The religious right is the tail that wags the GOP dog

[Previous: The Christian cult of embryo worship]

In February, the Alabama Supreme Court declared (in an explicitly religious ruling) that single-celled frozen embryos were people, with the same rights as any other person. The effect, which was intended, was to shut down all IVF clinics in the state for fear of prosecution. It was the next, predictable step in the Christian right’s long campaign to strip people of reproductive freedom and impose its own theocratic vision of God’s will.

This is how the religious right always operates. They pilot their most appalling policies in safe red states, where they don’t have to worry about it costing them support. Once it’s become normalized in the media and people have gotten used to it, they start lobbying for copycat laws in other states. Once that happens, they move for a federal ban. After the repeal of Roe, they must have thought the public was ready for the next rung on the Overton ladder.

But, as it turned out, they badly misjudged what voters were willing to accept.

If you’re a Republican, you essentially have to be a child molester to lose an election in Alabama. But the backlash against the anti-IVF ruling was so fierce, even Alabama Republicans were spooked. They hastily passed a band-aid law that didn’t overturn the ruling, but nullified it.

After this stinging defeat in the court of public opinion, you might think the religious right is chastened. You might think they’ve recognized that banning IVF is a political dead letter. You might think they’ll back away from this position and try something else next time.

Yes, you might think that. But you’d be wrong:

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., on Wednesday voted to condemn the use of in vitro fertilization, signaling the campaign by evangelicals against abortion is widening to include the popular fertility treatment.

…The IVF resolution before the thousands of leaders gathered in Indianapolis noted the pain infertile couples encounter but said that “not all technological means of assisting human reproduction are equally God-honoring or morally justified.”

…The resolution called on “Southern Baptists to reaffirm the unconditional value and right to life of every human being, including those in an embryonic stage, and to only utilize reproductive technologies consistent with that affirmation.”

The message that the Southern Baptist Convention is sending, especially so soon after the Alabama debacle, is clear: they have no intention of backing down. They’re devoted to the religious dogma of embryonic personhood, and they want to make it into law if they can. If they succeed, it would outlaw not just IVF, but abortion and most forms of birth control. That’s always been their goal, and it still is. They want us to hear that loud and clear.

Obviously, the SBC doesn’t have to worry about blowback the same way Republican officeholders do. They don’t have to answer to voters outside their own denomination. They can make demands without concern for political viability.

But it would be wrong to disregard this resolution as symbolic. The Republican party is in thrall to the religious right. The SBC and similar church groups are their base of support that gives them their marching orders. If conservative Christian groups want IVF outlawed, it’s a good bet that Republican politicians will try to do it, whatever the cost. They’re eagerly passing abortion bans, even though those are massively unpopular among voters even in red states like Kentucky, Montana, Kansas and Ohio.

Here’s a case in point: Just this week, Senate Democrats held a vote on a bill that would protect IVF nationwide – and Republicans blocked it.

If Republicans truly had no intention of taking away IVF, they’d have no reason to oppose this bill. Whatever they say, they clearly believe they’ll want to ban it at some point, and they want to leave themselves as much room to maneuver as possible. They don’t want to tie the hands of red-state legislatures that want to give this another try.

Whatever lies Republicans tell to avert voters’ wrath, it’s obvious that reproductive choice in every form is on the ballot in 2024. If you’re a voter who cares about abortion, birth control, or IVF, you’d better get fired up. The religious right is pulling the GOP’s puppet strings. If they win, they’ll ban them all – public opinion be damned.

Cars shouldn’t be a necessity for living

A cityscape at night, with highways densely clogged with traffic

Once again, my state’s elected leadership has let its people down:

The MTA is pushing “pause” on New York City’s first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan indefinitely, according to an official briefed on the plans. The toll program, years in the making, had been set to roll out later this month.

No new start date has been set.

After years of fighting, New York City was finally about to implement congestion pricing. The plan was to charge a $15 toll to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street during the daytime. All the agreements had been struck, all the technology had been put in place. There were roadside billboards advertising that it was set to begin on June 30.

Then, at the last possible minute, Gov. Kathy Hochul – who’d previously been a supporter of congestion pricing – flip-flopped and pulled the plug on it. She gave no explanation for her sudden change of heart, other than mealy-mouthed excuses about how more studies were needed.

The revenue from congestion pricing had been earmarked for the MTA, New York’s transit agency. The cancellation blows a $15 billion hole in their budget, which Hochul’s plan to fix was… nothing. The legislature convened to debate the problem, but they too threw up their hands and went home without doing anything.

I can’t be the only one who finds driving unpleasant. It’s expensive, tedious, stressful and dangerous. We lose countless hours of our lives to sitting in traffic or circling to look for parking. We spend huge sums of money on car payments, insurance, registration, gas and tolls. Most of us put up with this because we’ve grown up with it and we think of it as normal – but, like many popular assumptions, it pays to question it. There’s a better way to live.

In an ideal world, walking, biking, and mass transit would be the default ways of getting around. We’d live in pleasant, human-scale neighborhoods with dense housing, amenities like shops, restaurants and libraries within easy strolling distance, and public parks and green space for recreation. When we had to travel longer distances, there would be a wealth of clean, quiet, efficient options: electric buses, streetcars, subways and trains on convenient schedules.

Instead, we’ve designed a society where cars are the only feasible way for most people to get around. This causes all the evils of car culture: perpetual traffic jams, impassable highways bisecting neighborhoods, huge swaths of valuable space devoted to parking, huge amounts of precious time lost to commuting, and a steady toll of deaths and injuries in crashes.

And the costs aren’t only borne by drivers. People who live along those gridlocked roads have to breathe the air pollution that’s belched out by cars and trucks idling under their windows. Some neighborhoods in the Bronx are called “Asthma Alley” for their high rates of respiratory disease. And of course, the more cars are on the road, the more damage is done to the climate by burning fossil fuels.

The only way to fix this is to make driving a less attractive option, by raising tolls and parking fees, and make the alternatives more attractive, by investing in mass transit. If the costs of driving are high enough, people will switch to something else. It’s a win-win: less traffic for the people who truly have to drive, less pollution for all of us. This is the reasoning behind congestion pricing.

The problem is the psychological tendency of loss aversion. People get angry when they have to pay for something that used to be “free” – even though driving isn’t free and never was. Arguably, it’s the most expensive means of traveling. But because many of the costs are externalized onto society, individual commuters perceive it as better than mass transit. Naturally, they’ll protest if they perceive the cost of driving as going up (even though it’s not a new cost, it’s the true cost, which congestion pricing would have put on the responsible parties for the first time).

Politicians like Hochul are terrified of that anger, especially from white surburbanites who are shaping up to be a critical swing vote. But if they let fear of backlash drive every decision, nothing will ever change. For the world to improve, someone has to have the imagination to envision how the world could be better, and the courage to fight for that vision and turn it into reality. This debacle shows that even many allegedly liberal politicians lack that imagination and that courage.

Empty vessels

An assortment of clay pots in various sizes

The biggest privilege that anyone gets in life is the chance to teach another person.

Most of the people we meet come to us as fully formed adults, with their own opinions, their own values and their own outlook forged by their experiences. We can converse with them, we can exchange ideas with them, but we rarely persuade them.

More often, when we encounter someone we disagree with, we strike sparks. We each come away more convinced: us of our beliefs, they of theirs. In the face of cognitive dissonance, people grow stubborn. They reject advice, they harden themselves, they cling tighter to what they think. It’s extraordinarily rare to say something to another person that makes a lasting change in the course of their lives.

But when it happens, it’s a feeling like no other. It’s a blossoming, something huge and wonderful arising from something small, like dropping a pebble that changes the course of a river, or planting an acorn and seeing it grow into a towering tree. It’s a ripple that spreads outward forever, passing through the world and leaving it changed. It’s attainable immortality, not the fantasy versions peddled by religion: lasting proof that you lived, that your life mattered to someone, that you made a difference.

This, I’m convinced, is the thrill of being a cult leader. Having people like putty in your hands, hanging on your every word and treating it as holy truth, is an incredible rush of power. It’s a temptation that few people can resist. But, of course, most of us will never get to be the head of our own cult.

The other, at least slightly more attainable, way to have this privilege is to have kids.

Children come into the world, if not as blank slates, then as empty vessels wanting to be filled. They have a boundless, instinctive curiosity, understandable in the light of evolutionary history. They’re hungry to learn everything about this place in which they find themselves.

In my almost eight years of being a parent, I’ve found this out for myself every single day. My son bubbles with questions, effervescent, like a glass of champagne. He wants to know everything there is to know. And I’m doing my best to oblige him.

I’ve taught him about religion and mythology, about the immense tapestry of human imagination with which we’ve peopled the heavens. I’ve taught him about science, about evolution and cosmology, the scientific method and skepticism. I’ve told him about history, from the Roman Empire to the Vikings to the colonial era to civil rights. I’ve taught him about literature, music, art and chess, and probably more things I’m forgetting.

In short, our kids are empty vessels, and it’s our duty as parents to fill them. We pour ourselves into them, our ideas and our knowledge. We hope (as every generation before us hoped) that we can pass on our accumulated wisdom so they start on a higher step than we did, so they don’t have to learn through painful experience.

As an inevitable part of this, we also pass on our values. Any good parent aspires to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong – and that seemingly simple task brings with it a whole cosmos of moral reasoning. Whether we teach that morality is utilitarian happiness-maximizing, or following universally applicable rules, or obeying tradition or religious dogmas, either way it makes a huge difference in how they conceive of good and bad. Even if you try your hardest to be value-neutral and to let your kids make up their own minds, you can’t help but pass on your values by demonstrating what you care about.

Getting to do this is both a privilege and an opportunity. It’s an unparalleled chance to shape the life of another person in lasting ways.

However, some parents – especially religious fundamentalists and other cultic belief systems – make the mistake of thinking that means they can make their kids turn out any way they wish. It’s the logic of the famous Jesuit saying, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.”

But it’s not true. Kids may be empty vessels, in the sense that they initially lack knowledge which we can impart to them through our teaching and our example. But they’re not soft clay that we can mold into any form we choose. Vases can all hold liquid, but they’re not all the same shape. Just so are our children. They come into the world with their own unique mix of traits which parenting can’t alter. The lessons you impart, when poured into them, may yield something completely different than what you expect.

Many parents resist this conclusion, but I don’t. As an atheist, I believe in individual freedom, and I try to parent in accordance with that philosophy. Of course, I want my son to grow into a good and ethical person, to be successful in life, and to be happy. But I’ve already accepted that he won’t be a carbon copy of me.

And that’s a good thing! Unlike religious dogmatists, I’m not so arrogant as to believe I’m infallible or that I have all the answers. We should all hope that our kids will know more and do better than we will. We shouldn’t want them to echo us, but to surpass us.

I see my role as a parent not as mapping my child’s course through life, deciding their beliefs and their interests in advance. Rather, it’s helping them figure out who they want to become. However my son turns out, I’m sure it will come as a surprise – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t wait to see what that empty vessel will become when it’s filled.

Pro-natalism: New rationalist cult just dropped

Rationalism is leading people to weirder places than ever. A case in point is Malcolm and Simone Collins, a Pennsylvania couple who have four children and hope to have at least seven, and founded a nonprofit to convince more people to do the same. They’re in the news frequently, including an interview in the Guardian where they explain their natalist philosophy.

The most attention-getting part is that the Collinses are atheists. They don’t belong to Quiverfull or any of the other patriarchal religious cults which teach that God commands us to have as many children as possible. Quite the opposite:

The Collinses are atheists; they believe in science and data, studies and research. Their pronatalism is born from the hyper-rational effective altruism movement – most recently made notorious by Sam Bankman-Fried – which uses utilitarian principles and cool-headed logic to determine what is best for life on Earth.

As with effective altruism or longtermism, reading about their philosophy gave me intellectual vertigo, because it starts off with seemingly-reasonable premises but ends up in a bizarre place. At a generous estimate, I’d say I agree with about 70% of what they say – but the remaining 30% jumps the tracks and becomes ludicrous nonsense.

I’ll start with the good. They claim to be gender egalitarians; both of them agree that Malcolm does all the parenting after their babies turn 18 months old. They also say they’re pro-choice and in favor of flexible work policies that are easier on working parents.

The Collinses argue that their natalism is rooted in concern for the future of human civilization. As more people delay childbearing and have fewer kids, many industrialized countries, from the U.S. to Europe to China, are having children at lower than replacement rates. If this trend continues over decades, populations will shrink, even crash. Social welfare programs and pension funds will run dry.

What’s worse, against a backdrop of shrinking population, the cultures that prosper could end up being the ones that have the least concern for women’s autonomy:

The Collinses say women’s rights will suffer unless the birthrate improves. “The only cultural groups that survive will be the ones that don’t give women a choice. And that’s a terrifying world for us,” says Malcolm, wide eyed. “People are like, ‘You’re bringing a Handmaid’s Tale into the world!’ – that’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent.”

One more thing I agree with is this: they reject the mindset, born from capitalist marketing, that parents have an obligation to pay for every possible activity that might give their children an advantage (some people call this Ivy League Preschool Syndrome):

“People say this to themselves. But – speaking as someone who has a lot of wealthy friends – people just upgrade their lifestyle as they earn more money. We want to have tons of kids, but as a result of that, we’re not going to be able to send them to private school. We’re not going to be able to pay for them to go to college.” The Collinses plan to home school all their children.

“We also don’t raise them like they’re retired millionaires, which is what many Americans do: driving them like private chauffeurs to soccer, to juggling and robotics class. We’re just not going to do that,” says Simone, still folding vests.

“When people say, ‘I can’t afford kids,’ what they mean is, ‘I cannot afford to have kids at the standards that I find to be culturally normative,” Malcolm continues.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s mandatory to send kids to private school, or to sign them up for other expensive extracurriculars to pad their resumes. Those mostly serve to perpetuate class privilege. I do think it’s good to make sure you’re in a position to give your kids some assistance with college, if that’s where they choose to go.

Those are the good, or at least less objectionable, parts of their philosophy. Now for the bad ones.

All the Collinses’ children were conceived through IVF. They’re using genetic screening on their frozen embryos to pick the ones that supposedly will be the most intelligent and successful. I doubt whether this is knowable, and it recalls a long and ugly history of eugenics.

They’re also involved in politics – as Republicans. Malcolm says he’s not racist, but he’s shown few qualms about sharing the stage at conservative conferences with white supremacists pushing great-replacement conspiracies. In fairness, he says he’s doing it to convert them; but also in fairness, it’s typically overconfident – some would say arrogant – of a white rationalist to assume that the influence only runs one way.

I have a simple policy: I won’t share a stage with racists. If you want to debate them, you should do it in a way that doesn’t give them a public platform to spew hate. What does their vaunted rationalism say about the likelihood of converting the general public to their philosophy, if they’re willing to rub elbows with white supremacists?

Then there’s the most infamous part of the Guardian article. It’s the slap heard round the world:

Torsten has knocked the table with his foot and caused it to teeter, to almost topple, before it rights itself. Immediately – like a reflex – Malcolm hits him in the face.

It is not a heavy blow, but it is a slap with the palm of his hand direct to his two-year-old son’s face that’s firm enough for me to hear on my voice recorder when I play it back later. And Malcolm has done it in the middle of a public place, in front of a journalist, who he knows is recording everything.

…Smacking is not illegal in Pennsylvania. But the way Malcolm has done it – so casually, so openly, and to such a young child – leaves me speechless.

…Maybe he noticed how appalled I was when he hit Torsten. On the way back to the farmhouse, Malcolm tells me that he and Simone have developed a parenting style based on something she observed when she saw tigers in the wild: they react to bad behaviour from their cubs with a paw, a quick negative response in the moment, which they find very effective with their own kids. “I was just giving you the context so you don’t think I’m abusive or something,” he says.

Above and beyond the cruelty of striking a child, this is all the more shocking because it’s so incongruous. I can concede that the Collinses at least have reasons for most of the things they’re doing, even if they’re reasons I disagree with or find bizarre. This – his willingness to smack a toddler in the face because tigers do it (!?) – is the stark exception. Is this a rational strategy?

Nature doesn’t exist for us to draw moral lessons from. Tiger males kill cubs sired by competitors, but that doesn’t make it OK for us. You’re not allowed to hit another adult to make them do what you want; that’s a crime. Why should it be different with children?

If anything, it’s worse to hit a child who’s small and helpless. Robert Ingersoll said this in 1877, and he’s still right:

I tell you the children have the same rights that we have, and we ought to treat them as though they were human beings. They should be reared with love, with kindness, with tenderness, and not with brutality. That is my idea of children.

…Do not treat your children like orthodox posts to be set in a row. Treat them like trees that need light and sun and air. Be fair and honest with them; give them a chance. Recollect that their rights are equal to yours. Do not have it in your mind that you must govern them; that they must obey. Throw away forever the idea of master and slave.

To be clear, I don’t think every instance of swatting or slapping a child should be prosecuted as abuse. Parents are human beings with emotions like everyone else, and parenting tests your patience to the limit. I’ve never hit my son, but I understand it’s possible to lose one’s temper. However, there’s a big difference between doing it in the heat of the moment, and recognizing it’s wrong, versus doing it on purpose, coolly and with forethought.

My biggest question to all natalists, religious or secular, is: How long do you expect the population to grow? Where does it stop?

Infinite growth is the mentality of a cancer cell. The population can’t increase forever on a finite planet, and right now, space colonization is nothing but sci-fi fantasy. It has to level off eventually. If we do it by choice, by voluntarily reproducing less, it will be better for us than if we slam into natural limits and die back like any other species that overshoots the capacity of its environment.

Natalism is unnecessary. We’re in no danger of running out of people. Even with slowing birth rates, the population is forecast to plateau around 10 billion by 2100. That’s plenty of humans to accomplish anything we might desire, if they’re all educated and lifted out of poverty.

As I said in my post on the decline of West Virginia, the only barrier is getting people from where they are to where labor is needed: in other words, immigration. I don’t know what the Collinses’ view on this is (although, again, they seem happy enough to share a stage with white supremacists). But if you’re concerned about population shrinkage, but against open borders, that’s the number-one giveaway that you’re a racist.

With liberty and justice (especially justice) for all

Come on, everybody sing along, you all know the words: Lock him up! Lock him up! Lock him up!!

A Manhattan jury found Donald Trump guilty of all 34 charges of falsifying business records Thursday, an unprecedented and historic verdict that makes Trump the first former president in American history to be convicted of a felony.

We can now say it, with the jury’s stamp of approval: Donald Trump is a convicted criminal, found guilty by a jury of his peers. He coerced a porn actress to have sex with him and paid her to keep quiet about it, with the intent of covering up the affair so it wouldn’t sway voters. Then he schemed to disguise the payment, falsely labeling it a legal expense in violation of campaign finance law.

I’m thrilled by the verdict, but I’m not especially surprised. New York is hostile territory for Trump, and there was never any serious doubt about his guilt. His only real legal strategy was the Shaggy defense.

There were only two plausible ways for him to get off: either a MAGA fanatic would sneak onto the jury and deadlock it regardless of the evidence, or the jurors would acquit out of fear of reprisal from his followers if they convicted him. (Trump tried his best to intimidate the court, all but begging his followers to show up, but almost none did.)

But neither of those things happened. The jurors weighed the facts and the testimony, did their duty, and held firm in the face of intimidation. Every decent American owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Given recent history, it was all too easy to believe that Trump would skate free. He built his political career on an image of impunity, boasting that he’s above the law and immune to consequences. (Remember “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody”?) But, like everything else he’s built in his life, it’s a flimsy illusion with nothing substantial behind it.

The jury’s unanimous verdict (not to mention the verdicts against him in Tish James’ tax-fraud case and E. Jean Carroll’s sexual-assault and defamation lawsuits) is an antidote to cynicism. It’s a resounding declaration that no one is above the law, not even an ex-president. The corrupt right-wing Supreme Court may not want to admit it, but twelve New York jurors said it loud and clear.

This isn’t the full measure of justice. Like Al Capone’s conviction for tax evasion, it was a minor crime compared to everything else he’s done. Trump deserves to face judgment for his theft of classified documents, for his attempts to steal the election, and especially for his role in inciting January 6. Thanks to his successful perversion of the Supreme Court, it’s unlikely he’ll stand trial on any of those charges before the election. However, at least this is one consequence he couldn’t escape.

What this means for the election, I couldn’t guess. Even if Trump were imprisoned, which I doubt will happen, it wouldn’t prevent him from running. (Although I’d dearly love to see him sentenced to community service, like picking up trash on the street.) He’d still have to be defeated at the ballot box, which means the real impact is in the court of public opinion.

However, it may be premature to say that everyone’s already made up their mind and this won’t change anything. To us engaged, politically-aware voters, it may seem that way – because we mostly interact with people who are either like us, or people across the aisle who are that side’s version of us. Neither of those groups are going to change their mind, one way or the other.

But there are still people who don’t pay much attention to politics, who don’t know what’s at stake even now. This news may move them. There are some polling results that suggest as much. In a close election decided by narrow margins in a handful of swing states, even a few people who decide not to vote for a criminal could make a difference.

Whatever happens, this is another step in the continuing downward spiral of the Republican party. Not a single one of them has renounced their support because of the verdict or called on him to step aside. The alleged “family values” conservatives are wholeheartedly backing a sexual assaulter who cheated on his wife with a porn star, paid her hush money to keep quiet about it, and then tried to cover it up. The “law and order” party is lining up behind a convicted felon. They’re throwing away any scrap of principle they ever had, and gleefully following him into the sewer, in their grab for power above all else.

To start, let’s censure Alito

[Previous: The cartoonish corruption of the Supreme Court]

We already knew about the brazen corruption of the Supreme Court’s right-wing justices. Clarence Thomas, but also Samuel Alito, have a habit of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends with cases before the court. They don’t recuse themselves, but rule the way their plutocrat buddies want them to.

Now we’ve found out something much worse. In addition to his enthusiasm for bribes, Alito is also a fan of the January 6 insurrectionists:

After the 2020 presidential election, as some Trump supporters falsely claimed that President Biden had stolen the office, many of them displayed a startling symbol outside their homes, on their cars and in online posts: an upside-down American flag.

One of the homes flying an inverted flag during that time was the residence of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in Alexandria, Va., according to photographs and interviews with neighbors.

The upside-down flag was aloft on Jan. 17, 2021, the images showed. President Donald J. Trump’s supporters, including some brandishing the same symbol, had rioted at the Capitol a little over a week before. Mr. Biden’s inauguration was three days away.

…During Mr. Trump’s quest to win, and then subvert, the 2020 election, the gesture took off as never before, becoming “really established as a symbol of the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign,” according to Alex Newhouse, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

…Hanging an inverted flag outside a home was “an explicit signifier that you are part of this community that believes America has been taken and needs to be taken back,” Mr. Newhouse said.

Alito claims, implausibly, that the upside-down flag was his wife’s choice to display, not his, and wasn’t intended to convey a political message about the election, but was in response to an altercation she was having with one of her neighbors. This is bullshit and everyone knows it.

Not least, because we then found out that Alito’s house was flying another anti-democracy flag – the Christian nationalist “Appeal to Heaven” flag – as recently as 2023:

The newspaper published photos from neighbors and from Google Street View that show an “Appeal to Heaven” flag flying outside the justice’s beach house in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.

The flag, featuring a green pine tree on a white background, dates to the Revolutionary War, but is now linked with Christian nationalists and those who support former President Donald Trump.

The “Appeal to Heaven” flag was commissioned by Americans during the Revolutionary War, but it fell out of fashion for hundreds of years. But in the last ten years, it was readopted by the Christian right, at the urging of a radical pastor named Dutch Sheets. For them, it symbolizes their belief that God is on their side and will grant them victory regardless of human choices. It was carried by Trump supporters during the January 6 riot and Capitol invasion:

“When the election was called for Joe Biden and Trump refused to concede, almost all the prophets began saying God would have to intervene. Dutch Sheets converted his Give Him 15 prayer app into a YouTube show that became a clearinghouse for all the conversations about overturning the election, and Sheets was constantly infusing this Appeal to Heaven idea.

…It’s not a coincidence that you see Appeal to Heaven flags all over the place on Jan. 6. We know that at least one rioter wore an Appeal to Heaven flag inside the Capitol as a cape. When the FBI went to arrest him later, they found the Appeal to Heaven flag spattered with blood and mace. We can see in one video as the crowds breach the barricades, somebody with an Appeal to Heaven flag using that flagpole to beat down a police officer.” (source)

There’s no innocent explanation for Alito flying not one, but two flags linked to insurrection, election denial and Christian nationalism. Even the New York Times, where vacuous view-from-nowhere journalism is an ingrained habit, couldn’t resist a pointed take about the political implications:

This spring, the justices are already laboring under suspicion by many Americans that whatever decisions they make about the Jan. 6 cases will be partisan. Justice Clarence Thomas has declined to recuse himself despite the direct involvement of his wife, Virginia Thomas, in efforts to overturn the election.

There’s no mincing words: Alito is an election denier. What’s worse, he doesn’t care who knows it. Announcing his views by, literally, flying the flag for them indicates an unconcern with public perception. That suggests a feeling of impunity on his part. He thinks he’s above accountability or consequences.

We need to show him otherwise. Democrats in Congress have introduced a resolution to censure Alito. The FFRF is calling on atheists and skeptics to contact their congresspeople to support it.

This might seem like a waste of time, because censure is symbolic. By itself, it doesn’t accomplish anything. The religious right only cares about power – they’ll do whatever they can get away with, if no one stops them – and censure, even if it’s successful, doesn’t detract from his power.

However, it’s a good start. It’s an official recognition of his wrongdoing, and that lays the groundwork for more. If it passes, it builds momentum for further action: like ethics hearings, impeachment, mandatory recusal, expanding the court, stripping it of jurisdiction, or other measures that are within Congress’ power.

Even if none of those things happen now or after the next election, it can only be good to keep the hot light of scrutiny on Alito and his ilk. The court is a political institution, even if the justices try to pretend otherwise. It has no means of enforcing its decisions. What power it has comes from a general belief in its impartiality and legitimacy. If the justices feel the walls closing in on them, they may feel compelled to issue more liberal rulings than they otherwise would have, as a way of trying to prove they’re not biased.

Why isn’t religion Dionysian?

Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632). Oil on canvas, 98 x 142 cm.

Here’s a thought for today: Is it a coincidence that all the major Western religions are anti-sex?

Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism all equate sex with sin. They set elaborate rules that control, restrict and shape sexual impulses. They demand monogamy without exception and condemn sex outside marriage. They crusade against LGBTQ rights, divorce, masturbation, polyamory, pornography, and any other kind of sex that doesn’t fit this paradigm.

They’re deeply ambivalent about the body, as in the Garden of Eden story where shame about nakedness is the first symptom of sin entering the world, or the Old Testament codes which decree that wet dreams, menstruation and birth make people ritually unclean, or the New Testament verses where Jesus recommends castration. Many of them, especially the Roman Catholic church, assert that sex should always be for procreation and never for pleasure alone.

And because these religions all label women as the sex class, they treat them as especially liable to sin and to tempt others into sin, and burden them with heavy rules and obligations that don’t apply to men. Conservative Judaism, for example, teaches that women must remain segregated and silent during religious services, lest they distract men from holiness. The Christian patriarchy movement treats women as property to be handed off from father to husband, and holds that they have a duty to act and dress modestly so there’s no chance of causing men to feel lust. Conservative branches of Islam force women to be veiled and virtually invisible in public.

It’s not just that these religions have so many rules about sex. It’s the extreme emphasis they put on enforcing these rules, both by policing their own members and by trying to write them into secular law where possible. Judging by the behavior of Christians, Christianity cares far more about sexual behavior and sexuality than it does about any other cause, like feeding the hungry or ending war.

This is especially strange because the religious obsession with controlling sexuality is, arguably, their biggest weakness. It means that rebellion will always be pleasurable and tempting. They’re battling against human nature, rather than working in tandem with it.

The churches’ relentless opposition to LGBTQ rights has severely damaged their moral standing. They’re bleeding young people all around the world because of it. The same goes for feminism. Because the burden of anti-sex rules falls mostly on women, religion will always be public enemy number one for women who assert their rights as equal human beings with autonomy.

I can imagine a world where religion was different. This could be a world of Dionysian orgies and sex as a sacred act, as some pagan faiths may have believed.

But even without that, I can imagine a world where sex wasn’t the chief preoccupation of religious moralizers. It would be a world where the churches never developed sex-negative, body-shaming attitudes, rigid ideas about gender, or relentless hate for LGBTQ people. These alternate religions could still recommend fidelity and honesty and treating your partners well, but otherwise they wouldn’t be overly concerned about what people do with their bodies.

So why do we live in our world and not that one? Is it just random chance, a stroke of bad luck? Or is there a reason why patriarchal, sex-negative, prohibitionist churches won out over free-love paganism?

If you were inclined to evolutionary psychology, you might argue that monogamy is natural for humanity, and religious rules just reflect this innate preference. However, this theory has a harder time explaining why so many religions have such a negative attitude, bordering on revulsion, toward the body – both our own and others’. Surely we didn’t evolve to feel disgust at our own bodies.

Conservative religions teach people to feel shame and guilt over natural bodily functions; they frown on sexual pleasure; they try to keep people ignorant of the basic mechanics of sex for as long as possible. None of those make sense if you assume that promoting monogamous childbearing is the true goal. Some religions, especially Roman Catholicism, go further by requiring celibacy for their priests and exalting virginity for women. That’s literally the most “unnatural” belief possible, from an evolutionary standpoint. This is a strong signal that these rules are cultural, not genetic.

If we reject the null hypothesis that sex taboos arose because of chance, the best explanation I can come up with has to do with reinforcing hierarchy.

Most of the anti-sex religions are highly hierarchical, and that probably isn’t coincidence. Sex guilt is a useful tool for controlling worshippers. Teaching people to hate their bodies and feel shame for their natural impulses can become a focal point for rebellion, but for those who remain loyal, it ensures they’re always fighting against themselves.

It makes these religions feel more needed, in the sense that believers see life as a constant struggle against temptation. It means they can’t put confidence in their own judgment, but have to look to external authorities for validation and forgiveness. And it’s possible that, in war and conquest, hierarchical religions have an advantage. It’s easier for them to weld their followers together into an obedient army.

If this is true, it yields a prediction: the more egalitarian forms of these religions will also be less prudish. That’s not just because religions that are more liberal in general are also more liberal about sex. It’s because, without a steep hierarchy and the emphasis on obedience to dogma, they have less need to control their membership.

The rights of a river

Whanganui River – Felix Engelhardt, CC BY 2.0 DEED

Corporations are people, my friend. Or, at least, they are under the legal regime that prevails under capitalism. So why can’t a river be a person? Or a forest? Or a mountain?

To those of us steeped in Cartesian dualism, it sounds like a bizarre idea. However, there’s precedent for it in the cultures and belief systems of indigenous people around the world.

For example, Native American languages like Potawatomi draw little distinction between what English speakers would consider animate versus inanimate objects. They treat everything as alive and aware in its own way. Some Western legal scholars, like Christopher Stone and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, advocated a similar theory.

And in the last few years, a handful of countries are warming to the idea. In 2014, New Zealand passed a law that granted legal personhood to Te Urewera, a rainforest and national park. In 2019, they followed up by granting personhood to the Whanganui River, which is sacred to the Maori people:

When the New Zealand parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua Act granting the Whanganui River system legal personhood, the decision sent waves across the globe, settling the longest water dispute in the nation’s history and establishing a unique legal framework rooted in the Maori worldview of the Whanganui tribes, who revere the river as a tupuna, or ancestor.

The law begins by recognising the river as an indivisible and living being called Te Awa Tupua and outlines four core principles from the tribes’ perspective, including their inalienable connection to the river. Then, it states this being “has all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.

The idea has also spread to India, where in 2017 a court ordered the granting of legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.

Because our legal system privileges human interests above other beings, 20th-century environmentalists argued for preservation on the grounds that nature gives us aesthetic pleasure. It’s understandable why they made this argument, but from a moral perspective it’s backwards. It assumes wilderness has no value of its own. Nature is only permitted to exist insofar as it serves the desires of human beings. The ideology of capitalism treats everything as valueless, unless it proves otherwise by making a profit.

Even by this narrow accounting, nature should be worth more than the value of tourist dollars. We depend on the natural world for our existence, not vice versa. It gives us the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fertile soil where we grow our food, the oceans we fish, the insects that pollinate our crops.

However, more fundamentally, we lose something precious when a beautiful wild place falls to the bulldozers. Each species is unique and irreplaceable, the distilled result of millions of years of evolution, no more and no less than human beings. It’s obscene to say that nature should only be allowed to exist if we can put a dollar value on it. Its right to exist should be the default. It’s destruction that should require a justification, not preservation.

It’s this reasoning that undergirds nature-as-person arguments. Obviously, a river or a forest can’t speak for itself or express its desires. But that’s not necessarily a problem. Our legal system already has ways of extending honorary personhood to all kinds of entities. A corporation has shareholders who make decisions on its behalf. A small child or a disabled person who can’t communicate can have an appointed guardian who speaks for them and watches out for their interests. We could imagine doing something similar for nature.

Of course, the wrinkle is that personhood brings both rights and responsibilities. A wild animal isn’t a person, so it doesn’t have rights, but it also isn’t treated as responsible for any harm it commits. We understand that it’s obeying its nature and can’t be expected to do otherwise. (Notwithstanding the fact that medieval Europeans put animals on trial for misdeeds.)

How would it work to grant personhood to a natural feature like a river? Is it a violation of a river’s rights to dam it for electricity, or to divert its water for irrigation? Does the river “mind”? And what if the river bursts its banks and destroys a town, or drowns a person? Can the river be sued for the harm it’s done?

Some commenters treat the issue of liability as a joke, but I think it’s a serious question. This is where the legal analogy of personhood starts breaking down. A corporation’s executives actually have control over what the corporation does, and they can be held responsible for harmful decisions they make on its behalf. A river’s guardian doesn’t.

For those reasons, I’m not convinced that personhood for nature is the right fit. But I do like the idea of granting nature enforceable rights of its own. It should have the freedom to exist, as far as is practical, free of degradation and encroachment. There could be guardians whose role it is to maintain the health of a river or a forest, protecting it from pollution and other harms.

This is the approach taken by Ecuador, for example, which added a “rights of nature” amendment to its constitution. Bolivia has done the same with its Law of Mother Earth. This strikes me as the right approach, and we can hope more nations adopt it.

It doesn’t mean an end to all new development or all use of natural resources for human benefit. But it does require something that’s almost never done right now: a careful analysis of the harms and benefits, rather than an implicit assumption that nature is worthless and rapacious destruction in the name of profit is always a good thing.

West Virginia is the future of red states

The abandoned, crumbling Coalwood High School in West Virginia

Coalwood High School, WV – Kelly Michals, CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

What happens when white nationalists and anti-immigrant bigots get what they want? They’re finding out right now. There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal whose title sums it up: “Desperate for Workers but Dead Set Against Migrant Labor: The West Virginia Dilemma“.

West Virginia is suffering a slow-rolling demographic crisis. People are having smaller families, and because its economy never transitioned away from the dying coal industry, young people are moving away to find jobs. The result is an aging and shrinking population, and businesses desperate for workers and unable to find them:

There are so many elderly people and so few workers to take care of them that some old folks have died before getting off the wait list for home visits by health aides.

…Later that evening, at the Pendleton County High School boys’ basketball game, the gray-haired spectators outnumbered the students. Declining enrollment has meant that for the school to field teams, many athletic students need to play football, basketball and baseball, said Athletic Director Jackee Propst.

West Virginia’s population is among the oldest of any state. As a consequence, its labor-force participation rate is the second-lowest in the country, behind only Mississippi. It actually has fewer residents today than in 1940, the only state to have that grim distinction.

And the problem feeds on itself. The more people who move away, the fewer ties there are for the ones left behind, making them more likely to leave in turn. It’s a downward spiral that’s hard to stop:

The number of locations where business is conducted in West Virginia declined 9.3% between 2011 and 2021, according to the Census Bureau, the biggest drop in the U.S.

“We suffer from this vicious cycle,” said John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s bureau of business and economic research. “The people who move away tend to be younger, more educated, more prepared for the workforce. And it makes the remainers older.”

The solution is obvious. West Virginia needs an infusion of fresh blood. It needs new people to move in, to buy property, to settle down, to start businesses and fill jobs, to build lives and have families.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that there are too few people in the world. Global population is still predicted to peak around ten billion by the end of the century. That’s enough human beings to accomplish anything we might reasonably imagine. The problem is there’s a mismatch between where people live and where labor is needed.

In other words, we need immigration.

That’s where the story takes a darkly ironic turn. Because while West Virginia desperately needs immigrants, its blood-red Republican government is doing everything it can to keep them out:

Since last year, Republican Gov. Jim Justice has signed legislation banning “sanctuary cities” in West Virginia and deployed that state’s own National Guard troops to the Mexican border in Texas. State lawmakers have introduced bills that would: require businesses to conduct additional screening for unauthorized workers; punish companies for transporting migrants who are deportable under U.S. law; create a program to enable state authorities to remove even some immigrants with legal status to work; and appropriate money for Texas to install more razor wire along the Rio Grande.

By all reason, West Virginia should be trying to rebrand itself as an attractive destination to move to. It should be touting its cheap land, abundant natural beauty (I want to see the New River Gorge in my life), low cost of living, and culture of hospitality. It should be throwing the gates wide open.

Instead, its state government is signaling by every means available that newcomers aren’t wanted. One Republican state representative (one of the very few foreign-born ones, no less!) has even proposed a bill to kick out refugees who’ve been legally granted asylum by the federal government:

This year, he co-sponsored a bill that would apply to a category of immigrants called “inspected unauthorized aliens”—those who haven’t entered the U.S. through an official port of entry but whom the federal government has allowed to stay and work while their legal status is in limbo.

If the bill becomes law, it would establish a program to transport them out of West Virginia.

The absurdity is beyond measure. The elderly are dying for lack of care, businesses are going bust because they can’t hire anyone, and at the same time, the state literally wants to expel people who are willing and able to work!

This is the paradigm example of how conservative ideology makes true believers’ lives worse. Republicans have ginned up a panic over immigration, trying to make it into an issue to attack Democrats with. Their tabloids and pundits scream about terrorists and gangs and faceless hordes flooding over the border. Their presidential candidates and governors traffic in white supremacist rhetoric about “shithole countries” and border walls topped with razor wire.

But their bigotry blows back onto them. Inevitably, conservatives don’t stop at using xenophobia as fodder for their attack ads. They internalize it and come to believe it themselves. And real crises, like the one West Virginia is now suffering, are the consequence.

Immigrants aren’t a problem, but a massive opportunity! West Virginia isn’t the only place that needs a shot in the arm. The fact that so many people still dream of coming to America is an asset most countries only wish they had. Barring the doors against them is like turning down a lottery jackpot. Immigrants are the solution to many woes, if only there weren’t so many bigoted Americans dead-set on keeping them out.

Unfortunately, West Virginians show no sign of reversing course. They’re clinging to their suspicion and hostility. And they’re going to get what they want: businesses shutting down for lack of workers; abandoned elderly people dying alone; vacant, rotting houses; once-prosperous communities becoming ghost towns; bridges and roads crumbling, communities reverting to wilderness, the light and life of civilization vanishing like a retreating tide.

To be clear, not all the people of West Virginia are ignorant hicks who deserve what they get. There are good people there, just as there are in every state. They don’t deserve to suffer the folly of their neighbors. My long-time, now sadly departed, correspondent and co-author Jim Haught was from West Virginia, and he was as staunch an atheist and a progressive as you might hope to meet.

However, it’s fair to say West Virginia is one of the reddest states in the country. In the 2016 election, it was the most Trump-loving of all the states, giving him 68% of its vote; and in 2020, an astonishing 69%. They adore his white supremacist rhetoric and anti-immigrant scaremongering. And they’re reaping the consequences. In a very real sense, the crisis consuming them is the one they voted for.

What makes the church choose tolerance?

[Previous: Let’s chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI]

My chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI, got me thinking. How does the Catholic church – or any church – decide what should be a matter of conscience for individual believers, versus what they want to make into law for everyone?

As an example, I asked whether the Catholic church believes contraception should be outlawed. This was Justin’s answer:

The Catholic Church teaches that contraception is morally wrong, based on the natural law and the divine plan for marriage and human sexuality. This is stated in the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making contraception illegal in civil law…. the Church also respects the freedom of conscience and the responsibility of individuals to make moral decisions.

I also asked about divorce. Here too, I got a similar answer from Justin’s canned repertoire:

The Catholic Church holds the belief that marriage is a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself taught in the Gospel of Matthew: So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making divorce illegal in civil law…. Remember, the Church’s teachings are about promoting the sacredness of the marital bond and the dignity of the human person, not about imposing religious beliefs on others.

I hope you noticed the giant loophole Justin left for itself. It said the church “does not necessarily advocate” outlawing divorce or contraception.

A weasel word of this magnitude means this response is only answer-shaped. It hasn’t actually answered the question at all. It means the church can put up a pretense of tolerance, while still claiming it’s consistent with Catholic doctrine if bishops start lobbying to revive the Comstock Act and to prosecute women for using birth control pills.

However, Justin’s answer was unambiguous on one point: the church respects individuals’ freedom of conscience.

Except when it doesn’t – because we all know that’s not the whole story. The Catholic church, like many other religious sects, can and does try to make it illegal for people to make choices the Vatican doesn’t think they should be making.

The church spent years and millions of dollars lobbying against marriage equality. They fought against all proposals for same-sex marriage, even when those proposals were strictly for civil commitments and didn’t require churches to participate.

And they’ve kept on fighting. Years after same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, Catholic bishops were still lobbying against the Respect for Marriage Act, even though it did nothing more than give Congress’ stamp of approval to the decision that was already on the books. The church is also still punishing its members who support LGBTQ rights, seemingly at random.

Abortion is an even more relevant example. Justin gave a hair-raising answer about whether it should be legal:

The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. Therefore, the Church opposes abortion in all circumstances, including when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life.

In other words, the Catholic position is that human life must be protected under all circumstances – except when the life is a pregnant woman. If the pregnancy threatens her life, then the church says to do nothing, even if the inevitable outcome is that both woman and fetus die. It’s a cult of maternal martyrdom in action. It’s the same deadly belief that killed Savita Halappanavar, and that’s now moved on to killing women in red states all across the U.S. They’re not willing to allow any latitude for freedom of conscience here!

One more example: the church is opposed to marijuana legalization. Their reasoning for this is that, if it can be abused, then it should be banned. This makes it especially inexplicable that they aren’t opposed to alcohol:

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, a spiritual director at The Seminaries of St. Paul in St. Paul and a moral theologian with a specialty in medical ethics, told The Catholic Spirit Sept. 16 that marijuana is not “intrinsically disordered,” or something that by its very nature is not right with God, such as the acts of abortion, euthanasia and contraception. But “for most people, most of the time,” using marijuana is not a good idea, Msgr. Rohlfs said. With the best interests of individuals and society in mind, the Church opposes its recreational use. That can be said for many drugs, including alcohol and prescription medicines, he said.

So why is the church talking out of both sides of its mouth? What makes it choose tolerance on some issues, while demanding the imposition of theocratic law on others?

The answer isn’t theological, but political. There’s no principled reason for why the Catholic church has fought to block same-sex marriage and abortion and assisted dying and green burial, but isn’t lobbying to outlaw divorce or contraception or IVF. It’s nothing but a political judgment about the chances of success.

When the church doesn’t think it’s going to win the fight, it backs down and offers pious words about respecting human dignity and individual freedom. When the church does think it can win the fight, it goes to the mat to outlaw anything that offends Catholic dogma.

(Granted, the bishops have picked plenty of losing fights. They lost on same-sex marriage. They’re losing on marijuana legalization. They’re getting steamrolled on abortion everywhere the voters have a say and the choice isn’t made for them by right-wing courts or a gerrymandered legislature. I didn’t say it was good judgment.)

This is why we need secularism. We should never trust any church or sect to make laws for the rest of us, because they’ll legislate their beliefs to the exact extent of their power to do so. Laws that are for everyone have to be made on the basis of reasons and evidence that are available to everyone, not on any church’s peculiar beliefs about what God does and doesn’t approve of.