The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus


There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians (and among many progressives who aren’t Christian but who want to be ecumenical).It goes something like this:

“I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in every word of the Bible. But I do believe in the teachings of Jesus. They’re so full of love and peace and tolerance. That’s where I get my divine inspiration from.”

I’ll grant that the philosophy of the Jesus character in the New Testament is, in many ways, an improvement over the Old Testament. It’s a lot lighter on the genocidal brutality and violence, for one thing. And some of the ideas in the Gospels are pretty decent ones.

But it’s a very mixed bag indeed. And while a mixed bag is okay if you’re just talking about human ideas — every one of the thinkers I admire have some ideas I think are coo-coo or messed up or just plain wrong — it’s a lot more problematic when you believe that the ideas in question come straight from the mouth of a perfect God.

There are some seriously screwed-up ideas in the Gospels. And they’re ideas that run counter to some of the most treasured principles of most modern progressives… including progressive Christians.

I want to list them here.

A few quick ground rules:

I’m talking here about my own opinion about what is or is not a screwed-up idea. But I am going to focus on ideas that most modern progressives agree are screwed-up (or would, if the ideas hadn’t come from Jesus).


I’m not going to cite references to hell and damnation. I do think that’s one of the most profoundly messed-up ideas in the Gospels, and it’s one of the most prevalent; but I’ve already catalogued it previously.

And I’m not going to cite the self-aggrandizing “I am God” stuff, as it seems like a rhetorical dead-end. After all, the whole question of whether Jesus was or was not God is exactly the point on which Christians and I disagree, so pointing to it as an example of a problematic philosophy is a bit too circular for my taste. Instead, I’m going to focus on ideas in the Gospels that most progressives would find troubling… completely apart from the question of Jesus’s divinity (or, indeed, his existence).

I will, however, talk about both the hell stuff and the “I am God” stuff when it points to some other troubling aspect of the Jesus philosophy… such as the oft-repeated “Believing that I am God and following my teachings is the only right way to practice religion” trope.


I’m also not going to bother with factual errors (like “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”), or internal contradictions (such as the whole “Should you do your good Christian works openly or secretly?” question), or instances of Jesus just being a jerk (like blighting the fig tree, and the whole “dissing his mother and brothers” thing). And I’m not going to nitpick every little idea in the Gospels that sort of bugs me.. I’m just going to talk about seriously troubling ethical and political ideas.

When a verse is repeated almost word for word from one book to another, I won’t repeat it in this list, unless for some reason it seems to bear repeating. (Which is why there’s a lot more from Matthew than any of the other four books.) And I’m quoting from the Revised Standard Version.

Here we go!

Continue reading “The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus”

The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus

Sex, TV, and Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: The Blowfish Blog


Since so many of you responded to my “Sex and the City” review by asking what I thought of “Swingtown,” I thought I should oblige. (Hey, I’m always up for a good non sequitur…) I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog: a review of the show, with a review of a second show thrown in for good measure. It’s titled Sex, TV, and Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”, and here’s the teaser:

To some extent, I’m reserving judgment on both shows. I’ve only seen a couple episodes of each, and it’s way too early to get into the serious socio- politico- sexual analysis of either one. But it’s not too early to say this: I’m watching. I’m curious. I care about the stories and the characters, and I want to see what happens next.

And that’s because the characters are — dare I say it? — human beings.

Which is an exciting new development in the relationship between alternative sex and television.

To find out more about these exciting new actual human beings, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Sex, TV, and Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: The Blowfish Blog

“All This For Us?” The Arrogance of Human- Centered Faith


“You atheists are so arrogant.”

This is one of the most common criticisms leveled against atheists. Many believers see the atheist assertion that there almost certainly is no God as unspeakably arrogant.

The usual comeback is to point out the arrogance of faith: the arrogance, among other things, of thinking that “I really don’t think there’s any evidence for this” is trumped by “My heart tells me this is so.” But, today, I want to talk about a different kind of religious arrogance.

I’m talking about the arrogance of the human-centered universe.

I’m talking about the arrogance of believing that the universe was created by a loving god for the purpose of creating human beings with souls who could love him, obey him, and go to his heaven.

And I’m not even just talking about creationism, either. I’m talking about reasonably science-friendly religion that still sees humankind as the centerpiece of God’s plan.

Solar system

As many writers before me have pointed out, the history of science is the history of humankind receding from the spotlight and into the wings. Copernicus and Galileo showed us that the earth was not the center of the universe: we revolve around the sun, not the other way around. We then learned that our sun wasn’t the center of the universe, either: it was only one of many billions of stars in our galaxy. And in this century, we found out that not even our galaxy was the center of the universe: it was only one of billions and billions of galaxies, in a universe so enormous it staggers the imagination and the ability of writers to express it.

Tree of life

Even here on Earth — here on this puny, puny rock whizzing around one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies — we’re not center stage. The twin demons of paleontology and evolution have disabused us of that notion. The theory of evolution has kicked humankind off the lofty Pinnacle of Creation platform, and put us in our rightful place as just one twig on the very bushy bush of life. Yes, we’re a twig with a startling ability to shape our environment — but even that doesn’t make us unique. Coral, earthworms, all those plants spewing out oxygen into the atmosphere… all have dramatic impacts on the physical world around them.


And when it comes to human hubris, paleontology just laughs in our face. “You think you’re special?” it scoffs. “You genus- come- lately, with your pathetic two and a half million year pedigree? Come back when you’ve survived for as long as the coelacanth or the cockroach, and we’ll talk.” In the history of life on this planet, the human species is a blip on the radar. We might survive as long as ferns and fir trees, alligators and algae… but we might also go the way of the triceratops and the Irish elk. If the history of life on Earth were the history of all music, the history of human life would be “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

Okay. Let’s sum up for a moment. The universe, post- Big Bang, is roughly 14 billion years old. It consists of billions and billions of galaxies, separated by vast expanses of empty space. Each of those galaxies consists of billions and billions of stars, also separated by vast expanses of empty space. Some of those stars have big hunks of rock orbiting them. And about four and a half billion years ago, in one of those galaxies, around one of those stars, one of those big hunks of rock happened to have a chemical process take place on it that resulted in structures that were able to replicate themselves. Over the eons, the self-replicating structures proliferated into an uncountable variety of different forms. And a mere two and a half million years ago, one of those millions of forms emerged in something resembling its present state… and in pretty much its present state a ridiculously paltry 200,000 years ago.

God Creates Adam Sistine Chapel

Many examples of which have come up with the ridiculously arrogant proposition that they are at the center of it all, the reason for all of it to happen.

To be fair, the human-centered view of the universe wasn’t always ridiculous. It wasn’t ridiculous, say, 5,000 years ago, before Galileo and Darwin and Hubble. It wasn’t ridiculous when — as far as we knew — humans had always been around, and the sun and moon and stars all revolved around us. We didn’t have any reason to think otherwise.

But now we do.

And now we have to let go.


If you’re not a hard-line creationist, if you accept the sciences of astronomy and paleontology and evolution, then you have to accept this simple fact: we are not the center of the universe. We are not the center of anything, except our own lives and history. We are a dust speck on an eyelash on a flea in the vastness of space; we are an eyeblink on that flea in the vastness of time. To think that all of the mind-boggling hugeness of space and time was created just so that flea could blink its eye… that’s one of the most arrogant beliefs I can imagine.

“All This For Us?” The Arrogance of Human- Centered Faith

Lights, Camera
 Richard Kern’s “Action”

Please note: This review includes a passing reference to my personal sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff may want to skip this one. There are also nude pictures in this review; please don’t click the “Continue” button if you’re under 18 or don’t want to see those. This review was originally published in Adult FriendFinder magazine.


By Richard Kern
Book with DVD; hardcover, color. Taschen, ISBN 978-3-8228-5649-9

Here’s what you see in this book. Apart from photos of naked girls shamelessly showing off their goodies, that is.

You see smiles. Half-smiles. Awkward grimaces. Coy sidelong glances. Eyes gazing up in adoration. Eyes lowered sweetly and shyly. Eyes shut tight in rapture. Intense stares. Puzzled stares. Thoughtful stares. Looks of concentration. Looks of amusement. A sneer, a yawn, a tongue sticking out. Grins. Glowers. Giggles.

Now, here’s what you don’t see a lot of in this book:

The sultry model’s pout.

You know the one. The “stare at the camera without smiling” one. The one that’s supposed to look sexy and smoldering and “come-hither,” but usually just looks blank. The one you see on almost every goddamn page of almost every goddamn erotic photo book on the goddamn planet. If you’ve seen any decent amount of contemporary adult photography, it’s a facial expression you’re almost certainly way too familiar with.

There’s not a whole lot of it in Richard Kern’s “Action”.

And that, all by itself, is enough for me praise it to the skies.

It’s not just that I’m so bored with the sultry model’s pout that I could scream and set fires. That’s certainly true — but there’s more to it than that.

Continue reading “Lights, Camera  Richard Kern’s “Action””

Lights, Camera
 Richard Kern’s “Action”

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink

Please note: This piece includes references to my personal sex life. Not in any great detail, but it might be too much information for family members and others who don't want to read about that stuff. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Bank job poster

Warning: This isn’t a proper movie review. Not at all. I barely even mention the movie’s plotting and construction, its writing and acting, its lighting and camerawork. This is a lot more like that Saturday Night Live sketch, the one with the welder’s review of “Flashdance.”

This is the sadomasochist’s review of “The Bank Job.”

Which I certainly wasn’t expecting to write when I saw the movie.

Quick precis: “The Bank Job” is an unusually well-done bank heist movie, set in England in the 1970s, and based — loosely — on real events. And one of the movie’s main MacGuffins — an object everyone is chasing after, an object driving the plot — is a series of photos of a member of the House of Lords cavorting at a brothel… a brothel offering, among other things, sadomasochistic services, catering to what is often known as “the English vice.” These photos of an MP being tied up and flogged have obvious blackmail potential; hence everyone in the movie being very interested in them, and attempting to steal and swindle and threaten them away from one another. (There’s another, more central MacGuffin in the movie, also involving naughty photos of a famous person; but that’s a post for another day.)

Scandal Poster

Now, secret sex — even secret sadomasochistic sex — being used to drive a movie plot is hardly unusual. It’s barely worth even mentioning, much less writing an entire column about. But there’s something about the kink in “The Bank Job” that’s very unusual indeed… so unusual in mainstream movies as to be almost unheard of.

And that’s this: The movie’s attitude towards the sadomasochism is entirely casual, and entirely non-judgmental.

The SM scene in the photos — which we get to see a bit of as it’s being secretly photographed — is more than just safe and sane and consensual. It’s friendly. It’s happy. The MP at the center of attention is smiling, enjoying himself, and even making requests in a very “topping from the bottom” manner. Devotees of the more classic forms of SM might chide him for his manners and his poor form — and obviously the fact that he’s being secretly photographed for potential blackmail purposes isn’t so cool — but nobody could say that he isn’t having a good time.

What’s more, the women in the brothel — the women tying up and whipping said MP, as well as the women catering to more conventional desires — look happy to be doing what they’re doing. They’re not victims, they’re not prisoners: they’re professionals, doing their job and enjoying it a fair amount.

And while the characters in the movie are of course aware of the photos’ shock value — and hence their blackmail value — none of them seem personally shocked or surprised. There’s no, “This man likes to be beaten? Merciful Zeus! What wicked debauchery has this world descended to? And a Member of Parliament, too!” They’re amused, they’re entertained, they’re immediately aware of the photos’ potential value and perfectly willing to take advantage of it… but none of them seems upset, or concerned, or even the least bit surprised, by the fact that a member of the English aristocracy gets off on being beaten.

Crow 2 city of angels poster
And in movies with SM in them, this attitude is so rare as to be almost unheard of. The usual cinematic approach to SM is to treat it as a marker for real-life cruelty and abuse, or real-life martyrdom and self-destruction. Sexual sadists tend to be evil drug lords or something; sexual masochists are either prisoners of the sadists, or prisoners of their own sick, destructive desires. And when movies show SM, they typically try to have their cake and eat it too: using SM imagery to excite and titillate the audience, while at the same time condemning and punishing the people who engage in it.

Either that, or the whole thing gets treated as a big joke. Treating SM as just another sexual variation — and treating society’s objections to it as silly and hypocritical — is rarer in the movies than dildos at a church picnic.

Secretary Poster

There have been other pro-SM movies, of course. “Secretary” leaps to mind. But that was a movie specifically about an SM relationship. “The Bank Job” is the first mainstream movie I can think of that has SM as a side plot, a casual, secondary plot device with not that much attention paid to it… and that still pays the attention it does give to SM with basic acceptance and an acknowledgement of its right to exist.

I don’t know if this marks the start of a trend, or if it’s just a one-time fluke. But I just want to say this, to all the sadomasochists who have been coming out over the last couple/ few decades and trying to educate the public about what we do: Good job, everybody. Coming out works. It’s slow going, but it works. Keep it up.

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink

“Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective


Should we, in fact, always reach for our dreams?

I know. That sounds like an almost stupidly obvious question. But stay with me. I’m going someplace with this.

You’ve seen the movies, the TV shows; you’ve read the inspiring books. Scrappy underdog with a dream struggles against all odds — conformist friends, an implacable authority structure, traditionalist parents who are scared of change — to astonish everyone with their awe- inspiring talent and win the big game at the end.


It’s the Flashdance/ Bend It Like Beckham/ Strictly Ballroom/ Mighty Ducks trope. And it’s very deeply embedded in our culture. You can do anything you want, as long as you set your mind to it. Take your passion, and make it happen. Do, or do not — there is no “try.”

In my ongoing attempt to be both an optimist and a realist, I’ve been thinking about this trope. And I want to take it on.

Yes, I think we should, most of the time, reach for our dreams. But I also think this is a screwed-up trope that does a fair amount of damage. It undercuts a realistic view of the world… and in a weird way, it undercuts optimism as well.

Here’s the thing. The trope offers false optimism. It strongly implies — and sometimes promises outright — that if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed.

But if you look at the world around you for ten minutes, you’ll see that this is patently untrue. Not everyone succeeds in their dreams. The world is full of singers who never get on the radio; ball players who never make it past college or high school ball; students who flunk out of med school; writers who never write a bestseller, or indeed never get anything published at all. (I always have to remind myself of this when I’m feeling cranky about my struggles in my writing career: no, I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but the overwhelming majority of writers don’t even reach the modest level of success that I have.)

American idol

It isn’t always for lack of trying, either. Sometimes, for instance, it’s for lack of talent. The American Idol tryout shows are Exhibit A: a pathetic parade of self-delusion, a nearly endless caravan of dreadful, dreadful singers who saw Flashdance and The Mighty Ducks and think this is their big shot, that if they work hard and stay true to their dream they’ll someday be a star. The line between confidence and delusion is a fine one indeed, and sometimes very difficult to detect.

And sometimes it’s simply for lack of luck. As any successful person who isn’t totally arrogant will tell you, luck plays a huge role in success. Especially in difficult and highly competitive fields, like ballet dancing and hockey. You have to be talented, you have to be ambitious, you have to work hard… and you have to get the breaks. (Even if it’s the often- overlooked breaks of birth and upbringing.) If the difference between confidence and delusion is simply in the outcome, then sometimes that difference is drawn by a roll of the dice.

Road closed

Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success. And one of the hardest lessons to learn, one of the hardest balances to strike, one of the hardest choices to make in life, is figuring out when you should keep trying and when you should let go and move on. Which setbacks are just temporary obstacles on your path to glory, and which ones are the universe telling you, “Forget it, kid, it ain’t gonna happen.” (It’s not just about careers, either. I’ve definitely hung onto relationships that were dead and rotting because I had “If we try hard enough we can make this work” damage.)

These are some of the hardest, most wrenching decisions we have to make. And I think the “Stick to your dreams and you’ll win in the end” trope can cloud these decisions and make them even harder. It can turn confidence into delusion, way past the line where it’s difficult to see the difference. It can make people think that their big break is just around the corner, they can’t give up now, if they just stick with it long enough it’s bound to happen.

Bridge collapse

And it makes people feel even worse if they don’t succeed. This is what I mean about the trope undercutting optimism. You’re already feeling bad about failing, and then on top of that you feel like a double failure because you gave up. If you’d really wanted it badly enough, if you’d worked harder or had more confidence or just stuck with it a little longer, you’d be on your way to Dreamtown. How much harder is it going to be the next time you pursue a dream, if you start out feeling like your last failure is proof of a character flaw?

So here’s what I think.

You shouldn’t reach for your dreams because if you stick with them with enough confidence and determination, eventually you’ll succeed.

You should reach for your dreams because you may or may not succeed if you try — but you sure as hell won’t succeed if you don’t.

You should reach for your dreams because the reaching itself can be satisfying and valuable.

You should reach for your dreams because the reaching itself can get you to places that are interesting and worthwhile, even if they’re not where you’d originally set out to go.

You should reach for your dreams because you’ll regret it forever if you don’t.

And you should reach for your dreams because… well, what the hell else are you going to do?

You have one life. (No, I’m not going to debate that point.) Are you going to spend it trying to do what matters to you? Or are you going to spend it wondering what would have happened if you’d given your big dream a shot?

Tree surgeon

When you’re near the end of your life, would you rather look back and say, “Boy, I wish I’d tried to be a tree surgeon. I bet I would have been really good at it. I guess now I’ll never know.” Or would you rather look back and say, “What a life I’ve had. Look at all the crazy things I did. Remember that time I tried to be a tree surgeon? Boy, did that ever not work out — but it sure was interesting to try.”

Also in the Optimistic Realist Series:
The Harm Reduction Model of Life
Is Altruism Real?

“Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective

Humanist Symposium #21: Old Enough to Drink

Hi, and welcome to the 21st edition of the Humanist Symposium! Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, and I was originally planning to do a whole pagan woo theme in honor of it. But I decided that wouldn’t be in keeping with the non-snarky, “atheism as a positive, fulfilling worldview” mission statement of the Symposium. So instead, I’m doing a “21st edition/ reaching the age of maturity” theme… and am illustrating this edition’s contributions with pictures of cocktails.

Much more classy, don’t you think?

So pull up a barstool on this fine Sunday morning, and let’s begin the Symposium!


Brian Lardner at Primordial Blog, on The Art of Living Selfishly. How giving up self-denial made the author both a happier and a better person. “Living in self-denial actually made me more judgemental and less helpful than I am now. Now that I no longer have a hidden agenda I find that I am actually more generous and giving than I used to be.”

Cocktail with shaker

Efrique at Ecstathy, on The Consolations of Probability. How understanding the random, non–purposeful, “everything doesn’t happen for a reason” aspects of life can help us live it. “I’m not just talking about the fact that there’s a lot of random stuff that happens that we aren’t responsible for, or that we’re incredibly lucky to be here… Probability and statistics, or at least an understanding of them, are incredibly useful things to have.”


Greg Perkins at NoodleFood, on Why the New Atheists Can’t Even Beat D’Souza: Morality and Life. Thoughts on how the “new atheist” movement should present the question of godless morality. “Just like any other matter of fact, we can approach morality rationally and scientifically, working to discover, validate, and teach each other about the relevant fundamental principles.”

Blue cocktail
Dr. David Elkind at Sharp Brains, on Can We Play? Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Play. Why play is an essential part of human life and development — for children and adults — and why we need to build a more playful culture. “For too long, we have treated play as a luxury that kids, as well as adults, could do without. But the time has come for us to recognize why play is worth defending: It is essential to leading a happy and healthy life.”


Phil at Phil for Humanity, on A Plan to Destroy All Weapons of Mass Destruction. Phil takes us through his thought process, from believing that countries that aren’t free and democratic shouldn’t have nuclear weapons… to believing that no country should have any weapons of mass destruction. “Even in the most democratic and financially sound countries, government leaders are not guaranteed to be psychologically stable or even capable of making moral decisions for the benefit of their own people, let alone for people of other countries.”

Cocktails on beach

Chris Hallquist at The Uncredible Hallq, on Living With Uncertainty. Why accepting the reality of uncertainty helps us make better decisions… and makes us better people. “I’m convinced that it’s a mark of emotional maturity to be able to live with uncertainty.”

Cocktail with fruit

Greg at Jyunri Kankei, on A Pet Peeve, or, Searching for a Deeper Meaning in Anime. Why it’s important to partake in the actual culture of other cultures, instead of just the sterilized American version. “Exposure to cultures other than our own takes us down a proverbial peg, which in turn promotes a level of tolerance for a greater subset of humanity and a wider understanding of human experience.”

Caipirinhas with Laptop

C.L. Hanson at Letters from a broad, on Humanist blogging a la Voltaire! Optimistic thoughts on blogging and a new enlightenment. “We’re bringing back not only written communication but also a two-way flow of ideas… Are we ushering in a new “enlightenment” in the tradition of Voltaire et al? Perhaps.”


Jeffrey Stingerstein at Disillusioned Words, asking Would Creating Human-Animal Hybrids Be Immoral And Unethical? Edward doesn’t answer the question, actually — he just wants it to be asked, not reflexively rejected without thinking. “‘Keep humans human. Shouldn’t be even a debatable concept.’ Case closed. No reason to debate it. We shouldn’t even be allowed to talk about it. I think anyone who even thinks about it should be locked up and stowed in the cupboard next to the glow-in-the-dark Jesus.”


vjack at Atheist Revolution, exclaims Help! There’s an Atheist in My Garden! Why visibility and coming out are among the most important things atheists can do, for themselves and for other atheists. “Helping Christians overcome their fear and hatred of us begins by providing them more experience with atheists.”

Cocktails in window

The Chaplain, at An Apostate’s Chapel, speaks Of Life and Death. Meditations on a friend’s funeral, another friend’s illness, and facing death without an afterlife. “The corollary to my acceptance of death as the cessation of the one life I will be privileged to live is a greatly enhanced appreciation for life.”


Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, on Quintessence of Dust. Why the reductionist, materialist view of life doesn’t diminish its meaning or our experience of it. “If we are made of molecules, then Shakespeare’s plays were written by a human being made of molecules, Verdi’s Requiem was composed by a human being made of molecules, Macchu Picchu and the Pyramids and the Buddhas of Bamiyan were built by human beings made of molecules. Would that make any of them less beautiful or less inspiring?”


And your host, Greta Christina, with For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour. Why doing silly things for no good reason — such as Morris dancing — can be some of the most beautiful and meaningful parts of our lives. “It isn’t constructive, it isn’t important, it doesn’t produce anything. All it produces is joy. Which, if you’re an atheist, is kind of what life is like.”

Which brings us to the end of this Humanist Symposium. The next one will be held in three weeks on Sunday, July 13, at faith in honest doubt. If you want to get in on the action, please submit your humanist blog posts here. Thanks!

Humanist Symposium #21: Old Enough to Drink

I Do — And Why

Ingrid and I are getting married at City Hall today. I'm scheduling this post so that, in theory, it should go up right around the time we say "I do." This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog; it's been edited in small ways to bring it up to date.


As you all no doubt know unless you've been hiding under the blankets for the last month, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the state Constitution. Same-sex couples are now able to legally marry in California.

My partner and I are going to be one of those couples.

And I want to talk a little bit about why.

One of the questions that gets raised a lot when the subject of same-sex marriage comes up is, “Why is marriage so important? Why aren't civil unions or domestic partnerships good enough?”

Fiance and marriage visas nolo press

The usual answers are practical ones. And I'll certainly second them. Marriage is recognized around the country and around the world, and all its practical and legal rights and responsibilities get carried with you everywhere you go… in a way that is most emphatically not true for civil unions and domestic partnerships. Besides, it's a well- established principle that “separate but equal” is inherently not equal. The very act of saying, “No, you can't have this thing that everyone else can have, but you can have that other thing we created just for you that's almost exactly like it — isn't that special?” It's the creation of second-class status, pretty much by definition.

But I want to talk about something else today. I don't want to talk about the legal and practical benefits of marriage. I don't want to talk about hospital visitation rights, child custody rights, inheritance rights, tax benefits, all that good stuff. That's all important, but it's also well-covered ground.

I want to talk about something more intangible. I want to talk about why we're getting married… apart from all that.


Marriage is an unbelievably old human institution and human ritual. My parents did it. My grandparents did it. My great-grandparents did it, and theirs, and theirs. The word and the concept carry a weight, a gravitas, intense and complex social and emotional associations, from centuries and millennia of people participating in it. And as far as I know (admittedly my anthropology is a bit weak), it's existed in one form or another in almost every human society, in almost every period of human history. There may be exceptions, but I don't offhand know of any. Getting married means being a link in a chain, taking part in a ritual that's central to human history and society.

Yes, much of that history and many of those associations are awful. Sexist, propertarian, oppressive. But the evolution of the institution from its complicated and often terrible history into what it is today is part of what gives it its weight. The history of marriage, and its growth away from ownership and towards equal partnership, is the history of the human race’s maturation. Participating in it means participating, not just in the history and the ritual, but in its growth and change.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships just don't have that.

Let's look at the recent Supreme Court ruling in California. Let's look at what it won't change for my partner and me… and what it will.

On a day- to- day level, it probably won't change much. We're domestic partners, and California domestic partnership does afford most of the legal rights and responsibilities that marriage offers. Within the state, anyway. As long as we stay in the state, not much changes in any practical sense.

Dancing at wedding

And I doubt that much will change between her and me. We had a commitment ceremony two and a half years ago: a joyful, exuberant, larger- than- we’d expected celebration that we spent many months planning. That ceremony and celebration, and everything we went through to make it happen, did change our relationship, profoundly, and very much for the better. I doubt that our legal wedding today will have anywhere near that same impact on how we feel about each other.

But it will almost certainly change how we feel about society, and our place in it. And it will change — officially — how society feels about us.

When we get married today, the State of California will officially recognize that our relationship has the same weight as our parents' did, and their parents', and theirs. It will officially drop this “separate but equal” bullshit. It will officially stop seeing us as kids at the little table, poor relatives who should be content with leavings and scraps, second-class citizens. It will officially see us as actual, complete, honest- to- gosh citizens.


Look at the patchwork of laws around this country regarding same-sex marriage. Look at the states that have banned it, and the ones that have gone so far as to ban the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. Look at the fact that if my partner and I travel to Alabama or Michigan, Alaska or Pennsylvania, or any of over two dozen other states, our marriage will be seen as not having existed at all. Null. Void. Look at the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President William Jefferson Clinton in 1996, stating that the Federal government will not recognize same-sex marriages, even if they're completely legal in the state where they were performed.

What does that tell you about how those states, and the country as a whole, sees us?

Second place award

That's the weird paradox of the California ruling. It's thrilling. It's unbelievably great news. It's a huge historical step. But at the same time, it throws the true meaning of this legal patchwork into sharp focus. It makes it that much clearer that queers in this country are, in a very literal sense, second-class citizens. We pay taxes, we serve on juries, we have to obey the same laws that everyone else does… but in a very practical, codified- into- law sense, we just don't count for as much.

Legalizing same-sex marriage isn't just about the legal and practical recognition of our love and our partnership. It's about social recognition. It's about being seen as a full member of society. Kudos for the California Supreme Court for understanding that. Let's hope the rest of the country figures it out eventually.

Equality California logo

Important note: As powerful and historic as this step is, it could be undone. In November, there will be an initiative on the California ballot, asking voters to amend the state Constitution and ban same-sex marriage. If you think this issue and this movement are important, please consider supporting Equality California.

I Do — And Why

Magical Essence of Pope, or, The Creepy Side of Religion, Episode 7,464,221

Popes cologne

As Molly Ivins used to say: Sometimes it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or throw up.

Today's story centers on The Pope's Cologne — stop laughing, I am not making this up — a product purportedly based on the private cologne formula of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), and being shamelessly hawked to credulous suckers tastefully offered for sale to the devoted ranks of the faithful. PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame came across this charming story about it on the Christian News Wire:

What I experienced later will be a sight I will never forget!!! The widow used the cologne to "anoint" her husband EVERY 20 minutes. She would sprinkle it on his hands, his head, his forehead, and his neck. You could see in her eyes she had found a way of redemption through the cologne. Everyone was asking about the cologne and its origin. Everyone that came in to give her their condolences could not stop asking about the pleasant aroma they were experiencing. Everyone was quiet and in awe for hours. She also kept on rubbing the bottle as if it was some sort of amulet or charm.


Lots of commenters on Pharyngula, and indeed PZ himself, are going with the humorous side of the story. And I can't say that I blame them. There's definitely a ghoulishly funny aspect to it, like something you'd see in a Gahan Wilson cartoon when he was in a particularly sick mood.

But personally… well, maybe it's because it's been a long day and I'm tired and cranky. But I'm having a hard time seeing this as hilariously wacky. I'm mostly seeing it as sick and sad and awful.

Be forewarned: Today I have my cranky pants on. And my snarky underwear. I am not going to be nice. I am not even going to try to be nice.

Cranky Thought Number One:

Let me see if I have this story straight.

A grieving widow is obsessively smearing cologne on the corpse of her dead husband, and rubbing the bottle it came in as if it were a magical object.

And her fellow mourners are

a) touched and awestruck by the gesture, and

b) struck by the nice smell.

They're not — oh, say, just for instance — simultaneously pitying and grossed out beyond belief? They're not wondering, "What on Earth is she doing? What does she think she's going to accomplish by this?" They're not wondering if they should gently encourage Grandma to see a therapist?

What the zarking fardwarks is impressive and awe-inspiring about this spectacle? Other than, "Man, people do some strange stuff when they're grieving"?

Cranky Thought Number Two (closely related to CT #1):

I do not ever — ever — want to hear another progressive theologian say that modern religious thought doesn't involve magical thinking.

God delusion

Anyone who's hung around the atheosphere for more than twenty minutes has almost certainly run across this argument. It gets leveled at Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion a lot. "You're battling a straw man," the argument goes. "You're arguing against archaic religious beliefs that nobody takes seriously anymore. Nobody still believes in the personal interventionist God who answers prayers, and hands out rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, and responds to sacred potions and objects. That's just silly."

Well, maybe nobody still believes it in theology schools. Maybe in theology schools, they mostly believe in the impersonal, non- interventionist, largely abstract God: the God who is, in any practical or meaningful sense, entirely indistinguishable from no God at all.


But if you think nobody believes it in the rather larger world outside of theology schools, you need to visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to any one of the roughly 50% of Americans who believe human beings were created by God in more or less their current form about 10,000 years ago.

Or else, just go to a funeral where the grieving widow is anointing her dead husband with Magical Oil of Pope.

In fact, a not very nice part of me wants to buy a bottle of this Eau de Pontiff crap.

So the next time I hear someone make the "you just don't understand modern theology" argument, I can throw it in their face.

Mask photo by Marsyas.

Magical Essence of Pope, or, The Creepy Side of Religion, Episode 7,464,221

A Tale of Two Martyrs: When Jobs and Beliefs Collide

So what should religious believers do when their professional obligations conflict with their religious convictions?

Kern county

Here in California, the media has been all over the story of the county clerks in Kern County and Butte County, who decided to stop performing wedding ceremonies — all wedding ceremonies — as soon as the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage should be legal. (They're still issuing marriage licenses, which they're legally required to do — but they won't perform the ceremonies, which they're not.) So couples of all genders and orientations in those counties who want to get married have to either do it before the cutoff date, find their own officiant, or go outside the county. Even couples who already had wedding appointments are having to either hurriedly change their wedding dates or go elsewhere.

Now, here's where it gets interesting.

Both clerks transparently lie claim that their decision wasn't motivated by an objection to same-sex marriage. They cite expenses/ logistical problems/ staffing issues with the county performing weddings of any kind. And the fact that they decided to cut off weddings at the exact historical moment that same-sex marriage got legalized in their state? Pure coincidence. That's their story, and they're sticking to it. (The Kern County clerk is actually being caught in the lie… but she's still sticking to the story, and otherwise clamming up.)


See, refusing to marry same-sex couples while still marrying opposite-sex couples would be a clear violation of the law. Refusal to perform a task that's part of your government job, simply because you don't personally approve of the people you're doing it for? That's grounds for dismissal. Maybe even grounds for prosecution. So if these county clerks want to stay true to their presumed convictions by refusing to perform same-sex weddings — and at the same time, still keep their jobs — they have to play this weaselly game, refusing to publicly say what they're doing and why, and giving transparently half-assed excuses, even though everyone knows exactly what's going on.

And presumably, they want to keep their jobs.


Compare, please, with this story.

A high school principal in Columbia, S.C., is stepping down from his post after being asked to allow the creation of a gay-straight alliance club at his school.

Gay straight alliance

Irmo High School principal Eddie Walker had a similar conflict between his professional and legal obligations as a public servant, and his personal religious convictions. He had a professional obligation to let the gay-straight alliance club go forward: federal law says that a school can't refuse to allow a club to form simply based on the club's purpose and viewpoint. And he had religious objections to supporting a club of this nature.

So he resigned.

Now. Obviously, I don't agree with his religious beliefs about homosexuality. Obviously, I think his religious beliefs are misinformed at best, ignorant and bigoted and grotesquely out of touch with reality at worst. I don't even need to go there. Insert boilerplate rant.

But at least he had the courage of his convictions.

At least he was willing to make a sacrifice for his convictions.

Origin of species

Isn’t that what we’re always saying when people’s deeply held religious beliefs conflict with their jobs? Especially when those jobs are in the public sector? When pharmacists don’t want to provide birth control because it goes against their religion, for instance, we say, “Well, if you’re not willing to provide a legal drug legally prescribed for someone by their doctor, perhaps you shouldn’t be a pharmacist.” When public school teachers don’t want to teach evolution and want to teach creationism because of their religious beliefs, we say, “Well, if you feel that way, perhaps you shouldn’t be teaching biology in the public schools.”

So when a school principal doesn't want to support a gay/straight alliance in his school — and decides that he therefore should no longer be a principal – it's hard for me to say much about it other than, "Yup. You're right. You shouldn't be a principal." I obviously think that his convictions have a screw loose… but at least he has the courage of them. And at least he's acting in a way that both stands up for his convictions and doesn't shove them down everyone else's throat.


A common trope among Christian theists is, "What would Jesus do?" Personally, I think the Jesus character in the New Testament is an ambiguous figure and in many ways a troubling one, and I certainly wouldn't take every piece of his behavior as a model. But whatever else you may think about him, the dude had the courage of his convictions. He said what he thought. And he was willing to accept consequences — pretty damn harsh consequences — for what he said and thought. Okay, there was a certain amount of, "You said it, I didn't" pussyfooting near the end of the story when he was being interrogated… but for the most part, covering his ass was not a high priority.

And it shouldn't be for the Kern and Butte County Clerks, either.

I'm not even getting into the whole "You shouldn't base your professional decisions on your religious beliefs, because religious beliefs are notoriously resistant to evidence and reason" thing. And I'm also not getting into the whole "Separation of church and state protects you, too, you don't want some clerk refusing to let you register to vote or file the deed to your house because their religion objects" thing.

My point is this:

When your professional obligations conflict with your religious convictions, don't your convictions themselves require you to piss or get off the pot? Don't your convictions themselves call on you to either perform the job you've promised to perform — or stand up and say, "I can't in conscience do this job anymore, so I'm resigning"? Don't your convictions require you to do anything at all other than refuse to perform the public service that the taxpayers are paying you to do, screw up lots of people's lives in the process… and come up with obviously fake, weaselly excuses for why you're doing it?


Unless, of course, you belong to the First Church of the Weasel.

In which case, knock yourself out.

High school principal story via Friendly Atheist, which is also where I developed part of this piece.

A Tale of Two Martyrs: When Jobs and Beliefs Collide