Sadistic Christianity

I always thought that one of the pleasures of parenting was helping kids grow up to be themselves — to develop to be independent people with their own interests and goals, which might be very different than my own. We’re about giving opportunities, not dictating how they should live their lives, and one of the advantages of that is that all of my children were relatively stress-free (kids are never totally stress-free) and have never caused us much in the way of problems — and I think part of the reason is simply that we did not force them to go against their natures. There were lots of moments where I didn’t understand their choices, or even disagreed with them, but I just had to remember that my parents didn’t quite understand what I was doing with my life, either, but they let me be me and we all ended up happier for it.

Some people just can’t do that, though. Authoritarians are all about control, and it can lead to catastrophic evil against children.

Today, in the United States, there is a multibillion-dollar industry for residential treatment—one that sells an illusory promise to desperate parents: Your children’s addictions and mental health problems can be cured with a relatively quick (and usually expensive) fix. Yet the potential danger of abuse and neglect is a real threat for many of the 200,000 to 400,000 young people trapped in the nation’s poorly monitored secular and religious “group care” facilities, “troubled teen” residential schools and unlicensed treatment programs. Too often, critics say, these programs profit off the misery of emotionally troubled kids, substance abusers or just misbehaving youth, as well as their parents, who struggle to deal with kids they can’t control. “These are throwaway children,” says Jodi Hobbs, the president of the nonprofit group, Survivors of Institutional Abuse. “They are looked at as dollar signs, not as individuals.”

One of the most common types of private programs for errant youths are the virtually unregulated religious schools, many of which push fundamentalist Christian beliefs and employ violently harsh discipline against enrollees. Inspired in part by the programs of a fiery Baptist radio preacher, the late Lester Roloff, purveyors of these programs have been exposed for whippings and beatings and accused of rape. Perhaps the largest alliance of such ultraconservative churches is the far-flung Independent Fundamental Baptist organization with thousands of churches nationwide and numerous boarding schools that cite the biblical importance of breaking the will of the child. “If you’re not bruising your child,” a pastor declared in a 2007 sermon captured by ABC News’s 20/20, “you’re not spanking your child enough.”

That’s part of the story of Restoration Youth Academy, a Christian boot-camp in Alabama that promises to straighten out those darned rebellious teenagers with discipline…which means solitary confinement, beatings, bloody whippings, and sexual abuse. Many of these kids do have serious problems — drug abuse and mental health issues — but a) those are problems that can be worsened by a miserable home life, and b) even if the parents are otherwise blameless, shipping them off to a violent, brutalizing incarceration isn’t going to make them better. The article doesn’t say, but I wonder what proportion of these kids weren’t actually serious problem children, but were just people who had a different sexual orientation or dissented from the religious views of their parents, and were sent off to be punished and re-molded into a different view. Given that many of the institutions discussed in the story were intolerant fundamentalist Christian horror shows, I suspect a lot.

The story is also about intransigent Alabama politicians who refused to take action and closed a blind eye to the evidence of child abuse going on, probably in part because they had a shield of immunity, that they were preaching Christianity. Among the problem characters was the Alabama attorney general, Luther Strange, who was in the news lately for a promotion.

Kennedy is equally outraged that former state Attorney General Luther Strange has been appointed a U.S. senator to replace Jeff Sessions, the new U.S. attorney general. “He [Strange] threw the children under the bus so he could grease the way for his political ambitions,” Kennedy says. “All these politicians have lined their pockets with the blood of children.”

And all of those churches.

Is there no religion Reza Aslan won’t pander to?

It seems to be his schtick. Religion is just plain good, and the only way to criticize it is to cherry-pick unrepresentative bad bits, he seems to argue, and he uses this argument to paper over a lot of truly horrific, deeply imbedded aspects of faith. And apparently, he has a show on CNN called Believer, which I haven’t seen, in which he does this repeatedly.

There’s an episode coming up in which he makes excuses for Scientology, of all things; he’s going to highlight small independent groups that have split away from the mainstream cult and are somewhat less toxic (in part because they also represent a way to get outside the controlling influence of the Church of Scientology, and can be a gateway to leaving the religion altogether), while ignoring the greater crimes of the much larger, main sect.

In the meantime, we’ll point out what we did a year ago, when CNN’s series was originally supposed to come out. On occasion, we are taken to task for focusing so much energy on such a small organization, the Church of Scientology, with its 20,000 members. We think Scientology, with its billions in assets, its ruthless legal tactics, and the way it treats children and families is worth keeping an eye on, even if we are just, for the most part, a sole proprietor with a single-subject website.

If some people, however, don’t think the Church of Scientology is worth paying attention to, what does it say that CNN, with its worldwide media reach, will be using its mighty resources to promote a “movement” of perhaps only a few hundred people doing something that is not really very controversial or that affects many other people at all?

“Aslan is clearly confused or deliberately trying to create a scenario to fit his preconceived story line,” Mike Rinder tells us. He points out, however, that even if Aslan is all wet, his show might accidentally be useful for people still stuck in the Church of Scientology to believe that there are alternatives to Miscavige’s brand of Hubbardism. “The idea that Scientology is only available in the church is something Miscavige and company try very hard to pretend is true.” The idea that there are alternatives, Rinder says, could be “beneficial.” But as for Aslan’s claims about the size and growth of independent Scientology?

“It just makes Aslan look uninformed and stupid,” Rinder says.

There was a time when I thought Aslan was mildly interesting as a counterbalance to the more extremist arguments against Islam, but it’s become clear that no, he’s just an apologist for inanity.

I never want to see another baby-eating joke about atheists

Yeah, sure, accuse atheists of eating babies. Do you know who actually consumes fetal tissue, though? Suburban new agers with a weird fetish for “natural” and “organic” BS.

I just learned about Minnesota Placenta, a place that does placenta encapsulation (pdf). It’s easy! After your baby is born, it comes with this hideous lump of fetal support tissue, the placenta, that looks like a lump of hamburger and a piece of raw liver got into a serious barroom brawl, and neither won. Scoop up that bloody sac slathered with slime and mail it off with about $250 and it will be steamed, chopped, ground, powdered, and packed into tidy pill capsules for you to consume at your leisure.

There are photographs of the process. The only thing that would make this more unappetizing would be if Guy Fieri were involved.*

Bonus! The company that charges $250 will also shape the umbilical cord into a short script message (“love”), and dry it down into a hard, leathery, mummified sign the color of old dried blood that you can hang on the wall and terrify your offspring with for years to come. I really missed out on this opportunity.

By the way, these outfits have lots of anecdotes about feeling more “energized” and “peppy” after consuming these discarded scraps of their baby (for a more entertaining version of this myth, see the movie Ravenous), but there is actually no evidence that it provides any benefit. No benefit. None at all. Lots of ick, though. Probably no worse than chowing down on calf’s liver, though.

*Would it perverse of me to say I really want to see what Fieri would do with placenta as an ingredient?

That’s a Minnesota kind of story

If only we had video of this daredevil stunt.

By daylight, it was clear what happened: The man blew through the stop sign at a T in the road, barreled through a yard and launched his car off a 35-foot to 40-foot embankment, clearing a span of open water on Lake Le Homme Dieu. before landing on the season’s remaining ice, Armstrong said.

The man, James Sundby, 38, of Wadena, had no drugs or alcohol in his system and he doesn’t remember what happened, said Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels.

The guy then staggered into a nearby stranger’s house, turned on all the lights and the TV, and proceeded to relax until he was chased away.

I’m just impressed with how far his car had to fly to clear that open water.


(Alexandria, by the way, is the next big (pop 9000!) city to the north of Morris — we go there fairly often. Now I’m feeling challenged to try the Sundby Leap, though.)

More math!

Chris Dixon has written an excellent history of mathematics. When most of us think of math, we go “ugh” and call it boring and turn away, but really, it’s so fundamental that we should be far more excited about it. Most of the major turning points in my education involved math: it was geometry when I was in the 8th grade that sparked my first interest, and learning algebra and logarithms in high school chemistry got me focused on science. When I started teaching myself how to program computers (I was an inadequate teacher, and quickly signed up for courses in the CS department), I had to also teach myself basic Boolean logic, because in those ancient days when your only recourse was to learn assembly language, and ANDs, NANDs, NORs, and ORs were the name of the game. Transistors are just logic implemented in silicon.

I agree when Dixon writes,

Mathematical logic was initially considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no conceivable applications. As one computer scientist commented: “If, in 1901, a talented and sympathetic outsider had been called upon to survey the sciences and name the branch which would be least fruitful in [the] century ahead, his choice might well have settled upon mathematical logic.” And yet, it would provide the foundation for a field that would have more impact on the modern world than any other.

I would add that in the 1970s public education system, we wouldn’t have imagined that, either. I had teachers who thought math was stuff you only needed to know for business school — you know, accounting. You can still see that attitude when people wonder why they need to learn this algebra stuff, anyway — they’ll never use it. They’re wrong. You’ll just use it in unexpected ways, because what you’re being given is a creative toolbox for thinking about the world.

The historical context in this article is useful, though, for making a case that math isn’t just practical, it’s also a foundation for thought that belongs in the liberal arts canon. And also that it’s a significant part of philosophy, which too many scientific pragmatists also tend to dismiss.

Sperm with a Ph.D.

I once knew someone who was a contributor to the Nobel Prize sperm bank. He wasn’t a Nobelist, but he was a smart and accomplished scientist — he just had a dewar of liquid nitrogen next to his bed, where he’d make an occasional deposit (with the assistance of his wife, he assured me), and then the samples would be shipped off for processing and…insemination, I presume. It’s not something I’d ever do, and apparently very few Nobelists actually contributed to it.

The Repository for Germinal Choice was a real thing (it’s been discontinued since the death of its founder, Robert Graham), kind of the last gasp of the scientific eugenics movement. It’s premise is typical crankery. I’ve met a fair number of Nobelists and big name scientists, and I’m sorry, they’re just people, with the usual range from nice people to total assholes — and actually, I suspect that they’re enriched for the nasty end of the scale. Scientist sperm plucked out of a vat of self-selected donors is probably actually less valuable than sperm hand-picked from a donor you know and like. Since this vat also contains sperm from notorious racist William Shockley, you’re probably best off avoiding it altogether. Also note: all of the donors were white, because of course they were, and oh no, insisted Graham, he was not a racist.

Anyway, one of the offspring of the Repository tracked down his biological “father”. The result was disappointing and troubling. I’m more troubled by the idea that people still think there’d be some great advantage to having an absentee father who had an advanced degree.

While the Repository is defunct, there are still individuals, like this one, who advertise their willingness to inseminate people. I’d also be worried…what if extreme narcissism is a heritable trait?

Goodbye Spring Break, hello Spring

It’s officially the first day of Spring. I looked outside to see if flowers had suddenly erupted, but it’s too early and too dark to see.

It’s also the end of our Spring Break, and I have to get back to work, although it’s not as if I took it easy this last week. I’m actually prepared! This is my agenda for the week:

  • Genetics: We’ve been working through chromosomal changes, and I’ve been a little concerned about some of the students not quite understanding what’s going on, so we’re going to spend the first half of class with me leading them through some visualization exercises. I’m going to give them some word problems and have them draw the answers — it should also be a gentle warm-up to the class. Then it’s all sex and mapping for a while.

  • Genetics lab: Our mapping experiment is done, we just have to collate the results and do the calculations. Simultaneously, we’re starting a new experiment, a complementation assay.

  • Ecological Development: Endocrine disruptors! That’s always a fun way to start your week. Even more fun: an exam! An oral exam! The last half of this week and the first half of next week are going to be dedicated to meeting one-on-one with students to grill them on general concepts.

  • Biological Communications: I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m also teaching a course in science writing — this semester it’s more of an independent study sort of thing, where they’re supposed to be putting together a substantial term paper on a subject of their choice. So far, it’s been little stuff — come up with a topic, do the preliminary research, give me short writing samples to demonstrate that you’re actually working on it — but their first full rough draft is due this week, so I’m getting stacks of papers to grade over the coming weekend.

  • We also have a guest seminar this week from an immunologist, Amy Weinmann, who is going to talk to us about epigenetics and development, which will fit in just fine with my eco-devo course.

I’m actually all planned out for the next two or three weeks. I just have to do the actual work. At least I think I know what I’m doing.