Human beings are remarkably prone to supernatural beliefs and, in particular, to beliefs in invisible agents– beings that, like us, act on the basis of their beliefs and desires, but that, unlike us, aren’t usually visible to the naked eye. Belief in the existence of such person-like entities is ubiquitous. As Steven Pinker notes in ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion’ (2004), in all human cultures people believe that illness and calamity ‘are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, evils, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods’. In the United States, for example, a 2013 Harris Poll found that around 42 per cent believe in ghosts, 64 per cent in survival of the soul after death, 68 per cent in heaven, and 74 per cent in God.
Why are we drawn to such beliefs? The answer cannot be simply that they are true. Clearly, most aren’t. We know many beliefs are false because they contradict other similar beliefs. Take god-type beliefs. Some believe there’s one god; others (such as the Manicheans) that there are two gods; others: pantheons of gods. People also hold dramatically differing beliefs about the characteristics of these divine beings, ascribing to them incompatible attributes and actions. But it’s not just disagreement between believers that reveals many of these beliefs to be false. Science has also demonstrated that many of these beliefs are false: for example, diseases are produced not by demonic beings but by entirely natural causes. And of course, supposed evidence for such beings – sightings of ghosts, fairies, angels, gods and their miraculous activities – is regularly debunked by investigators.
When people are asked to justify their belief in such invisible beings, they often appeal to two things. First, to testimony: to reports of sightings, miraculous events supposedly caused by such beings, and so on. Any New Age bookshop will be able to provide numerous testimonies regarding invisible agency that might seem hard to account for naturalistically in terms of hallucination, self-deception, misidentified natural phenomena, trickery, and so on. Second, many will also claim a subjective sense of presence: they ‘just know’ their dead Auntie is in the room with them, or that they have a guardian angel, by means of some sort of extra sense: a spirit sense. The Delphic oracle believed she received communications from the god Apollo while perched on her tripod. Many contemporary religious folk believe they can sense divinity by means of some sort of sensus divinitatis or god-sense.
If there really are no good grounds for believing such beings exist, however, why do people believe in them? There’s much scientific speculation about that but, as yet, no definitive answer.
One obvious advantage of positing invisible agents is that they can account for what might otherwise be baffling. I could swear I left my keys on the table, but there they are under the sofa. How on Earth did that happen? If I believe in gremlins – invisible beings living in my house that have the desire to cause mischief and the power to do so – then the mystery is immediately solved. Invisible agents provide quick, convenient explanations for events that might otherwise strike us as deeply mysterious and, in so far as these beings can be appeased or persuaded, belief in them can also create the illusion of control, which can be comforting in an otherwise uncertain and dangerous world.
Scientists working in the cognitive science of religion have offered other explanations, including the hyperactive agency-detecting device (HADD). This tendency explains why a rustle in the bushes in the dark prompts the instinctive thought: ‘There’s someone there!’ We seem to have evolved to be extremely quick to ascribe agency – the capacity for intention and action – even to inanimate objects. In our ancestral environment, this tendency is not particularly costly in terms of survival and reproduction, but a failure to detect agents that are there can be very costly. Fail to detect a sabre-toothed cat, and it’ll likely take you out of the gene pool. The evolution of a HADD can account for the human tendency to believe in the presence of agents even when none can actually be observed. Hence the human belief in invisible person-like beings, such as spirits or gods. There are also forms of supernatural belief that don’t fit the ‘invisible person-like being’ mould, but merely posit occult forces – eg, feng shui, supernaturally understood – but the HADD doesn’t account for such beliefs.
In fact, I doubt that any single mechanism accounts for the human tendency to hold such supernatural beliefs. Certainly nothing as crude as ‘wishful thinking’ really does the job. What is believed is not always to the liking of the believer; sometimes, as in the case of night visits by demonic beings, it’s absolutely terrifying. In any case, the appeal to wishful thinking just postpones the mystery, as we then require an explanation for why humans are so attracted to believing in invisible beings.
Whatever the correct explanation for the peculiar human tendency to believe falsely in invisible person-like beings, the fact that we’re so prone to false positive beliefs, particularly when those beliefs are grounded in some combination of testimony and subjective experience, should provide caution to anyone who holds a belief in invisible agency on that basis.
Suppose I see a snake on the ground before me. Under most circumstances, it’s then reasonable for me to believe there is indeed a snake there. However, once presented with evidence that I’d been given a drug to cause vivid snake hallucinations, it’s no longer reasonable for me to believe I’ve seen a snake. I might still be seeing a real snake but, given the new evidence, I can no longer reasonably suppose that I am.
Similarly, if we possess good evidence that humans are very prone to false belief in invisible beings when those beliefs are based on subjective experience, then I should be wary of such beliefs. And that, in turn, gives me good grounds for doubting that my dead uncle, or an angel, or god, really is currently revealing himself to me, if my only basis for belief is my subjective impression that this is so. Under such circumstances, those who insist ‘I just know!’ aren’t being reasonable.
The essay, published last September, begins with a discussion concerning conservative culture warrior Kim Davis using her Christian religious beliefs to deny wedding licenses to gays and lesbians in Kentucky. Commenting on the controversy, Krauss notes:
The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more.Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals.
Krauss dismisses the demand that many make for respecting religious superstitions by noting the obvious:
The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another.
Krauss is correct. What is a sacred commandment or belief for one is another’s moral abomination. One need only be reminded of the sexism and misogyny woven into the fabric of all three of the Abrahamic religions to understand why many would find the supposedly sacred to be morally repugnant. The refusal by Kim Davis to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians is another example, and there are of course many more.
Krauss goes on to move from a discussion of Davis to a discussion of science, opining:
In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass.The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise.
Krauss observes that science is inherently dangerous to religion because scientific understanding often draws people away from religion:
Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.
Yet the uncomfortable fact that science often has the effect of exposing religious superstitions as irrational and ultimately untenable beliefs about the world means that the culture of science often panders to the faithful by sugar coating the truth about the natural world:
Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with preexisting religious doctrines,or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine.
Krauss rejects the misleading fabrication that science and religious dogma are compatible, at one point declaring:
Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world.
In concluding, Krauss sees a direct link “between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life.” Arguing that honesty should take priority over religious dogma, Krauss says “we owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass” to those “that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered ‘sacred.’”
Bottom line: Krauss is right, all scientists, and all thinking people, should be atheists.
Sexual intimacy and pleasure are some of humanity’s most cherished experiences. The so-called “best things in life” include natural beauty, fine dining, the arts, thrilling adventures, creative pursuits and community service. But love and orgasms are among the few peak experiences that are equally available to rich and poor, equally sweet to those whose lives are going according to plan and to many whose dreams are in pieces. (N.B.: in 20th century America African Americans utilized human sexuality to compensate for what was denied them elsewhere.)
Religious conservativesthink that these treasured dimensions of the human experience should be available to only a privileged few people whose lives fit their model: male-dominated, monogamous, heterosexual pairs who have pledged love and contractual marriage for life. Some true believers—especially those in thrall to the Protestant Quiverfull Movement or the Vatican—would further limit sexual privileges even within hetero state-licensed, church-sanctified marriages to only couples who are open to intimacy producing a pregnancy and a child. Take your pick: it’s either reproductive roulette or no sex—although you might be able to game God by tracking female fertility and then bumping like bunnies during the low risk times of the month.
Why Christianity is Obsessed with Sex
To be clear, I’m not saying that Christianity’s sex rules are only a function of patriarchal Christian privilege. During the Iron Age, from whence Christianity’s sex rules got handed down, society wasorganized around kin groups, and the endlessly-warmongering clans of the Ancient Near East were more at risk of extinction than overpopulation. Legally-enforced monogamy created lines of inheritance and social obligation, clarifying how neighbors should be treated and who could be enslaved.
Also, hetero sex necessarily carried the risk of pregnancy, which made it adaptive to welcome resultant pregnancies. Children do best in stable, nurturing families and communities, and in the Ancient Near East, “No marriage? No sex!” may have served to protect the well-being of mothers and children as well as the social power of patriarchal men. But in today’s mobile, pluralistic societies with modern contraceptive options and social safety nets, God’s self-appointed sex police have little credible excuse save their own compelling need to bully and boss and stay on top.
It should come as no surprise that Church authorities want an exclusive license to grant “legitimate” sexual privileges. Over the centuries, religious authorities have sought to own and define virtually all of the experiences that touch us deeply: the birth of a new person (christening, bris), art (iconography), music (chanting and hymns), eating, morality, mind altering substances, community, coming of age, family formation, and even our dying process. In each case religious authorities seek to legitimizesome forms of the experience and denigrate those that don’t fit their model. Powerful people and institutions want to control valued assets so they can leverage those assets to get more power. And controlling sex is powerful!
The Egotism and Cruelty of God’s Self-Appointed Messengers
Religious authorities like Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan or Evangelist Franklin Graham or Religious Right icon Pat Robertson quote the Bible and talk as if their self-righteous sex rules came straight from God, which of course is hooey. Set aside for the moment the fact that declaring oneself a spokesman for God is stupefyingly egotistical.Anyone who claims to know the mind of God is simultaneously making a rather bold claim about the superior infallibility of his own mind. The same can be said for anyone who boldly declares that the Bible is literally perfect and that he knows what God was trying to say.
But beyond egotism, telling people they can’t have sex based on Iron Age rules collected in the Bible or medieval rules pontificated by some kiss-my-ring Pope is just plain mean. It’s cruel and selfish and heartless, because the sex rules that served Hebrew patriarchs 2500 years ago and that helped the Vatican breed more tithing members 500 years ago deny sex to a whole lot of people who would otherwise find sexual pleasure and intimacy precious.
No Sex for the Weary
Who would men like Dolan, Graham and Robertson (or their predecessors like the Apostle Paul, Augustine, or Martin Luther) exclude from the privilege of sexual intimacy? Most of humanity—including, probably, you and a lot of people you love. The list is limitless:
College students who face long years of study before being ready for partnership and parenthood.
Parents who want to commit their finite emotional resources to the children they already have.
Young singles whose bodies are at peak libido, but who aren’t ready to form families.
Those who, whether married or not, want to commit their lives to some form of calling that isn’t parenthood.
People who perceive balance within the web of life as moral or spiritual imperative, whose conscience guides them to limit childbearing for the sake of other species and future generations.
Poor people who want to get a step ahead instead of (or before) having a child.
People who are saving up for marriage.
Cohabiting couples who don’t buy into the traditional marriage contract.
Empty nesters who are rediscovering why they like each other.
Travelers whose mobile lifestyle makes it impossible to offer a child a stable nurturing community and whose opportunities for intimacy flit past.
Loners and eccentrics whose personal qualities or desire for solitude make partnership and/or parenthood a poor fit.
Elderly widows and widowers for whom remarriage doesn’t make sense.
Famine-plagued women whose hungry bodies can ill sustain the risks of pregnancy or demands of incubating a healthy child.
The ill or those at risk of illness, who must navigate love in the time of chemo or love in the time of Zika.
War zone civilians and refugees who may not know whether they’ll survive or how, but know there is comfort in each other’s arms.
I could go on but I suspect there’s no need.Under what set of delusions is the world a betterplacebecause people like these are denied the pleasures of intimate touch, or the respite of a sexual interlude, or the acute pleasure of orgasm?
What The Sex Police Really Want
Wait a minute, a reader might say. Don’t overgeneralize. A minority of lay Christians believe that married couples must give up sex if they don’t want a(nother) baby —even if that is the official word from the pulpit for Catholics and some Protestants. So, this fight is really about people who want sex without marriage.
True. Well, partly true.
It goes without saying that conservative Christians want above all to deny sexual intimacy and pleasure to people who are single—especially girls and women. That is because the Bible’s Iron Age Sex Rules were meant, first and foremost, to ensure that females, who were economic assets belonging to men, produced purebred offspring of known paternity, who were also economic assets belonging to men. The Bible sanctions many forms of marriage and sexual slavery but all converge on one point: they guarantee that a man can know which offspring are his. That is why, after the slaughter of the Midianites in the book of Numbers, only virgins can be kept as war booty. It is why, in the Torah’s legal code, a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods.
The Old Testament prescribes death for dozens of infractions (you yourself probably belong on death row). But when it comes to sex, the death penalty is for females who voluntarily give it up (or who don’t scream loud enough when they are being raped). The meanest, sickest part of this archaic and morally warping worldview is the idea that, for women, sex itself should be a death penalty—or at least a roll of the dice. It’s simply divine justice that sex should sooner or later lead to the pain and potential mortality of childbirth, because that’s the punishment God pronounced on uppity Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” Genesis 3:16 NRSV.
There you have it. Female sexual pleasure and intimacy without the risk of labor pain and death is cheating God—as well as the male who rules over her.
Control at Any Price
The ways in which God’s Self-Appointed Sex Policetry to obstruct intimacy and orgasms are legion. Denying young people information about their bodies, promoting sex negativity, fostering a cult of virginity, spreading lies about masturbation—and above all shaming, shaming, shaming anyone who might dare to have sex without their approval. But the surest way the sex police can stop single females from cheating their way out of Eve’s curse is by making sex risky, which is why the religious right is obsessed with denying women access to birth control and abortion.
Globally, today 215 million desperate women want modern contraception and are unable to get it, thanks in part to American Religious Right politicians who explicitly excluded fertility management services from international HIV prevention. Church induced hang-ups about sex mean that reproductive empowerment gets left out of conversations where it is fundamental to wellbeing: family prosperity, early childhood development, mental health—even education of girls and career advancement of women.
At home, the U.S. squandered almost two decades and 1.5 billion dollars on abstinence-only “sex ed” that was an abject failure.Over the last three quarters of a century, conservative Christian obstruction of sexual literacy and family planning programs has driven humanity to the verge of collapse and has devastated families, condemning desperately poor people—like those who trusted Mother Teresa (who in turn trusted the Pope)—to lives of even deeper desperation.
Righteous men with access to the halls of power thwart sexual agency and then make criminals of women who abort the resulting ill-conceived pregnancies—all for the sake of maintaining their own authority and that of their institutions. And if the campaign to stop single women from having sex makes things hard for some married folks—the refugee couple, for example; or the poor parents trying to take care of the kids they already have; or those facing the prospect of a Zika baby with calcified and deformed brain structures—so be it.
The Small and Large of It
Think of the suffering as collateral damage— a form of collateral damage that is relatively benign by the standards of ecclesiastical history.
During the peak of Christianity’s political power, the Dark Ages, the Vatican launched a crusade against a sect of French Christians, the Cathars, who the Pope had declared heretics. When the crusaders arrived and began their slaughter, local people fled into churches, and sorting out who counted as a real Christian got confusing. So an inquiry was sent to the abbot, asking who should be killed and who spared. He replied by messenger: “Kill them all, God will know his own.”
By contrast with medieval butchery, collateral damage in the form of intimacy denied, or lives burdened with shame and stigma, or unwanted children born into the world with the odds stacked against them, seems minor.
But that is the only standard by which denying people sexual intimacy and pleasure is trivial. As I said, these are among humanity’s most treasured experiences. There are few freedoms that we value more than being able to form the love bonds and families of our choosing. In Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—and even among immigrant Muslims in the West—young people risk and lose their lives for love.
Going for Broke
Religious authorities fight to maintain monopoly control over sexual privileges precisely because these privileges are so valuable—so to the heart of who we are as human beings. Sexual pleasure sweeps over us; it can bring us to our knees. Sexual intimacy allows us to transcend the boundaries of time and space, body and psyche—to lose the self in the other.
If these seem like religious terms, they are. It is no accident that vocalizations during carnal ecstasy sounds a lot like prayer or that erotic music often has religious overtones:Take me to church; I’ll worship like a dog. . . . In your temple of love . . . halleluja (Hozier; Rod Stewart; Leonard Cohen). Or vice versa: You hold my hand and hold my heart; I give it away now, I am on my knees offering all I am (Parachute Band).
The Church hierarchy’s determination to define and control “legitimate” sex may be cruel and transparently self-serving. But it is smart. Sex endlessly attracts and compels us, making sexual guilt the perfect currency for institutions trafficking in sin and salvation. When religious authorities hold exclusive power to forgive sexual transgressions and then dole out (or deny) sexual privileges, they can redirect sublimated love and loyaltyand yearning and passion into the kind of peak experiences that religion itself has on offer—experiences like spiritual ecstasy, selfless service, or mystical union with the Divine—all scripted and doled out by the very same religious institutions and authorities, of course.
But God’s self-appointed spokesmen are losing their grip.If their proclamations seem crazier and their political maneuvers seem transparently cruel—as in recent bullying of transgender kids—that is because they are desperate.People are noticing that the cage door is open and that the world outside offers a rainbow of possibilities.
Sex and love that are not controlled by the Church compete with the Church. If individuals who are young and elderly, stable and transitioning, queer and straight, partnered and single, parenting and childfree, claim the right to pleasure themselves and each other and to form intimate bonds based on no authority save their own mutual consent and delight, the Church is screwed.
A new Pew Research Center analysis of General Social Survey data confirms a long-simmering trend in U.S. religious observance: While attendance at religious services has declined for all Americans, it has declined more among women than men.
In the early 1970s, 36 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported attending church services weekly, a ten-point gap that reflected the long-standing trend of women being more religiously committed than men.
The gap reached its widest point in 1982, when it hit 13 percent, but then it began to shrink. By 2012, 22 percent of men reported attending church weekly, as did 28 percent of women, reflecting a “worship gap” of only six percent, an historic low.
Pew’s David McClendon gives several possible reasons for women’s declining levels of religiosity as measured by church attendance. One is the increase in the number of women in the workforce, which could theoretically decrease their leisure time and force them to cut back on activities like church. But as McClendon himself notes, “the fastest increase in women’s full-time employment” actually “occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which time the gender gap on religious service attendance actually widened somewhat.”
If women aren’t too busy with work to go to church, maybe it’s because they’re becoming too well educated. Higher rates of educational attainment are correlated to less church going, except McClendon notes that both more educated and less educated women are going to church less.
Finally, McClendon notes that the growth of the “nones” appears to having contributed to women’s declining church attendance, as “the rate of growth in the unaffiliated has been slightly more rapid for women than men,” which has “helped narrow the gender gap in weekly attendance.”
But it seems likely that more women becoming unaffiliated is part and parcel of the same trend of more women staying away from church. It still doesn’t explain why this is happening.
What McClendon overlooks is that the years that women’s church attendance began to decline are the very years when religious leaders in the Catholic Church and the evangelical movement fused religion with the culture wars, with overall attendance for women taking it’s first steep drop in the 1980s.
This drop in church attendance for women coincided with the period when the Catholic bishops began making abortion a litmus test for Catholic politicians, as in the 1984 election when Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was attacked for being pro-choice.
And Pew’s own numbers appear to back this up. According to Pew, women are slightly more likely than men to say that churches should keep out of politics (55 percent vs. 53 percent), and overall 60 percent of Catholics say church should keep out of politics.
Women’s church attendance did recover somewhat in the early 1990s, but then began a long slide in the mid-1990s that continued to 2012, when the GSS data end. While the GSS numbers don’t break out attendance by religion, church attendance for both men and women appears to have bottomed out around the time the sex scandals broke in the Catholic Church in 2001. Other studies have a found “a significant decline in religious participation as a result of the scandals,” and it’s possible this decline was large enough to affect overall church attendance.
But while both men’s and woman’s attendance recovered somewhat after the early 2000s, women’s attendance dropped noticeably between about 2004 and 2012, while men’s remained fairly stable. This period saw evangelicals taking an increasingly hard line about traditional “Catholic” issues like birth control, which may have alienated some women.
And in 2004, the Catholic Church released a controversial document by soon-to-be Pope Benedict that was critical of feminism and said women’s characteristics were “Listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.” The following years of Benedict’s papacy were particularly unwelcoming to progressive women in the church.
If McClendon is right and the trend of growing disaffiliation correlates to women’s decline in attendance, it’s also worth noting that Catholics make up the largest portion of the nones exiting a religion. Almost one-third (28 percent) of nones are former Catholics, which is the single largest share of any religious group.
Why have women stopped going to church? It isn’t because they’re too busy or too well educated. Maybe they stopped going when conservative politics took over the pulpit.
Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church.
A child is more likely to be molested at church than a transgender-friendly bathroom.
As the transgender bathroom hysteria rages across the nation, it is important to remember where the real danger is for children. And despite the hysteria, a church is much more dangerous for a child than a public bathroom.
Earlier this week a gay Alabama lawmaker discusses the fact that church is a greater threat to children than transgender-friendly bathrooms. In a touching op-ed post, state representative Patricia Todd discussed the difficulties of being transgender, and the myths surrounding the transgender community.
No evidence has been uncovered showing that fears of transgender persons and “the bathroom issue” are warranted. Several states, school districts and corporations have adopted their own policies affirming transgender people’s right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity and have not reported problems.
As for the plight of transgender people, Todd reports:
In a study from UCLA’s Williams Institute, nearly 70% of transgender people said they had experienced verbal harassment in a situation involving gender-segregated bathrooms, while nearly 10% reported physical assault.
Most child predators are male (The National Center for Victims of Crime) and The Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute notes that 90% of child molesters target children in their network of family and friends, and the majority are men married to women.
In other words, the real danger to children is not strangers in a public bathroom, but people they know, and are taught to trust.
Indeed, anyone who pays attention to the news recognizes that youth pastors are often associated with the sexual abuse of children, and of course there is always the despicable, ongoing, and never-ending sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church.
American News X reports in 2014 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) came out with a report on sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The report indicates that from 1950-2013, 17,259 victims made accusations and 6,427 clerics had been counted as “not implausibly” or “credibly” accused. In addition, it should be noted that these numbers do not account for underreporting, or include the unusually large number victims who came forward in 2003 in the wake of the Boston Globe‘s eye-opening report on sexual abuse in the Catholic church by theirSpotlight team.
American News X also reports evangelical leaders have grown concerned enough about sexual abuse in their ranks that they have launched the “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment” (GRACE) to train, educate and help faith communities prevent the rampant child sexual abuse in America’s churches.
A presentation titled “Offenders Within The Church: Who Are They And How Do They Operate?” gives an ominous indication of the grave threat facing children in American churches, including the fact that reported child abuse accusations against US protestant churches average 70 per week (GRACE also acknowledges that the actual number is probably much higher due to under-reporting.)
In fact, GRACE even has a name for this phenomenon that contributes to sexual abuse in churches: The Five Exploitations:
Exploitation of “religious cover”: Child molesters’ apparent embrace of religious practices and doctrine gives them access to children while providing cover for their behavior.
Exploitation of faith: “The victim’s own analysis of religious doctrine may result in confusion and silence.”
Exploitation of power: Children are taught to submit to authority “from the earliest age.”
Exploitation of needs: Churches are always in need of volunteers and don’t always have the resources to thoroughly vet everyone. On top of that, churchgoers often come in need of support and spiritual solace.
Exploitation of trust: Churches foster a trusting environment, especially for families with children, and children are taught to trust in God and those whom they see as His representatives.
As for the big myth that transgender people using public bathrooms pose some sort of threat, a report issued by Media Matters cites experts from twelve states – including law enforcement officials, state human rights workers, and sexual assault victims advocates – who debunk the myth that transgender non-discrimination laws have any relation to incidents of sexual assault or harassment in public restrooms.
Bottom line: Children are much more likely to be molested at church than in a transgender-friendly bathroom.
Reproductive health isn’t just about abortions, despite all the attention they get. It’s also about access to family planning services, contraception, sex education and much else.
Such access lets women control the timing and size of their families so they have children when they are financially secure and emotionally ready and can finish their education and advance in the workplace. After all, having children is expensive, costing US$9,000 to $25,000 a year.
And that’s why providing women with a full range of reproductive health options is good for the economy at the same time as being essential to the financial security of women and their families. Doing the opposite threatens not only the physical health of women but their economic well-being too.
The Supreme Court acknowledged as much in 1992, stating in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey:
The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.
However, it seems that state and federal legislators, certain politicians running for president as well as some conservative Supreme Court justices have forgotten the meaning of this sweeping language.
As a consequence, the right to control their reproductive health has become increasingly illusory for many women, particularly the poor.
In addition to its widely recognized health and autonomy benefits for women, contraception directly boosts the economy. In fact, research shows access to the pill is responsible for a third of women’s wage gains since the 1960s.
And this benefit extends to their kids. Children born to mothers with access to family planning benefit from a 20 to 30 percent increase in their own incomes over their lifetimes, as well as boosting college completion rates.
Not surprisingly, in a survey, 77 percent of women who used birth control reported that it allowed them to better care for themselves and their families, while large majorities also reported that birth control allowed them to support themselves financially (71 percent), stay in school (64 percent) and help them get and keep a job (64 percent).
Still, there is a class divide in contraception access, as evidenced by disparities in the 2011 rate of unintended pregnancies. While the overall rate fell to 45 percent (from 51 percent in 2008), the figure for women living at or below the poverty line was five times that of women at the highest income level (although also decreasing).
One reason for this disparity is thecost of birth control, particularly for the most effective, long-lasting forms. For instance, it typically costs over $1,000 for an IUD and the procedure to insert it, amounting to one month’s full-time pay for a minimum wage worker.
These costs are significant, given that the average American woman wants two children and will thus need contraception for at least three decades of her life. Unfortunately, publicly funded family planning meets only 54 percent of the need, and these funding streams are under constant attack by conservatives.
Yet this coverage is also at risk for millions of employees and their dependents who work for employers claiming a religious objection. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court concluded that a for-profit company cannot only profess religious beliefs but also impose those beliefs on their employees by denying them certain forms of contraception. The Obama administration has issued regulations allowing religious employers to opt out of offering contraceptive coverage. Affected employees are then covered directly by their insurers.
This is not enough for some. In March, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Zubik v. Burwell, in which several religious nonprofits assert that even the act of seeking an accommodation from the law burdens their religious consciences.
These religious groups argue in part that women can get their birth control from other sources, such as federally funded family planning centers. Yet at the same time, conservatives are on a mission to slash that funding, particularly for Planned Parenthood, which provides sexual and reproductive health care to almost five million people a year.
This makes no economic sense. Publicly funded family planning programs help women avoid about two million unintended pregnancies a year and save the government billions of dollars in health care costs. The net savings to government are $13.6 billion. For every $1 invested in these services, the government saves $7.09.
Sex Education and the Economic Ladder
Another key to reproductive health—and one that isn’t discussed enough—is sexual education for teenagers.
Costs rise significantly the longer a woman must wait, either because state law requires it or she needs to save up the money—or both. Studies show that women who cannot access abortion are three times more likely to fall into poverty than women who obtained abortions.
In addition to the financial burden, many states are enacting laws designed to limit abortion access. These laws hit low-income women particularly hard. From 2011 to 2015, 31 states have enacted 288 such laws, including waiting periods and mandatory counseling sessions.
A lower federal appeals court stated in the Texas case that travel distances of more than 150 miles one way are not an “undue burden” and are thus constitutional. This, I would argue, shows a complete lack of understanding regarding the difficulties that poverty—especially rural poverty—imposes. Traveling long distances adds additional costs to an already expensive medical procedure.
The court’s decision is expected in June. Observers fear that the court could split 4-4, which would leave the Texas law intact.
It has been so since the1976 enactment of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. The Affordable Care Act does many wonderful things for women’s health, but it also extends the Hyde Amendment through its expansion of Medicaid, and it allows states to ban abortion coverage in their private exchanges.
Denying poor women coverage under Medicaid contributes to the unintended birth rates that are seven times higher for poor women than high-income women.
Economic and Reproductive Health
Politicians cannot promise to grow the economy and simultaneously limit access to abortion, birth control and sexual education. Our nation’s economic health and women’s reproductive health are linked.
And as Hillary Clinton correctly noted recently, it’s an issue that deserves more attention in the presidential campaign—and hasn’t received enough.
Michele Gilman is a venable Professor of Law, University of Baltimore and is affiliated with the ACLU of Maryland and the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.
One of the disadvantages of shopping for food early Sunday morning is that Krista Tippett’s “On Being” program is on National Public Radio at 7 a.m. And, of course, I have to listen, cursing to myself for an entire hour. Why do I do it, you ask? I could say that I need to keep my finger on the pulse of America, and that’s one reason, but it also serves as an Orwellian Sixty Minutes of Hate. (“Hate” is too strong; I think that Tippett and her followers are pitiable, though she’s very well compensated.)
Today’s show, actually, wasn’t so bad (I heard only about 40 minutes), as it featured a man who resisted all attempts to couch his thoughts as woo:Frank Wilczek, an MIT professor who, along with David Gross and H. D. Politzer, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for work on the strong interaction. Tippett being Tippett, the topic, of course, wasn’t really physics per se but, as you can see from the show’s title (“Why is the World So Beautiful?“), the “spiritual.” Wilczek has also written several popular books (I haven’t read them), one with the unfortunate title of A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design. I doubt that it’s teleological or osculates faith, but I wouldn’t have used the word “design”, which of course implies a Designer.
At any rate, Wilczek tackled an interesting topic: the beauty of mathematics and how well “beautiful and simple equations” describe the structure of the cosmos through physical laws. Why are such simple and “beautiful” theories so useful in describing the laws of physics? The wonder that Wilczek evinced resembled that expressed by Eugene Wigner in his famous 1960 paper, “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.” Here’s a quote from that paper:
It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions or to the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them. The observation which comes closest to an explanation for the mathematical concepts’ cropping up in physics which I know is Einstein’s statement that the only physical theories which we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones.
I doubt that most physicists would consider this a “miracle”(Wilczek didn’t come close to using that word); and, as I discuss in Faith versus Fact, there are anthropic reasons for the laws of physics being constant rather than variable (our bodies wouldn’t function, and no organism could evolve, if the laws varied wildly), as well as for mathematics being able to describe the laws of physics.
This leaves two questions: why are the laws of physics described with such simple—and, to physicists, beautiful—equations? And why, as Wilczek maintained, has beauty served physicists so well as a guide to truth? In fact, at one point Wilczek said that, when deriving an equation to explain physical phenomena, “It was so beautiful that I knew it had to be true.”
As a working (or ex-working) scientist, I recoil at such statements. To me, beauty cannot be evidence of truth, though it may be a guide to truth. If so, how does that work? But I even wonder how often mathematical beauty itself, which, after all, doesn’t come out of thin air but builds on previous equations known to describe reality, guides the search for truth completely independent of empiricism. I’m not qualified to answer that question, nor the questions of whether even more beautiful equations could be wrong, or whether it’s all that surprising that the effectiveness of math in describing physics is “unreasonable.”
Of course Tippett tried to turn all this toward spirituality, and at one point asked Wilczek if this beauty was evidence for Something Bigger Out There that others have called God, but he batted away the question. The woman tries to force everything into her Procrustean Bed of Spirituality. But leaving that aside, I have three questions for readers to ponder, and—especially for readers with expertise in math and physics—to give their take in the comments:
Aren’t there “ugly” theories that describe reality? What is a beautiful theory, anyway?
Are there beautiful theories that physics has proposed that turned out to be wrong?
Is it even worth pondering the question (if the proposition is true) about why physical reality is explained by such simple and “beautiful” equations? My own reaction would be “that’s just the way it is,” but clearly people like Tippett want to go “deeper.”
By the way, at the end of the show, Tippett announced the major donors to the show, and the first of these was—surprise!—the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). I hadn’t heard that before, and the JTF isn’t listed among the “funding partners” on the show’s main page:
I’m slow sometimes, but after years of writing about abortion rights it finally occurred to me that “life begins at conception” is one more version of a multimillennial infatuation with the penis as symboland proof that manliness is next to godliness.
On the surface, conservative Evangelical and Catholic insistence that life begins at conception appears to be aimed at elevating the status of fetus over woman. But just beneath the surface, what it elevates is the status of the penis—and anyone who has one.
What creates the wonder of a new person? Forget aboutthe maturation of germ cells, and the nine-month labor of a woman’s body, and painstaking parental nurture. It’s a sperm, a penile projectile shot forth by the ultimate organ of demi-divinity. Sperm penetrates egg, and voila! A person! A new soul! All the extraordinary and unique value we accord to human life is created instantaneously.
Three Millennia of Penis Worship
Once noticed, the pattern is inescapable. Our ancestors thought that the penis was literally divine. Dharmic cultures worshiped it by whacking stalactites and stalagmites out of caves and air-roots off of trees and carving phallic shapes out of granite by the thousands. Abrahamic cultures took the opposite approach and insisted the penis was so precious and powerful that it couldn’t be seen, even in art, and had to be chiseled off of statues or at least covered with fig leaves.
They also insisted that a man’s magic wand could permanently transform a female from one kind of being to another, from a prized “virgin” into a worthless “whore.” In medieval Catholicism’s recipe for sexual hangups, the prior touch of a penis (or lack thereof) became the most defining aspect of a woman’s identity, economic value and moral virtue. Penis penetrates female, and voila! No longer a whole person! The same magic wand that made her valuable could also do the reverse.
Same Old, Same Old
Fundamentalists who areanchored to the Iron Age by sacred texts and patriarchal traditions still hold to this archaic view, though they may use updated terms like “licked lollypop” or “chewed gum”—and some do offer second chances through “born-again virginity.”
But at least in the West, millennials finally are catching on to how ridiculous the whole virginity thing is. As one Facebook meme put it recently, “I don’t believe in virginity. Why? Because nobody’s penis is important enough to change any part of my identity.”
The idea that a penis can permanently change a woman’s value and the idea that a penis can instantaneously create a new soul both derive from the idea that men uniquely, were made in the image of God and that the penis (circumcised, of course) is the supreme symbol of man’s divinely anointed headship. And once they are packaged together, the idea thatlife-begins-at-conception starts sounding as transparently male-aggrandizing and silly as the idea of virginity.
No, You Didn’t Build That
Yes, the occasional sperm does end up inside an egg rather than a towel. And yes, sperm-penetrates-egg is a necessary—if insufficient—step in person formation. But the incredible process of making a new person begins long before conception and continues long after. To the trained eye, conception is no more or less magnificent—or critical—than the creation of the egg or the sperm itself, or of the many stages of transformation that come after.
In the subconscious of a patriarchal male or religious institution intent on preserving privilege, the claim that a penis can create a new person—or better yet, a new soul, almost ex nihilo—may flow naturally and logically from man’s god-like qualities and “rightful” dominance. But from an outside vantage the men making such claims seem rather like puffed-up architects who scribble partial plans and then claim they build buildings. Nice fantasy, but in the real world both buildings and people get made one step at a time. Construction is slow and hard and takes teamwork.
Everything’s a Project
In the case of forming a new person, two bodies produce germ cells that independently hold half of a biological blueprint. If each half works well enough and they meet, then a woman’s body starts the structural engineering to determine whether the design actually works. For very good reasons, the answer usually is no; the engineering team rejects the project and dumps it into the porcelain circular file. Most embryonic humans get booted out so fast that nobody even knows they existed. If and when engineering gives the preliminary go-ahead, a woman’s whole body gears up to start building a person. Her circulatory system pumps up blood flow. Her bones and teeth transfer calcium to the construction site. Her digestive system demands enough food for two.
Not only is the process slow and costly—like any construction project, it’s dangerous. Eight hundred American women die every year from pregnancy. Around the world, it’s that many every day. Most of us survive the project, but we do endure nausea and swollen ankles and fatigue, and irreversible wear and tear. When we women choose to incubate a child, which we often do quite gladly, we do so knowing our bodies and lives will never again be the same.
So, patriarchs, love your orgasms all you like, but don’t fall for the weirdly puffed-up idea that they make babies. Penis power is solely limited to fertilizing eggs. And a fertilized egg is a fertilized egg—no less, no more.
Silly-willy worship aside, many men deserve real credit for making children, because they take on the actual parenthood project in a deep and devoted way. Wanting to be good parents of healthy children, they wear condoms till the time is right, put their lives in order, bring home prenatal vitamins and make peanut butter sandwiches in the middle of the night.
When pregnancy ends, they endure labor vicariously (yes, vicarious pain hurts), anxiously awaiting the slimy little creature that will spill out in a puddle of blood. Labor over, they gingerly hold a sweet-smelling, flannel-wrapped burrito and look into eyes that are seeing the world for the first time and fall in love.
Back in the home they have helped to create, they wipe spit-up off shirts and go to work bleary-eyed when illness strikes and a child can’t sleep. In better times, they get down on the rug and play pretend and read stories even though maybe—just once in a while—they’d rather be playing video games or reading the Times. They understand that making something as wonderfully complex as a fully fledged, thriving person takes everything a parent can give for decades, and they give it.
Conception worship is willy worship. It diminishes fatherhood by trivializing the many other parts of themselves that men can and do bring to the process of creating a new person—heart and mind, labor and love. And it diminishes all of motherhood.
So, if you’re one of the guys who either is or intends to be a real father—please call out posers who think themselves endowed with some divine instrument that can turn an egg into a precious little person. And if you would, while you’re at it, you could do us women a favor by calling out the equally ludicrous conceit that the touch of a penis turns a female from one kind of being into another. Men don’t have magic wands in their pants—just body parts, and exaggerating the power of your dick just makes you one.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.
It’s not looking good for the global fossil fuel industry. Although the world remains heavily dependent on oil, coal and natural gas—which today supply around 80 percent of our primary energy needs—the industry is rapidly crumbling.
This is not merely a temporary blip, but a symptom of a deeper, long-term process related to global capitalism’s escalating over consumption of planetary resources and raw materials.
New scientific research shows that the growing crisis of profitability facing fossil fuel industries is part of an inevitable period of transition to a post-carbon era.
But ongoing denialism has led powerful vested interests to continue clinging blindly to their faith in fossil fuels, with increasingly devastating and unpredictable consequences for the environment.
In February, the financial services firm Deloitte predicted that over 35 percent of independent oil companies worldwide are likely to declare bankruptcy, potentially followed by a further 30 percent next year—a total of 65 percent of oil firms around the world. Since early last year, already 50 North American oil and gas producers have filed bankruptcy.
The cause of the crisis is the dramatic drop in oil prices—down by two-thirds since 2014—which are so low that oil companies are finding it difficult to generate enough revenue to cover the high costs of production, while also repaying their loans.
Oil and gas companies most at risk are those with the largest debt burden. And that burden is huge—as much as $2.5 trillion, according to The Economist. The real figure is probably higher.
At a speech at the London School of Economics in February, Jaime Caruana of the Bank for International Settlements said that outstanding loans and bonds for the oil and gas industry had almost tripled between 2006 and 2014 to a total of $3 trillion.
This massive debt burden, he explained, has put the industry in a double-bind: In order to service the debt, they are continuing to produce more oil for sale, but that only contributes to lower market prices. Decreased oil revenues means less capacity to repay the debt, thus increasing the likelihood of default.
This $3 trillion of debt is at risk because it was supposed to generate a 3-to-1 increase in value, but instead—thanks to the oil price decline—represents a value of less than half of this.
Worse, according to a Goldman Sachs study quietly published in December last year, as much as $1 trillion of investments in future oil projects around the world are unprofitable; i.e., effectively stranded.
Examining 400 of the world’s largest new oil and gas fields (except U.S. shale), the Goldman study found that $930 billion worth of projects (more than two-thirds) are unprofitable at Brent crude prices below $70. (Prices are now well below that.)
The collapse of these projects due to unprofitability would result in the loss of oil and gas production equivalent to a colossal 8 percent of current global demand. If that happens, suddenly or otherwise, it would wreck the global economy.
The Goldman analysis was based purely on the internal dynamics of the industry. A further issue is that internationally-recognized climate change risks mean that to avert dangerous global warming, much of the world’s remaining fossil fuel resources cannot be burned.
All of this is leading investors to question the wisdom of their investments, given fears that much of the assets that the oil, gas and coal industries use to estimate their own worth could consist of resources that will never ultimately be used.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative, which analyzes carbon investment risks, points out that over the next decade, fossil fuel companies risk wasting up to $2.2 trillion of investments in new projects that could turn out to be “uneconomic” in the face of international climate mitigation policies.
More and more fossil fuel industry shareholders are pressuring energy companies to stop investing in exploration for fear that new projects could become worthless due to climate risks.
“Clean technology and climate policy are already reducing fossil fuel demand,” said James Leaton, head of research at Carbon Tracker. “Misreading these trends will destroy shareholder value. Companies need to apply 2C stress tests to their business models now.”
The end of cheap oil
Behind the crisis of oil’s profitability that threatens the entire global economy is a geophysical crisis in the availability of cheap oil. Cheap here does not refer simply to the market price of oil, but the total cost of production. More specifically, it refers to the value of energy.
There is a precise scientific measure for this, virtually unknown in conventional economic and financial circles, known as Energy Return on Investment—which essentially quantifies the amount of energy extracted, compared to the inputs of energy needed to conduct the extraction. The concept of EROI was first proposed and developed by Professor Charles A. Hall of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York. He found that an approximate EROI value for any energy source could be calculated by dividing the quantity of energy produced by the amount of energy inputted into the production process.
Two rooms, in two different cities, but pretty much the same scene: one man stands before a few dozen supporters, many of them middle-aged white males, plus a smaller, precocious cohort in early adulthood. As the man speaks, they interrupt him with good, earnest, detailed questions, which he ably answers more or less to their satisfaction. These crowds crave the intricacies of arguments and the upshots of science. The only thing that seems beyond their ken is how their counterparts in the other room could be convinced of something so wrong.
One of those rooms was in New York City, high in an office building overlooking the ruins that then still remained of the World Trade Center; the man was Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist and ‘New Atheist’ polemicist. The man in the other room was his arch-rival, the evangelical Christian philosopher and debater William Lane Craig, speaking in a classroom on the sprawling campus of his megachurch in Marietta, Georgia. If one were to attend both events without understanding English, it would be hard to know the difference.
Whether such a thing as God exists is one of those questions that we use to mark our identities, choose our friends, and divide our families. But there are also moments when the question starts to seem suspect, or only partly useful. Once, backstage before a sold-out debate at the University of Notre Dame between Craig and Sam Harris, Dawkins’s fellow New Atheist, I heard an elderly Catholic theologian approach Harris and spit out: ‘I agree with you more than I do with that guy!’
During the heyday of the New Atheist movement, a few years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was in the wake of a teenage conversion to Catholicism. One might think that my converts’ zeal would pit me squarely against the New Atheist camp. But it didn’t. Really, neither side of the does-God-exist debates seemed to represent me, and the arguments in question had little to do with my embrace of my new-found faith. I had been drawn by the loosey-goosey proposition that love can conquer hate and death, expressed concretely in the lives of monks I had briefly lived among and members of the Catholic Worker Movement who shared their homes with the homeless and abandoned. I actually agreed with most of what the New Atheists wrote about science and free enquiry; what I disagreed most sorely with them about was their hawkish support for military invasions in Muslim-majority countries.
Still, I became fascinated with the question of God as I tried to wrap my head around it for myself. I travelled around the world to meet God debaters, and studied the historical thinkers from whom their arguments derive. I found that I wasn’t alone in doubting the pertinence of the question.
The thinkers who crafted the classic proofs for the existence of God – from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, for instance – were writing to audiences for whom the existence of divine beings was uncontroversial. The purposes of these proofs had more to do with contentions about what we mean by God, and how far into such matters human reason can really take us.
Consider, for instance, Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century monk who devised his proof in a fit of early morning ecstasy. His claim, which has been debated strenuously from its first publication until now, was that the very concept of God contained in it the proof of God’s existence – which, to Anselm, was a testament to God’s omnipresence and love. For centuries, his fiercest critics objected not to Anselm’s God, but to his reasoning. Centuries later, the Jewish apostate Baruch Spinoza employed a very similar argument in 17th-century Holland: he took the reasoning but mostly put aside the God.
Today, Spinoza stands as a progenitor of the modern, scientific worldview. The atheist philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein considers him ‘the renegade Jew who gave us modernity’. Yet at the centre of his system is a proof for God, one very much akin to that of the Christian monk Anselm. Where Anselm saw the Christian God, Spinoza saw the totality of the universe. He insisted that this was indeed God, that he was not an atheist. In his devotion to reason, Spinoza became famous for his piety; the German Romantic poet Novalis would later call him the ‘God-intoxicated man’.
Spinoza and Anselm both passionately believed in God, and adopted a similar way of thinking; the difference was in the kind of God they had in mind.
In the 20th century, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch would take up their basic argument again. She saw in it neither Anselm’s God the Father nor Spinoza’s God of Nature, but the Good – the underpinning of morality and beauty in a post-religious world. When we compare her to Anselm and Spinoza, the question of God-or-no-God seems far less interesting than the argument they shared and the ways in which they tweaked its meaning. I wonder what Anselm and Murdoch would say to each other if they were to somehow meet.
What are we really talking about when we debate the existence of God? I think it can become a shortcut, a way of side-stepping more necessary and more difficult questions. Denouncing others as atheists, or as believers in a false God, can become an excuse to treat them as less than human, as undeserving of real consideration. When terrorists attack in the name of a certain God, it can seem easier to blame their religion than to consider their stated grievancesabout foreign military bases in their countries and foreigners backing their corrupt leaders. When religious communities reject scientific theories for bad reasons, it can seem easier to blame the fact that they believe in God, rather than to notice that other believers might accept the same theories for good reasons. Good ideas and bad ideas, good actions and bad actions – they’re all on either side of the God divide.
Pope Francis’s provocations in recent years have been palpable reminders of this. When Francis released his recent encyclical on ecology, many non-religious environmentalists received it more warmly than some of my fellow Catholics. Francis himself addressed the document not merely to Catholics, but to ‘all people’, and he has welcomed secular activists to the Vatican to discuss it. (The journalist Naomi Klein was so enthusiastic upon returning, she told me, that she had to remind herself ‘not to drink too much Kool-Aid’.) Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic blogger Maureen Mullarkey dismissed it as an ‘extravagant rant’. Catholic friends of mine found it depressing, while I read it by a lake with tears of joy. The fact that we share a belief in the God that Francis calls upon was, for better or worse, beside the point.
I believe in God, but I often find more common cause with those who say they don’t than those who say they do. I’ve come to care less whether anyone says they believe in God or not, and to care more about what they mean by that, and what they do about it.