What makes the church choose tolerance?

[Previous: Let’s chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI]

My chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI, got me thinking. How does the Catholic church – or any church – decide what should be a matter of conscience for individual believers, versus what they want to make into law for everyone?

As an example, I asked whether the Catholic church believes contraception should be outlawed. This was Justin’s answer:

The Catholic Church teaches that contraception is morally wrong, based on the natural law and the divine plan for marriage and human sexuality. This is stated in the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making contraception illegal in civil law…. the Church also respects the freedom of conscience and the responsibility of individuals to make moral decisions.

I also asked about divorce. Here too, I got a similar answer from Justin’s canned repertoire:

The Catholic Church holds the belief that marriage is a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself taught in the Gospel of Matthew: So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making divorce illegal in civil law…. Remember, the Church’s teachings are about promoting the sacredness of the marital bond and the dignity of the human person, not about imposing religious beliefs on others.

I hope you noticed the giant loophole Justin left for itself. It said the church “does not necessarily advocate” outlawing divorce or contraception.

A weasel word of this magnitude means this response is only answer-shaped. It hasn’t actually answered the question at all. It means the church can put up a pretense of tolerance, while still claiming it’s consistent with Catholic doctrine if bishops start lobbying to revive the Comstock Act and to prosecute women for using birth control pills.

However, Justin’s answer was unambiguous on one point: the church respects individuals’ freedom of conscience.

Except when it doesn’t – because we all know that’s not the whole story. The Catholic church, like many other religious sects, can and does try to make it illegal for people to make choices the Vatican doesn’t think they should be making.

The church spent years and millions of dollars lobbying against marriage equality. They fought against all proposals for same-sex marriage, even when those proposals were strictly for civil commitments and didn’t require churches to participate.

And they’ve kept on fighting. Years after same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, Catholic bishops were still lobbying against the Respect for Marriage Act, even though it did nothing more than give Congress’ stamp of approval to the decision that was already on the books. The church is also still punishing its members who support LGBTQ rights, seemingly at random.

Abortion is an even more relevant example. Justin gave a hair-raising answer about whether it should be legal:

The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. Therefore, the Church opposes abortion in all circumstances, including when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life.

In other words, the Catholic position is that human life must be protected under all circumstances – except when the life is a pregnant woman. If the pregnancy threatens her life, then the church says to do nothing, even if the inevitable outcome is that both woman and fetus die. It’s a cult of maternal martyrdom in action. It’s the same deadly belief that killed Savita Halappanavar, and that’s now moved on to killing women in red states all across the U.S. They’re not willing to allow any latitude for freedom of conscience here!

One more example: the church is opposed to marijuana legalization. Their reasoning for this is that, if it can be abused, then it should be banned. This makes it especially inexplicable that they aren’t opposed to alcohol:

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, a spiritual director at The Seminaries of St. Paul in St. Paul and a moral theologian with a specialty in medical ethics, told The Catholic Spirit Sept. 16 that marijuana is not “intrinsically disordered,” or something that by its very nature is not right with God, such as the acts of abortion, euthanasia and contraception. But “for most people, most of the time,” using marijuana is not a good idea, Msgr. Rohlfs said. With the best interests of individuals and society in mind, the Church opposes its recreational use. That can be said for many drugs, including alcohol and prescription medicines, he said.

So why is the church talking out of both sides of its mouth? What makes it choose tolerance on some issues, while demanding the imposition of theocratic law on others?

The answer isn’t theological, but political. There’s no principled reason for why the Catholic church has fought to block same-sex marriage and abortion and assisted dying and green burial, but isn’t lobbying to outlaw divorce or contraception or IVF. It’s nothing but a political judgment about the chances of success.

When the church doesn’t think it’s going to win the fight, it backs down and offers pious words about respecting human dignity and individual freedom. When the church does think it can win the fight, it goes to the mat to outlaw anything that offends Catholic dogma.

(Granted, the bishops have picked plenty of losing fights. They lost on same-sex marriage. They’re losing on marijuana legalization. They’re getting steamrolled on abortion everywhere the voters have a say and the choice isn’t made for them by right-wing courts or a gerrymandered legislature. I didn’t say it was good judgment.)

This is why we need secularism. We should never trust any church or sect to make laws for the rest of us, because they’ll legislate their beliefs to the exact extent of their power to do so. Laws that are for everyone have to be made on the basis of reasons and evidence that are available to everyone, not on any church’s peculiar beliefs about what God does and doesn’t approve of.

Lauren Southern is a victim of her own beliefs

More than anything else, right-wing culture warriors live to trigger the libs. They compete to one-up each other in saying the cruelest, most outrageous ideas they can dream up, and glory in the outrage they provoke.

But what happens when you try to build a life for yourself on an ideology like that? How well does it serve them when they’re not engaging in internet slapfights?

To find out, let’s meet Lauren Southern.

From alt-right to tradwife

In the 2010s, Southern emerged on the political scene as an alt-right provocateur. She built her career on mocking feminism and multiculturalism, as well as beating the drum for religious war (“The Crusaders did absolutely nothing wrong”).

Southern was also a member of Defend Europe, a white supremacist gang which claimed that immigrants fleeing war and disaster were invaders coming to conquer the West. In 2017, she tried to blockade a medical ship that was rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. She talked about raising money to buy nets to snarl the motors of refugee vessels and made videos arguing for the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

In 2019, Southern took the next logical step of her anti-feminist views. She announced that she’d gotten married and had a baby. She was embracing the “tradwife” lifestyle promoted by the religious right, which holds that only men should have jobs and women should be obedient, stay-at-home housewives.

After that, she disappeared from view.

“An ant-infested cabin without clean running water”

In 2023, Southern popped back up. She revealed that she had divorced her husband after just two years (warning: Daily Mail link). He had abandoned her and her son, without alimony or child support, and they were living in poverty in “an ant-infested cabin without clean running water” in a trailer park.

Her explanation was that her husband, a Catholic conservative, had a job with a security clearance that he lost because of his association with her:

‘The reality of losing his life’s work became too much for him… Going from living a James Bond lifestyle to being reduced to a boring middle manager with little to no upward mobility is crippling for ambitious men.’

Southern said her ex ‘took his resentment for this out’ on her, adding that he used a ‘variety of lesser reasons to propose divorce’ two years ago – including her ADHD.

Now we know that wasn’t the full story. In a new interview with Unherd, she says her husband was abusive. Her tradwife dream turned out to be a nightmare.

(Content note: The author of the Unherd interview espouses anti-trans and other right-wing views I don’t endorse. I’d have used an alternative source if I could, but there isn’t one. As always, examine sources carefully and exercise skepticism!)

Southern says:

There were warning signs from early on. “If I ever disagreed with him in any capacity he’d just disappear, for days at a time. I remember there were nights where he’d call me worthless and pathetic, then get in this car and leave.” But she didn’t see them, thanks to the simplified anti-feminist ideology she’d absorbed and promoted: “I had this delusional view of relationships: that only women could be the ones that make or break them, and men can do no wrong.” So she didn’t spot the red flags, even as they grew more extreme. “He’d lock me out of the house. I remember having to knock on the neighbour’s door on rainy nights, because he’d get upset and drive off without unlocking the house. It was very strange, to go from being this public figure on stage with people clapping, to the girl crying, knocking on someone’s door with no home to get into, being abandoned with a baby.”

Her husband forced her to do everything: all the household labor, all the child care. He even made her do his university homework for him. At the same time, he yelled at and insulted her for being lazy and worthless:

“I was told daily that I was worthless, pathetic. Deadweight. All you do is sit around and take care of the baby and do chores.” When Covid shut down all real-world public life, her situation became “hell on earth”. It was, she said, “the only time in my life where I idealised dying.”

… “He would just give me impossible tasks all day. Tasks that I simply could not finish. It felt like he would almost send me on errands with the intent of having me fail.”

According to the tradwife ideology she’d imbibed, women are always to blame for marital problems. If her husband was unhappy with her, it had to be her fault. The solution was to pray more, be more submissive, and try even harder to please him. But no matter what she tried, nothing worked. Eventually, when she went home to Canada for a funeral, he told her their marriage was over and abandoned her.

She further admits she’s not the only conservative woman in this predicament:

She tells me she knows many other women still suffering in unhappy “tradlife” marriages. One of her WhatsApp groups, she says, “is like the Underground Railroad for women in the conservative movement”. Some of these are prominent media figures: “There are a lot of influencers who are not in good relationships, who are still portraying happy marriage publicly, and bashing people for not being married while being in horrendous relationships.” She hopes that in speaking out she can reassure “all of these women who are thinking in their heads: I’m uniquely terrible, and I’m uniquely making a mistake” that no: something is more generally amiss.

Be careful what you wish for

Lauren Southern’s story is an ideal example of why you should be careful what you wish for. She wanted to be a tradwife: a traditional wife, in a traditional family, with traditional gender roles. Well, she got that – and everything that comes along with it.

After all, it’s extremely traditional for the man to be the tyrannical ruler of the household who forces his wife and children to obey, with violence if necessary. For most of history, beating a disobedient wife was a husband’s right. That’s still the case in many countries today, like Russia.

If you position yourself as an advocate of traditional values, this is what you’re signing up for. The past wasn’t peaceful or harmonious. It was defined by cruelty, brutality, and might-makes-right thinking. Anything less is sheer fantasy – the Disney-theme-park version of history.

By contrast, egalitarian marriage isn’t traditional. It’s modern, even (gasp!) feminist. The idea that it should be a crime for someone to coerce or abuse their spouse is very recent. In fact, it’s a radical notion that flies in the face of centuries of patriarchal tradition.

To be clear, I’m not gloating at Southern’s misfortune or saying she got what she deserved. I am saying that this is a warning for young people. Her story is an object lesson in why to reject conservative propaganda which promises life will be perfect if you stick to rigid gender roles.

It’s not as simple as saying Southern was just unlucky in her choice of husband. The tradwife ideology, because it teaches that men are entitled to absolute power, is inherently attractive to those with an unhealthy desire to dominate others. It’s very likely that a man who espouses these ideas is more likely to be abusive than the general population.

But, of course, there are abusive people on every part of the political spectrum. The other issue is: what do you do when you find yourself in that awful situation? What tools does your worldview give you to protect yourself?

Here, too, tradwife ideology leaves its true believers defenseless. It teaches women to blame themselves, to submit and obey, to make themselves small. Every abuser dreams of meeting someone who’s conditioned to be docile. It’s obvious what men get out of it, but there’s nothing that this worldview offers women other than misery.

Let’s chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI

Screenshot via Catholic Answers

Catholic Answers, a lay-run apologetics organization, is joining the AI-for-everything fad. In April, they launched “Justin“, an AI chatbot that answers questions about Catholicism.

(Initially, the character was called “Father Justin” and was dressed in priestly vestments, but Catholic Answers faced a wave of criticism for that branding. After only a few days, they decided that wasn’t such a good idea and defrocked their chatbot.)

Naturally, I had to give this AI a test run. I was curious to see how it would handle common atheist arguments. Also, I wonder if this is the future of religious evangelism. Instead of comic books left at bus stops, can we all look forward to spam from a babel of AIs, each one hardcoded to hawk its creators’ belief system?

Look and feel and technical specs

I assumed Justin would be a text interface, like ChatGPT and other large language models, where you type a question and get a written response. Not so.

Justin runs in a browser window, which displays an animated image of the avatar: a middle-aged, mustachioed and bearded white man, with a smile that’s probably meant to be serene but really just looks smug, posed in front of a palatial Roman vista.

There’s no text interface. You have to use a microphone to speak your question out loud, and the AI gives a spoken response. You can download a transcript of the conversation, but that’s the only concession to accessibility.

Whatever the reason for this choice, it takes a powerful machine to run it. I tried out Justin on a nearly-new gaming laptop with 32 GB of RAM and a built-in GPU, which I bought a year ago specifically to play around with AI models. Even this computer occasionally struggled to handle Justin’s resource demands. If I tried to run any other program in the background, the avatar’s speech broke up into laggy, echoey gibberish, and it could no longer comprehend my questions.

So, how does it do?

With ChatGPT and other LLMs, you can have something resembling a real conversation. That’s not the case with Justin.

I got the impression that Justin isn’t really conversing at all, in the sense of composing its own original answers to a query. Instead, it picks out keywords in your question, then selects a response from what I’m fairly sure is a pre-written list. It’s less like talking to a person – even a simulated one – and more like getting press releases from the Catholic church’s corporate PR department.

It makes sense that Catholic Answers would want to keep their AI on a tight leash, lest it start making up nonsensical answers as LLMs are prone to do. (Even so, Justin committed some comical missteps, like accepting people’s virtual confessions and granting them absolution, or giving the OK for siblings to marry each other.)

However, if you’re looking for consistency, you’re bound to be disappointed. You can’t back it into a rhetorical corner, because it will give one canned answer to one question, then a different canned answer to another question, without any concern for whether these responses contradict each other.

For example, I asked Justin if the Catholic church has ever changed any of its teachings. It said no:

The Catholic Church’s doctrines, especially those concerning faith and morals, have remained consistent throughout its 2,000-year history. This is based on Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18, And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. However, the Church’s understanding and expression of these truths can develop over time, as guided by the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that the Church has made mistakes in its teachings, but rather that our understanding can deepen and become more nuanced over time. For example, the Church’s understanding of religious freedom and the rights of the human person has developed significantly, especially in the last century. But these developments are always in continuity with what the Church has always believed and taught.

(Aside: Saying that the church’s beliefs on human rights have “developed significantly” ought to win a prize for the worst religious euphemism of all time. You can’t sweep an elephant that size under the carpet.)

So, if Catholic teachings on faith and morals have never changed, would Justin excuse the infamous atrocities the church is responsible for?

To find out, I asked about the Doctrine of Discovery, the pope’s writ of permission to European colonizers to conquer the New World and subjugate its indigenous inhabitants. Here’s what Justin said:

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of papal bulls issued in the 15th century that gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they discovered for their Christian Monarchs. This was during a time of significant exploration and colonial expansion by European powers. However, this doctrine has been criticized for its role in the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous peoples. It’s important to note that the Church’s understanding of the rights of indigenous peoples has developed significantly since then. In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis criticized the idea that man has absolute dominion over the earth and called for a new respect for nature and for the rights of indigenous peoples. While the Doctrine of Discovery is part of the historical record, it does not reflect the current teaching of the Catholic Church on the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples. The Church now firmly upholds the principle that every person and every culture has inherent dignity and rights, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

From our current understanding and the Church’s teachings on the dignity of all human life, we can say that the negative consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, particularly the harm done to indigenous peoples, were indeed morally wrong. The Church today recognizes and deeply regrets these historical injustices. As Pope John Paul II said in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. This reflects the Church’s belief in the inherent dignity of all people, regardless of their race, nationality, or creed. The Church continues to work for justice and reconciliation among all peoples, following the command of Christ in Matthew 5:9, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

But when I asked the obvious followup question – “Since the Catholic Church now disavows the Doctrine of Discovery as immoral, that means the Church’s teachings on morals have changed, correct?” – Justin just circled back to its earlier response, insisting that the church has never changed any of its teachings:

It’s important to distinguish between the Church’s unchanging moral teachings and the actions of individuals within the Church. The Church’s moral teachings, rooted in Scripture and Tradition, have remained consistent. However, the actions of individuals, even those in leadership, can and do fall short of these teachings. The Doctrine of Discovery, and the harm it caused to indigenous peoples, is an example of this. It’s a reminder that the Church, while divinely instituted, is made up of human beings who are capable of sin and error. The Church’s disavowal of the Doctrine of Discovery is not a change in its moral teaching, but a recognition that the actions of some of its members were not in line with that teaching. As it says in Romans 3:23, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The Church continues to seek forgiveness for these sins and to work for justice and reconciliation.

This is obviously absurd, because the Doctrine of Discovery wasn’t an example of fallible Catholics violating the church’s moral teachings. It was an example of the church itself, as an institution, teaching and justifying ideas which we now recognize as gravely evil, and which more recent statements have disavowed.

Still, this was a hollow victory. Unlike flesh-and-blood Catholic apologists who proclaim that the church’s moral teachings have never changed, then backpedal furiously when you ask questions like this, Justin lacks the self-awareness to notice the problem or to care about it. You can’t force it to acknowledge a contradiction, because it has no concern for its answers being consistent or plausible.

As another example, I asked about whether slavery in the Bible was moral. Justin’s answer:

The Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, does describe societies in which slavery was practiced. However, it’s important to understand these passages in their historical and cultural context.The forms of servitude described in the Bible were often very different from the chattel slavery practiced in more recent centuries. Moreover, the Bible’s descriptions of these practices are not endorsements.The New Testament, in particular, contains many passages that emphasize the equal dignity of all people in Christ, such as Galatians 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Over time, the Church has come to a deeper understanding of the implications of these teachings for the institution of slavery, leading to its unequivocal condemnation of slavery in all its forms.

“The Bible’s descriptions of these practices are not endorsements” – except, you know, when God endorsed them by giving the Israelites instructions on how to buy human beings as slaves and how hard you’re allowed to beat them.

But again, I found this unsatisfying, because a chatbot can’t get embarrassed or defensive about an obvious howler. It can’t make any concessions or recognize obvious-but-unflattering truths. It’s literally programmed not to.

By definition, it’s not arguing in good faith, engaging in give and take with the objective of honestly seeking the truth. It’s mindlessly repeating the party line, and never changes its mind no matter what anyone says to it. In that sense, AI makes an ideal religious apologist.

What’s the right way to protest Israel?

The Columbia University lawn strewn with Palestinian flags and protest signs

Columbia students’ protest encampment (CC0)

[Previous: The First Amendment doesn’t have an Israel exception]

The pro-Palestine college protests all over the country feel personal to me. First, a BDS resolution passed at Binghamton University, which I attended as an undergraduate. Now, as you’ve probably heard, there’s a much bigger eruption at Columbia, where I earned a graduate degree.

When Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik rejected students’ demands to divest from Israel’s war machine, protesters staged a sit-in on campus. They set up a tent city and, later, broke into and occupied Hamilton Hall. Eventually, Columbia locked down the campus and called in an army of police in riot gear to arrest the protesters. It was an uncanny echo of the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

I can’t in good conscience claim that Columbia students had an absolute right to set up an encampment on the university lawn, or to break into a building and take it over. They were engaging in civil disobedience, we all know that, and one consequence of that strategy is that you should expect to be arrested.

Of course, this in no way excuses violence by the police or excessively harsh punishment. For all the tabloid fearmongering, it seems clear that the Columbia protests were consistently peaceful. At worst, there were some angry exchanges of words and minor property damage. If anyone had been seriously hurt, much less killed, by one of the protesters, you can be sure that Israel’s defenders would be screaming at the top of their lungs about it. They aren’t, because they can’t point to any such incident.

It’s the same all over the country. As soon as students start demonstrating for Gaza, governors and university presidents panic and lash out with overwhelming force. Their knee-jerk response is to treat protests as a threat to be suppressed by any means necessary:

Last week, from New York to Texas, cops stormed college campuses clad in riot gear. They weren’t there to confront active shooters, thank goodness, or answer bomb threats. Instead, they were there to conduct mass arrests of students protesting the war in Gaza.

…After sending a phalanx of state law-enforcement officers into the University of Texas at Austin campus, for example, Governor Greg Abbott announced on X that students “joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

(The district attorney immediately dropped all charges against the UT students, citing lack of probable cause.)

And more:

At Emory University, in Atlanta, police officers reportedly used tear gas and Tasers against protesters. State troopers with rifles directed toward protesters stood watch on a rooftop at Ohio State University. At Indiana University, administrators rushed out a last-minute, overnight policy change to justify a similar show of force from law enforcement, resulting in 34 arrests. It’s hard to keep up.

Students nationwide are watching how the adults who professed to care about free speech are responding under pressure. And they are learning that those adults don’t really mean what they say about the First Amendment.

All these denunciations and shows of force beg the question. If “from the river to the sea” is hate speech… if the word “intifada” is a threat… if BDS is “not allowed” and students who advocate it should be expelled… then what methods of protest are acceptable? How can we, as Americans, express disagreement with Israel in a way that its defenders would accept as reasonable and legitimate?

What Zionist groups say about this doesn’t have to be the last word. Obviously, no person or group has absolute authority to decree how it is or isn’t acceptable to criticize them. But it’s a starting point from which there can be a debate.

On the other hand, if their answer is “nothing” – if every opinion that’s not unswerving support of Israel is deemed hateful or antisemitic – then that would prove they’re not arguing in good faith; they’re only trying to silence dissent.

Protests aren’t meant to be nice. They’re supposed to cause discomfort and agitation among the people they’re targeting. That’s the whole point. If a protest doesn’t make anyone upset or uncomfortable, it failed to serve its purpose. There’s no reason to protest on behalf of an uncontroversial cause that everyone agrees with. Absent any actual violence, no one has the right to shut down a protest merely by claiming it makes them feel unsafe.

It’s a consistent theme across history that people protesting injustice and war always get told it’s not the right way, or the right time, or the right place. This advice is almost never offered in good faith. In almost every case, it’s nothing but a majority trying to shut down a message they don’t want to hear. If Zionists don’t want to be part of this illiberal tradition, they should prove it.

‘3 Body Problem’: Welcome your new alien overlords

I read Cixin Liu’s Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem in 2016. I liked it, but I thought it was unfilmable. It’s a dense story with many philosophical asides, deep scientific digressions and not much outright action.

But, evidently, I was wrong. There have been two TV versions: a 2023 Chinese adaptation (30 episodes!), available on Peacock in the U.S., and an eight-episode American adaptation released on Netflix in 2024. Here’s my review of the American version.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, a physics prodigy named Ye Wenjie watches her father beaten to death by a mob of Red Guards for the crime of teaching ideologically suspect Western science like the theory of relativity. Ye Wenjie herself is sent to a prison camp, but the Communist government eventually realizes it can use her talents and assigns her to a top-secret project called Red Coast.

Red Coast, she eventually finds out, is an attempt to establish contact with extraterrestrials, under the assumption that they’re more advanced and any human nation which allies with them will gain an unbeatable advantage over rivals.

Much to her surprise, Ye Wenjie does make contact. But the message she receives is from an alien being who identifies themselves as a pacifist on their home planet and urges her not to send any more broadcasts, lest their species pinpoint Earth’s location and come to invade. Bitterly disillusioned by the savagery of humanity, she sends the message anyway.

Decades later, in the present day, science has stopped working. All over the world, particle accelerators start giving random and nonsensical results. Well-established experimental results become impossible to replicate. It’s as if the laws of physics are breaking down. Prominent scientists are committing suicide in apparent despair.

At the same time, highly placed individuals are getting invitations to play a mysterious virtual-reality game. It’s set on a planet where the climate swings wildly from ice age to molten inferno, causing massive disasters that keep resetting civilization to square one. The game challenges players to figure out the pattern and preserve civilization for the next go-round.

It’s hard to talk about the series in more depth without giving away the plot, so consider yourself warned. Spoilers ahead!

Spoiler section

I like to think of Three-Body Problem as the world’s biggest Scooby-Doo episode.

It’s easy to guess that the VR game represents reality. An alien civilization, the Trisolarans (in the book) or San-Ti (in the TV series), live in a solar system near ours. Their system has three stars, which makes it inherently chaotic. It’s only a matter of time before their planet is ejected into space to freeze or plunged into one of its suns.

When the San-Ti find out about Earth, they make plans to claim it for themselves. Despite the catastrophes they’ve suffered, their science is more advanced than ours. They can “unfold” protons into higher dimensions, turning them into sentient supercomputers called sophons. Their invasion fleet won’t arrive for four hundred years, but they’ve sent the sophons ahead to disrupt fundamental science experiments, with the goal of preventing further advancement so humans have no chance of resisting them when they get here.

Changes for the better and for the worse

As is par for the course, the American TV show Hollywoodized the book, splitting one main character into several and adding a love triangle that didn’t exist in the original. I don’t mind character development, but I don’t think they did enough with it to justify most of the changes.

That’s especially true of the will-they-or-won’t-they subplot between Jin Cheng and Will Downing. It doesn’t end up mattering, and could have been dropped without impacting the plot. The same goes for Saul Durand, who’s in every episode but has nothing important to do until the very last one.

The series also suffers from poor pacing. After episode five, in which the San-Ti make their existence known to the world, it slows to a crawl. Two entire episodes consist of little other than people sitting in rooms and talking, without advancing the plot at all. In a series that’s only eight episodes, this is a lot of wasted time. (It makes me wonder if they used up their special-effects budget and had to film lots of talky scenes to fill screen time.)

Also, the series omits one of the book’s most provocative ideas: that every group, given time, will start warring amongst themselves. Even the ETO, the aliens’ cult/fifth column on Earth, is riven by dissension between two factions: the Adventists – who believe humans need the guiding hand of a wiser species and want them to rule us – and the Redemptionists – who believe humanity is beyond help and want them to wipe us out.

On the other hand, the depiction of the Cultural Revolution scenes was excellent, realistically disturbing. It goes a long way toward making you sympathize with Ye Wenjie’s point of view. The 3-Body VR game was also done very well, including the scene (taken straight from the book) with a human computer made up of millions of (simulated) people holding colored flags, assembled in an attempt to mathematically predict the planet’s chaotic orbit.

The series also improves on some things the book skims over. A case in point is the depiction of the book’s most cinematically gruesome scene.

The ETO cult’s base is on a converted oil tanker that circles the globe. An alliance of international spy agencies wants to retrieve whatever data about the aliens they have on board. The solution they come up with is a net of invisible, super-strong nanowire to slice the ship into pieces, killing everyone on board before they realize what’s happening, so they have no chance to delete the data.

The TV series leans into the moral ambiguity of this plan, showing children and other innocents on board the ship just before the fatal moment. It emphasizes how Dr. Auggie Salazar, the inventor of the nanowire, is crippled with PTSD afterward from the knowledge of what her work was used for. (That said, they play up the destruction for TV – the ship explodes so spectacularly that it makes you wonder why they chose this as the cleanest method.)

As in the book, the best character was the cynical and hard-nosed police officer Clarence Shi, played by Benedict Wong. He’s often the only one who sees through the San-Ti’s psychological warfare, because of his built-in suspicion and tendency to look for deception, rather than the scientist’s mindset of good faith. My favorite line from the book was preserved for the TV series: when the San-Ti send humanity a contemptuous message – “You are bugs!” – he points out that bugs keep on surviving in spite of everything humans have tried to exterminate them.

Like the first book, the series ends on a bleak note. The alien fleet is still hundreds of years away, and we know what their plan is, but we stand no chance against them. Despite the adaptation’s missteps, the underlying material is solid enough to carry them through. If this doesn’t become another of Netflix’s one-season casualties, I’d watch another season that concludes the story.

The First Amendment doesn’t have an Israel exception

All across America, campus protests are flaring against Israel’s war on Gaza. I have a story to contribute that hasn’t gotten as much coverage, but I think it’s even more important for what it reveals about the mindset of Israel’s defenders.

At my alma mater, Binghamton University, the student association passed a hard-fought resolution in support of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement. According to Pipe Dream, the campus newspaper:

With the resolution’s passage, Binghamton University becomes one of the first SUNYs to pass student legislation divesting from institutions supporting Israel’s military campaign. It also directs the SA to recognize Israel’s military campaign in Gaza as a genocide and Israel as an apartheid state.

One of the authors of the resolution, Tyler Brechner, is himself Jewish. His words are worth quoting:

“Tonight, we have a political and moral question on the agenda — not a religious one,” Brechner said. “Opposition to Israeli apartheid and genocide is a necessary and just stance, not an antisemitic one. Jews are not a monolith — I do not speak for all Jews, and neither does the opposition to this legislation. Conflating the Jewish community with support of Israel, however, assumes a bigoted, antisemitic trope that all Jews must be loyal to Israel.

I want to emphasize his last point, because it’s important. Israel isn’t equivalent to Judaism, and Judaism isn’t equivalent to Israel. Israel is the only Jewish state, but that doesn’t mean that the interests of Israel are, or should be, identical to the interests of all Jewish people wherever they may live.

If someone passed a resolution that called for boycotting all businesses owned by Jews as a way of protesting Israel, I’d agree that would be antisemitic. It partakes of the “dual loyalty” trope – a bigoted canard which claims that Jewish people are a fifth column that’s always more loyal to Israel than to the place where they live.

However, Jewish people and their allies aren’t immune to this either. The defenders of Israel commit the exact same fallacy when they argue that BDS and other movements protesting Israel’s actions are antisemitic, because to be against Israel is to be against Judaism.

Speaking as a person of Jewish ancestry, there’s a clear difference. The BDS movement is motivated by opposition to the government and policies of the state of Israel. That’s different from antisemitism, which is hate directed at Jewish people simply for the fact of their being Jewish. Of course, Israel can change its policies, whereas Jewish people can’t change who they are.

To state the obvious, the Binghamton resolution is symbolic. Nothing in the present conflict will change because of it. Netanyahu and the IDF aren’t watching the outcome of a vote at an American state university.

However, some American defenders of Israel see this resolution as their cue to leap to the barricades. Angry feelings and over-the-top rhetoric are only to be expected. What you might not have expected is that elected officials would call for the First Amendment to be demolished so they can crack down on all dissenting opinions.

Two New York state assembly members, Charles Lavine and David Weprin – both Democrats – sent SUNY chancellor John King a blustery threat letter. It demands the withdrawal of the resolution, or if not, it calls on Binghamton University to suspend the SA’s charter.

It contains this breathtaking line: “Binghamton University’s Student Association is not under any circumstances allowed to engage in BDS activity.

A letter sent by New York state legislators denouncing the Binghamton BDS resolution

A little context here. New York doesn’t have an anti-BDS law, as some states do. But it does have an executive order, issued by former governor Andrew Cuomo, which bans state investment in entities that support the BDS campaign.

To my knowledge, anti-BDS laws have never been challenged in court. But they’re obviously, blatantly unconstitutional. They’re an attempt by the state to mandate which political opinions people are permitted to hold and how they’re permitted to express them. This isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s backwards. In a democracy, voters tell the government what positions it should advocate, not vice versa. Imagine if Jim Crow Alabama had made it illegal to boycott segregated lunch counters.

However, it gets worse. In a second letter, eight members of the New York state assembly (none of them the same two as before) called for the expulsion of Binghamton students who voted for the BDS resolution, and the firing of any faculty member who supported it. Yes, you read that right.

Another letter sent by New York state legislators denouncing the Binghamton BDS resolution

Here’s the relevant section of the letter:

The passage of the resolution expressing support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement represents a significant departure from the principles of inclusivity, tolerance, and academic freedom that should underpin our institutions of higher education. This action not only undermines the values of SUNY but also perpetuates divisiveness and intolerance within the campus community.

We strongly urge you to take immediate and decisive action to address this matter. Specifically, we demand the expulsion of the students who participated in the vote and action to pass the resolution. Furthermore, we call for the ouster of any faculty and committee members who played a role in promoting or supporting this resolution.

Or, to summarize:

“Support academic freedom and tolerance! Also, expel all students and fire all faculty who don’t think like we do!”

You might expect this kind of McCarthyist trash from hooded hatemongers, but these are elected legislators. They’re people, presumably, who have some familiarity with constitutional law. Yet they persist in the delusion that the First Amendment contains an Israel exception.

In all likelihood, these are empty threats. Binghamton University and the SA haven’t shown any intention of bowing to them. Still, even if these legislators only meant it as an over-the-top sign of how much they’re committed to Israel, they’re playing with fire. It’s an incredibly dangerous message that free speech ends where they say it does.

If Israel’s defenders accepted that the war is unpopular and that protests are a natural response, that would be one thing. Instead, they’ve adopted a militant “no one is allowed to disagree with us” attitude, and they’re arguing the law should punish dissent.

In the past, they’ve used antisemitism as a cudgel to shut down any criticism of Israel’s actions. That tactic doesn’t appear to be working anymore. It may be a sign of panic that they’re now trying to outlaw their critics, and in some places, calling in the police to silence them by force.

Mike Johnson is the dog that didn’t bark

[Previous: The Christian nationalism is coming from inside the House]

After months of agonizing delay, help is coming for Ukraine.

American military aid ran out late last year, and Europe couldn’t fill the gap. With supplies dwindling, the Ukrainian military was being forced to ration ammunition in the face of Russian advances, and couldn’t shoot down Russian missiles aimed at apartment buildings and power plants.

The only hope was for America to send more ammo. But the Republican-controlled House had to vote for that, and Donald Trump runs the GOP. Trump, plus other conservative lickspittles like Marjorie Taylor Green, were against more aid because they admire Vladimir Putin’s brand of tyranny and believe he should be allowed to invade and conquer whoever he wants.

The decision was all up to House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has a reputation as a hard-right Christian nationalist. For months, Johnson dragged his feet while Ukrainians fought and died defending their country.

But then, unexpectedly, something changed Johnson’s mind. He abruptly decided to put a new foreign aid package up for a vote after all.

The first obstacle was the powerful House Rules Committee, which controls which bills come to the floor to be voted on. Ex-speaker Kevin McCarthy gave the most fanatical members of his caucus an outsize voice on this committee.

But once Johnson uncorked the stopper on Ukraine aid, Democrats on the Rules Committee joined with moderate Republicans to outvote the extremists and put it on the floor. Multiple House members described this as unprecedented and said they couldn’t remember a previous occasion when such a crossover happened.

Once the bill was on the floor, it passed with overwhelming Democratic support, while slightly more than half of Republicans voted against it. As Andrew Solender put it for Axios, “the GOP’s fractured and tiny House majority has effectively yielded to something resembling a bipartisan coalition”.

Just a few months ago, Biden and the Democrats were prepared to swallow a draconian Republican border bill in exchange for Ukraine aid. But Trump gave orders to scrap the border bill, because he didn’t want to do anything about immigration; he wanted it to continue being perceived as a problem so he can blame Democrats for it.

Johnson went along with this strategy. He obediently killed his own party’s bill – and then ended up passing Ukraine aid anyway, giving Democrats what they wanted and getting nothing in return. It’s a spectacular feat of political incompetence.

This continues a pattern for Mike Johnson’s tenure as Speaker of the House. Time and time again, he’s relied on help from Democrats to pass vital bills over the objections of his own party.

In November 2023, he needed Democratic votes to pass a stopgap funding bill that kept the government open. Then he needed their help again in January 2024 for the same reason. Then again in March.

All the while, the House’s extreme conservatives groused bitterly about Johnson allowing fairly “clean” funding bills to come up for a vote. He didn’t try to use the threat of a shutdown as leverage to force massive spending cuts or policy concessions, like they wanted:

The House Freedom Caucus, which contains dozens of the GOP’s most conservative members, urged Republicans to vote against the first spending package and oppose the second one being negotiated.

“Despite giving Democrats higher spending levels, the omnibus text released so far punts on nearly every single Republican policy priority,” the group said.

So, what gives?

Mike Johnson, the radical, election-denying Christian nationalist, turned out to be a wet noodle. He’s repeatedly failed to win Republican policy goals. He’s worked with Democrats more often than with his own party. He’s kept the government open for business even when his own caucus was screaming at him to shut it down.

What happened? Is he less of a fanatic and more open to compromise than he seemed? Or is he just incompetent, such that he wanted to burn the country down, but keeps getting outmaneuvered?

One possible explanation is that the Speaker of the House doesn’t have the liberty to vote his own beliefs. He has to think of members in swing districts, who’d pay the price if he advocated bills that were drastically out of step with the electorate. Ukraine is still a popular cause, regardless of what Donald Trump says, and it may be that Johnson felt he had no choice.

Another explanation, not mutually exclusive with the first, is that House Republicans are ungovernable. Their demands are so untethered from political reality, and their egos are so out of control, that no one could unite them. If that’s true, Johnson failed not because he lacked the skills, but because the job was impossible. His failure was foreordained from day one.

Does capitalism make us unhappy? No, but also yes

Money of various denominations and countries

Americans are more unhappy than ever. Is capitalism to blame?

If you ask social media, the answer is obvious. Polls show a similar shift in attitudes, especially among Gen Z: 54% of young people view capitalism negatively, according to a 2021 poll.

But if we’re going to make this argument, it’s important to get the details right. Why, specifically, is capitalism bad for human happiness?

The simplest explanation is that capitalism gives rise to enormous inequality and forces us to struggle for survival, and that makes people miserable. But that hypothesis might be a little too simple.

Massive inequality, poverty and precarity aren’t unique to capitalism. They’ve been features of every society since the dawn of agriculture. Does this imply that no one has ever been happy, except for a tiny minority of the privileged?

The data don’t support such a stark conclusion. If you look at a worldwide survey of happiness by country, it’s true that the richest countries are near the top and the poorer ones are on the bottom. However, happiness doesn’t correlate strictly with GDP or income.

Countries with a wide range of median incomes all cluster around similar numbers. The United States, the richest country in the world, is only the 26th happiest. Some less-wealthy countries, like Costa Rica, surpass us. Mexico, with one-eighth the median income of the U.S., is only two places behind. It appears that wealth doesn’t influence happiness as much as you might guess.

Of course, poverty is harmful. If you can’t afford enough to eat or a roof over your head, you’ll be unhappy. However, inequality isn’t harmful – at least, not intrinsically. It doesn’t hurt you by the mere fact of its existence, like disease or war. If your neighbor is ten times richer than you but is practicing stealth wealth, living in a modest house and wearing non-designer clothes, you’ll never realize.

Inequality only hurts if you’re aware of it. In that case, it naturally inspires feelings of envy (I want what he’s got!) and inadequacy (am I not as good as him?), both of which make us unhappy.

This is an ancient instinct, older than humanity. As a famous experiment shows, even monkeys feel unhappy because of inequality. They’re happy to get a cucumber slice as the reward for a task, unless they see another monkey getting a tasty grape for doing the same job. Then they throw a tantrum.

This is where capitalism comes in. We’re bathed in more advertising than ever, both in the sheer quantity of ads and in their intrusiveness. Marketers spend trillions of dollars to cram commercials into our eyeballs everywhere we look. Capitalism incentivizes this behavior in a way that no previous economic system did.

And that matters, because the purpose of advertising is to make us unhappy. Its goal is to make our lives feel incomplete so we’ll spend money trying to plug the hole. No matter how much you have, it sends the message that you’re falling behind and need more.

Ubiquitous social media also supercharges our ability to peer into other people’s lives. Once, the only people you could easily compare yourself to were your neighbors on the same block. At most, you could read a gossip column or watch a TV show about the lives of celebrities. Now you can see in real time how the richest people on the planet live. That widens the circle of people you compare yourself to, and as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy.

Social media can even make us perceive inequalities that don’t exist. We all feel the temptation to curate our lives for social media: to post only about the good parts, and to polish them up and present them as favorably as possible. That can make it seem, when you scroll through your friends list, as if everyone’s life is going great except for yours. It’s comparing someone else’s highlight reel to your cutting room floor.

It goes beyond curation into outright deception. Some “influencers” resort to selective editing and other tricks (like renting a private jet just to pose in the cabin for a photoshoot) to create the false impression that they’re leading a life of luxury.

Both advertising and social media contribute to unhappiness in this way. Capitalism doesn’t just create inequality, it strives to shove it in our faces at every turn, and that does make people unhappy.

Human psychology is such that we tend to be discontented and envious if we have less than our neighbors, and that’s true no matter how much money or how many possessions you have. Capitalism thrives on this mindset, because envy fosters the desire to compete and consume. But human suffering is the raw material that powers it.

Capitalism tells us lies about what makes us happy: more work, more money, more stuff. If you believe those lies, you’ll be running on an endless treadmill, seeking fulfillment through consumption but never finding it, going deeper into debt for no gain. Or, like many white-collar workers, you’ll get caught up in hustle culture, working grueling hours and killing yourself with stress when you already have more than enough for a good life.

The things that truly make human beings happy aren’t for sale. They include autonomy, meaningful relationships, leisure, creativity, and natural beauty. We’ll still need to work, if only to provide for our basic needs, but making more money on top of that doesn’t make people any happier.

Yet millions of Americans believe that happiness comes from being rich. They’re mortgaging their lives in service to this falsehood, encouraged by marketing that stokes feelings of greed and envy, and ruining the planet in the bargain.

The first step in fixing this problem is to recognize the illusion for what it is. All our extravagant consumption is neither a right nor a necessity. We can be perfectly content leading much simpler lives. The sooner we learn that, the happier we’ll be.

The hemorrhaging of Red America continues

[Previous: The lights are flickering in Red America]

Rural Americans are white, conservative, and Republican. That pattern holds overwhelmingly true, and it explains almost all of the political divide in America, even if some experts shy away from the implications.

I make no claims to be impartial about this. But if you can judge a political ideology by anything, you should judge it by the success or failure it produces. When that ideology gets to govern, do its followers thrive, or do they suffer? Do they have stable, prosperous, happy lives, or do they spiral down a vortex of misery?

Let’s consider a new piece of evidence summed up by this headline: “The urban-rural death divide is getting alarmingly wider for working-age Americans“.

As recently as 25 years ago, urban and rural areas had comparable death rates among working-age adults. But since that time, cities have been improving, while rural areas are faring worse and worse. A new report from the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service shows just how wide the gap has gotten:

The report focused in on a key indicator of population health: mortality among prime working-age adults (people ages 25 to 54) and only their natural-cause mortality (NCM) rates — deaths among 100,000 residents from chronic and acute diseases — clearing away external causes of death, including suicides, drug overdoses, violence, and accidents. On this metric, rural areas saw dramatically worsening trends compared with urban populations.

…In 1999, the NCM rate in 25- to 54-year-olds in rural areas was 6 percent higher than the NCM rate of this age group in urban areas. In 2019, the gap had grown to a whopping 43 percent. In fact, prime working-age adults in rural areas was the only age group in the US that saw an increased NCM rate in this time period.

Rural areas have higher rates of drug overdose, suicide, alcoholism and other ills than cities, per capita. However, this conclusion holds true even if you exclude those causes and focus only on so-called natural deaths.

Your first thought might be that COVID accounts for a big chunk of the difference, but no. The researchers specifically excluded 2020 from their data set, because they considered it an outlier. However, including COVID would make this already huge gap into an even wider chasm, considering that the reddest parts of America had a COVID death rate almost six times higher than the blue ones.

There are no plagues that are unique to rural America. Red-state residents die from the same causes as residents of blue cities. They just die from them more often:

Among all rural working-age residents, the leading natural causes of death were cancer and heart disease — which was true among urban residents as well. But, in rural residents, these conditions had significantly higher mortality rates than what was seen in urban residents.

Why do rural residents die in larger numbers? A big part of the problem is that, because they’re more spread out to begin with, doctors and hospitals are few and far between. That makes it harder for them to get the medical care they need, both on a regular basis and in emergencies.

That problem is rapidly getting worse, because the health-care system in rural America is running on fumes. With each passing year, more and more rural hospitals are losing money, forcing them to pare back services or close entirely:

A recently released report from the health analytics and consulting firm Chartis paints a clear picture of the grim reality Ryerse and other small-hospital managers face. In its financial analysis, the firm concluded that half of rural hospitals lost money in the past year, up from 43% the previous year. It also identified 418 rural hospitals across the United States that are “vulnerable to closure.”

…According to Chartis, nearly a quarter of rural hospitals have closed their obstetrics units and 382 have stopped providing chemotherapy.

The harm inflicted by hospital closures goes beyond the sick people who are most directly affected. It tears holes in the social fabric. People with means won’t move to places where they can’t get medical care. Young people who want to start families will avoid places without labor and delivery wards. (Some rural states, like Idaho, are losing so many obstetrics wards that they may soon become maternity deserts in their entirety.)

When people don’t want to live in these places, employers will move away because they can’t attract talent. That creates a brain drain, worsening poverty and leading to a death spiral:

While people in rural America are more likely to die of cancer than people in urban areas, providing specialty cancer treatment also helps ensure that older adults can stay in their communities. Similarly, obstetrics care helps attract and keep young families.

Whittling services because of financial and staffing problems is causing “death by a thousand cuts,” said [Michael] Topchik [co-author of the Chartis study], adding that hospital leaders face choices between keeping the lights on, paying their staff, and serving their communities.

The article proposes, hopefully, that Congressional support will be needed to keep the lights on in rural hospitals. The brutal reality is that this isn’t going to happen, because there’s no constituency for it.

As the last few years have demonstrated, most voters living in these white rural enclaves don’t value their own health. More than that, they fight furiously against efforts to improve it. They’re loud supporters of Republicans whose only concern is punishing women for having abortions, or gay people getting married, or transgender people using bathrooms, or immigrants coming to this country to find jobs, or whatever culture-war noise Fox News is telling them to care about today. The politicians they elect do nothing tangible to improve their lives, and they seem content with that.

Meanwhile, the biggest policy proposals that would make a positive difference to rural voters’ lives – like the Medicaid expansion, or COVID vaccination programs, or infrastructure spending, or stronger unions, or even single-payer health care – are Democratic initiatives, and they resist all of them with furious tenacity. As long as they cling to these attitudes, their doctors will keep fleeing, their hospitals will keep closing, and they’ll keep getting sicker and living shorter lives. They’re literally dying of whiteness, and it seems that’s the way they prefer it.

A hole in the sky

[Previous: The eclipse of 2024: why are we lucky enough to have these on Earth?]

I missed the eclipse in 2017. The path of totality wasn’t that close to me, and I had an infant to care for, so traveling was out of the question.

This time was different.

The April 2024 solar eclipse was the last one that’d be visible from the U.S. for decades. Quite possibly, it was the only one that would be within driving distance of me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t going to miss it.

The weekend before, I set out on the long drive north. On the day of, I was camped out in a meadow with a crowd of other sightseers. There were families with kids, young people with dogs, photographers with solar lenses and camera mounts. The sky was clear blue and sunny, with only wisps of cloud. The mood was one of pleasant anticipation.

When the time arrived, the sun looked no different to the naked eye, too brilliant to glance at. But as the minutes crawled by, you could sense something happening. The light dimmed; colors faded. The warmth of a sunny April afternoon cooled into something more like fall.

Through eclipse glasses, the scene was completely different. You could see the dark disc of the moon moving across the face of the sun. It was an eerie sight, all the more so because it was invisible to the unaided eye.

The author, with eclipse glasses on, gazing toward the sky

Yes, I wore my Arecibo shirt

Over the course of an hour, that twilight dimming grew more noticeable, and the crowd’s anticipation increased. Through the filter of the glasses, the sun dwindled. It was a circle with a bite taken out, then a crescent, at last a slender arc.

And then, all at once – totality.

The sun dazzled, then dimmed, then darkened. The shadow of the moon, which had been there all along, suddenly emerged into view like an actor rising out of a trapdoor onto center stage.

Night fell in an instant, as swiftly as if a curtain had dropped over the world. The temperature plunged, and a chilly breeze kicked up. Venus emerged in a twinkle. A reddish sunset glow clung to the horizon.

Where the sun had been, there was a black void surrounded by a ghostly ring of fire, like a burning hole in the sky.

There was a collective gasp. A mass indrawn breath.

The eclipse at the moment of totality, showing the dark sky and the sun as a blurred ring of light

A goad to the imagination

Solar eclipses have been occuring for the entire span of humanity’s existence. I can only imagine what it felt like for ancient people to see this without knowing what it was. There must have been mass panic, weeping and prayer and frenzy, orgies of hedonism and outbreaks of violence. They probably thought the world was ending, and with good reason.

Even I, knowing it was harmless and that the sun would return momentarily, still felt a little frisson, a shiver at the back of my neck. It was impossible not to.

It was a sharp reminder that the sun doesn’t exist for us; it’s not a hanging lamp put there for our convenience. We live on a planet plunging through the dark, whirling among many other celestial bodies all following their own courses. It was tangible evidence of the vast universe out there, that has nothing to do with us.

In those ancient times, when an eclipse ended and the sun returned, there must have been a rush to interpret its meaning, a proliferation of prophets all offering dueling explanations. Many new religions must have been born, and perhaps some old religions died.

I once wrote that my humanism comes from the stars. After seeing an eclipse, I’ve come to believe that religions come from the stars as well. Not in the sense of UFOs and alien astronauts bringing revelations, but in the sense that people’s imaginations have always been fired by dramatic sights in the world around them.

It’s not just eclipses, but comets, meteor showers, planetary conjunctions, constellations: everything in the heavens that seemed strange, significant or noteworthy. We know that the movement of the skies was important for ancient people, to mark the seasons and predict the times for agriculture, if for no other reason.

But it was also a wellspring of creativity and a goad to the imagination. I wonder how much of our mythology originates from people who saw something unusual in the sky and spun a story about it. The ancient Greeks put gods and heroes there, and other civilizations did the same. It’s not a stretch to imagine that myths of more recent vintage about resurrected saviors and heavenly battles of angels and demons may have similar origins.

Knowledge deepens wonder

Back in the present, that sheer, vertical awe only lasted a moment. I said there was a collective gasp – but then people broke out into laughter, cheers and applause. It was an upwelling of ecstasy. Being there, standing beneath that unreal sky, was transcendent in the truest sense of the word.

The spectacular sight of totality was fleeting. In a few short minutes, the sun reemerged. Light flooded into the world. The sky lightened to blue, and the chill faded.

It was an experience I’ll never forget. And it inspired me in another way as well.

Where people once cowered from eclipses or treated them as portents of doom, now we know them for what they are, and we appreciate them more because of it. People came from hundreds of miles around specifically to see this one, because they wanted to be present for it. Some towns, like Burlington, Vermont, saw their population temporarily double. Our greater knowledge deepened our sense of wonder at the majesty of nature, rather than dispelling it.

The eclipse was no longer something to fear, no longer a sign of divine wrath. The crowds treated it as they should have – just an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, courtesy of the laws of orbital mechanics and the grand clockwork of the cosmos. From fear to awe, from terror to wonder. That’s what science does.