Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Harm of DOMA

The following post was written on Facebook by one of my longest friends, Sunny, and reposted here by permission. A personal explanation of what unequal marriage laws mean to thousands of couples.

The Supreme Court Of The US (SCOTUS) has today been hearing arguments in an appeal case where 9 lower federal courts have all declared DOMA (so-called-Defense Of Marriage Act, 1996) as being unconstitutional. The President Of The United States (POTUS)’ administration has also argued that it believes this piece of legislation is unconstitutional. DOMA defines a spouse as being a person in a “marriage” between one man and one woman only and it binds the Federal government to use this definition of spouse for all US Federal regulations that confer any sort of rights or privileges to “spouses”. As a result, DOMA prevents the US federal government from recognizing a person in any form of a same-sex “marriage” or any civil or domestic partnership agreement (same sex or even opposite sex) from having a legal recognition as a spouse. Even if an individual state like New York or California recognizes same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships, only State granted rights (like state level taxes) are conferred. Federal benefits are not available to us.

A lot has been talked about Federal benefits like taxation or inheritance rights, but there’s one Federal benefit that most people don’t realize, Immigration. Any US citizen or resident has a federal benefit which allows them to sponsor their spouse to be granted a visa to live and work in the US as a resident. Without this benefit, the US resident or citizen is denied the right to legally have their foreign husband, wife, partner, significant-other, “spouse” to live with them in the US. This is something that is very personal to me and my partner James and it has caused me, an American resident soon to citizen, years of separation from my family and more recently significant financial and emotional burden while we sought a way for us to legally be together in the US.

After my parents, brother and sister all moved out to the US as residents and eventually become US citizens, I was forced to choose to not move here with the rest of my family as I had no way to bring my partner James with me. My choice was to leave James to live with my family or to be parted from my family to be with James. It took 6 years for James and I to get to a position where we could afford to be able to move out here where he had to give up his career and go back to being a student in order to be able to legally come to the US.

The 2 years of him being a student meant us not only going to a single income but also an additional financial burden of having to pay for graduate school from that single income (no grants available and not allowed to work while on a foreign student visa). Even during those two years of school and personal sacrifices made due to available income, we faced the very real possibility that we would have to return to the UK after his school finished or any border protection officer deciding at any time that the “intention to not stay in the US permanently” requirement of a foreign student visa was not being honoured (family ties or even a boy/girl friend relationship with a US resident or citizen can be deemed grounds for determining an intention to stay and thus invalidate that visa).

Even now, after James managed to get a job on his own merits through hard work, professionalism and skills, he is still not a classed as a US resident, only a temporary worker. If his job were to become redundant, his work visa would be invalid and again we would be faced with the immediate need to leave family and friends and anything we have built up in terms of a life here, within 30 days.

Although things are better for us financially now that we are a 2 income household and without having to pay for graduate school, we are up still only up to the same position as other same sex couples in terms of taxation and paying higher taxes for our joint household. We are still not in a position to put down any roots like buying a house or considering adoption, partly due to the financial catch-up we are playing due to the first 2 years and partially due to the still hanging sword of Damocles that James loosing his work visa status is.

Immigration is one of those areas that the ones most affected by it are afraid to even speak up about it as public admittance of a relationship can often lead to a legal battleground over whatever method a same sex bi-national couple have been able to achieve to legally stay together in the US. We have always been extremely careful to stay legal and have been forced to sacrifice in order to maintain that legality.

There’s a lot of talk in the news regarding DOMA about rights and the freedoms or the fairness of equality. Legal debates ask the question about undue burdens placed on the injured party. I’m a US resident soon to be a citizen and I can say for sure that I have been burdened and injured by the presence of DOMA. I believe in the promise of equal treatment and no unjust burdens on citizens (and residents) that is at the heart of the US constitution and its amendments. DOMA is not in line with those core principles. That’s called unconstitutional and thus DOMA should be struck from law.

This is a very long post so a heartfelt THANKS if you have made it this far. My ask of you as a friend is to please give your support to ending the injustice of DOMA. Write your senator, your representative, talk with your friends and family, help change hearts and minds at the one-on-one level.

One of the reasons hearts and minds are changing is that so many of us know folks like Sunny. Sunny came out to me on a school trip, and he was such a close friend, it never occurred to me not to be supportive. I’m grateful he spared me from having to figure it out from first principles. I’ve since met a lot of well-meaning people who try to figure it out and get it all wrong. I wish everyone could have someone in their life like him.

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Leading Them On

I’m interested in religion from a social and cultural perspective. I’m interested in the breadth of religious activity and religious self-conception. The majority of my experience is in mainline protestant Christianity, with the rest mostly in evangelical protestant Christianity.

I used to travel a lot for work, and I tried to go to visit different religious groups: Bahai, unitarian, new religious movements, and so on. If I was in a town for a week, then it seemed okay to go and snoop.

Tonight the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses is holding a bible study for Passover (in which is contained their celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus). I’ve been having conversations with one of the Witnesses, who invited me. I’d like to go, I am interested in authoritarian religious groups (I’ve also got a soft-spot for Scientology). But I’ve decided not to.

The reason is, I’ve been unable to communicate why I am interested in them. So they see someone who’s always willing to talk about God, who is interested. And I know, from my past history in evangelicalism, I know what that means to them. I know enough about the Witnesses to know that evangelism is a significant demand on each member, bringing in someone new is a deeply important event.

So I feel like I am abusing their invitation, somewhat. Or that I’m certainly there under false pretences. Or that I’m storing up unnecessary problems for the guy who has been evangelising me.

Maybe it wouldn’t be like that, I certainly wouldn’t have a problem if they didn’t. But its going to take more conversations to make my position clear and to understand how they could relate to an interested party with no prospect of conversion. When the relationship is still at the level of “let me tell you about this amazing man, Jesus” we’re not there yet.

I wouldn’t think twice if these weren’t people in my little village. If this was a business trip, and I was leaving next week and never coming back. But somehow it feels deceitful. Which is a shame, because I’ve never been in a Kingdom Hall before, and I’d love to experience more of what goes on there.

Am I being over-sensitive?

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Profundity, Spirituality and Drugs

I define spiritual experiences to be those involving particular sets of mental states: including the experience of transcendence, peace, bliss, trance, sublimity, and profundity.

These mental states are available outside of a religious context. Some folks who haven’t experienced them via religion don’t even group them together meaningfully. I tend to, because they are all states that I accessed through religious activities, that were pleasurable, and that were different (in scale or kind) to my every-day experience.

Profundity I think is especially significant. Grant Morrison in his essay “Pop Magic!” encourages intentional profundity as a way to access the magical realm in every-day objects. Jean Harrell’s “Profundity” draws direct lines from James’s Varieties of Religious Experience to her criteria of what makes profundity (chapter 6). I have previously written about the role that investment has in the experience of profundity. I think many rituals generate their religious impact through engendering a sense of profundity.

We can make a prediction based on this idea. If we look at repeatable contexts in which people experience heightened profundity outside religion, we should find that those contexts are also used or evoked in a religious context to heighten the sense of profundity, and thus the religious experience.

One such context, I’ve been researching recently, is drug use. In particular there are a couple of groups of narcotics that are often reported as engendering sensations of profundity: cannabinoids, and hallucinogens. It is a strong cultural cliche that stoners find everything profound, and countless hippes and musicians attest to finding profound insights during a good LSD trip.

I suspect, then, it isn’t a coincidence that just about all the entheogens (drugs used ritually by a religious group) I could find documented were in these groups.

A few examples:

Cannabis is most famously used by Rastafari, but as Bhang is also associated with Shiva in Hinduism, and some Santo Daime use it as a healing herb (their more common drug is below).

Hallucinogens are even more frequently used. Santo Daime’s primary drug ayahuasca is an example, consumption of which during extended rituals is known as “The Work” by adherents. Kastomists use a hallucinogenic tree plant root in their rituals. Peyote (mescalin) has been traditionally used by the Huichol Indians as an entheogen.

The only exception to these drugs, that I could find, is the ritual use of alcohol in some religions (in the Christian Eucharist, for example, or Cake and Ale in Gardnerian wicca, or Toasting in Asatru), and Khat (an amphetamine) used by some East-african groups. I could not find any claims that either were entheogens, however: that their narcotic effects actually produce or enable religious experience. If you know better, please correct me.

Even if this were not exclusively true, I think the pattern is distinct. Religious experience and the experience of profundity are linked: religious experience can engender profundity, and a narcotic cause of profundity can heighten religious experience.

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How Science Works

I’ve spent a bit of time recently being drawn back into discussions with creationists. It is always soul destroying coming up against yet another earnest believer channelling the same creationist lies from the same few sources. It is so frustrating trying to have a conversation about biology with folks who’s knowledge is so superficial that they have no real clue what scientists actually say, or why. Frustrating because, inevitably, such people are so convinced they are right and scientists are fundamentally stupid or ideologically blinded, that they refuse to actually learn any science to have the discussion. Invicible Ignorance. Bleagh. It is no wonder that so many Christians find creationism so embarrassing.

One of the recent tactics of the institutions that peddle creationism is the idea that evolutionary science is no more than a different interpretation of the same data. If you start with the assumption there is no God, you can read evolution into the evidence. Whereas if you start with the true knowledge of God, then the evidence clearly points to a young earth (or an old earth, depending on which creationist mill you get your information from — they disagree with one another about the details).

Science, and empiricism generally, works a bit differently.

Empiricism deals with “differentiable hypotheses”. These are simply explanations which can be told apart. All explanations have consequences, and differentiable hypotheses will have some consequences that are different from one another. Given two possible explanations, we work through until we find consequences that differ. Then we can go and check which one was right.

Often one of the hypotheses will be the “null hypothesis”, which is simply a way of saying that the other hypothesis is wrong. So if the hypothesis is that “Bill burgled the house.”, then the null hypothesis will be “Bill did not burgle the house.” We ask what the consequences of each would be, and find some situations in which they would be different. Those situations are evidence.

Note that this is predictive. You have to predict what the consequences will be. All empiricism is predictive. Not predictive of what will happen in the future, necessarily (we can do science on things in the past). But predictive of the consequences of things being true.

Explanations that lose in this process don’t tend to stay still. They evolve to explain the confounded expectation. Even good science makes duff predictions sometimes, and needs to adapt to bring confounded expectations into the theory. So having unexpected results doesn’t make something wrong per se. But the way those adaptations occur is a good way to tell between good and bad explanations.

As I pointed out previously, a hypothesis that keeps getting it wrong ends up accumulating explanations that get more and more far fetched, and which themselves have consequences that aren’t or can’t be verified. As per my game about contradictions, it is always possible to explain away any failure.

A good theory, however, moves forwards with its adaptations, explaining more of the data and providing more opportunities to check.

The classic creationist example is gradualism. The original expectation was that evolution happens at a fairly steady rate. We’d see gradual changes in phenotype over time. This prediction was wrong, as creationists love to point out[1]. So this needed explanation. It was explained, through a series of careful studies in the 70s, and verified in mathematical models of evolution in the 80s and 90s. The new explanation had huge consequences, which we could check, and which drove evolutionary theory forwards considerably: feeding into work on neutral networks, regulation, and evodevo.

On the other hand, I’ve not seen anything in the creationist works I’ve read where one of their adaptive explanations is then analysed for its consequences and those consequences are then pursued and verified. The nearest you could get is the creationist prediction that there is no junk DNA, which then claim the the recent ENCODE papers as justification. But this only works at the level of quote-mining ENCODE, and relies on a serious misunderstanding of what ENCODE actually found (and even then, the results ENCODE reporting are very likely to be unreliable). Other predictions, such as irreducible complexity, have proven to be wrong (so in the manner of these things, the definitions have got more complex and the consequences remain hypothetical and unchecked). That’s the definition of pseudoscience, in my mind.

The purpose of this post is to have somewhere to refer to when this comes up. I’d love any thoughts on it.

[1] It isn’t clear how wrong this prediction was. Creationists love to oversell the lack of gradualism. And I’ve read some reaction pieces that seem to oversell the gradualism observed, or play down the expectation that evolution should be gradual. The actual patterns of expectation and reality are a lot more fuzzy than I’m suggesting here.

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Fishers of Men — Matthew 4:19

Jesus said, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Last night I had Act I Scene II of John Adams’s Opera “Nixon in China” going round my head as I fell asleep. The exchange:

Chou:  You’ve said
That there’s a certain well-known tree
That grows from nothing in a day,
Lives only as a sapling, dies
Just at its prime, when good men raise
It as their idol.
Nixon:  Not the cross?
Mao:  The Liberty Tree. Let it pass.
It was a riddle, not a test.
The revolution does not last.
It is duration — the regime
Survives in that, and not in time.
While it is young in us it lives;
We can save it, it never saves.
Kissinger:   And yours will last a thousand years.
Mao:  Founders come first, then profiteers.
Nixon:  Capitalists?
Mao:  Fishers of men.
An organized oblivion.
Let us not be misled.

struck me for its rather different interpretation of the phrase compared to Christianity.

Fishing is hunting. It is sport. The fish will be hooked, wrestled into nets, hauled out of their natural environment. Clubbed over the head (or allowed to suffocate to death). Then either stuffed and mounted as a prize, or be chopped up and eaten.

Fishers of men?

Perhaps an apt metaphor for some kinds of evangelism. But hardly an aspirational one.

(Anglican Minister, Rev.) Alice Goodman’s awesome libretto goes on to say:

Nixon:   Where is the Chinese people’s faith?
Mao:  The people’s faith? Another myth
To sell bonds.

I don’t have nearly as bleak view of faith as Goodman’s Mao. But the sentiment is certainly recognizable.

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Alternative Universes: Sci-Fi and Religion

I don’t normally post on the intersections between science fiction and religion, but I was musing on the idea of ‘Universes’ this morning.

The word ‘universe’ is often used in regard to a fictional setting, often with some connection to the real world. So we talk about the Marvel superhero universe, or the Star Trek universe, or the Star Wars universe. In fantasy writing, the word ‘world’ is often used: the world of Middle Earth, say. HP Lovecraft inspired (quite deliberately) a fictional universe, which is more called the ‘mythos’ (specifically the Cthulhu mythos).

A fiction becomes a universe (‘world’/’mythos’) when it goes beyond a primary narrative. Particularly when more than one person contributes to the fiction, when it moves beyond its initial medium, or when it is scope expands beyond a since story arc. So the Marvel superhero universe encompasses several time periods, many characters, large numbers of writers and artists, and a broad range of story arcs. There may also be multiple inconsistent timelines (e.g. Marvel, again) with fan theories on how to reconcile them in convoluted ways that appear in none of the stories.

Fiction in its own universe also splits into canon and apocrypha. There is a canon of work in the Cthulhu mythos, and then a huge mass of other work, by countless other writers. If a non-canonical work matches the universe sufficiently, and appeals to enough of its fans, then it will be granted some kind of inclusion into the repertoire. Otherwise it will be rejected: possibly interesting, but not to be taken too seriously.

And there are small groups of emotionally unstable online zealots willing to argue the minutiae of their favourite universe down to the atoms. Who react strongly and often nastily to those who they see as threatening it (even those who have authority over the universe, such as series creators or studios). And who wallow in the jargon and obscure references: turning off anyone with a casual interest who happens upon their clubhouse.

So I feel a bit bad drawing the parallel between this and religion. Said like this, it seems a bit too obvious to me.

Religious narratives are fictional alternate universes of the same kind as any other fantasy. And the kinds of religionists I get along with are the same as the kinds of Star Trek fans I like: those who can keep it all in proportion.

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The Seduction of Boaz – Ruth 3:7-10

When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth secretly came and uncovered his feet and laid down.

Later, in the middle of the night, the man was startled, he sat up and found a woman lying at his feet.

“Who are you?” he said, and she answered “I am Ruth, your handmaid. Spread your blankets over your maidservant, for we are close kin.”

“God bless you, my daughter.” he said, “You have shown even more kindness, by not chasing after young men, whether rich or poor.”
–tr mine

This passage in Ruth is one of my favourites in the Hebrew Bible. I also find it interesting how the story is sanitized and asexualized in countless studies and commentaries.

  • Boaz is represented as an honorable and upstanding man.
  • He gets drunk, and sleeps in a grain pile.
  • Ruth goes and uncovers him and lays down under the blankets.
  • He wakes up, sees her sleeping with him and decides he better marry her.

I find it hard to understand how an original audience would have heard the story, except as a tale of sexual manipulation.

I love Ruth. The whole book is short, and has one of the most perfectly repetitious and parallel structures, even among Hebrew writings that are typified by structures and parallels. This suggests Ruth was an oral story: the same kind of repetition is used by modern storytellers. It is memorable and gives the audience a sense of context in the story.

The thought is that this oral story was brought into Tanakh as an ancestors tale through the addition of the genealogy (which conspicuously breaks the structure). If so, then the original oral tale seems even more likely to be racy. The word I translated ‘feet’ (“margeloth”) seems to be deliberately ambiguous: elsewhere the sex organs are euphemistically called ‘feet’[1].

So is this romance, as James asked today? Quite the opposite, I think. A rather successful, if sly, engineering of a marriage proposal.

The pious retellings of the tale to make Ruth and Naomi somehow into moral exemplars I just cannot fathom from the text. And the notion that uncovering and laying at someone’s feet is a quite unsexual way of indicating affection seems dubious.

So not romance, no. Something far more interesting.

[1] I should be explicit and say that I am not suggesting that ‘margeloth’ should be translated ‘crotch’ here. Those who want Ruth to be pious rightly point out that this is overstepping the text. But the nuance wouldn’t have been lost, surely. Knowing it could be used that way, it seems a stretch to suggest it isn’t used with at least a nod and a wink.

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