Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ex-lesbians and broken watches

Lisa Miller:
Hating vaginas, loving God/kidnapping

Quite a few fair-minded cosmopolitans want religious groups (and religious individuals) to be able to “come to the table” when society decides what laws to enact and live by. Fair enough, perhaps, but many bristle at the idea that those participating should have to give reasons for recommending the policies they put forth, and evidence for those reasons. No joke, sadly. I’ve seen people recommend that religious groups be able to recommend a policy on the authority of their sacred text alone.

Let’s take the recent example of this AP press story, detailing how religious supporters have helped “ex-lesbian” Lisa Miller stay on the run with her kidnapped daughter. Lisa, turning evangelical (and then Mennonite!), escaped the clutches of Sappho's ghost and tore her daughter out of her previous life and away from the girl’s other mother. Of course

Mennonite pastors and other faith-based supporters may have helped hide the two in Nicaragua and are now coming to the aid of one who the FBI says helped Miller.

What’s more, pathetic justifications of Miller’s kidnapping are being pushed by these groups. They maintain that Miller’s crime is an example of “civil disobedience” in honor of God’s law.

"When Isabella was about 18 months old, Lisa Miller realized the emptiness of her lesbian lifestyle, and her mother's instinct alerted her to the danger that lifestyle posed for her young daughter. She chose to leave that lifestyle, repented of her immoral ways, and began a new life."

Of course, whether you’ll agree that this justification really is pathetic will depend on whether or not you agree that there was a “danger” posed by being raised with a gay parent. And what, pray tell, could make you agree with that? All claims that being gay or being around gays or being raised by “teh gaiz” is dangerous have been shown to be lies or distortions (except, of course, the danger to LGBT kids and LGBT families posed by irrational discrimination!). So what evidence remains? God’s eternal word, by golly!

Of course, most well-mannered commentators will see this as an indictment of the kind of religion that discriminates against gays, and not religion itself. As the liberal Christians and faith-loving atheists might put it, “Lisa Miller has the wrong idea about Christianity/religion/spirituality!” Of course, how it is that they were able to determine that the correct interpretation just happens to coincide with our current standards of secular human rights remains a mystery. Certainly it’s not from examining the Bible- dancing happily through that text and declaring all the nasty, discriminatory bits metaphorical while maintaining that all the passages about love, unity and coming-back-from-the-dead are true is a common but clearly ridiculous practice.

It amounts to this: if we could push a button and all varieties of religion would suddenly have the “correct” non-discriminatory position towards the LGBT community, this would not solve our problem. Even a religion whose morality exactly matches our hard-won, modern ideas about human rights isn’t worth a damn as an ethical/moral guide because of the process it uses to arrive at those moral conclusions. Not discriminating against someone on the basis of who they have sex with just because God told you so and not discriminating because there is no reason to do so are two very different positions that might, for a time, appear the same on the surface. The religious position, however, has no reliable way to update those beliefs. Fifty years from now, when entirely new social questions come up, there’s no guarantee at all that the modern, rights-respecting religion of today will not be hopelessly out of date and thus support some groundless harmful position. Remember, many of the most progressive thinkers of the 19th century often believed all sorts of untenable, damaging bullshit from today’s viewpoint.

You look down at your watch and realize its hands stopped moving hours ago. Should you just adjust the hands to match the current time, or should you change the battery?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heretics! Heretics!

Massacre of Waldensian children in
La Torre, 1655

Currently reading a great little book on minority groups in the Middle Ages: Sex, Dissidence and Damnation by Jeffrey Richards. Focusing on all the fun aspects of the Middle Ages; you know- lepers, heretics, homosexuals, jews, witches and sexual adventurers of all stripes. Basically all the groups that had trouble with giving mother Church what it wanted- total control over their minds and genitals.

The middle and late Middle Ages saw newly minted Christian sects popping up all around Europe, especially in south and east of France. The still hegemonic Catholic church was not amused. The major heresies of the period provide another nice example of how religious epistemologies are, at their core, fundamentally dependent on coercion and control of information in order to maintain their existence. Time and again the Church followed the same pattern when “dealing” with these heresies: first an attempt at open(ish) debate and “competition of ideas” followed by recourse to banning/killing/terrorizing their opponents when the debates didn't go their way or proved irresolvable.

It didn't matter that these competitors shared few attributes: some were stringent interpretations of the faith such as the Waldensians, who took the apocalyptic asceticism of the New testament seriously and denounced the bejeweled peacocks of the wealthy Church. After a short period of indulgence, the Church resorted to repression and execution of Waldensians and villagers that supported them, kicking off a few centuries of massacres. Others pushed the theological envelop until it was barely recognizable as Christianity. The Cathars, importing dualist and Gnostic ideas from Eastern Europe, held that the material world was the creation of the evil deity Rex Mundi (“King of the World”). The same pattern of attempted incorporation and persuasion transforming into slaughter followed. While the Waldensians survived clandestinely until the present, the Cathars were completely annihilated.

In each case, it looks like the really crucial point was that there was no way to decide the truth or falsity of the claims of any of the combatants. Of course the Church couldn’t battle and win against either of these sects in the realm of debate- how could anyone say one of these doctrines was true and the other false, when they’re all equally bereft of any evidence? Remember that unlike science, unlike any form of evidence-based rational investigation, religious claims are proud to proclaim that faith in the absence of evidence is one of the supreme virtues.