A Truly Controversial Position

As an “out” atheist, I’m used to proffering polemical positions on everyday subjects. When you don’t believe in the existence of the supernatural, magical thinking becomes something of a trifle; there’s little point in holding court on the hidden minutiae of the Tooth Fairy. “Luck,” for example, does not exist; it’s a meal of hypersensitivity in the brain’s pattern recognition software combined with a spot of confirmation bias tea—if you think you’re un/lucky, you’re far more likely to remember experiences that support that conclusion and forget ones that run in contradiction to it. “I’m so un/lucky” is an absurdly common trope, and I have to confess my desire to roll my eyes when I hear it, but such is life. When I tell people that I don’t believe in luck, destiny, innate “higher purposes” and the like, I’m used to being greeted with some combination of surprise, apathy, and condescension. What I am not used to getting, however, is open hostility. Not to worry, though: I’m relatively certain I can evoke abject horror in my audience by sharing an unprecedentedly contentious position:

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Why the “Moral Objection” Fails

This notion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare) as a violation of a person’s religious liberty persists because it sounds like a convincing argument. It isn’t, of course, or the law wouldn’t have been ruled constitutional by the (majority Catholic) US Supreme Court. There are two main reasons why this argument does not hold water:

  1. It is a red herring.
  2. It is not sound policy.

It is a red herring because it mischaracterizes the way the law works. That the Supreme Court has ruled that the law is constitutional in its entirety (including this contraception mandate) should be sufficient to illustrate why this objection is irrelevant, but I’ll elaborate further for the sake of being comprehensive.

The religious “moral objection” issue seeks to erroneously portray the law (savvy readers might recognize this terminology as indicative of a straw man) by claiming that the law requires employers to provide contraception for their employees. This is false. So what does this law do? It does three things:

  1. It mandates that people carry health insurance.
  2. It mandates that employers of a certain size (50+ employees) offer health insurance.
  3. It regulates the insurance industry.

At the abstract level, that’s “all” it does.

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The War over Wages

Anyone who’s ever held a minimum wage job (which is a lot of people) knows that it’s impossible to support a family solely on $7.25 per hour. With an average monthly rent of somewhere around $700, you would have to devote nearly one hundred hours of work each month solely to keeping a roof over your head. Given that a number of these jobs are often available only part-time, the financial plausibility of it becomes ever more remote. In an economy that makes it so hard for individuals at the lower end of the economic scale to meet their basic needs, any argument like “take personal responsibility for your financial situation” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rings woefully hollow.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. The United States has not always had a minimum wage, so it’s important not to take it for granted. Furthermore, the minimum wage has not always been as high as $7.25 an hour (the amount that Congress only slated it to become in 2007). I trust that this fact is obvious enough to be self-evident, but what might be surprising is that the first minimum wage was a mere $0.25 per hour. Compared to today’s minimum wage, this seems laughably—perhaps even impossibly—low.

Except for one thing: it’s not. We don’t have to go back very far to see a similar rate. In today’s money, 25 cents in 1938 would have been equal to almost $4 an hour—not so drastically far away from what the minimum wage was before being raised in 2007.

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Today’s Legal News

United States readers will likely know that today is the day that the Supreme Court has chosen to release their Opinion(s) on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The only consensus about today’s decision is that no one is certain how they’ll rule, and this event has more or less singlehandedly occupied my thoughts today. I’m eagerly awaiting the official announcement, scheduled to come down in approximately 45 minutes soon (rulings will begin coming out, at 10:00 am, but the Obamacare one will probably be the last one announced). I intend to follow the development as it happens, but I don’t know if I’ll actually write anything about it here. If I do address it, it will probably be to aggregate other writings by more capable legal scholars. When the furor over it has died down a bit, I might get around to writing a post before tomorrow, but I’m not actively planning to do so. We’ll see.

If you want to follow it as it unfolds, SCOTUSblog is liveblogging it here.

Needless to say, regardless of the outcome, this will be touted as an event with deep political significance by all pundits who want to be seen as relevant. In other words, we probably won’t hear about anything else until Monday. Joy.

There are other important things coming out from the Supreme Court today, but all I’ve seen from the media is ACA gossip. Hum. I wonder if that could have something to do with the politicization of that particular case.

Update, from SCOTUSblog:

In Plain English: The Affordable Care Act, including its individual mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance, is constitutional. There were not five votes to uphold it on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power. That is all that matters. Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose new funds if they didn’t comply with the new requirements, rather than all of their funding.

This was a 5-to-4 vote entirely upholding the Constitutionality of the ACA. The thing that most surprises me here is neither of these facts, but the fact that the fifth vote was that of Chief Justice Roberts. Kennedy swung with the conservatives, and all four of them apparently believe that the ACA should have been struck down entirely. Yikes. Glad the good guys won.

Want to read the Opinion? It’s online.

The SCOTUS also dealt with two other cases today, and you can see a summary of those here.

The Fetishization of Ignorance

What is the purpose of education? Why do we devote such significant portions of our lives to schooling?

Theoretically, the purpose of primary and secondary education is to prepare children with the basic skills necessary to function as adults in contemporary society (and hopefully not just to subsist but to succeed).

… Unless you’re a member of the Texas state GOP, in which case, the purpose of education seems to be to keep kids busy until they’re old enough to enter the workforce and to reinforce any preexisting beliefs they may have learned from their parents. Go get yourself some headache medicine, because you’re about to need it.

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

So this is a “serious” political party arguing that critical thinking skills are bad. It specifically says that students’ fixed beliefs should not be challenged. Maintaining parental authority is apparently more important for education than teaching kids how to think.

I’m sorry, but what?

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I miss my Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Right, context. Let’s go back a bit.

Mormons and Witnesses are all over the bloody world. For most of my life, I was entirely ignorant of this fact. I took their presence for granted when I was growing up. They were just the strange Christians who show up at your door uninvited, trying to sell you their god and litter your house with magazines containing crappy illustrations and horrible advice. Everyone deals with this back home. God salespeople are, after all, a ubiquitous part of American life.

As I saw it, all these people were really good for was occasionally messing with, but I wasn’t even all that interested in taking the time for that! Usually I just wanted to get back to whatever I was doing before they had interrupted me. Even though I’d heard stories about how fun it could be, I didn’t have the patience to try to convert them as they sought to to convert me. (Those video games weren’t going to play themselves!)

I didn’t really give them any other thought until I went to study in Germany. One afternoon after classes had ended, I went out to buy groceries to make dinner. This was ordinarily a pretty mundane process, so I tended to do this on autopilot. This one day, however, I noticed something amiss on my way back from the store. Standing on opposite sides of the quad were two young gentlemen who clearly weren’t residents. As I approached, I saw the more distant of the two begin talking to some passersby, but I paid this pair no other attention.

Not until I got within conversation range of the closer one, that is. He made eye contact with me, and it was obvious that he was about to approach me.

I thought to myself, ‘Something about this is very strange, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Why is this so odd?’

He was close now, still very obviously determined to talk to me. It dawned on me suddenly in that moment. This situation was strange because I had not seen anyone else in Germany dressed like this before. In fact, I recognized these outfits. They were dressed like the people who used to interrupt my TV watching back in the United States!

Hi,” he said to me, “do you speak English?

Crap. There I am, groceries in hand, right outside my apartment-dorm-thing, and I’m about to be subjected to what may very well be a serious case of inanity.

My eyes darted to his name tag. So-and-so, Latter Day Saints. Great, a fucking Mormon. In Germany. Am I hallucinating this? Apparently not.

“Uh, yeah.”

And so it began. In actuality, the conversation wasn’t terribly long. They were there promoting an event sponsored by the Mormon church, which had arranged to bring in some famous Mormon speaker to give a presentation at a local conference hall. I told him that I wasn’t religious, so I probably would not be in attendance, and he accepted this amicably, noting that I would still be welcome.

I had to know, though, “I was really surprised to see you guys here. Why Germany?”

Oh, it’s to fulfill our service requirement. Yeah, we fly missionaries all over the world.

My mind was blown. I was completely, utterly repulsed by this revelation. Not only were the LDS missionaries interrupting the leisure of millions of Americans, they were also—are also—corrupting the minds of innocent people throughout the world. I politely ended the conversation to go ponder the consequences over dinner.

My time in Germany (especially my visit to Berlin) had already left me with a very bad taste in my mouth about religion, and this experience did not help things. Still, I had more immediate concerns, and this exchange drifted slowly out of my consciousness as the months passed.

Cut forward to November of last year, when it all came rushing back to me.


The doorbell. There are two Japanese guys outside my door. (Of course they’re Japanese—I’m in Japan.) I open it. They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am surprised. These people are the direct result of brainwashing that the pair from Germany had come to represent in my mind. In spite of this, I am friendly. These are very nice people, so my demeanor is sincere. We talk. There is a language barrier, but it is not insurmountable. The elder one asks if we can spend more time talking in the future. I readily agree. We schedule a time. The day comes. I invite them in. I make coffee. We discuss life as we drink it. Eventually, the conversation turns to religion. Good. This is what they are here for—it’s what I want them here for. I ask why they believe. They give mostly nonanswers. They have nothing to say but deepities. (I expected no less.) Still, they are genuinely pleasant people, and I invite them back regularly. These conversations continue sporadically over the next three or four months. The junior member occasionally varies, but the senior member is always the same. It is slow going because of the language barrier, but we are making significant progress. The senior member does most of the talking. I offer scientific conclusions to rebut his supernatural claims. “Ah, you believe God and Satan control earthquakes, but we understand the process—well enough to make predictions about them. We do not need God to explain them. We can even affect them ourselves through purely physical means.” He did not know this. Suddenly I am glad I took those geology courses. This process repeats a few times, until finally, one day, it stops. I know he’s still around because another pair of Witnesses has come to my door since then, unaware that I had ever been involved in such conversations with their colleague, and they report that he is well. (This new pair said they’ll come back. I’m not holding my breath.)

I miss my Witnesses. They were a superlative exercise in confronting supernatural ignorance with facts and rationality. I felt like I was making progress, and I suspect that’s exactly why I don’t see them anymore.

I sometimes get into debates with theists online. Like my Jehovah’s Witnesses, I enjoy the conversations that come out of this. Even if I do sometimes get frustrated with all the miscommunications that inevitably arise from the medium, it isn’t substantially different from combating the language barrier with my Japanese Witnesses. In both cases, they rely on the erroneous spirituality of deepity to form superficially profound yet utterly meaningless conclusions. In both cases, they make a swift exist when I begin making progress.

Over the last week, I’ve been involved in a few different conversations with believers, and each time, as I felt like I was truly beginning to get my point across, the conversations just … stopped. Like the Witnesses, they took the safe exit rather than examine their beliefs: to flee for the hills without looking back.

Where once each conversation had flown so effortlessly, right when it seemed we were on the verge of a breakthrough, their responses just—

Spirituality and the Politics of Language

In today’s language lesson, we’ll be looking at words—specifically the meaning of words. When most people want to find out what a word means, they turn to the dictionary. This is an excellent resource, and it should go without saying that you should turn to it any time you find a word you’re not familiar with, but the definitions you find in the dictionary don’t tell the full story. There is meaning to words beyond these entries.

There are two kinds of meanings to words: denotation and connotation. I suspect more people will have experienced the latter word far more frequently than the former, which is kind of ironic because they will have spent far more time thinking about the former than the latter. Dictionaries are lists of words with their denotational meanings. (See, they both start with d, so you can use that to help you remember the difference if necessary.) Connotation refers to the emotional impact of a word, and even when two people share a mutual denotational definition of a word (as is common when both of them own dictionaries), they may not share the same connotation. Here’s an example:

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