Friday, February 07, 2003

Self and other

Minute Particulars has a post, whcih he admits at the outset might be half-baked, on the differences in motivation between those who favor and those who oppose legal abortion. The gist of it is that pro-choicers are motivated by self-interest -- I or someone like me might want to have an abortion -- while pro-lifers are only concerned for others, because no one's in danger of becoming a fetus.

That premise is half-baked, in my opinion. I actually blogged about this a while ago when Charles Murtaugh argued from the similarly half-baked premise that abortion is in the interest of all women and against the interest of all men. My post wasn't exactly baked to crispy brownness itself, but I brought up a study of pro-life and pro-choice women that I'd read about in college. Essentially, there was a disagreement between them about what makes women valuable. The pro-life women were heavily working-class, and found meaning and power in motherhood that they did not find in the workplace. The pro-choice women were the reverse: more affluent, more likely to see children as getting in the way of a career.

Now, you could say, that's all very well for women who choose not to have abortions themselves, but where the self-interest in trying to stop others from having them? The strong feeling I got from that study, as well as a lot of other pro-life rhetoric, was that the presence of abortion on demand leads to a cultural devaluation of motherhood, and a shift in expectations of what women are supposed to be like.

Connected to this fear is the fear of male irresponsiblity. In another past post I half-jokingly proposed a quick-and-dirty test to predict a woman's view of abortion: are you more afraid of a man controlling you, or running out on you? Pro-choice rhetoric is full of scare language about "controlling women's bodies," while pro-life language often expresses the fear of men screwing around without consequences. Just today Jane Galt wrote:
More troubling, the feminist movement has not merely tried to render the legal ability to choose that men have always had (and pro-life readers should remember that while the choice of men to abandon their children is not quite as final, it is nonetheless horribly detrimental). Rather, it has sought to make the choice to abandon a child created through consensual sexual activity not merely legal, but also an acceptable, even laudable, moral choice. In doing so they have also legitimated the decision of men to abandon their children, which makes them sound a bit thick when they complain about gents who have decided to retroactively excercise some reproductive choice by failing to pay their child support.

She's not the only one to feel that abortion has women importing some of the worst traits of men. Eve Tushnet characterized this as "making women equal by making us men--adapting women to a man-made world rather than adapting that world to women."

It's also worth noting, in a First Things article a couple months ago, how quickly Federica Mathewes-Green slid from talking about cultural attitudes toward abortion to talking about cultural attitudes toward sex in general. For many -- probably most -- pro-lifers, legal abortion is tied up in a complex of sexual mores that they find deeply threatening.

None of this says, necessarily, that there isn't an altruistic reason to oppose abortion. Just that I don't think you can reduce it to the simple binary that Mark does. I think that pro-choicers know this, and so if you try to persuade them you're in the cause purely out of the goodness of your heart, they're not going to believe you.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

In the beginning

So as I wrote yesterday, I went to this Alpha course last night. In case it wasn't clear, this was at the church I've been attending, the Christian Assembly. The program actually started at a church in England, I believe, but it's been picked up by churches all over the world in many denominations.

Telford was also there, which was a definite plus. I suppose given how often I mention him on the blog it sounds like we've been hanging out together a lot; but actually, our contact really fell off in the last couple months, mostly because his schedule is so insane. (His blog has suffered from this too, sadly.) So the Alpha course, which meets weekly for ten weeks, seemed like a good opportunity for us to meet and talk at length in a regular way. Also, Telford had heard about the course but never been to one, and he was curious about it.

Anyway, the event itself was a mixed bag. It started with dinner (a free meal is always welcome!) which allowed attendants to meet and greet. Although actually I wound up talking entirely to Telford, since we got into a lively discussion about what (if anything) God owes us, inspired partly by this post from MInute Particulars. The discussion deserves its own post, and I don't think it's quite finished yet, so I won't go into it now.

Then there was music. It was essentially a smaller, shorter version of the same singalong we do in the services, and it didn't really work in this format. The big, spirited, Pentecostal sound can be uplifting in a large room with an enthusiastic crowd, but it's too much for a small room full of people at varying stages of spiritual certainty. It may be, as Telford said, that this church can't do anything without an electric guitar, but I think they should have restrained themselves this time.

Then there was a...I'm not sure what to call it, I guess a lecture. A man from the church basically outlined the reasons why Christianity matters, at a grade-school level pretty much. I knew I shouldn't expect anything at the intellectual level I get from Telford (or any of my other favorite Christian bloggers) but I was disappointed at how condescending it was. Surely no one is going to want to come to church to be talked to like an eight-year-old.

After that, the crowd split up in three separate rooms for dessert and discussion. That was more interesting. Everyone introduced themselves and talked about why they were there. People were in rather different places. There was one person like me, just showing up and not sure of anything; a man who said he had always felt "called," but various things got in the way; a woman who'd fallen out with the faith after a divorce, feeling Jesus had let her down; a woman who had just converted via her boyfriend. I do not want to go into detail about it because there was a promise of confidentiality (even though I'm anonymous, the church isn't, so I'm playing it safe). But the people were very honest about their struggles.

Telford didn't really like it. He disapproved of the singing even more than I did, and he was disappointed the discussion "didn't go anywhere." I reminded him we were all just getting to know each other. (Since Telford is never shy about talking God -- or about much of anything, really -- this was not an inhibition to him.) He didn't openly pass judgment on the event, but I noticed when somebody asked him if he'd come back next week, he responded by asking me if I was coming back. I said I was. I think it's worth it just for the talking. I don't meet anybody in my regular life who's going through what I am. If meeting them means putting up with a little schlock, well, them's the breaks.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Into the Alpha quadrant

I don't have much time to blog tonight because I'm going to Alpha, a program for nonbelievers and seekers and wobblers and what have you who want to learn more about Christianity. In other words, it's pretty much like what I've been doing on the blog, but more organized and in 3-D.

Speaking of which, I apologize to Tom and Louder Fenn for rudely ignoring their latest comments in our discussion. I meant to respond, but one thing or another drew me away. And now, frankly, I've kind of run out of energy for the discussion. But if I post about Alpha I wouldn't be surprised if it starts another one...

On another note, I'd been hoping biologist Charles Murtaugh would weigh in on l'affaire Dini, and he came through like a champ. He writes one of my favorite lines so far on the subject: "It may be true, as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution, but then nothing actually makes that much sense in biology."

Monday, February 03, 2003

School days

I recently learned about the site No Indoctrination, which lets students anonymously post complaints about ideologically bullying professors. It also gives professors a chance to respond, as at least one of them did.

Reading over the complaints reminded me of my own college days. Most of my professors were quite good; they were just about all liberal, but that's OK. I don't mind a professor bringing opinions into the classroom; after all, some of my favorite bloggers are opinionated professors. But there is a point where it crosses the line.

There were actually two rather different types of inappropriate behavior I remember. One basically comes from professors living in their own little society and forgetting there students aren't from there. So they make comments and jokes as if there aren't any conservatives in the audience, and we all agree on these things. That's irritating, but so long as they're willing to listen to students who disagree, it's not really a problem.

The second type actually stems from the opposite assumption. This type of professor often comes from the '60s counterculture or some other protest movement, and so assumes that students are brainwashed children of the Establishment in need of enlightenment. Often, what they fight against is laughably out of date. My sister's Asian Civ professor apparently spent a lot of time disabusing students of the idea that Chiang Kai-shek was a hero, which he firmly (and wrongly) believed they all held.

But what's worse is that they often end up displacing the subject of the class with their own political rants. My Asian Religions professor was the worst offender I had this way. As any reader can tell, I'm keenly interested in religion, and his lectures were informative when he stuck to the topic. But he kept wandering off on left-wing diatribes. I was most bitterly disappointed the day before Thanksgiving, when we were supposed to have our lecture about Jainism. Many students had already left, so the class was small. Somehow, the professor convinced himself that this was reason enough to jettison the Jainism lecture and tell us his "personal thoughts on Thanksgiving." Which were a predictible rant about oppression of the Native Americans. Apparently, it didn't occur to him that the people who'd actually stuck around to hear the lecture might be more interested in Jainism.

No Indoctrination has examples like this. One student in a human geography course says the professor "will allow herself to stray so far off topic that by the end of the lecture she will have covered the reasons why the healthcare system needs to be nationalized, why the minimum wage needs to raised threefold, and why severely penalizing industries for their pollution is the only way to protect the environment." Oy, I can believe it.

Far scarier, though, is the Mesoamerican art professor:
During the second to last lecture, when we should have been learning what was going to be on the final, he started with his usual lecture about understanding these "oppressed" people in the middle east. He made us out to be the evil oppressors and said that we don't understand these people (Islamic Terrorists) until they BLOW it into us (in reference to September 11). He then got very animated and began to pretend that he was a terrorist. He made the point to the class (evil America) that if we tried to buy him, he would tell us to take our money and shove it up our asses. This all culminated in him pretending to strap a bomb to himself, sitting down next to a student, and saying something to the effect of, "If you try to get rid of us, we'll take you with us."

As with all the stuff on the site, this story is unverified. But if it's true, it makes my Asian Religion professor problem look piddling by comparison...
The heart of the matter

Thanks, O mighty bringer of blog hits, for your kind words!

I wondered a little if I was getting carried away in my reaction to the Dini controversy, but it seems to have brought a lot of passion on both sides. When Patrick Nielsen Hayden posted about it, it generated 117 comments and counting.

Somewhere in those comments Erik Olsen, and I think a few other people, made an argument that got me thinking. He claimed that Dini's question was justified as a test of scientific thinking. The basis of science is being willing to put aside beliefs when conflicting evidence appears, so he was testing students' ability to do that. That chimes with Dini's own rationale: "...good scientists would never throw out data that do not conform to their expectations or beliefs. This is the situation of those who deny the evolution of humans; such a one is throwing out information because it seems to contradict his/her cherished beliefs. Can a physician ignore data that s/he does not like and remain a physician for long?"

I have two problems with this. For one thing, this really only tests one group of students: creationists. Many people blindly accept Darwinism because they were brought up that way, so affirming their belief in it says nothing about their ability to think critically.

But the larger disagreement I have is with this attitude about "cherished beliefs" and data you don't "like." It's true that scientists often have their pet theories, and if they hang onto them in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, they make fools of themselves. But a pet thoery is a different order of magnitude than a religious belief. A scientific thoery (one hopes) does not give meaning to your existence or become central to your identity. But religion does that, which is why people are so loath to discard it.

Telford Work, in his FAQ section, wrote a number of responses to questions he commonly gets from creationist students (here, here and here). It's quite illuminating about how creationists think:
Lots of conservative churches have sold their people on this argument: If we can't trust the Bible to conform to our expectations of its accuracy in every detail, then we're allowed to disbelieve all of it. If there wasn't really a talking snake in the Garden, then Jesus might not really have risen from the dead, so we'd better hold the line and defend the fact that there was a talking snake in the Garden. I consider this strategy a form of theological coercion: Our faith in Jesus is used to hold entire churches hostage to literalism. But then the Bible (let alone Jesus) is no longer our ultimate authority; the ultimate authority is our presuppositions of what God's truth should look like. And under all this apparent confidence in the truth of the Bible runs a strong current of disbelief. Many churches have fostered not a calm confidence in Scripture, but a hard-line apologetic technique that I think secretly terrifies a lot of evangelicals: What if it's not all true? What if there really is a contradiction in Scripture, as liberals allege? Does it mean Jesus is still buried, and I'm still dead in my sins?

Clearly these students don't "like" creationism the way I like a good margarita, or even the way a physicist likes the mind-bending elegance of special relativity theory. Neither one of those things, if removed, threaten to leave a gaping existential hole in one's psyche. If students are lucky they'll have someone like Telford around to show them how they don't have to throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater, so to speak. But a lot of people don't have that, so it's not surprising they go through mental contortions to protect that belief from scientific scrutiny.

For that reason, I don't think it's fair to say, "Oh, if they're not willing to throw out that belief, they won't throw out any belief or theory that they don't like." It's because of the special nature of this belief that people like Clayton Cramer's petroleum geologist can think perfectly rationally about everything except that.

Reading Telford's essay also reminds me of why Dini's words sound so cold-hearted and mean to me. These are kids we're talking about here. The way some people have been carrying on in Patrick's comments, you'd think these barely-out-of-the-nest striplings were the dead-eyed foot soldiers of militant fundamentalism. But they're the victims of the culture as much as the perpetrators. If they need to reconcile their faith with science, they deserve better than this.

UPDATE: A new article mentions that Dini is a devout Catholic. This came as a surprise to the Electrolite folks, who seemed to assume this was a Christian/atheist conflict. But Christians can discriminate against Christians. Dini is a Catholic, and I'd bet money that about 90% of his creationist students there in Texas are Southern Baptists. These are two groups that have historically not liked each other, to put it mildly.

By the way, I tend to agree with most commenters that this isn't really worth a lawsuit. But I think it's crummy pedagogy and a dubious defense of science, so I say so.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

The evolving debate

Minute Particulars has an interesting post on the Dini business, in which he describes current Catholic thinking on human origins. He sums it up thus:
Human bodies give evidence of evolution (e.g. DNA similarities, vestigial organs, mammalian characteristics), but how a human being originated is not explained by evolution theory. A human being is an animal and has a principle of life that is similar to other animals in that it causes a body to be alive; but this same principle in the human being is responsible for operations like the ability to reason, understand, and choose freely, operations which any arrangement of matter cannot explain and which evolution theory cannot explain. Human beings are mammals and subject to biological principles as are other mammals and biological life in general. But, simply put, they are more than evolution can explain.

Would Dini have accepted that? It's hard to tell. But one reason the whole thing smells fishy to me is that the professor specifically asked about human origins. If he were really concerned about things like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, he could have asked about them, or for a general explanation of evolutionary theory. But in asking about human evolution he's punching the rawest nerve in the whole debate. That's where even Catholics, who generally accept evolution, start getting queasy.

Mark Kleiman also has another terrific post on this subject. Says everything I would have said, but probably better.