protest too much.  It is often used as a weapon or a defense mechanism about something you actually do care about, "I couldn't care less what you think!" (when in fact, I do).  Note that that is not a case of sarcastically "meaning the opposite".  Rather it is a case of defensive lying to protect your own feelings and/or hurt the feelings of the other person.  Whether or not it is a defensive/hurtful lie, or actually means that you are at the rock bottom minimum of concern for the topic at hand, you mean what you say you mean.

Now imagine yourself saying "I could care less".  Notice how the words slide lazily off the tongue.  You toss off the words without really thinking.  There is more emphasis on "care less" than on 'couldn't'.  There is something about the casual laziness of this expression which suggests that you are not being particularly careful in your choice of words nor worried about your exact meaning.  But if you actually think about what you mean, do you really mean "I could not possibly care less, because I care as little as humanly possible."  I do not think that that is what I mean when I say "I could care less."

What do I,and I think most people, mean even if I never thought about my meaning consciously (until now)?  The first thing that comes to mind is, "I care so little, that it is not worth the effort to care less."  It ironically suggests that you are at the minimum of caring because it would take effort to care any less and you would have to care more in order to exert that effort.  I think it also carries and element of threat:  "keep pushing me, and I will care even less than I already do."  You could even mean both at the same time: "keep pushing me and you will piss me off enough that I will exert the effort it takes to actually care less than I already do."  You could also mean "I care so little, that I cannot be bothered to use the (supposedly) correct form of this expression."

So, next time someone corrects you on "I could care less".  You have an answer:  "no, what I really meant was, 'I could care less'."

Given the title of my blog, it is worth pointing out that whatever you might mean, this is one case where it is probably "Righter to be nicer."