Refugees

This is the Syrian city of Homs, the third largest in the country. This photo was taken a year ago, before the bombings from major superpowers really took off.

Now imagine that was your home. Your family’s home. Your children’s home. You’re not a soldier or a politician. You bake bread or fix cars.  Every single day, explosions and gunfire ring out nearby. You live in constant fear. For the past four years, this has been your life.

This is the horror that Syrian refugees are fleeing from. They are human beings, not so different than you or I.

Of course, we helped create that horror. Most of us supported invasions in the region. Our government provided many of the weapons and directly caused some of the destruction. We funded their dictators. We fought proxy wars with our enemies by involving them. We bought their oil and used our military might to control its production and distribution.

And now when innocent men, women and children are fleeing that nightmare, we want to close our borders and turn them away. We’re fearful that a few bad ones might sneak through. We’re scared that they might not adopt our culture.

Many of us have an iPhone in our pockets, unaware that its creator was himself conceived in the very same city you see above. Perhaps this world we live in, this pale blue dot in the vast universe, is smaller and more connected than we think?

Many complain that terrorists have “won” if we are fearful of the next attack. I think they “win” if we forget our humanity and turn away from our empathy.

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Protecting the Children

The argument I keep hearing on social media is that the new Mormon policy of exclusion is all about “protecting the children.” It’s a laughable argument, but I’m no longer laughing.

“SALT LAKE CITY– Professionals working on the front lines of suicide prevention say they’re handling a higher volume of calls since last Thursday…”

“‘We actually have been aware of a couple of suicides that have happened,’ Caldwell said.”

Utah already has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation and it ranks even higher (worse) for teen suicides. There are published, peer-reviewed studies that show that depression and suicide rates among LGBT groups increase significantly after discriminatory acts are passed.

This is a serious problem. Clearly, it is not being helped by policy changes from top Mormon leaders that further expand on the repulsive idea that gay people, and now even their children, are inferior. And it’s certainly not being helped when members of those communities defend those harmful policy changes.

Sins of the Parents: Mormon Church Doubles Down on Hate

Yesterday, my former church made a significant policy change. Not only are members in same-sex marriages now considered apostates, children of same same-sex spouses are not allowed to be baptized. Seriously.

From the official church handbook: “A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.” Additionally, to eventually be baptized, the child must be at least 18, must renounce their parents’ marriage, must leave home, and even after all that must also get approval from the First Presidency (no small feat).

Besides being irrational and bigoted, this is also hypocritical since a fundamental Mormon doctrine states clearly that children do not inherit the sins of their fathers. Second Article of Faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins…” This new policy seems to punish children who obviously had no choice in the matter of their parents’ sexual preference.

Perhaps the most repugnant aspect of the whole thing is to force the child, if he or she actually wishes to join such a hateful religion, to renounce their own parents’ marriage. So much for being all about family.

 

Ben Carson Does it Again

I know I have been picking on him lately, but it’s rather hard not to. He’s a leading candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. And he’s an idiot.

That’s not something I would casually say about a famous neurosurgeon, but Mr. Carson has been exceptionally proficient about changing my mind on such things.

Ben Carson in 1998: “My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain…Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it.” He confirmed today that he still believes that theory.

That clears up quite a bit about why Republican politicians deny climate change. Why listen to experts when you can misinterpret the Bible, an ancient book of mythology? Of course, the Bible doesn’t even mention pyramids, but that doesn’t stop Ben Carson!

Nor does the fact that the pyramids would be an absolutely terrible structure for storing grain, since they had no space for storage:

But perhaps the most hilarious part of this all is that Carson relies on Joseph of all the Biblical figures. Joseph’s approach to the coming famine was to take food stores from people who had more than they needed and give it to those who did not have enough. It sounds eerily like welfare, something modern Republicans don’t seem to like very much.

Edit: And yet again!

Ben Carson completely fabricated a story about applying to and being accepted to West Point on a full scholarship.

Ben Carson Doesn’t Know What a Debt Ceiling Is

It’s absolutely insane to me that the three leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination have absolutely no economic, political, or foreign policy experience. Zero. Zilch. Do their supporters think that somehow being good (or bad in the case of Fiorina) at business or brain surgery magically translates into being a good president? The point of a business is to make money. The point of government is to serve its citizens. But I digress.

Ben Carson is running for President and doesn’t know what the debt ceiling is. Seriously. Read or listen to this interview and take note of how he simply cannot grasp that the budget and the debt ceiling are very, very different. The interviewer even tries to help him multiple times understand the difference:

Ryssdal: All right, so let’s talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, “We’re gonna run out of money, we’re gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November.” Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?

Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.

Ryssdal: To be clear, it’s increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You’d let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.

Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, “Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we’re not raising any spending limits, period.”

Ryssdal: I’m gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that’s already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?

Carson: What I’m saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You’re always gonna ask the same question every year. And we’re just gonna keep going down that pathway. That’s one of the things I think that the people are tired of.

That’s just embarrassing. For him. For the Republican party. For our country. Why is anyone taking this guy seriously?

Planned Parenthood

When I wrote a post nearly three years ago about the abortion debate, I knew the effort was futile. But the latest attacks on Planned Parenthood reinforce the point I made back then. I’ll be very clear upfront about where I stand: I am pro-choice and want to reduce the abortion rate. In fact, most of the pro-choice people I know also want to reduce the abortion rate. So what makes us different than the conservatives who also claim they want to reduce the abortion rate? One thing: we care about what actually works.

The evidence is clear: closing abortion clinics or making abortion illegal has no significant effect on abortion rates. In fact the abortion rate, despite it being legal in the US during the period, has been steadily falling for the past 30 years.

So what does work? Two things have a significant effect: comprehensive sexual education classes and freely available contraceptives. It’s obvious when you think about it: abortions come as a result of unwanted pregnancies. Reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies by providing proper education and birth control, then the abortion rate drops with it. Meanwhile, promoting abstinence-only sexual education dramatically increases the abortion rate. See the numerous sources here.

So why do so many people keep fighting against better sex ed and contraceptive use if they claim that they want fewer abortions? And why attack Planned Parenthood, which does 97% of its care on sexual education, contraceptives, and health care for women, primarily low income women who would be more likely to have abortions? If we took our biases out of it and just examined the data, shutting down Planned Parenthood would increase the number of abortions being performed.

Here is what I think:

1 – It’s a political tool. The bogus videos produced this year came at a rather fortuitous time for Republican politicians, right as they are ramping up for election season. Nothing has excited their voters more over the past few decades than the abortion debate. It doesn’t matter that the videos were shown to be falsified or that multiple independent investigations found no wrong-doing on the part of Planned Parenthood. It doesn’t matter that PP doesn’t use any taxpayer money to perform abortions. One glance at Fox News or facebook and you’ll see that it is having its intended effect, evidence be damned.

The politicians don’t care about actually reducing the abortion rate. It has already been falling consistent for 30 years and they aren’t quoting that statistic. No, they want people to get out and vote for them. And for Republicans, that means screaming about dead babies at the top of their lungs over and over again every election cycle.

2 – The modern Republican party glorifies ignorance. Whether it’s denying climate change, trickle down economics, demonizing same-sex parenting, or endlessly fighting against sex ed and contraceptive availability while simultaneously claiming to be anti-abortion, it’s like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. When the evidence doesn’t support their position, they simply ignore the evidence.

3 – The Democrats let them get away with it. The prominent voices in the Democratic party have not been sending the most effective message. They keep trumpeting the idea of a woman’s right to choose (which I agree with) instead of presenting the very clear evidence. Let’s pay more attention to data and give less heed to subjective arguments.

4 – For Republicans who are aware of the data, it’s about their own particular brand of morality in regards to sex, not about abortions. That’s the dirty little secret here. They don’t want a world where their teenagers learn how to put a condom on in school. They don’t want a clinic down the street passing out free condoms. They’re not really willing to do what it takes to reduce the abortion rate because they would rather legislate sexual morality.

Crystal Balls

Crystal-ball

That’s a crystal ball. We’re all familiar with them, even if we have never seen one used in person. For a rational person, it’s bunk. Pure pseudoscience. We rightly treat it as a scam to separate foolish people from their money.

So why do we reject crystal balls out of hand so easily? Because it’s preposterous that a rock actually reveals such information. The idea that it would show the viewer words, symbols, or images is so utterly ridiculous that we don’t bother giving it any credence. Which leads me to this:

That’s a seer stone. It acts like a crystal ball. This particular seer stone suddenly became one of the most famous rocks in the world last week and was the subject of numerous news articles (Reuters, NY Post, ABC News, The Telegraph, etc.) because the Mormon church finally released photos and publicly admitted its existence in a church magazine article.

The short version is that Joseph Smith, before he became a prophet, was a treasure seeker. He would get hired by people to find treasure on their property. He found the above stone in a well and would put it in a hat, claiming to see where treasure was located. As far as we can tell from the historical record, it didn’t work and he was taken to court a number of times because of it.

Later, he “translated” the Book of Mormon by putting the same stone in a hat, burying his head in the hat, and reading words on the stone that were then transcribed. The mysterious golden plates were not used in the process according to those present.

So why is this a big deal?

  1. The Mormon church has long taught and depicted a different process entirely. Images like this and this were what I was raised seeing in official church publications.
  2. It’s no different than a crystal ball. Joseph could supposedly, “read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.” That’s ludicrous to people in this modern era. We reject folk magic stories like this. It’s just a rock.
  3. Why did the Mormon church finally admit this now, 170 years later? Clearly the abundance of easily accessible information is having an effect on their ability to hide embarrassing things like this under a rock. (sorry, couldn’t resist)
  4. The Book of Mormon repeatedly describes the difficulties of obtaining, transporting, and writing on the plates. But Joseph didn’t even use them! It just makes the whole thing even more farcical.
  5. This isn’t a translation process at all. If he was looking at a stone in his hat without the plates around, that’s simply not translation.

This is the kind of thing that really infuriates me. Mind you, it’s not a surprise. I have known about the seer stone for years and I’m glad the Mormon church is finally making steps to reveal its history to its own members. But it makes me want to grab the Mormons I know, many of whom are close family members or friends, and shake them. I want to ask them why they believe in a crystal ball. I want to explain that things like this are why I am so upset and feel deceived by an organization I had devoted my life to.

But I can’t do that. The Mormons I know don’t want to discuss Mormonism with me. They don’t want to discuss their religion with anyone who knows about the anachronisms or the Book of Abraham. And so I will continue to silently watch as people I care about spend a great deal of time and money on a religion that depends on crystal balls, faith healing, and other nonsense.

P.S. The seer stone you see above is a piece of banded iron jasper. You can buy your own for about $15. I don’t know if the type of hat makes any difference in your ability to see words appear on the stone though.

Freedom

“When I became convinced that the universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the world – not even in infinite space. I was free – free to think, to express my thoughts – free to live to my own ideal – free to live for myself and those I loved – free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings – free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope – free to judge and determine for myself – free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past – free from popes and priests – free from all the “called” and “set apart” – free from sanctified mistakes and “holy” lies – free from the fear of eternal pain – free from the winged monsters of the night – free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought – no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings – no chains for my limbs – no lashes for my back – no fires for my flesh – no master’s frown or threat – no following another’s steps – no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.”

“And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain–for the freedom of labor and thought–to those who fell in the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains–to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs–to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn–to those by fire consumed–to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.”

-Robert G. Ingersoll