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More than you wanted to know, but maybe less than you need to

April 24, 2006
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I don’t want to be confused with Katie Couric, but last week I had to get an endoscopy and a colonoscopy, and since these are procedures that many people need to get and are often afraid of, I thought I should say a few words about it. (I’m fine, by the way.) The fact that I’m a little embarrassed about writing this seems to me proof that I should, since things that are embarrassing we avoid, and when we avoid medical tests we endanger our lives.

First, I am a big coward when it comes to pain. I can barely keep from fainting when I have to give a blood sample. So I was worried about having an IV. But it didn’t hurt at all, partially because I announced I was a coward, so they were extra careful and an additional person even came over and held my other hand and distracted me while they were putting in the needle. So if you are coward, admit it. It can only help.

Second, the procedures themselves (I had both in the same session). –I have nothing to say about them, actually; I was out cold. I remember nothing between being told that my arm would feel warm when the sedative was added to the IV (which it did, but not in a painful way), and waking up an hour later to see Billy waiting to take me home. The drugs wore off quickly and I had no discomfort or side-effects. (Maybe they just played cards for an hour while I was asleep and then billed my insurance company. . . . ) Apparently it’s only in the last few years that they’re been putting people entirely under when they do these procedures. So if you had one a few years ago under local anesthesia and you hated the experience, it’s completely different now.

Third, since if you’re still reading you have some interest in this topic, it’s true that the worst part of a colonoscopy is the “prep,” which involves drinking a lot of powerful laxatives. However, that part wasn’t as bad as I feared either. It didn’t taste gross (I drank it mixed with Gatorade), and I didn’t have stomach cramps. It’s not an evening I care to repeat soon–it’s very boring–but it’s not nearly as bad as a stomach flu, and if you’re very cosmic and/or from California you can call it a “detox” and feel spiritual about it.

This was just my experience, and other people’s might not be as easy. . . . Discovering a drug allergy you didn’t know you had is not fun, for example. But these procedures can ensure your quality of life, or even save your life. Colon cancer in particular is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and a colonoscopy can reduce the average person’s risk of dying from cancer by 90%.

So if your doctor tells you that you need ’em, get ’em. It’s no big deal–even for a big coward.

A footnote for my living will

April 18, 2006
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Relatives of some September 11th victims are testifying on behalf of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called twentieth hijacker, because they and/or their loved ones oppose the death penalty.

One of the family members, Alice Hoagland, who lost her son Mark on Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, told CNN that “she hopes that the United States would show Moussaoui more mercy than his confederates showed September 11 victims.”

The odds are small that any of us will die at the hands of terrorists or murderers–we’re much more likely to die from cigarettes, fast food, and lack of exercise. But just in case, I wonder if we should all include in our Living Wills (which we all have, right?) just a footnote, which for me would be something like this:

I am ethically, philosophically, and religiously opposed to the death penalty. Should I die from violence, no matter how awful or purposeful, I ask that my murderer/s not be executed, as that would dishonor my memory and everything I have stood for in life. I ask all who cared about me to do their utmost to keep my death from being the cause of more death.

Of course, another person’s note might say just the opposite, and whether the dead have the right to tell the living what to do is an open question. But I’m gonna put it in anyway.

Creating Ethical Society of St. Louis's podcasts

April 11, 2006
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Folks have asked how I create the Ethical Society of St. Louis’s podcasts. There are countless ways to create podcasts and no right or wrong answers for this question. In all of these approaches there are three required components. 1) You need to get the audio on to a computer (initial capture), 2) edit it to create a file that can be used as a podcast (audio processing), and 3) set up the mechanism that lets users hear or subscribe to your podcasts (RSS feed creation). Having no budget and using readily available free software, I developed processes for each of these components that work for me.

Initial capture: I capture our platform presentations direct to digital. I do this by plugging an output from our sound system into the computer’s microphone jack using a cable from Radio Shack. The recording software I use is HarddiskOgg (http://www.fridgesoft.de/harddiskogg.php) which is installed on an older notebook computer (Windows XP, IBM ThinkPad X30, Pentium III M 1200MHz, 512MB Ram). Using this direct link I record the platform address to a WAV file (sample rate 44100 Hz in mono). While the resulting file is large (300 to 400mb), it is a lossless format ideal for later editing. Note that, because of copyright restrictions, I do not record the musical selections performed before or after the address. If I happen to get them I will edit them out before in the next step.

Audio processing: This component is the most time consuming part of the process and involves multiple steps. First, using an inexpensive computer microphone, I record the podcast’s intro and closing. I then import these two files and the platform recording into a new project in our audio editing software. I use Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) for all of our audio editing. The hardware requirements for this software are quite modest and I use a older desktop computer (Windows 2000 Server, Pentium 1000MHz, 512MB RAM, with a sound card) for these tasks.

In Audacity, I trim the unneeded beginnings and ends off of the three recordings and arrange them to flow together in the correct order (my intro, the platform address, and my closing). I adjust for volume differences between open/close and platform (effect/amplify with default settings) and compress the dynamic range (effect/compress with default settings). Compression reduces the differences between the presentation’s quiet are loud parts which makes it easier for a listener to adjust their volume to a comfortable level. I also fade out during the applause at the end of the platform (select the audio to fade and effect/fadeout). Once all of this is finished,I export the edited audio tracks to an MP3 file. As part of the export process each file is tagged using the ID3v2 tag format with:

  • Title: Title of the presentation
  • Artist: Speaker, Agency
  • Album: Ethical Society of St. Louis
  • Year: Presentation year
  • Comments: Platform presentation from the Ethical Society of St. Louis (d-MMM-yy)

The last audio processing step is to apply the final compression and filtering to make the file small enough to be easily downloaded (at least for users with a fast internet connection or lots of time). Using LAME (http://www.mp3dev.org/), I process the file exported from Audacity to make sure that it is mono, resample it (input 44.1 kHz output 22.05 kHz) and apply a lowpass filter (transition band: 7557 Hz – 7824 Hz) to remove frequencies that are not important for speech. I finally upload the LAME processed file, which at this point is between 7 and 8 MB, to our web server noting the final file size (this information will be added to the RSS feed).

RSS feed creation: An RSS feed is simply an XML file in a very particular format. There are a variety of free programs that will create the appropriate file structure. Because I develop using Microsoft products I chose Raccoom (http://www.codeproject.com/csharp/rssframework.asp). You can easily find many others (http://www.google.com/search?q=rss+feed+creator). For my part I used Raccoom to create the RSS file for the first half dozen or so platforms. However, much of the information I needed to enter was very similar from program to program and it became tedious to enter it afresh each time. So I started editing my feed in Notepad. I would copy a previous platform, paste it into the file and edit it appropriately. I found this approach to be much faster. (However, it is important to check the feed after you put it on the web to make sure that everything is correct. I usually manage to make at least one mistake that warrants correction.)

The final point is how the web page which presents our podcasts http://ethicalstl.org/libraryaudio.shtml (and the RSS links) is created. Our server supports PHP so I incorporated a free PHP script from a company named FeedForAll (http://www.feedforall.com/free-php-script.htm) into our page. This page and script lists the available podcasts using the information from the RSS feed. So I enter the information once into the RSS feed and it is used by aggregators and on our web pages.

So what are the costs and benefits? Once I have the initial platform recording, the whole process takes 30 to 60 minutes. So the software is free. The computers needed are relatively low powered. The only real investment is in time. As for the benefits I will share just one. We got an email from a person living in the south who was attending their local church. They said

I feel like I cannot, for family reasons, attend and become a part of the "Ethical Culture" movement at this point in my life but I really get so much out of being a "virtual" member of your society.  I just wanted to say thank you for what you do and to let you know that your podcast is really making a difference, and even to those like me that are attending "traditional" churches.

What more could I ask?

Momma, don't let your children grow up to marry atheists

April 11, 2006
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A little while ago another study came out showing that prejudice against atheists is the last acceptable prejudice in America. (Okay, that’s not exactly what the study says, but that’s my interpretation.)

The most interesting line in the article, to me, is ” ‘It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common “core” of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that “core” has historically been religious.’ ” Well, yes and no. It turns out that core ethical values are shared by most people regardless of what religion they follow or whether they follow a religion at all. Certainly America’s founders believed in a diversity of religious views, and some were clearly humanist or even atheist, though those terms were rarely used then.

I believe ethical values such as honesty, generosity, kindness, fairness, and equality are natural products of both nature and nurture: they’re hard-wired into us by evolution because they promote strong communities, which help people survive, and they’re developed by the experience of being brought up in intensively social environments, such as families, peer groups, and communities.

It seems to me that atheistphobia (to coin a very clunky phrase–there’s probably a better one out there already) is founded in the same fear of the unknown as all prejudice. So atheists need to speak up proudly for universal values (I’ve never had anyone respond negatively to the values of the Ethical Society’s Statement of Purpose {link} because it doesn’t mention a deity), and everyone needs to stop using “faith communities” and “people of faith” as euphemisms for “people who are more moral and caring than everyone else.”

(Thanks to Alan E. and others for calling attention to this study.)

Calling all local young(ish) Ethical folk

April 10, 2006
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An invitation to those in the St. Louis area in their twenties and thirties (and their partners) who are members of or interested in the Ethical Society: We’re starting a new group for people in that age bracket who would like to connect with peers for fun, fellowship, ethical action opportunities, and whatever else we can think up between us. If you’re interested, send an email to youngethical-subscribe[at]yahoogroups.com (replace the “[at]” with “@” of course—I’m trying to hide the address from the spam bots). And please hurry–as I revealed in my address yesterday, I’m only eligible to be a part of this group myself for a few more years.

Manufacturing fun (another missive from the pool)

April 5, 2006
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So this pool I go to, to count laps, was built a couple years ago, I’d guess, and it’s a good example of how play has changed. Except for a few lanes, it’s a water “funderland”—a place designed to be fun but so over-designed as to get in the way of fun. There are water spouts, and a winding river bit with jets that smash you into the rough walls, and built-in buckets and water pipes and what I do admit is a really great waterslide.

It may be I’m simply jealous that I can’t really “play” with all this stuff without renting a child or suffering funny looks from the lifeguards, but it seems to me that the kids in the pool are actually hampered in their play by all this stuff. Because just like Lego sets that are designed to make only one toy, or dolls that already have names, backstories, and their own movies, this pool actually limits the options for kids’ imaginations.

I remember spending hours in a big, rectangular, blank canvas of a pool as a kid. We made up dozens of games using only each other and maybe a raft and some rocks. That pool was an empty stage. This new pool is a stage set for one particular play, and once you’ve done that play a few times, it’s old. It wouldn’t surprise me if the particularizing of toys has contributed to the shortening of attention spans. It seems there’s less and less places left where kids can use their imaginations: open spaces are filled with designated ball fields and play “equipment,” games are managed and organized by adults, toys are made to do one thing (and then break). I’m sure the designers of all these things feel they are doing it “for the children,” but if we want our children to develop imagination and creativity and problem-solving, maybe we should stop “helping” them play so much.

To pray or not to pray

March 30, 2006
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I’ve heard many people claim that research proves that praying for sick people helps them heal, even if the sick people don’t know they’re being prayed for. This claim bugs me because (a) no one seems to have any information about the supposed research, and (b) I don’t believe prayer works like that if it did, what would that say to all the people whose prayers for their sick loved ones have not helped?

Today I read about a recent study of prayer that showed no effect. Actually, it showed a slight negative effect: People who knew they were being prayed for had a few more complications. Maybe because a few recipients wanted to help prove the power of prayer so much that they stressed themselves out. More likely it’s a statistical fluke. I have a mathematically illiterate theory that some day we will discover that most of statistics is just coincidence and nonsense. It makes me feel better about a lot of polling data, anyway.

I believe that people who want to pray are helped themselves by praying, psychologically, and that people who want others to pray for them are helped by believing that others are praying for them. (Whether those others are or not-though I don’t recommend telling someone you’ll pray for them if you don’t intend to. It won’t hurt them, but lying may make you feel like . . . well, like a liar.)

But above all of this, what I believe as a humanist is that the best form of prayer is positive action. There’s no controversy at all that ill people who have caring support-cards, visits, knowing their plants are being watered and their pets fed and their bills paid and their kids looked after-do better than those who don’t get such support.

So whatever the research says, pray or don’t pray, as you like. Just don’t use prayer to try to replace real caring actions here on earth.

Hightower and health care

March 29, 2006
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Jim Hightower visited the Society last Sunday, agitating for universal health care. (I liked his reminder that in a washing machine the “agitator” is what gets the dirt out.) He’s a fun speaker and we appreciate that he hung around afterward so people could chat with him in person. His website, for those interested, is here.

Health care is something that’s been important to me for a long time, since I used to be self-employed and uninsured. Depending on the city I lived in, I was often pleasantly surprised with the low-income health and dental clinics available—I had many excellent and caring nurse practitioners—but they are useful mostly for preventative check-ups and minor repairs, something a lot of low-income people don’t have the time or education to keep up with. And the less preventative care, the worse the emergencies that inevitably come. I ignored a toothache for too long once and ended up needing a root canal. My clinic offered me an endless supply of pain killers, but that was it. I found that I could get reasonably-priced surgery at the local dental school, but not in a reasonable amount of time. This one root canal took over a dozen visits. My dental student learned a lot, and I learned that you get what you pay for. And that you don’t get what you can’t pay for. The post of the crown I got there is made out of a paper clip. Really. It’s lasted 15 years, though.

After the demise of the Clinton health plan, I thought that universal health care was doomed. Now I think it’s inevitable, because it’s not only morally but economically the right thing to do for the country, and pretty much everyone acknowledges that now. So we can look forward, but with our eyes sharply focused, because the next step will be making sure that we’re offered solutions that actually work for everyone.

I was thinking about this in connection with bird flu (or rather, BIRD FLU!!!!). Dr. George B. Johnson recently gave a great talk to our Tuesday Women’s Association on it, and his main point was that if we really want to avert a plague, we need to stop trying to figure out how to save just Americans and instead put our resources into monitoring the countries where human-to-human bird flu will first break out, and then send all the medicine we’ve got to that area immediately. The day after his talk I tuned into an NPR special on bird flu and heard that what we really should be doing is stockpiling canned goods and making sure that Americans have enough medicine for ourselves. Apparently Johnson’s point of view has not achieved human-to-human contagiousness yet either.

What does this have to do with universal health care? Voters will soon be presented with a lot of competing options that will fall all along the individualist-communitarian spectrum, from individual health savings accounts to Canadian-style plans. While you’re weighing what each of these will mean to your pocketbook, don’t forget that public health is like clean air—you can’t buy your own and say “Good luck” to your neighbor. Whether you believe we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers or not, unless we plan to seal ourselves in bubbles we’re going to be breathing our brothers and sisters’ germs (or cooties, as my actual brother and I used to call them).

And don’t forget the most important message from Jim Hightower last weekend: “Presbyterians” can be rearranged to spell “Britney Spears.” So bird flu must be nigh.

Spring . . . when a young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of taxes

March 23, 2006
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Thinking about money reminds me to recommend my favorite books on financial security and independence: Your Money or Your Life and David Bach’s books (there are a bunch of them and they all have the same basic information). I like these books both because they emphasize bringing your spending in line with your values, and because they present the goal of financial security as having more time and energy to do good in the world—”retiring” as more engagement in life, rather than withdrawal. Check ’em out—of the library. Or if you have to, buy them used. And teach the young people in your life about money, before they dig themselves into a hole. They’ll thank you for it someday—by not moving back home.

Follow-up to "How Many Earths?"

March 23, 2006
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Last Sunday in my address on eco-friendly choices I mentioned a book by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The title is The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. For more good practical information on the environment and how to help protect it without losing your mind, check out their website here. And thanks to all of you who have been sending me your environmental footprints. I hope you’ve all been as inspired as I have to focus a little harder on the important choices. For instance, I love Trader Joe’s grocery stores, but most of their products come from far away. We’re researching Community Supported [Local] Agriculture (CSA) programs in St. Louis to help shrink our household’s footprint. Either that or we have to take in a family of four.

Stop The Rod

March 17, 2006
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I am sad and horrified.

A recent newstory, http://www.newsobserver.com/102/story/418676.html , reported the death of a child by a parent who read information from a book on Christian parenting regarding how to apply corporal punishment to her children in order to make them behave. Apparently, some evangelical Christians are supportive of corporal punishment, citing old Testament passages as their inspiration. In the book that describes the kind of punishment that informed this parent, a particular method for whipping babies is detailed. Among other things, the book is filled with authoritarian, aggressive and manipulative practices to maintain the parent’s dominance over the child and obtain immediate obedience to their will. The book is called “To Train Up A Child,” by Michael and Debi Pearl. Another book, “Shepherding a Child’s Heart,” by Ted Tripp, advocates similar abuses.

Nothing new, sadly. And corporal punishment of children by parents is not limited to evangelical Christians. From mild spanking to isolation to extreme physical abuse, incidents of this sort are reported only when death is the result. The large number of slaps, spankings, pushing and whippings fall far under the radar in this society. We accept it when we see it or hear of it, whether at the local grocery store or our neighbor’s or relative’s home, because it’s given that it is a parent’s “right.”

Did you know that there is a special device that is sold around the country to assist parents with a particular kind of corporal punishment? It is called “The Rod.” It is legal. If you want to sign a petition to the Governor of Oklahoma (where the company is based) to make the sale and marketing of this kind of thing illegal you can sign here: http://stoptherod.net/rod-petition.html (You can find out more about this practice also at this site. )

Corporal punishment of children exists in this country, and the rest of us turn our heads.

Why? Why do we accept that children are somehow subject to this kind of treatment at the hands of their parents? Why do we protest the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, some who have been detained unjustly, and not children, who are helpless in their own homes, who have no voice, no choice and no resources?

Alice Miller, PhD, in her book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child” shows countless examples of why corporal punishment and direct, psychological abuse of children helps lead them to the same kind of abusive behavior, and sometimes larger abuses, as adults. You can read an article online by Dr. Miller titled “Every Spank Is A Humiliation” here, http://www.nospank.net/miller3.html In the article, Dr. Miller says,
“In the short term, corporal punishment may produce obedience. But it is a fact documented by research that in the long term the results are: inability to learn, violence and rage, bullying and cruelty, inability to feel another’s pain, especially that of one’s own children, even drug addiction and suicide–unless there are enlightened, or at least helping, witnesses on hand to prevent that development.”

Among those who advocate corporal punishment, the idea that “it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them” prevails. The reinforcement that bigger, stronger, mightier and more aggressive gets the upper hand is paramount. And the notion that one might inspire cooperation and understanding through reason, logic, patience and nurturing is ridiculed. Children are seen as less-than human because they are small, weak and needy.

It’s time to make corporal punishment illegal in every state. I am not advocating making criminals of parents who spank or slap a child. I am advocating speaking out for children. Educating parents and children. Making it illegal to market implements and devices to use against children, and making it illegal to promote corporal punishment in any form, no matter a person’s religious beliefs.

In the immediate present, it’s at least time to make it illegal to sell and distribute items specifically designed and promoted for the physical punishment of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy in which it is stated, “Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.” That’s a weak statement, but telling, and at least a step in the right direction. This website, Parenting in Jesus’ Footsteps, http://www.parentinginjesusfootsteps.org/ is targeted to Christian parents, and offers advice and alternatives for those who are looking for effective ways to help children learn and grow and still remain supportive of their faith.

In the meantime, I am not pointing a finger at all parents who have ever had a weak moment and spanked their child. I am not even pointing a finger at people who have willfully allowed corporal punishment advocates to guide them in their interest in helping their children grow. I think people can have good intentions, but be misguided, particularly if they were raised in a way where corporal punishment was a tool used to gain obedience. However, I am asking them to stop. Stop now. There is another, more effective way. Look for those voices, those resources. Some of the links above have recommendations.

And to those of you who abhor the practice of physically (and psychologically) punishing a child; advocate for a child. Don’t turn your head. Speak up. Write letters. If you believe that violence and overt aggression are learned at home, from the cradle on, than you will have every motivation to see an end to corporal punishment of children by parents. It isn’t okay. It isn’t a parent’s right. It isn’t just a little smack.

Reggie

Stop to smell the chlorine

March 16, 2006
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At some point in my life, swimming became a task. I’m not sure quite when it happened, but I remember being a kid and spending hours in the water, doing summersaults and standing on my hands, playing tag, throwing things into the water and chasing after them, pretending I was an otter . . . a million things. The other day I was at our local community center, “doing my laps,” and I realized that I was literally unable not to count them. I’m not training for anything; I was there just for the joy of swimming. And yet my brain couldn’t concentrate on the sensation of water on my skin or even chlorine in my eyes for more than a second before it went back to keeping track of what number lap this was and how many I had to go. While I kept one reddened eye on the clock, though I wasn’t in any hurry.

Can I blame our culture for this? –The need to quantify everything to feel that we’re doing something “right” or filling our quota or getting our money’s worth or staying on schedule? Does your brain keep you on the go, even when you’re already there? Please let me know; perhaps I’m just obsessive compulsive.

Missing out on Miller

March 16, 2006
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” ‘It’s over,’ said Emily Swenson, 15, . . . ‘We can’t do anything about it. We just have to obey.’ ”

This quote is from an article about the recent banning of Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible in a Fulton, Mo, high school. The irony is that The Crucible was written precisely to inspire people to resist

I read the play in school (obviously it corrupted me something awful), but I never got a chance to see it until the movie version came out. It’s not a brilliant adaptation by critical standards, yet afterward I broke down in the theater and sobbed for five minutes. I walked home in a daze. The Crucible is essentially the story of a government witch hunt, and an examination of how so many people can be frightened into sacrificing even their friends and neighbors. And how some cannot. I cried in that theater for Giles Corey, who in The Crucible is tortured to death because he refuses to ‘name (innocent) names’. All he has to do to save himself from being crushed to death by heavy stones is tell his torturers what they want to hear. What would you do? Lying to torturers to save your life is certainly ethically justifiable. But what if that lie would be used to justify and perhaps extend the crimes of those torturers? Corey chooses, and his answer is “More weight.” He dies. The witch hunt soon ends. I still remember the despair I felt, crying for this heroic man, crying because some people have to die stupid, pointless deaths to redeem humanity, which wakes up and goes back to everyday life.

I cried because I hoped that I would have the moral courage of Corey, and because I didn’t want to ever have to find out.

Last weekend on This American Life I heard an interview with former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, men who had no links to terrorism (according to the government’s own documents) but who were there because someone had wanted the bounty America is offering for “terrorists.” One man describes “admitting” he was a terrorist to end his interrogation (I just noticed how similar those words sound). He was released anyway. He is very lucky.

Hopefully most of us will never be tested in such extreme ways. But we are tested in other ways all the time. Will we be like the poor guy in Guantanamo, who just wanted to survive and maybe someday see his family again? Will we be like Giles Corey, willing to sacrifice his (fictional) life for a greater good? Or will we “just have to obey”? I’m sorry the kids in that Fulton school are missing a chance to ask themselves such questions.

Peace begins at home

March 14, 2006
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Last week I participated in an interfaith panel that was part in an all-day conference on domestic violence sponsored by Lydia’s House, an organization the Society is proud to support. Now, these interfaith panels are usually (in my experience) a bit of a showcase: a series of speakers earnestly explaining why their traditions are clearly against bad thing X (or for good thing Y, depending on the topic). However, in this case, every person on the panel came out and admitted that domestic violence is not an issue any of our communities handle well. Traditional religions have a lot of patriarchal sexism that feeds the problem and keeps victims from coming forward, but liberal religions have our problems too: “empowered” women can be ashamed to admit they’ve been victimized and often blame themselves, and “enlightened” men don’t like to hear about a topic in which the overwhelming number of abusers are men. It was depressing how far we still have to go, but the honesty was refreshing, as what we all had in common was denial in our communities that domestic violence was “our” problem. Those of us who affirm equality don’t like to be reminded that it’s not here yet for many women, in all kinds of communities, including ours. It’s easier to talk about war and peace far away. But war and peace begin in all our homes.

Perennial issues

March 9, 2006
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Spring update:
It’s here. On my walk to work today I saw that ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ is waving little green and yellow and red flags at the tips of the bushes and fruit trees. And it smells gloriously fecund out there.

What I’ve got out of the library this week:
Nonzero, the Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright
The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right, by Michael Lerner (So far seems to have a lot in common with my platform address a couple weeks ago.)
The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong
–Thanks to those who recommended these books to me

Speaking of God:
There’s been a lot in the media this week about Missouri House Resolution No. 13, which resolves that “our forefathers of this great nation of the United States recognized a Christian God and used the principles afforded to us by Him as the founding principles of our nation” (etc., etc.), and therefore “we stand with the majority of our constituents and exercise the common sense that voluntary prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property are not a coalition of church and state.”

Now I could shoot at the fish in this barrel (or the vegan equivalent), for a long time, starting with the principle that when it comes to freedom of and from religious expression, what we need are not lawmakers who stand with the majority’s “common sense” but lawmakers who will stand up for the rights of minorities. If we’re just going to go with majority rule, we don’t need lawmakers at all—-the mob is much more efficient.

However, yesterday I heard of another piece of legislation making its way through the MO house, this one a proposed state *constitutional amendment*, HJR 39, “Religious Freedom in Public Places,” sponsored by Rep Bearden. HJR 39 is a short and more inclusive-sounding prayer-in-school bill that “reaffirms a citizens’ right to choose any religion or no religion.” However, as anyone who has ever been a child should know, public prayers are inherently coercive and isolating, “voluntary” or not.

People right now have the right to pray any time, anywhere, including in schools. Silently. If the intent is to commune with your god for comfort and inspiration, that is more than adequate. A god that is all-knowing and all-powerful cannot also be hard-of-hearing. Public, communal prayer is a powerful force with an important function in religious communities: to solidify religious solidarity, reinforce shared beliefs, train children and newcomers, and so on. Those who want to force public, communal, “voluntary” prayer on schoolchildren clearly have those functions in mind, not anyone’s need for comfort or inspiration.

And so I wonder if the clearly offensive HR 13 “Christian god” bill is not really just a smokescreen for HJR 39’s prayer-in-school bill. After all, if Missourians reject the official Christianizing of our state, perhaps we’ll be willing to “compromise” with “nondenominational” school prayers written and promoted by the majority.

Cold, shmold

February 28, 2006
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Thanks to all those who came to the “Love Needs No Cure” vigil this past weekend. (The only decent article I can find about it is from Kansas! Click here.) Yes, it was damn cold, but worth it. This is an email that was sent out by Dennis Nicely, co chair of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Metro-St. Louis Chapter:

“As you’ve probably heard, more than 300 men, women, and young people showed up in support of the nonviolent protest before the conference began this morning [6:30-8:30 a.m.]. Around 11:00 a.m., I went to the site of the protest / LWO conference to see how things were going. There were about a dozen individuals still holding their signs. While I stood there talking to some friends of mine, two young men approached us. They had just come from spending 3+ hours listening to lectures about changing those who are gay. Both young men shared that their parents had brought them there and wanted them to hear how they can change. One young man, a high school senior, was there with his dad who is a Baptist minister. They drove to St. Louis from Arkansas just to learn how to change him. He was so happy we were out there. It was as if we were a sanctuary for him. The wind was blowing heavily and he was cold but he said he would rather be standing in the cold with us then to be in there where they were telling him there was something wrong with him. As I was getting ready to walk away, he thanked me for our conversation and asked for a hug. The other young man shared that he was a student at a local community college. His parents were also at the conference and want him to see he does not have to be gay. He picked up one of our signs and began walking with the others. He said it felt good to be amongst those who understood and accepted him for who he is without having to change. I understood. I have been there myself and have been blessed to have many friends and family members who accept me without expecting me to change. If for no other reason, I am glad we were there to provide a sanctuary for those young men. Peace, Dennis”

Earlier that morning, Bill and I had an interesting discussion with a young pastor from a nearby nondenominational Christian church. He said he was intending to go to the conference, but instead he decided to talk with those of us outside. He seemed conflicted. He believed the Bible spoke against homosexuality, but he also recognized that it spoke against lots of things, and that there was a lot of unjustifiable picking-and-choosing going on. We were polite to him and he to us, and we shared a little bit about the many healthy, happy gay and lesbian couples and families we know. He wandered off in the direction of a mother and daughter who was holding a sign that said “I Love My Uncle Robert Just the Way He Is.” (Bill took a picture of them but it came out unflattering, so I won’t post it.) I hope that young pastor stopped to talk to them as well.

I hear the local television coverage was mostly biased and lame. What can I say? This year’s Turn-Off-Your-TV Week is April 24-30 (see here). Spread the news.

*And an addendum to Sunday’s platform. A. tells me that the “liberal vs. literal religion” schema has been popularized by Texas UU minister Davidson Loehr.*

For those with TVs

February 24, 2006
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. . . And who are local, and who watch the early evening news (5 pm? 6 pm?): I was just interviewed by a reporter for local channel 4 about the Love Needs No Cure vigil (see previous post). It’s interesting being interviewed. You really get a sense of the divisiveness that mainstream news feeds on and feeds. I asked the reporter if he was going to talk to any medical or psychological experts about the therapy, and he said he was more interested in the “he said/she said” aspect of faith leaders talking about it. Versus the actual merits of either side, I guess. It seems once the technology of video press releases is perfected, we won’t need journalists at all anymore. That will be a nice cost savings for many media outlets. Anyway, I was trying hard to stick to my main point, that people “suffering from homosexuality” are actually suffering from homophobia, and that they need affirmation and support, not quack “cures.” But the reporter’s eye only gleamed when I said that the “ex-gay” movement is really a thin veneer for a political agenda to deny people their civil rights. I suppose it’s a divisive thing to say. But I don’t believe that promoting tolerance means tolerating intolerance. In formal logic (or semantics) that might seem wrong, but here on Earth tolerance and intolerance cannot co-exist, and to “tolerate intolerance” is to give up on creating a culture of tolerance. In any event, if the interview does make it to air, it’ll be 2 seconds of whatever the dumbest thing I said was. But it’ll still let people know that the Ethical Society is here and that we support gay and lesbian rights. Which would make me happy. So if you do see me on TV, don’t tell me any details. Sometimes ignorance *is* bliss.

Love Needs No Cure

February 21, 2006
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[This is a letter I wrote to the Post-Dispatch last week. I don’t think they’re going to print it, so I offer it here. What it’s about is a fundamentalist Christian “therapy” {you can’t help but use a lot of sarcastic quotes when you write about this} that supposedly can turn gay people straight. A conference promoting this “therapy” is coming to St. Louis this weekend. For a lot of good information about this anti-gay movement, click here and especially here. **If you are in the area and would like to come to an affirming response to the conference, click here.]

The “ex-gay” movement described in several recent articles is a parody of both spirituality and social science. It is unethical and cruel to use bad science to prey on people who are truly suffering. The suffering is caused not by the “disease” of being gay or lesbian, but by the homophobia of religious fundamentalism. Therapy to “cure” homosexuality doesn’t work, because there is no disease to cure. There are only people feeling pain and fear, hoping somehow to avoid being rejected by their families and communities—not to mention the threat of eternal damnation. Many Christian denominations deny that being a gay or lesbian person in a loving relationship is a sin. I will leave that argument to my Christian colleagues, but being forced by fear to live a lie and to deny love must be hell on Earth.

Terrifying Cartoons

February 16, 2006
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The Society is hosting an interfaith discussion on global terrorism tonight. One of the problems in the issue of terrorism is that it’s like pornography—people of good will can disagree on how to define it. I was reading about the riots supposedly sparked by cartoons of Mohammed (if you would like to see the original cartoons, click here), and at the end of the article was this notice:

“CNN is not showing the negative caricatures of the likeness of the Prophet Mohammed because the network believes its role is to cover the events surrounding the publication of the cartoons while not unnecessarily adding fuel to the controversy itself.”

Similar statements have been made by most American mainstream media–By the same outfits that routinely show photos of Abu Ghraib, racially motivated police beatings, and countless images dangerous and offensive to women. These media outlets are not afraid of being controversial or inflammatory or offensive, but apparently they are afraid of being blasphemous. Imagine if the notices were honest enough to say “We are not showing the negative caricatures of the likeness of the Prophet Mohammed because we are afraid to.” Then more people might notice that when the media self-censor out of fear, we’re all being terrorized.

But the cartoons are not the issue. The small percentage of people who need to chant Death to Whomever and throw away their lives trying to destroy need to do so for a variety of reasons both rational and irrational, and they will accept any provocation to make their lives seem noble and important and exciting. At the same time, the vast majority of people in the Middle East are not out in the streets, though many are also angry; they are wishing the whole thing would just go away, or scared to death that they or their loved ones might be the next target of violence. Let’s remember those people. I know that I would hate to have Americans judged by our small percentage of women’s clinic harassers, book burners, and rioters.

A thank you to our members

February 9, 2006
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Last Sunday I had the pleasure of breakfasting and lunching with prospective members, and I also met with a Wash U student who was visiting the Society as a cross-cultural experience for an anthropology class. Some of the newcomers had even come back after hearing last Sunday’s platform address on money! What I heard over and over as I chatted with these newcomers and visitors was how welcome our members had made them feel, how open we seemed to new people and new ideas, and how hospitable we were. I felt so proud I had to go blow my nose. Seriously, I was very pleased that these folks experienced us as not just preaching ethical values but trying to live them with each other and especially with those we don’t yet know. Thank you to everyone for your everyday hospitality and kindnesses. I’m honored to be a member of this community.

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