are you taking over, or are you taking orders?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Breaking News: The Catholic Church Is Awful

For the first time in quite a while, I am honestly pleased at something Barack Obama has done.

Recently, as part of the new healthcare legislation that has been passed, it has been mandated by his administration that all employers must provide insurance options that cover contraception for women, making it so every woman in America can have access to "co-pay or deductible-free well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes, breast-feeding support, domestic violence screening and all FDA approved birth control methods -- including emergency contraception such as the morning-after pill." Again, that is free and available women's health support to every woman who has insurance; admittedly, there are still far too many people without insurance, even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, but it is quite frankly an unprecedented step for American politics, namely, that they would care about women being healthy, or having control over their own bodies. It's the kind of awesome thing that the more optimistic types expected from Obama at the start, but never happened. Better late than never, I suppose.

Of course, in the face of this, the hordes of women-haters from the American right wing and their buddies in the religious establishment just will not stand for freedom for anyone but themselves. They have tried to frame this issue, hilariously, as one of religious freedom; they say that not being able to deny women potentially life-saving care is a "direct challenge to the fundamental beliefs of Catholics and are directly contrary to the Catholic faith"; the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, called it an "unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience,"and Rick Santorum, our favorite frothy-mouthed presidential candidate, said at CPAC that "It's not about contraception, it's about economic liberty, it's about freedom of speech, it's about freedom of religion, it's about government control of your lives." Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League and quite possibly my least favorite human being on the planet, rounded these protests off in typically batshit fashion, announcing that “This is going to be fought out with lawsuits, with court decisions, and, dare I say it, maybe even in the streets.”

... There is so much to analyze in just those four quotes. Admittance that Catholic doctrine advocates against equality and autonomy for women, "freedom of conscience" equaling oppression, capitalism, and a call for outright revolution to protect their inane and backwards beliefs. And frankly, it's all horseshit. As Amanda Marcotte points out, this is not about religious freedom in the slightest, but about maintaining gender divisions and hierarchy. Catholics as a whole are in favor of the mandate by a sizable majority, and in fact Catholic women use birth control just as much as do other women, but the kicker is the fact that far more men are against this new law than are women. Huh. Imagine that. A majority of men want women to be unhealthy and unsafe, and to be controlled by men. No sir, officer, no patriarchy here. Uh uh.

So, after all of this madness exploded, President Obama announced that he was working on a compromise that would make everybody happy. And my heart sank. Oh shit, I thought: here we go again. Another backdown from the administration that will further eradicate my nonexistent faith in the man.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that Obama has well and truly done a number on the haters. Now, religiously affiliated universities, hospitals, etc now don't have to provide contraception through their own policies, but insurance companies can now provide such care directly if the employers object. So, religious institutions still get to officially hate women, but no matter what, women will be able to get contraceptive care. It's quite frankly a brilliant move, and my hat is well and truly off to the President. Start pulling this kind of stuff more often, and you might make me a fan yet. Y'know, if you stop torturing people and prosecuting whistleblowers. That's still the kicker.
In news closer to home, it turns out that the school I attend, DePaul University, the nation's largest Catholic university, already provides contraception in its health insurance plan for its employees, which is awesome, and keeps up with the institution's habit of pissing off the Church for things like not hating queer people and the like. However, there is still a rather large elephant in the room when it comes to their health policies, namely that it is not permitted to distribute contraception of any form on campus, that our Office of Sexual Violence Support Services has only one employee to deal with all of the issues that may arise on campus, and furthermore that the code relating to sexual violence is difficult to find and woefully written and organized. There is not even a centralized student health office; those duties have been farmed out to an outside practice, Sage Medical Group, which any patient of will know is not necessarily the best place to go even for small procedures, much less assault counseling. For a university of 25,000 students in one of the biggest cities in the country, this is quite frankly a pitiful state of affairs.

Why am I talking about DePaul in this? I mention these issues to illustrate that, despite the new government regulations on contraception described above, there is a very, very long way to go in this country before proper health care for not just women, but all Americans, is not just offered, but easily accessible. Just because this fight seems to be going in the right direction does not mean that we can stop and pat the President and ourselves on the back: there is so much more to do, on DePaul's campus and across the country. So by all means, we should congratulate Obama and DePaul on their steps forward, but we can''t let them off the hook until full coverage is achieved.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Not Atheism, but Secularism

The opinions of this post do not necessarily reflect the positions of the membership of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought.

There has been much talk recently, on In Our Words and elsewhere, about the circumstance of being religious and yet also devoted to progressive activist causes that contravene the tenets of one's faith. Relatedly, I have also engaged in many conversations about "New Atheism" and how it should approach such people and activism in general; unfortunately, in my view, many of those who I have encountered in such conversations believe that we should be essentially preaching atheism, looking to convert the religious as we without faith have so often been targeted for conversion to faith. I believe this to be a position that is untenable if we as a secular movement are to truly do without the trappings of organized religion, and so in this post I will examine these two phenomena in light of some recent developments in secular activism, and provide an alternative to such preaching that allows us as a movement to continue with a proactive, rather than domineering, message.

It is easy to forget in places like Chicago and New York and other more cosmopolitan areas of this nation that atheists stand as the most disliked and distrusted group of people in the United States of America: as Julian Baggini discovered on a recent journey around the country, it is one of the last big taboos existing in America. His piece documents numerous people who have been isolated by their friends and families for simply admitting their nonbelief. Our country's longest standing institution, bigotry, truly does extend to every group that is not white, male, rich, straight, and Christian.

One story that Baggini did not cover is, I think, one of the most important. Two years ago, a Rhode Island high school student named Jessica Ahlquist noticed that her public school, Cranston West, had an official school prayer emblazoned on a banner in their gymnasium. Such an exhibition is, of course, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and Ahlquist, an atheist, found herself feeling marginalized by it. She contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the former sent a letter to the school district asking the prayer to be removed, and offers a fine explanation of the issue at hand:

Rhode Island, as a pluralistic state founded on religious freedom, should be particularly sensitive to the divisiveness of government-sponsored displays promoting religion. While students remain free to privately pray at appropriate times, prayer does not need, nor should it have, the guiding hand of government for its effectuation. No student should be forced to attend his or her public school only at the cost of being subject to a religious message that may run directly counter to his or her deeply-held beliefs.

Being such an open and shut case, one might think that the district would understand how in the wrong they were and take down the banner and have that be that, with no legal battle having to ensue. Ahlquist went and sat in at the school board meetings deliberating on the issue, and found that not just the board, but most of the town and her classmates were fighting for the banner to remain. In fact, when she spoke out against the banner, Ahlquist had to be escorted by police from the school due to the volume and seriousness of the abuse against her.

The abuse did not stop. She was threatened regularly at school, as well as in the community, especially so when the ACLU filed suit against the town. In the end, the ruling was granted in her favor, as expected, but since then she has continued to receive a sickening volume of threats, many violent in nature, and she has been given police escorts during and after school, and the police has deemed several serious enough that they are worth criminally investigating. Through it all, she has stood tall and spoken incredibly eloquently on behalf of herself and her cause, and is a credit to all activists dedicated to equality everywhere.

Jessica's story is sadly not unique. Damon Fowler had his entire town, including his parents, turn against him for speaking out against prayer in his school, to the point where his parents kicked him out of their house. Eric James Borges, a gay teen, recently committed suicide after his fundamentalist Christian family tried to perform an exorcism on him and made his life toxic and unbearable. There are far too many stories that follow this pattern.

Why am I writing about these events? They are to illuminate my belief that religion of this sort, so discriminatory, so bigoted, so unthinkingly horrible, is near-fully enmeshed with American life, and that it needs to be stopped. There is no good to come, I believe, for establishments of religion to have any role beyond the private lives of their adherents and in charitable causes. There is no reason for a religious organization to have any influence or involvement with matters of politics or public life, because it has never, to my knowledge, resulted in any good. It only results in the kind of awful sexist and patriarchal abuse of the sort suffered by Jessica Ahlquist, and other varieties of bigotry aside.

I say this with a very large caveat; I am not the sort of Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens atheist who believes religion needs to be destroyed, or cast away entirely. I am more than well aware of the good that can and has been done by more liberal sects, and I stand behind them as much as I am able, so long as they would remain committed to such good works. As Patton Oswalt rather wonderfully details, I don't give a damn why or who with you are working for social justice and to make the world a more equal and fairer place, just so long as you are. Whether it's because you believe Jesus or Mohammed or Mahavira or Athena tell you to, or you just have rationally deduced that it is the right thing to do, it does not matter. Solidarity and collective effort are everything in the fight against the kind of intolerance that has dogged Jessica Ahlquist and the others mentioned previously.

In the end, however, thought we can and must work with our friends of faith for equality, we cannot, as James Croft recently explored, end up maintaining religion's place of privilege in our society. At the end of the day, Christianity and Hinduism and all the rest are superstitious belief systems with no grounding in fact or rationality, and as such do not deserve any sort of privilege. But to the point I made before regarding converting people to atheism, we must not as secular people turn around and place rationality or empiricism or any of the various methods we use to examine the world on a pedestal. It already happens; I encounter atheists who never question authors like Harris and Dawkins because they are the Most Rational, The Best Atheists, and so on. But they have to be, because the fact of the matter is that most of the mainstream atheist writers do not so much as mention activism or social justice issues as worthy pursuits, instead sticking to high-minded academic arenas such as historical instances of organized religion's awfulness, or scientific proofs against the Bible, and so on. These are extremely important areas to know and understand, but they do not relate us to the wider world at large. Sikivu Hutchinson, in her brilliant book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, puts it best:

New Atheist discourse purports to be “beyond” all that meddlesome stuff. After all, science has been cleaned up to redress the atrocities of the past. The “bad” racist eugenicist science and scientists of back in the day have been purged. Religionists of all stripes are merely obstacles to achieving greater enlightenment in the generic name of science and reason. Race and gender hierarchies within the scientific establishment are immaterial when it comes to determining the overall thrust and urgency of the New Atheism. Non-believers who argue for a more nuanced approach to or progressive understanding of the political, social, and cultural appeal of religion are toady apologists. Religious bigotry and discrimination are deemed the greatest threat to “civilized” Western societies. As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe, oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism, sexism and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.

Thus, I come to my ultimate point: making an argument for atheism as a preaching movement, as one that actively seeks to convert, is wrapped up in the same hierarchical, holier-than-thou rhetoric that allows religions to go out and try to do the same thing. However, by working to remove religion from the institutions of the state, to eliminate their influence over politicians and those who hold power in our country, we can actually make progress in making the United States a more free and equal place. We must work to secularize our government, not turn them all into atheists. The latter is simply not tenable, and ignores the good that religious motivation can do. Our worldview is no more privileged or better because we have the evidence and common sense on our side: what matters is how we act as citizens in the world. If we do not work for change, then we are no better than the religious fundamentalists we love to criticize.