A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

Hey, you know what will help teens avoid pregnancy? Comprehensive sex education, right?

Nah.

Here’s Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican in the Texas state house:

What I think is that that’s unconstitutional. Apparently many other readers of Rep. Riddle’s Facebook page thought so too, and told her in no uncertain terms, because she followed up with this:

OK, enough already. My friend Mary – a teacher – not as conservative as I am – has mentioned how many of her students have no foundation of faith and are having babies at 15 – plus so many more problems. She has stated that with no foundation of faith these kids are a drift [sic]. Knowing how sensative [sic] folks are about prayer and ect. [sic] I thought a simple reading of Proverbs – a book of wisdom – would be helpful. I certainly did not intend to offend – I was just throwing out an idea.

She then waxes Jeremiac (I made that word up) about “the level of disrespect in today’s world” (as opposed to yesterday’s world, when rather than posting a mean comment on someone’s Facebook, you challenged them to a duel and possibly killed them) and the importance of “open discussion” (except, apparently, when people disagree with you).

Several things.

1. Apparently you don’t have to understand basic grammar, spelling, and writing style in order to be elected to public office. Seriously, I know this is a nitpicky point compared to the rest of what I’m about to cover, but most of us learned to spell “sensitive” in elementary school.

And to think that Riddle wants to take time out of every school day to read Proverbs. Clearly, there are more pressing problems with Texas education.

2. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Republicans seem to only focus on the second part of that inconvenient part of the First Amendment: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But that first part is pretty damn important. Our Supreme Court has determined that forcing children to observe religion in public schools violates the establishment clause. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), school-mandated prayer was struck down; in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), school-mandated Bible reading was struck down as well.

So, although Riddle has now had nearly 40 years to get used to the latter ruling, she apparently has failed to do so. And no, school prayer was not “tossed” because it’s not “politically correct,” but because it violates our Constitution. There’s a difference.

3. Jesus does not prevent teen pregnancy. Comprehensive sex ed does. It also does a lot of other cool stuff, like help prevent STI transmission and sexual assault, but that’s besides the point.

Here’s another interesting thing. According to Gallup, the most religious state in the U.S. is Mississippi. According to the CDC, the state with the highest teenage birthrate is…Mississippi.

Awkward.

Even supposing that this is a fluke, it’s a well-known fact that other states with high levels of religiosity tend to have high rates of teenage pregnancy and birth, as well. Of course, this is all correlation and not causation–except for the fact that religious states tend to have abstinence-only sex ed, which does not work.

Now, Rep. Riddle’s friend Mary, who is of course a credible source because she is “not as  conservative” than Riddle (and because this isn’t anecdotal at all) claims that it’s specifically the godless heathens who are getting themselves pregnant. Leaving aside the question of how Mary manages to divine the religious beliefs and observance level of her students–and avoid confirmation bias–the information I have just presented about teenage birthrates in religious states seems to refute her point. Why would nonreligious teens only get pregnant en masse in religious states, but not in nonreligious states? And if they do, what does that say about the environment these states create?

4. The United States was not “built on Christian and Jewish values.” While most of the Founding Fathers identified at least nominally with Christianity, that does not mean that they based the entire nation upon it. Many of them were either deists or anti-clerical Christians, so it’s hard to imagine them supporting state-mandated religious observance. Historian Gregg L. Frazer, meanwhile, argues that the Founding Fathers subscribed to a belief system he calls “theistic rationalism,” which combines religion with reason (a feature mostly lacking in Christian fundamentalism).

Interestingly enough, despite our nation’s supposed “Christian foundation,” the Constitution contains not one mention of the words “God” or “Christianity.” The only time it uses the word “religion” is in the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of–and from–it.

On a side note, can we stop lumping Judaism in with Christianity? These two religions are really quite different. And to suggest that anyone had the Jews in mind when establishing the United States is simply laughable, given how long it took for institutionalized antisemitism to find its way out of our country.

5. Proverbs is hardly the harmless book of “wisdom” Riddle thinks it is. Here are some quotations:

  • “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” (Proverbs 20:30)
  • “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
  • “Give beer to those who are perishing and wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” (Proverbs 31:6-7)

The first two certainly make sense given the Texas GOP platform‘s ringing endorsement of corporal punishment. As for the latter, I was under the impression that religious Republicans think that people who drink alcohol when they’re under 21 are sinners too.

Overall, an admittedly cursory reading of Proverbs reveals it to be mostly gibberish. I can think of many better things to require schoolchildren to read if you want to teach them about wisdom and morality. I’m personally a huge fan of Nietzsche. But you’re free to disagree.

Also, the idea of Nietzsche ever being taught in a Texas public school is sadly unlikely.

Because I Am An Atheist

A few months ago, blogger Ian Cromwell wrote a post about how atheism has affected his life and titled it “Because I am an atheist.” In the comments section, others left their own “Because I am an atheist” stories. Then my friend Kate wrote her own version, and now I’ve been inspired to write mine.

I’ve only recently started identifying with atheism. I’ve used the terms “humanistic Jew” and “secular humanist” to describe myself for a while, but it’s really just a matter of semantics. The nutshell version is, I don’t believe in any sort of god. I haven’t for a very, very long time, and the belief left me naturally, as though I’d grown out of it.

Fun happy disclaimer thing: This is a personal post. It’s about what atheism means to me. It is not an attack on your religion. Aside from this disclaimer, I’m not going to insult my readers’ intelligence by sticking in “but of course you don’t have to agree” and “of course you can get a similar experience out of religion too” and “I don’t mean to say that atheism is superior” into every paragraph.

So here we go.

Because I am an atheist, I get to develop my own moral code. Many people get their sense of morality from religion. That’s totally okay. But I relish the opportunity to create my own.

My morality is a sort of combination of utilitarianism and the Golden Rule. When I decide how to act, I weigh the pros and cons. Will this help someone else at very little cost to myself? If so, then I’ll do it. Will it help someone else at a great cost to myself? If so, I might do it if the cause is important enough to me. Is this act self-serving, with a potential for hurting the other person? If so, I probably won’t do it, unless I really, really need to.

That’s not to say that I always act ethically or that I never hurt anyone. At least, though, I get to own my actions whether they’re positive or negative. Regardless of the outcome, nobody made me do it. My holy book didn’t tell me to do it. My pastor/rabbi/what-have-you didn’t tell me to do it. I told myself to do it, and if it turned out badly, I can do better next time.

Because I am an atheist, my major life decisions are my own to make. I don’t have to get married. I don’t have to have children. I don’t have to give a percentage of my money to any particular cause or charity unless I choose to. I don’t have to belong to any particular organization.

Now, I do want to get married and have children, and I do want to donate money to certain causes and belong to certain organizations. But I’m allowed to change my mind. It’s not my “duty” to do any of these things, unless I’ve chosen that duty for myself.

Because I am an atheist, I am only accountable to the people I choose to be accountable to. If I screw up, the only people I need to apologize to are the people I’ve affected. The only people whose forgiveness I need is theirs, and my own. I don’t need to confess to a religious authority figure. I don’t need to pray for forgiveness.

Because I am an atheist, I can seek explanations for things in the physical world. For instance, I don’t have to believe that men are the dominant sex because God made it that way as a punishment for Eve’s sin. I can examine the evidence and form the opinion that it’s because males are naturally stronger than females in most species, and human gender roles developed from there. I can also decide that we don’t need these roles anymore, now that our lives aren’t a constant struggle for survival.

In my own life, I can find explanations that are empowering rather than disempowering. For instance, my depression wasn’t some sort of punishment from God; it was an illness caused by an interaction between my genetics and my environment, and I could overcome it. Although it was my responsibility to overcome it by seeking treatment and changing some things about my life, that doesn’t mean it was my fault that it happened. Just like if you slip and fall, it’s not your fault, but you are responsible for picking yourself back up. Not God.

Because I am an atheist, I can choose my own lifestyle. I can eat what I want. I can make my dietary decisions based on what’s healthy or what tastes good or what restaurant my friends want to go to.

I don’t have to stop doing the thing I love most for one day each week. I never have to disconnect from technology unless I choose to–and sometimes I do.

Decisions about sexuality are mine to make. Without religion, there’s little reason to consider any consensual sex act to be “wrong.” There’s only things I want to do and things I don’t want to do.

Because I am an atheist, I can trust science. Of course, there is still such a thing as faulty science, but the trademark of science is that it keeps trying to challenge and improve itself. So while individual theories might be disproven and individual studies might be poorly designed, I can trust the scientific project itself.

I don’t have to worry that new findings will contradict my beliefs. Of course, that’s exactly what they might do–but then I can just change my beliefs. I don’t have a huge, deeply personal stake in explaining things a certain way. Evolution doesn’t bother me. (In fact, it’s pretty cool.)

Because I am an atheist, I can question things. Since there’s no god to make the world the way it is, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Judaism, which is the faith I was sort of secularly raised in, does emphasize asking questions and learning, and I appreciate that about it as opposed to, say, Catholicism. However, in the end, you do need to believe in God. Full stop. Or else you’re a “humanistic Jew,” like me. You can question and seek “proof” for God’s existence (and many Jewish philosophers have offered up compelling and interesting rationales for this), but at the end of the day, you say your evening prayers and you go to bed knowing that someone’s watching over you.

Nobody’s watching over me. I’m watching over myself. And that’s fine by me.

Chikin With a Side of Homophobia: Why You Should Boycott Chick-Fil-A

The president of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, recently confirmed what most of us have known for a while–the company is virulently homophobic.

I mean, he didn’t come right out and say, “We’re a homophobic company.” But he did say, “Well, guilty as charged” when asked about Chick-Fil-A’s position on LGBT rights. He went on:

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that…we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

There are several interesting things about this statement. First of all, Cathy claims to support “the biblical definition of the family unit.” The Religious Right seems to believe that the Bible defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But in fact, as this graphic humorously points out, there are various other configurations that the Bible deems acceptable, such as men having multiple wives or keeping concubines in addition to their wives. In addition, rape victims and female prisoners of war can be required to marry their rapists/captors, and a childless widow is required to marry her late husband’s brother.

So if we’re going to support “the biblical definition of the family unit” in this country, why aren’t we going all-out?

Second, Cathy proclaims that “we are married to our first wives.” Does the company discriminate against divorcees in hiring decisions? What would happen to an employee who decides to get a divorce? Is Cathy aware that divorce is a legal, accepted facet of American culture? On that last question, apparently not.

Third, Cathy seems to at least recognize that his position will draw a lot of ire when he says that “it might not be popular with everyone.” But I despise the use of the word “popular” in this context. Denying rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation–which is what the organizations to which Chick-Fil-A donates promote, as I’ll discuss later–isn’t merely “unpopular.” It’s, you know, discriminatory. Unpopular is tie-dye and ponchos. Unpopular is crappy 70s music. When people like Cathy claim that they’re doing something “unpopular,” they make it sound like they’re bravely going against the grain, flaunting their nonconformity, in order to…deny rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Edgy.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, up until now, Chick-Fil-A has denied its anti-gay position. As I’m about to show, these were just blatant lies, which ought to make you even angrier. If you’re going to be a homophobe, at the very least own it. And then, you know, change.

Now, as for Chick-Fil-A’s actual anti-gay advocacy, the facts are quite condemning. In 2009, WinShape, the charitable arm of the company, donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups like Marriage & Family Legal Fund (started by Chick-Fil-A senior VP Donald Cathy), Focus on the Family, and Eagle Forum.

In case you need any convincing that these are really terrible organizations, I will provide some evidence. The founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, supported the Federal Marriage Amendment, which, had it passed, would have made same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Besides its stance against LGBT rights, Focus on the Family also supports school prayer, corporal punishment, and creationism, and opposes abortion (duh). It also donates to the campaigns of anti-gay politicians, and it started a ministry called Love Won Out, which supports scientifically-discredited gay conversion therapy, and sold it to Exodus International, another one of Chick-Fil-A’s charity recipients.

Eagle Forum is a conservative interest group founded by noted anti-feminist and professional asshole Phyllis Schafly. Eagle Forum does way too much terrible creepy stuff for me to list here, but you can read all about it on the wiki page. Its (and Schafly’s) main claim to fame, though, is that they led the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the ERA is mainly known as a women’s rights amendment, Schafly believed that it would pave the way for legalized same-sex marriage:

“ERA would make all federal and state laws sex neutral. If two men show up and say we want a marriage license and [the person] says ‘you’re both men, I’m not giving it to you,’ that would be discriminatory.”

So, two things are clear: Chick-Fil-A has given a LOT of money to these organizations (probably more in that single year than I will earn in a lifetime), and these organizations do plenty of tangible things that prevent LGBT rights from being fully realized in the United States. And not only gay rights, really–in virulently opposing abortion and supporting corporal punishment, for instance, these organizations also seek to infringe upon the rights of women and children. Actually, given their anti-divorce claptrap, they’ve managed to do the impossible and infringe upon the rights of straight white men, too. They’re equal-opportunity rights infringers!

All of this is why I think that you–yes, you–should never set foot in Chick-Fil-A again.

Now, I’m generally quite skeptical about boycotts. Unless it’s very well-organized and happens on a large scale (see: Montgomery Bus Boycott), it’s unlikely to work. One individual withdrawing their business from a company won’t make it improve its labor practices, stop stocking an offensive product, and so on.

Indeed, if we boycotted every company that does shitty things, we’d probably have to live off the grid. I buy Apple and Coca-Cola products even though I have much to criticize them for, because honestly, refusing to buy them wouldn’t do anything, and you have to pick your battles.

However, with Chick-Fil-A we have a very different situation. This is a company that gives large sums of money–money provided to it by consumers–to organizations that actively work to oppose social justice, full stop. So when you give money to Chick-Fil-A, you can be certain beyond a doubt that some of that money is going to these organizations. Collectively, we as a nation helped Chick-Fil-A send nearly $2 million to these organizations in a single year. If you support equality, you should not be okay with that.

I haven’t eaten at Chick-Fil-A in years. In high school, I wasn’t old enough to care about things like this, and besides–embarrassingly enough–my high school band had a monthly fundraiser night there. As I was raising money for my own band, I was also raising money for wingnut politicians’ campaigns and for harmful conversion therapy.

I don’t miss eating there. The food was pretty good, but the knowledge that not a cent of those two million dollars came from me is better.

P.S. If you need any more incentive to ditch Chick-Fil-A for good, I present you with this:

*Edit* This is just too good not to link to.

When Religious Minorities Oppose Freedom

Among the many different reactions garnered by Obama’s historic announcement of support for same-sex marriage, one that flew under the radar of most people–at least, most non-Jewish people–was that of two prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) and the Orthodox Union (OU).

In a statement, the NCYI wrote:

As members of a community that abides by the precepts of the Torah, we are deeply disappointed that a growing number of prominent American leaders, including President Obama, have expressed support for same gender marriage. As a national organization dedicated to Torah values and guided by Jewish law, the National Council of Young Israel is diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by. As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.

The interesting thing about this is that legalizing marriage between same-sex couples would have absolutely no effect on marriage and life in general within Orthodox Jewish communities. Orthodox congregations are free to define marriage as they choose (gotta love separation of church and state). For instance, Orthodox rabbis will generally not perform weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew, but that’s completely legal in the civil marriage system. Legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t mean that Orthodox rabbis will be forced to officiate same-sex weddings, and I’m pretty sure they know that.

However, the OU statement included this line: “Such legalization is also problematic with regard to religious liberty, as dissenting institutions are pressured to support or recognize relationships they cannot.” This is false. Who, exactly, is pressuring “dissenting institutions” to officiate same-sex marriages? Their constituents, perhaps? Because that’s an entirely separate issue that has nothing to do with any presidential proclamations.

If there are any legal scholars reading this blog, they can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the government does not have the authority to force religious leaders to officiate weddings that they oppose on religious grounds. (I’m pretty sure that no same-sex couple would want their wedding conducted by a rabbi who is hostile to their relationship, anyway.) If what the OU is really worried about is that the cultural tide is turning with regard to gay marriage, then they might as well issue a statement condemning the majority of Americans.

But back to the point. An Orthodox Jewish law professor named Hillel Y. Levin wrote a great piece about this issue in which he explains the distinction between civil marriage and kiddushin, or a Jewish marriage. This distinction is the reason why civil marriage laws in the United States should be of absolutely no concern to observant Jewish communities. He also writes:

Unlike our Christian friends and neighbors, Jews grow up with our minority status deeply ingrained and without the instinctive expectation that our religious traditions and beliefs will naturally be reflected in the broader law and culture. As a minority within a minority, Orthodox Jews recognize that we reap the benefits of pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation. After all, if religious beliefs in this country were to orient secular law, we would find ourselves deeply disappointed and possibly threatened, just as we historically have in every other diaspora country.

What this is, then, is an unfortunate lack of perspective. While Jews have faced discrimination in the United States, as they have everywhere else in the world except Israel, the US has historically protected the rights of religious minorities, including Jews. It is by virtue of our separation of church and state that Orthodox Jews have been so free to practice their religion as they see fit. So sure, when it comes to gay marriage, they are in a rare moment of agreement with conservative Christians. But to willingly participate in the attempts of another religious group to impose its values on the rest of society seems painfully ironic.

For the record, I don’t expect Orthodox Jews to enthusiastically endorse same-sex marriage–although many do. If it’s against your religion, it’s against your religion. I didn’t expect these organizations to applaud Obama’s announcement. But I didn’t expect them to denounce it, either, because it has absolutely nothing to do with them, and it will have absolutely no effect on the lives of Orthodox Jews.

I get it, though. Sometimes people just really want to make statements on issues that should be of no concern to them (especially if said people are Jews, and I’m allowed to say that because I’m Jewish). However, a great deal of Orthodox Jews–some of whom support gay marriage and some of whom do not–believe that the NCYI and the OU shouldn’t have spoken out about Obama’s statement. Reading the comments on the petition is enlightening.

It’s disappointing to see such influential voices within my faith, which has suffered so much from discrimination and prejudice over the past two thousand years, make statements like these. American democracy has provided us with freedom of religion, but we should make sure it safeguards freedom from religion, too.

How Not to Argue Against Abortion

Our campus magazine, North by Northwestern, recently did a cool feature called “Dormroom Debate” in which it pitted a conservative and a liberal against each other to discuss the recent Arizona abortion laws.

I think that it’s great to expose yourself to dissenting viewpoints, not just for the sake of understanding and kumbaya (though that too) but so that you can learn how to better counter them.

However, just from glancing over the article, you’ll see a problem–both of the writers are men.

Now, as a disclaimer, I don’t see anything wrong with men discussing issues like abortion and contraception. I don’t think that having a penis and/or lacking a vagina makes you unqualified to even talk about these things. I do think, however, that it’s more difficult to have a well-informed opinion on these things if you’re a man. Why?  Because it means you have to take extra efforts to learn about things that women already know by default, such as how hormonal birth control actually works.

What I do think is downright wrong is the fact that women are continually being left out of conversations about their own bodies. It happens in congressional hearings, and it’s happening–albeit to a much less drastic and harmful degree–in our own campus magazine.

I’ll grant that this particular “panel” only involved two student writers, so it’s almost certain that women were left out of it entirely by accident. However, considering that Northwestern has slightly more women than men, and the school of journalism is even more skewed towards women, I find it very unlikely that the editors of NBN could not have produced at least one woman to participate in this debate.

What bothers me much more than the fact that NBN chose two men to discuss what women should and should not be able to do with their bodies, however, was the content of the conservative writer’s piece. Now, obviously, I knew from the get-go that I was going to disagree. However, I expected an entirely different line of argument.

For instance, as a conservative, you can make the argument that abortion laws should be left up to the states. You can make the argument that these laws make restrictions on abortion without actually taking away the right to get one. You can make the argument that these restrictions are necessary because they actually make abortion safer. You can even make the argument that abortion is morally wrong because you believe that life begins at conception.

You can make all those arguments, and I’d disagree with all of them, but they would at least be legitimate, logical arguments. Up until the end, the arguments that the conservative writer was making were mostly these. But then:

Opponents of this law do not really prioritize women’s health and their right to choose. Instead of wanting women to make smart decisions for themselves, they become “pro-abortion.” Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies, so women can maintain their more comfortable lifestyles rather than live with the results of their choices — both the trials and the blessings.

Reread this: “Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies.”

I’m going to go line by line now:

“Opponents of this law do not really prioritize women’s health and their right to choose.”

There is absolutely no evidence for this claim. None whatsoever.

“Instead of wanting women to make smart decisions for themselves, they become ‘pro-abortion.'”

Classic strawman fallacy. If indeed there are any pro-choice advocates who think that abortion is a “good” thing, or even that it is a decision to be made lightly, they can only be a tiny minority. In fact, the liberal writer in this piece explicitly states, “I believe every abortion is a tragedy.” Why not take him at his word?

“Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies…”

Do I even need to say anything about this?

Just in case, I will anyway. Because there is no scientific or legal consensus regarding when life begins, individuals are free to define it for themselves as they choose. Those who believe life begins at conception probably would not choose to get an abortion. But those who believe that life begins at birth (or at the third trimester) do not believe that abortion is murder. Therefore, accusing them of promoting “the slaughter of innocent babies” is unfair. In other words, because there is considerable ambiguity in the definition of life’s beginning, it’s quite intellectually disingenuous to accuse those who disagree with your personal definition of advocating murder. Also, hello appeal to emotion.

“…so women can maintain their more comfortable lifestyles rather than live with the results of their choices — both the trials and the blessings.”

This statement shows a stunning lack of understanding of why women might choose to get abortions. First of all, statistically, most women who find themselves in that situation never had “comfortable lifestyles” to begin with. They tend to be young, single, and working-class. A woman who winds up accidentally pregnant is likely to be someone who didn’t have sufficient access to contraception–or, more tragically, a victim of sexual assault.

Second, the wording of this sentence clearly shows that the writer considers pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing to be an acceptable consequence for a woman’s “choice”–meaning, obviously, the choice to have sex. Since I’m guessing this writer is someone who believes that sex should be for procreation only, there’s little I can really say in response except that, guess what, that’s not how the vast majority of people see it anymore.

I’m neglecting something here, of course. This writer made it clear from the very beginning of his piece that he’s not basing his arguments on logic or on conservative political ideology at all. At the very beginning, he writes:

My dad is a confessional Lutheran pastor, my mom a parochial school teacher, and I went to a Lutheran High School. Because of this upbringing, I have a strong belief in my innate sinfulness and need for my Savior, Jesus Christ. My faith is the primary foundation for my political ideology and is why I would say I’m a pretty staunch conservative all around. I believe that we should be good stewards of the blessings God has given us and we should live in a way that is pleasing to Him.

That’s right. He comes right out and says that the basis for his political beliefs is his religion–a religion that is legitimate and meaningful to him, but a religion that not all of us share.

Political arguments must not be based on religion. We have separation of church and state for a reason.

Setting the Record Straight

Note: On April 24, the Daily Northwestern published an opinion column that included a backhanded and (in my opinion) unfair reference to me and my blog–namely, to my Markwell post. I wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

To the editor:

In his Tuesday column, Peter Larson discussed the response to Cru’s Markwell campaign and mentioned one particular “fire and brimstone” blogger whose “gripes” caused him to roll his eyes. Since Larson used a female pronoun and, to my knowledge, I am the only female writer to have written a blog post critical of the Markwell campaign, I can only assume that he was referring to me. I’d like to set the record straight.

First of all, I disagree that there was anything “fire and brimstone” about my blog post. Although I do have strong opinions, as do many bloggers and newspaper columnists, I believe that my post was reasoned and well thought-out. In fact, while Larson may dismiss my opinion, one Cru member chose to engage with it by writing a public Facebook note in response. Rather than inserting a snarky, oblique reference to me into his note, he referred to me by name.

Second, Larson seems to have conflated writers like me with anonymous commenters who troll North by Northwestern. There is absolutely nothing wrong with respectfully stating your opinion, as I did and as Larson has done in his column. While rolling one’s eyes in a “decaffeinated haze” might well be the best response to trolls, it’s an unfair response to someone who has taken the time to write a coherent blog post. Larson did not offer up any actual criticisms of my post, and, in fact, made it very clear that he didn’t really read it. Perhaps if he reread my post after having drunk his morning coffee, he would be able to actually criticize it.

Finally, the ironic twist here is that, in summarily dismissing a fellow writer with his snarky commentary, Larson has done exactly what he criticized in his column. My blog post led to many engaging discussions–and, yes, plenty of disagreement–among my friends and acquaintances. Our discussion at the University Christian Ministry on Tuesday night lasted for three hours. We’ve dived right in to the difficult issues that the Markwell campaign has raised and have learned a lot about each other in the process. To dismiss those of us who want to think about and comment on issues like these as having a “shortage” of intelligence is absolutely uncalled for.

Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

We're Not Lost: An Open Letter to Campus Crusade for Christ

Northwestern’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical Christian organization otherwise known as Cru, has an edgy new campaign.

It’s called “I Agree with Markwell” and consists of the following: students wearing bright orange shirts that say “I Agree with Markwell,” covering the campus with chalk writing and posters that say “I Agree with Markwell,” and making videos in which they explain why they agree with Markwell.

Who’s Markwell? He’s a senior here at Northwestern who was asked by Cru to be the face, so to speak, of this campaign. His first name is Matthew.

The purpose of the campaign is ostensibly to convince people that, like Markwell, they too can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And the way to do this is by placing this quizzical phrase all over campus so that people will be compelled to look it up and find out what it’s all about.

Once they find themselves on the campaign’s website, they’ll learn a bit more about Markwell’s beliefs:

I believe in God. Not just any god, but the God who loves us more than we can imagine. I believe all people are sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken, whatever you want to call it. We intentionally rebel against God and choose to do our own thing, separating us from God and leading us toward death.

Well then.

As someone who vacillates between Judaism and agnosticism, I can say that this is definitively against my beliefs and I find it disempowering, depressing, and completely contrary to what I believe human nature to be.

However, that’s just my belief, and both Markwell and I are entitled to our own beliefs. And if that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.

The reason I am writing this blog post is because our campus magazine interviewed Markwell about this campaign. Here’s what he had to say:

When I see people here at Northwestern who don’t believe in God, I see them as lost, and that’s not probably how they would identify themselves. But from this side looking out, the best thing I can do to care for people is to show them why I believe what I believe. If anybody were to step into our shoes — step into my shoes — and see the people at Northwestern the way that I see them, then I think that the most loving thing you could do in that scenario is tell them about this opportunity to know the God of the Universe.

So, to rephrase: Markwell sees it as his loving duty to help us all find our way to Christ, because otherwise we’re “lost.”

Now, nothing I’m saying here is meant to apply to most Christians, because I’m hoping that most of them don’t see us non-Christians this way. But those Christians who do insist on proselytizing in such intrusive and condescending ways need to realize that, not only are they completely failing at being decent human beings, but they’re also pushing away the very people they’re trying to reach out to.

Cru is pretty well-known for their invasive tactics. As soon as I posted about this on Facebook, several Christian friends pointed out that they disagree with Cru. One said:

I remember last year they were handing out surveys and if you filled it out they gave you Play-Doh. And being a naive freshman, I was like “Yay! Play-Doh!” Little did I know they would use the information I gave them to show up at my door unannounced and harass me. While I was slightly creeped out, I actually kind of liked what they had to say and I was exploring my religious beliefs so I agreed to go out to coffee with this girl and talk some more. But after I did that she just kept calling me and texting me and emailing me and I tried to be polite by just telling her I was busy but she wouldn’t take the hint. If they really want to spread their message, this is not the way to do it. And they need to accept that not everyone is going to share their beliefs and that that’s okay.

Cru also realizes that people wouldn’t actually check out this campaign if they knew off the bat that it was about Christianity. From the NBN article:

The Christian faith is pretty well-known…[s]o if people just see a bunch of people wearing shirts that say ‘I Agree with Jesus’ then we probably won’t get as many conversations as ‘I Agree with Markwell’ and ‘Who is Markwell and why do you agree with him?’

Does anyone know why that is? It’s because people tend to already know whether they’re interested in Christianity or not. So tricking them into going to this website to learn more about it seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Supporters of the Markwell campaign attest that it’s their right to express their beliefs, just as I’m expressing mine right now. They say that their belief that we’re “lost” is equivalent to our belief that we’re not.

But it’s not the same at all. Because our beliefs about not being lost concern only us, whereas Markwell’s beliefs about us being lost concern someone else. Someone else who may want absolutely nothing to do with Jesus.

These supporters also pull out the argument that we’re just getting offended because they’re expressing those beliefs, which they have the right to do. But this campaign isn’t offensive to us because it’s religious. It’s offensive to us because it’s telling us that we don’t have the capability to choose our own beliefs, for ourselves. It’s offensive because it refuses to acknowledge that not everyone must believe in Jesus.

It’s telling that the organization sponsoring this campaign has the word “crusade” in its name. (Granted, it’s tried to rebrand itself as “Cru” to escape that.) I’m not suggesting that Cru is in any way equivalent to the actual Crusades, but I don’t think the use of that word was arbitrary. I think it says something about how much–or rather, how little–the members of this organization understand the fact different people choose different beliefs for a reason.

And no, that reason is not because we’re “rebelling against God.”

I don’t agree with Markwell. We’re not lost. We’re not “sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken” either. We just don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Can Markwell please get over that?

Edit 4/18: Here is a response to this post from a Cru member, and here is a post from an awesome friend of mine.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

Islamophobia Does Not "Cause" Riots

So I was reading the current issue of Utne Reader (great magazine, by the way) and came across an article about Islamophobia, reprinted from Intelligence Report.

At was a good article, at least up until the third paragraph. There, I saw something that made my eyes want to pop out of my head, migrate to the author’s place of residence, and slap him in the face:

Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In May 2010, for example, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In August, a man slashed the neck and face of a New York taxi driver after finding out he was a Muslim. Four days later, someone set fire to construction equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In March 2011, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead. [emphasis mine]

No. No no no. First of all, unlike the first three incidents, burning a Koran is not an “anti-Muslim hate crime.” Last I checked, in America that counts as free speech, heinous as it may be. Second, Islamophobia may have caused the first three incidents, but it did not cause the fourth one. That one was caused by morons who chose to respond to a provocation in a violent way.

One of my biggest issues with liberal discourse on societal problems is its proclivity to diminish or erase entirely the concept of human agency. (Some) liberals talk as though society just makes people do things without them actually processing information and deciding how to act on it.

(Among more radical liberals, this lends itself to the belief that violent response to injustice is not only inevitable, but morally justified, even if innocent people are injured or killed in the process. See: Hamas apologists.)

Leaving aside the morality of the rioters’ actions, it nevertheless takes quite a few conceptual steps to get from American Islamophobia to Muslims killing people in Afghanistan. While one could reasonably assume that Islamophobia (along with a number of other factors, such as having a violent disposition) caused people to do things like bomb mosques, stab Muslim taxi drivers, and burn Korans, one cannot then jump from that to “Islamophobia causes people in Afghanistan to riot and kill people.” Just, no.

I should hope that it’s quite clear that moderating variables must be at play here. (Case in point: Jews have been subject to as much [if not more] racism and discrimination throughout history as Muslims have, but if we rioted and killed each other every time somebody did something anti-Semitic, there’d be none of us left. Do a Google search on “burning Israeli flag” and you’ll see how common this is, and don’t tell me nobody ever burns Bibles, either.) For whatever reason, the rioters in question chose not to respond to this incident by starting an initiative to educate Westerners about Islam, by simply ranting about it to family and friends, or by shrugging and moving on.

Instead, they chose to respond to a no-name dipshit burning a Koran thousands of miles away by killing 20 innocent people.

Clearly, the vast, vast majority of Muslims in the world did not react this way, just like most teenagers who happen to come into possession of a loaded gun do not immediately go shoot up a school. The few who do go shoot up schools have serious issues that go way beyond the fact that they have access to a gun.

Islamophobia is a serious problem and should not be swept under the rug. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. All humans have agency, and we should assign the same level of responsibility to the Muslims who rioted as to the Americans who provoked them.