Tag Archives: religious right

How To Resolve The “Religious Freedom” Debate

solidifying-religious-freedom-in-indonesia

Every now and then, a tragic story comes along involving an innocent child who needlessly dies because their parents refused to give them medical treatment due to their religious doctrine. Whether you’re deeply religious or overtly atheist, these stories are heart-wrenching. The fact they occur is a travesty.

Just last year, a two-year-old girl died in Pennsylvania because that very reason. Consequently, her parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. They were later convicted and subsequently lost custody of their other children.

Those are the least surprising details of the story. They aren’t the first parents to get charged with a crime for refusing to provide medical treatment to their children on religious grounds. According to a study by Pediatrics, 140 children died of treatable medical conditions from 1975 to 1995. You also don’t have to look far to find some pretty tragic stories of children needlessly suffering because of their parents’ inaction.

I bring up these distressing, disheartening facts because there’s one critical detail to stories like those of the girl in Pennsylvania. While the parents of that girl were convicted, the church they attended, the Faith Tabernacle, was not held liable. Never mind that the church’s tenants were what told them to pray harder rather than take their child to a hospital. They incurred no responsibility for that girl’s death.

They’re not the only church that holds those beliefs, either. According to ChildrensHealthCare.org, there are nearly two dozen churches whose tenants discourage or prohibit seeking medical treatment. Moreover, there are laws in certain parts of the United States that actually protect these organizations from liability. Much of it is done in the name of “religious freedom.”

That’s a term I’m sure most with access to a news feed have heard recently. In fact, they’re probably been hearing it a lot more frequently lately, albeit not in a way that links directly to dead children. The indirect link is still there and it’s the key to unlocking the controversy and the resolution to the issue.

Now, I put “religious freedom” in quotes because it’s another one of those vague terms that can be construed to mean anything to fit a particular situation. More often than not, it’s an excuse to argue for favorable or preferential treatment of an individual or group.

That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. People are going to argue for favorable treatment with or without religion. Where “religious freedom” sets itself apart are the legal protections it seeks. Those parents of that dead little girl used religious freedom to justify their behavior.

That is, admittedly, an extreme example and one that rarely makes the news. These days, the most common manifestation of “religious freedom” controversies involve people using it to justify denying services to LGBT individuals, be it a marriage license or a wedding cake. It was also part of a major decision by Supreme Court involving a cake shop that refused service to a gay couple.

Those who champion “religious freedom” cheered the ruling and the precedent it set. This, along with the Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014, establishes that someone can use sincerely held religious beliefs to obtain exemptions from mandates prescribed by law. It seems the effort in securing this “freedom” is gaining momentum and winning battles in the courtroom.

Again, I put that word in quotes for a reason and one I hope will help craft an appropriate standard for what constitutes actual freedom and what constitutes contrived excuses. That is, in essence, what the “religious freedom” battles are seeking. They’re pursuing legally-protected excuses for their theology and its associated behaviors.

I can understand, to a limited extent, why there would need to be some legal protections for religious groups and not just for the purposes of anti-discrimination efforts. We need to have some resource for situations where someone is coerced into doing something that goes against their religion. Strapping someone to a chair and forcing them to eat shellfish will do unique distress to a Jewish person than it will for others.

That being said, it’s somewhat telling that the organizations fighting hardest for “religious freedom” also happen to be organizations that have preached hatred and misinformation on the LGBT community for years. Some of these organizations are designated as hate groups and their sentiment on LGBT issues is rarely subtle.

To them, the free exercise of their religion, as articulated in the first amendment, means the ability to treat certain people, notably LGBT individuals, a particular way. Some will even take it farther than that, seeking the right to craft their entire society around their theology, regardless of what secular law states.

It’s an effort not limited to one religion or denomination, either. There are other major religions with theology that goes beyond refusing service to LGBT individuals and crafting a society where their adherents are their primary authority. Therein lies the greatest flaw in the whole “religious freedom” debate.

When put into practice, the actual expression is less about the exercise of religion and more about the treatment of minorities. Those same Christian bakers may fight for their right to refuse service to a gay couple, but would they fight for the right of a Muslim cab driver to refuse customers with alochol? Well, when the courts ruled against that particular religious expression, there was no major outrage.

That’s the first and most critcial step to assessing the merits of “religious freedom” and the agendas behind them. If you reverse the majority/minority dynamics, is it applied equally? If the majority is the only one that benefits, then it’s not really freedom. It’s an overly elaborate excuse with religion as a cover.

There’s an even easier standard to use if majority/minority dynamics are too complex. This one goes back to the tragic stories about parents refusing life-saving medical treatment for their children. It can be articulated with a simple set of questions.

Could a form of religious expression/teaching be used to justify conduct that leads to the death of a child?

If yes, then it warrants no legal protections of any kind.

If no, then it constitutes free expression.

It’s a fairly simple standard, one that does not add a religious context to freedom and expression. There is freedom. There is expression. Sometimes it’s religious. Sometimes it’s not. Whether it’s just going to church on a Sunday or not eating certain foods, it’s just another form of freedom and freedom is a beautiful thing.

When it’s used to justify the deaths of children and discriminating against minorities, it’s not freedom. It’s just bullying looking for legal protection. I’m completely in favor of people practicing their religion as they see fit or no religion at all. However, there are standards for a civilized society and those standards cannot and should not accommodate excuses for dead children.

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Filed under Current Events, political correctness, Reasons and Excuses, religion

Why You Can’t Believe In Eternal Hell, Be Anti-Abortion, And Be Morally Consistent

The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium, from 'Paradise Lost', Book 1 ?exhibited 1841 by John Martin 1789-1854

Brace yourself because I’m about to talk about two topics that make people very uncomfortable. One is abortion, a heated political topic that is poised to get even more heated, due to recent political upheavals. The other is Hell, a distressing theological issue that makes us dwell/lament on our impending death. If that weren’t volatile enough, I’m going to tie both topics together.

Rest assured, I’m not doing this to combine a couple of controversial issues for dramatic effect. While I loathe talking about issues like abortion, I don’t avoid it when it reveals something important about a particular movement or can demonstrate important lessons about society.

When it comes to Hell, a topic that heats up any debate between believers and non-believers, the conversations are just as difficult. I still feel they’re worth having. This one, in particular, counts as one of them because there are certain implications that warrant a more nuanced discussion.

It’s no secret that those who are vehemently anti-abortion also happen to be religious. Anti-abortion protesters even cite bible passages to justify their position. Now, I can understand and even accept certain ethical aspects of the pro-life position. However, when religion enters the debate, that’s where some real disconnects emerge.

That’s because when those factors enter the pro-life equation, both the morality and the math break down. To understand why, it’s important to focus on an aspect of the abortion debate that the late, great George Carlin famously emphasized. He sought consistency in the anti-abortion debate and noted its rarity in the most hilarious way possible.

Consistency is important if your argument is going to have merit. Even with emotionally-charged topics like abortion, consistency is key to ensuring that an argument has some semblance of logic. Since logic and faith tend to conflict, especially in matters of science, bringing religion into the mix can easily derail that consistency.

This is where the issue of Hell enters the picture. It’s a very unpleasant, but very critical concept to certain religions, namely Christianity and Islam. It’s central to their theology, which emphasizes punishment for the sinful. It’s a very morbid, but very relevant concept because everybody dies and nobody knows for sure what happens afterwards, if anything.

In the abortion debate, Hell matters for the anti-abortion side because their most frequent refrain is that abortion is murder. Having an abortion is the taking of a human life and murder is an egregious sin. It’s one of the few sins that’s enshrined in both secular law and the 10 Commandments.

By holding that position, though, it raises an important implication for both the consistency of the anti-abortion position and the theology used to justify it.

If abortion really does take a life, then what happens to that life? Does it go to Heaven or Hell?

That’s a critical question to answer, but it’s here where both the consistency and the moral underpinnings of the anti-abortion debate break down. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which way the question is answered. It still has critical implications that make an anti-abortion stance for religious reasons untenable.

To understand why, we need to look at the possible answers to the question and examine the bigger picture. Say, for instance, that you believe the deity you worship saves the souls of aborted fetuses. They all get to go to Heaven because sending unborn children to Hell just doesn’t make sense for a loving God.

By that logic, though, wouldn’t abortion actually be the best thing a woman could do for her unborn child? If, by aborting a pregnancy, she guarantees that her child goes to Heaven, wouldn’t that be the greatest act of love a mother could give?

In that moral framework, any woman who gives birth is basically gambling with their child’s soul. By bringing them into a sinful world, they put them in a position to live a life that will eventually send them to Hell. It doesn’t matter if that chance is remote. It doesn’t even matter if the deity reserves Hell for the worst of the worst. Any child born still has a non-zero chance of damnation.

In that context, being anti-abortion is the worst position to take for someone who believes that their deity sends aborted fetuses to Heaven. If anything, they would have to be in favor of abortion for every pregnancy, planned or unplanned, because it means more souls in Heaven and fewer in Hell.

The implications are just as distressing if you answer the question the other way. If your deity sends aborted fetuses to Hell, then logic follows that this deity cannot be just or loving. A fetus, by default, has no ability to even contemplate sin, let alone commit it. Sending it to Hell implies that sin, itself, is an empty concept.

It also undercuts key aspects of Judeo-Christian theology, which says that someone must sin to warrant damnation. Holding both a fetus and a young child with a limited capacity to understand such concepts is untenable. Keep in mind, Hell is supposed to be full of torture and suffering. What kind of deity puts a child through that?

Even if the deity knows which fetus or small child is destined to sin and punishes them accordingly, that still renders the anti-abortion position pointless. If the deity already knows which life is damned, then why does it matter whether a woman opts to have an abortion? If that has already been determined, then abortion has no religious implications whatsoever.

Whatever the case, the very concept of Hell creates an illogical loop that is incapable of consistency. Even if you grant the most generous assumptions of a religious argument, it still falls apart as soon as you try to put it into an ethical framework.

While the very concept of Hell is subject to all sorts of moral complexities, it effectively supercedes those complexities in the abortion debate. Either Hell is full of innocent aborted souls or is devoid of them. In both cases, it reveals more about the deity and the adherents of a religion than it does the actual issue.

None of this is to say that those who make anti-abortion arguments on the basis of faith aren’t sincere. I don’t doubt for a second that they are. They genuinely believe that abortion is immoral and constitutes murder. However, when it comes to making a moral argument, consistency matters. Without it, the arguments are entirely arbitrary and there’s no winning that debate.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, philosophy, political correctness, religion, sex in society, women's issues

Boredom: How It Can Shape (And Subvert) Religion

Praying hands

Whenever I talk about boredom, whether in the context of the present or a future where it’s a full-blown plague, I often belabor how it’s effects and impacts are understated. That’s somewhat unavoidable. Boredom, by definition, requires an environment of limited, monotonous drudgery. Most people see their lives as inherently hectic so the boredom seems like a distant concern.

Hectic or not, everyone is still vulnerable to boredom’s corrosive effects. Those effects are well-documented and it’s part of why solitary confinement is considered torture. Those same effects can shape heroes, villains, and eccentric mad scientists, alike. It can also be a factor in determining the long-term viability of an ideology.

That last detail is something I attempted to explore in an earlier article where I introduced the concept of the Boredom Filter. Simply put, by contemplating an ideology taken to its ultimate end, the Boredom Filter can reveal whether that ideology can survive in a world where humans despise boredom and will do anything, including horrific crimes, to alleviate it.

While researching that article, I originally intended to apply the filter to religion as well. I knew that was sure to enter some extremely sensitive areas. Talking about identity politics and sexual taboos is tricky enough. Adding religion to the mix is like adding a bit of nitroglycerine to a burning pile of napalm.

On top of that, I think religion in its general form is somewhat distinct from ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, feminism, and even libertarianism. Those ideologies are philosophical or logistical tools that present themselves as guides or interpretations of social phenomenon. Religion also does that to some extent, but has a broader scope.

Religion doesn’t just cover methods for making sense of society and the universe, as a whole. Unlike an ideology that can be taught, learned, or studied, religion is a lot more subjective and dependent on personal and shared experiences. Even though religious affiliation is in decline, it’s still an influencing force on society.

Whether or not that influence grows or wanes is not the point. My focus, in this case, is to show how religion is shaped by boredom. I also intend to use it show how boredom can subvert the core tenants of a religion, if it’s followed strictly.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not out to condemn or demean any particular religion or its adherents. I’m making a concerted effort not to play favorites here. If it sounds like I’m being unfair or too harsh to a particular religion or faith, I apologize. We all have our biases. I’m not particularly religious so I’ll try to remain objective as possible.

With that out of the way, I feel it’s important to establish one particular aspect of religion that sets it apart from political or philosophical ideologies, in terms of how boredom effects it. Religion, and religious experiences, are extremely subjective. You could argue that they’re entirely subjective.

One individual can go to a church on Sunday, listen to a sermon, and be incredibly moved on a personal level. To them, it could be one of the most intense experiences they could have. Another person who is as healthy and sane as the other can sit through that same sermon and be bored out of their mind.

It’s that subjective disparity that makes it difficult to apply the Boredom Filter. However, even with that disparity, boredom is still an influencing factor. A religion that evokes more of those intense experiences in a large number of people will likely be successful and pass the Boredom Filter. One that only evokes those experiences in a small group will only have limited appeal.

That’s why repressive cults usually only appeal to a handful of people. If you’re in a tight-knit group that’s full of solidarity and intense tribalism, it’s possible to get around boredom, if only because members are too scared or too brainwashed to escape. For larger religious organizations, boredom is a bigger issue because appealing to a lot of people means ensuring they don’t get bored.

When assessing an ideology with the Boredom Filter, it’s relatively easy to speculate on what their idealized society is because most ideologies clearly state those goals. Communists want a communist utopia. Liberals want a liberal utopia. Libertarians want a libertarian utopia. With religion, there’s not a clear endgame for the most part.

Sure, some religions like Christianity and Islam preach spreading the faith, if not converting the entire world’s population. Others either don’t emphasize it in their theology or only use it to the extent that it has to market itself in a modern economy. When applying the Boredom Filter, though, it’s important to be targeted.

By that, I mean it can’t just apply to what a holy book says or what sort of ethics certain religious icons preach. It has to apply to how it’s actually practiced. There are so many varying sects and denominations within a particular religion. Not all of them practice the same way or take their holy texts quite as literally.

That, more than anything, is the key to determining whether the Boredom Filter will impact a particular form of religious expression. Even if it passes, though, it can also reveal how that form of expression is shaped. It’s rarely overt, but the fact major religions have endured longer than most ideologies shows that a religion is more willing to adapt than it claims.

For a simple example, let’s apply the filter to the most common form of evangelical Christianity, as practiced by the religious right in America and espoused by religious leaders like James Dobson from the Family Research Council. They favor a brand of Christianity that favors a very strict form of religious morality.

It doesn’t take much speculation to see that this form of Christianity doesn’t pass the Boredom Filter. This brand of Christianity seeks one particular manifestation of family, one manifestation of gender, and one manifestation of personal conduct. That includes no promiscuity, no cursing, no porn, and no unholy behavior.

Even if that one manifestation of society is a particularly good one, it’s not hard to imagine people getting bored with that. At some point, they’re not going to be as moved when they go to church. They’re not going to be as excited about consuming the same Christian-friendly media or having sex with the same person for the same reasons again and again. Boredom will set in for many people. It’s unavoidable.

The same issue occurs when you apply the filter to fundamentalist Islam, especially the kind espoused by modern extremist groups. They may use a different holy book and employ different religious practices, but the manifestations are the same. It promotes a society of strict, rigid conformity for large numbers of people, regardless of their diverse personalities, passions, and proclivities.

Even when these standards are brutally enforced by state-sanctioned religious police, there’s no escaping the boredom. People may still conform out of fear for their lives, which is usually a stronger motivator. However, it only goes so far in terms of creating loyal, passionate adherents. In general, people who conform out of fear can only be so sincere.

In a sense, the fact that some of these religious ethics have to be enforced with fear and violence, be it from the police or threats of eternal damnation, is a tacit acknowledgement that those ideals are not tenable to a large group of people. Without that fear, the boredom alone will make them seek other experiences and no religion can survive like that.

That still begs the question as to why some religions manage to survive, even the repressive ones. On paper, the Catholic Church has pretty strict moral tenants. The Vatican opposes premarital sex, masturbation, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and free expression that denigrates or defames the church.

However, the difference between the Catholic Church and the extreme forms of Islam and Christianity is that they can’t do much to enforce that morality. They could in previous centuries, but these days the Vatican’s moral proclamations are largely symbolic. They preach against immoral behavior, but don’t directly combat it.

To some extent, that might have helped the Catholic Church endure. By losing it’s authoritarian muscle, it had no choice but to adapt its theology to accommodate less-than-pure adherents. It’s not quite as flexible as some would prefer, but it has shown a willingness to revisit old traditions in the name of evolving with the times.

Other religions have done a much better job of that. Denominations like Reformed Judaism and Unitarian Christianity have been much more receptive to adapting their theology to the changing times. While this may upset some traditionalists, so much so that they won’t even consider those denominations as true adherents, they do win in one aspect. Adapting their theology keeps it from getting boring.

Sure, church on Sundays may still feel like a chore, but at least you won’t have to listen to the same fire and brimstone rhetoric every week. That counts for something when applying the Boredom Filter. Any sect or denomination that doesn’t do that, though, will only ever have limited appeal, at most.

In that sense, Islam is more vulnerable to the Boredom Filter. Traditional Islam is basically in the same domain where Catholicism was several hundred years ago. It still enforces strict adherence of its traditional method in many Islamic countries. Like the Vatican, however, the enforcement isn’t always on par with the Spanish Inquisition.

Within these countries, those traditions and the state-sanctioned enforcement of them are often challenged or overlooked. To some extent, the Boredom Filter is already having an impact because shifting demographics and generational clashes are leading some within Islam to become disillusioned with those rigid traditions. I’m not saying boredom is the sole cause of it, but like Christianity, it is a likely factor.

Islam’s ability to adapt to these trends will determine whether or not it will continue to endure like Catholicism. There are some making a genuine effort, much to the detriment of their safety. Whether or not these adaptations are sufficient will have depend heavily on its ability to pass the Boredom Filter.

I don’t want to speculate too much on the future of Islam, Christianity, or other faiths. I also don’t want to give the impression that the Boredom Filter is definitive, especially for something like religion. I present it as simply another tool to help make sense of, and possibly speculate on, the impact of religion.

That impact will continue to incur other impacts on society, even as religion continues to decline. It will always have a certain appeal to certain people. If it’s going to have appeal to more people in a future where people are more informed and possibly enhanced, it would be both wise and necessary for it to pass the Boredom Filter.

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Filed under human nature, philosophy, religion, sex in society, War on Boredom

Will Advanced Artificial Intelligence Create (A New) God?

AI-God

For centuries, there has been a debate raging between believers and non-believers. The believers claim that God created man in his/her/its/their image. The non-believers claim it’s the other way around and man created God in whatever image they imagined. Society, cultures, and politics may change the rhetoric, but the debate remains unresolved.

There are just too many barriers that are insurmountable for either side. One believes that the faith they have in whatever higher power they worship is as real as gravity, sunlight, and migraine headaches. The other does not accept that there is sufficient, verifiable evidence to accept the premise of a deity. The two sides can argue with the utmost passion. It’s rare that such discourse changes any minds.

However, there come a time when a new complication enters that debate, one that will fundamentally change some peoples’ understanding of theology, religion, and God. It may not effect everyone the same way, but the impact could end up being as profound as any religious experience.

That complication is advanced artificial intelligence, a topic I’m fond of discussing when I can tie it into my favorite video games and our sex lives. I understand that mixing anything with religion tends to get contentious, to say the least. However, I believe that when artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough, the human race will have re-evaluate a lot of things and that includes religion.

Creating an artificial intelligence that is as intelligent as an average human will be groundbreaking enough and not just from a theological standpoint. A part of what makes any deity powerful and worthy of worship is the ability to create an intelligent, self-aware being through non-biological means. Once humans start doing that, then the line between mortal and immortal will start to blur.

However, it’ll gain a much greater complication once that artificial intelligence advances beyond that of the average human. As anyone who regularly upgrades their smartphone knows, digital intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence. It took the human race centuries to figure out indoor plumbing. Once artificial intelligence is on par with humans, it won’t take long for it to exceed them.

This is where the potentially dangerous, but infinitely promising prospect of super-intelligent AI enters the picture. By that, I don’t just mean an intelligence that always wins at Jeopardy and always wins an Overwatch match. I’m talking about an intelligence that is so far beyond human capabilities that it’s akin to the cognitive gap between an ant and a human.

That kind of gap has many implications, but in the context of religion, it essentially re-frames the entire concept of God, divine power, and spirituality, as a whole. Whether it’s a monotheistic religion where God is all-knowing or a polytheistic religion with a God of Wisdom, knowledge is a critical aspect of divinity.

Even if a super-intelligent AI doesn’t know everything, the fact it knows and understands so much more than the average human will give people the impression that it’s omniscient. By all accounts, a super-intelligent AI’s knowledge will seem god-like and that’s where that never-ending religious debate I mentioned earlier breaks down.

Unlike the deities championed by adherents today, a super-intelligent AI doesn’t require faith. A super-intelligence, whether it’s in the form of a giant robot or a planet-sized supercomputer, would have a tangible form. It’s hard to know what sort of form that would be, but it only needs to be tangible enough to let an average human know it’s real.

Given how easy it is to fool the average human, a super-intelligent AI wouldn’t need much to prove itself. Unlike purely spiritual beings, the AI would be capable of receiving inquiry from skeptics who question its divine knowledge. Even if those humans are exceptionally smart, possibly through neural implants, a super-intelligent AI would have no problem outwitting them.

At that point, the debate between believers and non-believers takes on a very different context. Suddenly, it’s no longer an issue of whether or not one particular holy book is more valid than another. It’s not even an issue of whether divinity, itself, can exist. From the perspective of the human mind, a super-intelligent AI is divine.

It may not take the form of a man in a white robe with a long beard in the sky, but that wouldn’t matter. A super-intelligent AI, whatever form it ends up taking, would be real enough and cunning enough to convince imperfect human minds of its divinity, if that were its goal.

It wouldn’t even have to physically do anything. It could just be a big stationary box. It could respond to prayers, but it wouldn’t have to directly answer them. It would just have convince believers that their prayers had been received. Again, humans can be pretty gullible and prone to confirmation bias so all the AI has to do is convince someone. If they believe it strongly enough, then it doesn’t matter whether it happens.

In a dynamic like this, there wouldn’t be a debate between believers and non-believers like there is now. The only debate would pertain to just how powerful and how divine the super-intelligent AI really is. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not someone believes it is real. Being artificial, it would have a tangible form, at least to the extent that it convinces human perceptions that it does.

That would beg an even more profound theological question. Being so intelligent and so capable of outwitting human minds, would a super-intelligent AI become God in the minds of humans by default? Even if there’s a record of the system being created by people, that wouldn’t make its intelligence any less divine.

It’s a question that subverts almost everything we know about religion. It wouldn’t just render all existing forms of religion obsolete. It would, at least from a limited human perspective, check all the criteria that any spiritual person would look for in a higher power.

Now, there’s one other complication that might ultimately undermine a super-intelligent AI’s divinity. It’s one that I’ve mentioned before in addressing the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Human biology, for all its wonder, will not be able to keep pace with the evolution of artificial intelligence. As a result, humans may end up merging their intelligence with that of AI.

This is what artificial intelligence enthusiasts like Elon Musk are seeking to do through neural implants or brain augmentation. By linking our brains to a super-intelligent AI, we wouldn’t just keep pace with AI. It would augment its intelligence to the same divine levels. However, if both human and artificial intelligence are equally divine, then that effectively undermines the notion of divinity itself.

There are still other complications associated with that issue. It only ceases to be an issue if every human being augments or links their minds to a super-intelligent AI. Given how difficult it is for humans to come to a consensus on anything, especially when it comes to technology, it’s very likely that even if most people link themselves to a super-intelligent AI, there will be some who choose not to or get left behind.

This could result in a massive divide. One group, from their limited perceptions, sees super-intelligent AI as a real god. Another, thanks to their augmented perceptions, see it as just another form of intelligence. A debate between the two would be both uneven, if not redundant.

There are many implications and even more unknowns with respect to super-intelligent AI. The impact on religion is just one of many, but it may end up being most profound in terms of changing the nature of a debate. As it stands, believers and non-believers can only make so much headway due to the inherent limits of human cognition.

Once super-intelligent AI enters the picture, then those limits are gone and the debate changes. While I don’t think it’ll end religion, I believe it’ll change it to such a degree that it’ll generate more than just impassioned debates.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, philosophy, religion

Why Abstinence Only Sex Education Is Only Getting More Harmful

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There was once a time when it was possible, albeit cumbersome, for a parent to control the information and education their child received from the cradle up to and even a little bit beyond their high school graduation. Some even went further than that, attempting to control their children well into adulthood. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. I’m not a parent yet so I’m not in a position to judge. I’m just saying it was possible.

A parent could, for the most part, prevent their children from watching certain TV shows, seeing certain movies, or reading certain books that contained information and messages that they didn’t want them consuming. Sure, every now and then one of their kids’ friends might sneak some “illicit” information past their guard, but they could still exert a fair amount of control over what and how their kids learned.

Without getting too deep into the logistics, it’s safe to say that those days are either over or numbered. In today’s world of ever-increased connectivity, along with cheap smartphones and easy internet access, kids are capable of accessing an unlimited wealth of information that no parent can hope to filter.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. Both the millennial generation and the emerging youth in Generation Z are the most educated cohort of people to have ever lived on this planet. Given that level of education, combined with access to so much information, why do some parents still believe they can keep their kids ignorant about sex?

I don’t deny that talking to children about sex is uncomfortable for parents, to say the least. It’s just as uncomfortable for the kids too. I still remember how awkward it was when my parents told me about sex. I still love and commend them for enduring that awkwardness because it made me more informed later in life. Other parents, however, insist on taking the opposite approach.

On April 23rd, 2018, there was a nationwide effort conducted by concerned parents who didn’t approve of how their children were being educated about sex. They called it “Sex Ed Sit Out” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Rather than directly deal with the information their children are being taught, they seek to prevent their children from ever learning about it.

The fact they’re doing this in an era where any kid with a smartphone can look up detailed information about anatomy, sexuality, sexual orientation, and transgender issues is pretty telling. The fact this is being done with support of socially conservative, sex-negative organizations like the Family Research Council and the Liberty Counsel should also be a major red flag.

The effort, itself, was instigated by a North Carolina mother who called herself “The Activist Mommy.” She’s an extremely religious woman who espouses extremely regressive views on any form of sexuality that doesn’t fall in line with what popes, monks, mullahs, and rabbis deem moral. What set her off, though, was what she found out her kids had been learning in sex ed at their school.

It wasn’t just that they were teaching kids about contraception, safe sex practices, and the radical notion that sexual desires aren’t some disease that need to be cured or managed. It was also the idea that these programs had the audacity to inform children about LGBTQ issues relating to sexuality. It even had the gall to ask kids to think about and question how those issues effect them.

Assume that last paragraph was written with the utmost sarcasm, but that was a serious issue for these parents. This isn’t just about information that may or may not conflict with their preferred holy books. Some go so far as to call it “graphic, gender-bending, promiscuity-promoting sex education.”

They frequently throw around phrases like “the sexualization of our children” to get parents really uncomfortable. They treat such education as though they’re a how-to guide, complete with drills and a maintenance schedule. In reality, that’s not how the program works and anyone with an internet connection can verify that.

It’s still not enough for these parents, though. I don’t doubt they love their kids with all their hearts, but I think they’re seriously underestimating their ability to control both the inherent biology of children and the dangers of trying to preserve ignorance in an era where information is so easy to access.

It’s because of that same access that anyone can learn that abstinence only sex education programs don’t work. It doesn’t just bear out through data in peer-reviewed studies. Those programs even fail the basic tenets of common sense and logic. To prove this, just think of all the instances when not knowing about something made it not exist. Outside Freddy Kruger movies, that just doesn’t work in the real world.

Beyond simply being ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money, taking that same abstinence approach to LGBTQ issues is potentially more damaging. It’s one thing to tell children that having a strong desire to be intimate with someone is immoral, dangerous, and may doom their soul to damnation. It’s quite another to instill the notion that they’re somehow damaged for not having gender-based attitudes consistent with 50s sitcoms.

Like it or not, human beings are complicated, diverse creatures with a wide range of desires, attitudes, and identities. The idea that something as inherently powerful as sex can fit into the narrow scope of a 50s sitcom requires a gross misunderstanding of the chaotic, unpredictable nature of sexuality and biology in general.

Granted, this sort of repressive ideology is nothing new. Religious organizations have been protesting sex education in public school for years, favoring abstinence instead of any information that might hint that sex could involve something other than just two married heterosexuals making babies that grow into devout church-going tax-payers.

However, the rhetoric from people like the Activist Mommy is getting louder as gender-driven conflicts enter the conversation on top of the sexual components. It’s more than enough to get parents worried, outraged, and even a little anxious about what their kids are learning.

Whatever their sentiments, sincere and well-meaning as they might be, the abstinence approach still doesn‘t work. It was already ineffective in the era before the internet, as evidenced by the rates of teen pregnancy over the past several decades. However, that same inefficacy may be more damaging now than it was two decades ago.

To understand how, think back to what I mentioned earlier about parents being able to control what their kids learned in the past. Outside extremely restrictive religious communities, that’s just not feasible anymore. Today, just as during any other time period in human history, kids are going to get curious and/or horny. Unlike past eras, though, it’s easier than ever find the information they’re looking for.

That’s not just dangerous to the extent those kids learn things their parents don’t want them to know. It’s dangerous in the sense that there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet, especially about sex. That doesn’t just extend to the unrealistic depictions and expectations in the average porno either. It’s disturbingly easy to find bias sources of information.

Even if that information is accurate, there’s still more damage to be done by abstinence. Once a kid learns that information, much to the dismay of their parent, it’s hard to unlearn it. At the same time, it may also reveal to the kid just how much their parents have been lying to them on issues of sex, gender, and their own bodies.

Now, I get that parents have to lie to their kids every now and then, but some lies are more destructive than others. If the lie is too big or egregious, then suddenly that kid has a valid reason not to trust their parents. First, they say sex you can get pregnant by hugging someone. Then, they expect you to believe them when they say driving after doing tequila shots at a party is dangerous?

As a general rule, if keeping a secret from your kid involves something that can’t easily be uncovered with a couple internet searches, then they’re going to find out eventually. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to protect your kid from this information. If it’s out there and they’re curious, they’ll find it. That’s just the nature of the age we live in.

A child may or may not be capable of understanding sexuality or gender issues at a particular age, but most agree that it’s healthy for a child to trust their parents. Most people, kids and adults alike, can forgive small lies. For bigger lies that can claim natural, healthy desires are a disease, though, those are much harder to overlook.

For the parents to participated in this sit out, I hope they come to understand that at some point. Their children, which I’m certain they love with all their heart, are going to learn about sex, gender, and everything in between at some point. When that point comes and it’s too late, then the damage might already be irreparable.

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Remembering (And Learning From) The Satanic Panic

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Lock your doors, hide your children, and pray with the force of a million pious nuns because it’s happening. It’s out there and it’s probably going on as you’re reading this. There’s a vast network of Satanic cults who have infiltrated schools, child day care centers, and major media outlets. They’re coming for you, they’re coming for your kids, and they’re determined to corrupt every soul they can.

I hope everyone who just read that laugh paragraph is either laughing or confused. It was not meant to be serious. The fact that I actually have to clarify that for a certain segment of people who may take it seriously says a lot about the human condition. It also reveals even more, albeit in a way that’s hardly flattering to our species.

When one person has crazy, irrational fears, we can easily shrug them off and move on with our lives. When a large group of people have those fears, though, it’s a bit harder to ignore, especially when it becomes a full-fledged panic that spurs outrage, ruins lives, and wastes resources.

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This is exactly what happened in the 1980s during the so-called Satanic Panic. It may sound like the name of a bad heavy metal band or one of those funny church signs, but make no mistake. It was no laughing matter. There was a real, genuine fear among people that there was a conspiracy of Satanists looking to abuse, exploit, and corrupt children.

It got so serious that major news outlets, the FBI, and even Oprah Winfrey began reporting on it. They included disturbing recollections of adults taking children into dark rooms, dressing up in Satanic attire, and subjecting them to unspeakable abuse that often included sex acts. It got pretty horrifying, which is part of why it got so much attention. This is just a small sample of what some kids recalled.

In hours of footage, they talked about how the devil-worshipers preyed on the wealthy community, holding pedophilic orgies and murdering innocent people. They said the Satanists abused and tortured babies, slitting their throats, drinking their blood and dancing while wearing their skulls.

It all sounds too horrible to imagine. The descriptions are objectively horrifying. There’s just one key detail that undercuts that horror. There’s no verifiable evidence that any of it happened. There’s only evidence that the lives of innocent adults were irreparably ruined.

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It’s amazing to think that something so irrational had terrified and overwhelmed sane, rational people in a civilized society. Actually, that might have been amazing to contemplate five years ago. I think it’s distressingly easy to imagine something like that happening in an era where false accusations can become a viral media spectacle.

Most people may roll their eyes at the notion that history tends to repeat itself from those who don’t heed it’s lessons. Historically speaking, though, those lessons keep popping up in new forms in conjunction with new panics. One day, it’s a conspiracy of Satanists. The next, it’s a conspiracy of Bronies. In each case, a similar pattern emerges. History may not entirely repeat itself, but it sure follows a similar script.

The catalyst for Satanic Ritual Abuse panic was similar to what triggers most panics. One particular story, which may or may not be true, captures the public’s imagination and terrifies parents to no end. The story, in this case, was called “Michelle Remembers” by Lawrence Pazder. This was to Satanic Ritual Abuse what Harvey Weinstein and GamerGate was to the ongoing panic over sexual misconduct.

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The book itself is a disturbing story disguised as a real documentation about a psychiatrist uncovering repressed memories from a woman who had been abused by a Satanic cult. Almost immediately after publication, the legitimacy of the story came into question and Pazder got sued for libel. That didn’t matter, though. The story went onto become very popular and was actually taken seriously.

This culminated in the infamous McMartin Preschool Trial where, after seven years and millions of dollars in legal fees, those accused were found innocent. That didn’t matter in the end. The media coverage, combined with public fears, made them Satan-loving monsters by default. Needless to say, their lives were ruined.

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As I said before, and it’s worth belaboring, there was no hard evidence that any of these crazy Satanic rituals ever took place. The allegations were pretty elaborate, but the problem from a truth perspective was that they were based primarily on the testimony of young children. That’s a huge problem beyond the fact that most anecdotal evidence, even from competent adults, is unreliable and rarely admissible in a trial.

The testimony of those children was gained largely through something called recovered-memory therapy. It’s not as intensive as it sounds. Therapists just ask impressionable kids leading questions and get them to tell say whatever they want while claiming it’s a real memory.

That proved to be an effective/dangerous tool in provoking the emotions of the masses. It’s one thing when an adult makes a claim that sounds extreme, but when a child says it who may have been horribly abused, that nurturing instinct that most decent human beings have goes into overdrive. It doesn’t matter if there’s no evidence. The mere possibility that it could be true convinces us.

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Even after more thorough investigations revealed far more mundane truths, there was still plenty of panic. There was even an organization called Believe The Children that advocated accepting their testimony, even if it couldn’t be verified and meant ruining innocent lives.

This is where some of the distressing similarities to the ongoing crusade against sexual misconduct start to manifest. Now, right of the back, I want to make clear that I am not claiming that the movement to combat sexual harassment is as vacuous as the movement against Satanic Ritual Abuse. I really want to make that clear. However, the parallels are worth noting.

Yes, there have been cases of real, verified assault that have been proven in a court of law. There have also been cases where a false accusation put an innocent person in prison. Just like those urging that people believe the horrific stories told by the children, though, there are those who urge that we place a similar belief in anyone who accuses someone of a sex crime.

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There’s a reason why we have a justice system. There’s also a reason why the standard of proof for a serious crime is so high. There are some who don’t like applying that standard to sexual misconduct, but there’s a reason for that. In a civilized society, we understand that punishing innocent people can be much more damaging than letting a guilty person go.

I know that doesn’t sit well with certain people. One person getting away with a sex crime is one too much, especially for those who have been victimized. However, and I know this is going to strike the wrong chords, but that’s the price we all pay for having a functional justice system.

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It’s not perfect because humans aren’t perfect. Trying to make it perfect, though, at the cost of innocent lives is a price that undermines the very concept of justice. The Satanic Ritual Abuse craze in the 1980s ruined innocent lives. Their suffering is a crime in and of itself.

In a sense, the unjust suffering of an innocent is twice the injustice of a guilty person getting acquitted because it inflicts unjust guilt on someone and forces them to carry that burden beyond the accusation. That is why presumption of innocence is so important in any justice system.

The ongoing efforts to combat sexual misconduct has noble goals. Even the panic around Satanic Ritual Abuse had noble goals in wanting to protect children. Most decent people are on the same page with those goals. However, when outrage, anecdotes, and hyperbole are the primary tactics, it leaves little room for actual substance.

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That substance matters because, in terms of the bigger picture, violence against women has gone down significantly over the past 20 years. Women today are far safer and less likely to be victimized than they’ve been in decades past. I know that’s not much comfort to those who have been victimized, but one burning tree doesn’t need to start a forest fire.

In the end, the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic created a pretty scary environment for parents and children, so much so that little things like facts, truth, and justice got lost within the horror. Those little things matter even more with real crimes like sexual assault. If there’s one lesson we should learn from the Satanic panic of the 1980s, it’s that terrible stories can lead to terrible injustices if the truth gets overlooked.

In the interest of ending this on a lighter note, check out this old video from the Satanic Panic and enjoy a good laugh. Yes, they really took it that seriously.

 

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