Friday, October 26, 2012

Drilling Down into Abortion Fight

The controversy over abortion in this country has been brought to the forefront recently by the inane and outrageous comments of some in the GOP. Although the Republican Party Platform condemns abortion in all cases, some party members even go beyond that. Last summer, for example, Senatorial candidate Todd Akin of Missouri said that he was against abortion even in cases of rape because women who were victims of “legitimate rape” probably couldn’t get pregnant because the female body has a way to shut it down. More recently, Indiana Senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock said that even a pregnancy that resulted from rape should be continued because it is “what God intended.”

It is hard to understand how anyone could hold such outlandish opinions, but it is even harder to understand how so many of the GOP rank-and-file voters could rally behind these meatheads and still give them their vote. But when I give it some deeper thought, there are a couple of reasons why they might still get elected. For one thing, Republicans who vote for them might disagree with their extreme views, but they want to see GOP control of the Senate. They think that by abandoning the candidate it would mean the Democrats would retain control of the Senate. A second reason that GOP voters might support the loony tune candidates is because they, themselves, are also loony.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying anyone who agrees that abortion is wrong is loony, even though I do disagree vehemently with their position. What I’m saying is that anyone who takes a moral stand against any action and then tries to affect public policy based on their moral compunctions, especially when those compunctions are far from the mainstream, might be considered to be a bit loony.

Those who believe that abortion should be illegal because they believe that life begins at conception and that the termination of pregnancy by the woman is tantamount to murder claim that they are only sticking up for the unborn baby because it can’t stick up for itself. Drilling down through all the rhetoric, though, we find that there is only one underlying point that is being arbitrated between the anti-choice and the pro-choice groups. Anti-choice people (I refuse to use their euphemism, pro-life.) believe that the fetus is a living human being with all the rights and privileges afforded to those who have actually been born. I say that opinion is misguided. I would even go so far as to call it a bullshit notion. Here’s why.

Pro-choice proponents counter by saying that the fetus is totally and utterly dependent on the woman who is its host – the mother. Anti-choice people say that even after it is born it is utterly dependent on the mother, too. But it is not. That is a fallacy, a red herring. Once that umbilical cord it cut, the mother can, if she wants, give up that baby without even looking at it. The baby is certainly dependent on someone to provide it with the necessities of life, but not necessarily on its mother. It’s dependent upon some human but the mother can choose not to be that person.

But when the fetus is growing inside a woman’s body, it is dependent on THAT woman alone because it is actually attached to her. The fetus and its host are inseparable. The host of that fetus, if she desires to keep it, must make many changes in her life to accommodate the fetus inside. Therefore, the woman should have much more say in whether or not she wants to continue supporting that fetus, who, up until a point at least, has no ability to have any input.

Now, once the fetus reaches a certain point, where it could possibly survive outside its mother, then the fetus should be given greater consideration. Maybe, beyond that point, the mother’s health or life should be limiting factors. That takes place around the beginning of the third trimester. But before that point is reached, the host mother should retain complete control of the decision-making process.

Anti-choice people who are Christians might claim that the fact that the fetus has a soul, supplied to it by God at conception, should limit the mother’s choice in the matter. But that comes down to a matter of theology. They have a right to that opinion. But that opinion is not shared by all and it is not an opinion that I agree with. Since I do not believe in a biblical soul, I find those views to be a little archaic, even silly. But I respect the rights of others to have those opinions. What I don’t respect is the desire of the religion right to turn their theology into public policy.

I have a big problem with anyone who tries to instill their religious views into public policy. How is that any better than the other way around, if I advocated electing someone who would support mandating my opinion onto everyone else, regardless of their beliefs? What if I believed that all women on welfare should be prohibited from having a baby and if they got pregnant the government should enforce an abortion? I don’t really believe that, but hypothetically, I could take that position. That position would be equivalent to the anti-choice crowd trying to force their belief system on others through legislation. They believe abortion is murder therefore everybody else must comply with their belief. It makes no sense.

But even here in 21st-century America, we’re still dealing with senseless people advocating senseless policy based on some anachronistic religion that shouldn’t have any application in modern life. That’s my opinion; far be it from me to enforce it on anyone.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Things We Know

The bible was written in the days before science, when everybody believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun, moon, and stars all circled it in the heavens. They believed that the stars were pasted onto the firmament by God. They believed the heavens were fairly close to the ground, so close that they could even build a tower to reach it. They believed God controlled the motions of the sun, moon, and stars. If God wanted to, he could even stop their motion, as he is described as doing in the Old Testament so that his people could finish their marauding.

So it was not at all hard to believe that God could have created the earth in six days and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. There was certainly no evidence against it.

But today, in the space age, we know better. We can actually observe and measure things like the age of the earth or the earth's orbit around the sun. We can tell from observation and mathematics that the stars are not simply lights hung on a firmament but are actually far away suns. We know precisely how big the earth is and how big the sun is and we know it is a million times bigger than the earth.

But we also know a lot more than that. We know for a fact that stars are clustered into galaxies and we know that galaxies are all moving away from each other. We know that, far from being the center of everything, the sun and earth are not even the center of our own galaxy of stars. We know that if you look at a piece of the sky the size of a dime held at arms length with a powerful enough telescope that within that tiny section of sky can be seen hundreds of thousands of distant galaxies.

God did not make the universe for us. That notion came from the day when everybody thought we were the center of God's creation, back when it would have made sense for a creator to have created us all for his own amusement.

Most modern Christians do not hold on to those old ideas of six-day creation. More than half believe that life on Earth evolved, although most say it was with the hand of God guiding that evolution. But at least those are the Christians who don't turn a blind eye to the facts and evidence.

But some Christians, the evangelicals, still hold to the ancient notion that God created the earth for us in six literal days. They still believe that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. And they still refuse to believe that living organisms have evolved and are still evolving.

But to hold on to such a belief requires that these people turn a blind eye to proven facts. It requires they remain closed to accepting the scientific evidence that runs contrary to their archaic beliefs.

Creationists are fond of quoting the long odds that would allow humans to have evolved by chance. But what about the even longer odds that the predictions made by scientific theories have been proven accurate? Take for example the big bang theory. Back in the 1950s a man by the name of George Gamow predicted, through manipulations of Einstein's equations, that if the universe was actually created in a big bang then that primordial explosion would have left a microwave fingerprint in the sky. Not only that, he could tell us the properties of this radiation. It should, in fact, have a black-body temperature signature of 2.7K and it should permeate the sky in every direction equally.

In the '50s, scientists were working on Quantum Theory and didn't have time to fool around with measuring cosmic microwaves, so Gammow's prediction went untested for about 10 years. But in 1965, two scientists working for Bell Labs on a completely different project accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave radiation that Gammaw had predicted. When other scientists over the years verified their discovery, they were awarded the Nobel Prize. Not only was the radiation coming from all directions equally, but the temperature of it fit precisely with the mathematical prediction made by Gammow years earlier.

So, either the universe really was created in a big bang, or the precise temperature of the universe, 2.73K just happened to be exactly what a scientist predicted by accident. It could have been any temperature at all, but it turned out to match the prediction exactly.

This is just one isolated example of many, many such examples of science predicting measured reality. Evolution theory, Quantum theory, the Big Bang theory, the Theory of Relativity, etc. all have made astoundingly accurate predictions about nature. Intelligent Design or Creationism have not made a single verifiable prediction about nature. Yet evangelical Christians believe wholeheartedly in them and denounce proven theories such as the big bang or evolution.

The proofs of science can be verified by anyone with the right equipment and enough knowledge. There is no secret club you have to belong to or oath you have to take to be a scientist. You simply have to follow the scientific method: Ask a question and search for the answer by following protocols designed to eliminate bias. And then once you find the answer, you have to accept it even if you don't like it.

That's what science is and that's the advantage it will always have over religion. The things we, as humans, now know boggles the mind. A few hundred years ago we were just beginning to come to terms with gravity. Today, we know (and can show we know it with mathematics and observation) what the exact temperature of the universe was a millionth of a second after the big bang. Plus we know that there was, indeed, a big bang. These things are no longer just speculation. We KNOW them and can prove them, to anyone who cares to listen.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What I Should have Said Was....

When I was a college freshman I hung out with a group of three or four friends, most of whom were Jesus Freaks. Some of them, however, were freakier than others. I remember this one conversation that took place around the lunch table in the cafeteria, which everybody on campus called Saga, because that was the name of the company that ran the food service.

One of my friends, Claudia, was a little on the quirky side. So it shouldn't have surprised me what she said. But after she said it, my view of conservative Christians began to crystallize. Besides Claudia and me, there were two other guys at the table. I can't even remember their names. But one of them performed a mock toast: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die!" Then Claudia said it. "I would like to die tomorrow. Actually, I would like to die today!"

My other friend asked her why she wanted to die. "Because my body does things I don't want it to do. It gets sick; it feels sad sometimes."

I don't remember the rest of the conversation. I just sat there, being struck by the audacity of what she had said and wondering if she really meant it. What I actually said was - nothing. I just listened and wondered.

What I should have said was: "Claudia! If you think that dying would be better for you because you get to go meet your God, then why don't you just go ahead and kill yourself?"

Imaginary Claudia: "Because I don't want to mess with God's perfect plan for me. He has a plan for me and I have to see it through."

Imaginary Me: "Do you know what God's plan for you is?"

Imaginary Claudia: "No, of course not. Nobody knows God's divine plan."

Imaginary Me: "What if God's plan for you is for you to kill yourself today? And by not killing yourself you're actually screwing up God's plan!"

Imaginary Claudia: "Bite me!"

Another scenario I play out in my head goes something like this:

Real Claudia: "I'd like to die today!"

What I should have said: "Claudia, why? What is it about your religion that makes you want to die at such an early age?"

Imaginary Claudia: "The sooner I die, the sooner I get to go meet my Savior."

Imaginary Me: "But what if your religion is wrong? Have you considered that possibility?"

Imaginary Claudia: "It's NOT wrong. I have the bible as my proof!"

Imaginary Me: "But what if the bible is wrong?" How do you know it is correct, because it says it is? What if what you believe is wrong and the Presbyterians are right, or the Catholics, or even the Muslims? If you're wrong, you go to hell. So why put all your eggs in one basket?"

Imaginary Claudia: "I have faith that what I believe is true. I feel it in my heart."

Imaginary Me: "Have you ever felt anything in your heart that turned out not to be true or beneficial? What if the religion-shaped basket you put your eggs in turns out to be wrong? The Muslims have the Koran, which informs their beliefs. And they believe just as strongly that they are right. They have just as strong of faith as you do. You believe they are misguided or that they haven't yet been exposed to your truth yet, but they believe the same thing about you and your religion. Both can't be right can they? But both can be wrong. And you're actually going to sit there in all your religious smugness and wish death upon yourself based on what you feel in your humanly fallible heart?"

Imaginary Claudia: "Bite me!"

There, I'm glad I finally got that off my chest!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Some Special Needs Students Taking Up Resources

I expect that some people who read this will think I'm a heartless bastard for writing it. But that's ok. It still makes perfect sense in a reality-based world.

Everybody knows that our public education system is financially strapped. Everybody knows that the U.S. is cranking out below-average science and math students compared to other industrialized nations.

So why are we spending millions of dollars going through the motions of educating special needs students who will never be productive members of society?

See, I knew some people would take that the wrong way. What I mean is that, despite the fact that their parents do not want to hear it, there are some children who are so severely challenged mentally and physically that they will never be able to live anything like a normal life on their own. At the schools where I've taught, there are students who are so challenged that they can't eat on their own, write their names, or string words together to make a sentence. And I'm not talking about pre-schoolers. These are middle- and high-school students.

Some of the students require a full-time teacher all by themselves. These are not babysitters; they are certified teachers who are paid anywhere between $35,000 and $65,000 a year for their services - to a single child. This is on top of funds needed to supply classrooms with special equipment and materials to service these children.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we, as a society, should turn our backs and not help to support them. If they need to be cared for during the day and if the parents can't afford this care, we should take care of them - but not at school and not by faculty. Perhaps a specialized nursing-home environment would be better suited to their needs.

I've never been a big fan of what they used to call mainstreaming. Today it is referred to as inclusion. Kids with special needs are forced to sit through normal classes if they are able to handle it, even though there is little chance that they will learn much from a normal classroom environment. That, in itself, wouldn't be so bad except that inclusion students often require the presence of a second, special education teacher in the classroom, even if there are few students. And it also sometimes causes a distraction because it often takes the classroom teacher's time away from teaching the students who have a better chance of benefiting from that time.

I've heard the arguments the other way. And I'm certainly not targeting those students who have the capacity to learn enough to be contributing members of society some day. But I do believe there are better and less expensive ways to take care of those young people who will never be able to live on their own, get a job, and pay taxes due to a severe mental deficiency. I'm not saying sweep them under the rug and forget about them. I'm just suggesting that there are too many resources pumped into trying to educate these children who have little hope of providing any return on that investment. Those resources should be spent on the students who will be more likely to benefit from them.