Nuclear power to the rescue?

Nuclear power to the rescue?

I’ve subscribed to the magazine Analog Science Fiction & Fact for decades. It mostly publishes short science fiction stories. But it also always includes some fact articles – and they get some pretty heavy professional scientists to write the articles. One of the things I like about the fact articles is that they often present things at the fringe of science – things where there is some good work being done, but are in a real state of wait-and-see if they’re going to pan out. I won’t say it’s happened often, but occasionally I’ve seen things discussed in Analog that I later see in popular science magazines and then get to the point of showing up in newspapers.

The fact article I want to talk about is, “Will Nuclear Power Save Us from Global Warming?” by Christina De La Rocha appearing in the November/December 2021 issue. This may not be bleeding edge science, but there is definitely a cadre of people arguing that we have to include nuclear power in our response to global warming so it’s a very topical issue.

I’ve never been a fan of nuclear power – to a great extent because there isn’t a good answer to how to deal with the waste. In particular, I don’t think having to bury something for 1000s of years is a good solution. De La Rocha does a good job of summarizing various aspects of the science and history of nuclear fission including the half-lives of the multiple radioactive nuclides involved but that’s not the point they make that I want to bring up here. They bring up a point I’ve never seen discussed before: how many nuclear power plants would be necessary to make a dent in global warming?

I won’t get into the detail they do, but here are some of the facts they present. A current strategy to meet the goal of keeping warming to 1.5o Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050 is to reduce global energy consumption to 100,000 terawatt-hours per year (TWh/y). In 2018, the average output of the roughly 450 nuclear power plants in operation was 6 TWh/y. This means if we were to fully convert to nuclear power, it would take 16,700 of these power plants to meet the reduced need, or 1670 to meet just 10% of that need. And one of the ideas I’ve read about is producing smaller nuclear power plants that might supply a small city rather than the larger scale ones we currently have. As De La Rocha points out, the chances of thousands of new nuclear power plants being built and operational by 2050 are slim to none. So, to a certain extent, all the other debates surrounding nuclear power are pretty much moot.

I’m not going to discuss what the possible solutions to global warming are here other than a few general comments. We’re talking about long term infrastructure development. Why not put those investments into renewable sources. Another aspect of nuclear vs. renewable that I’ve never seen discussed is the ability to incrementally upgrade energy plants. Nuclear and coal can’t be; solar and wind can.

That’s the point I want to make, but I’ll take this opportunity to tell my story about the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island. I was attending Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA at the time. Well, actually I had decided to take a semester off so I wasn’t there during the main incident. Lewisburg is about 50 miles north of Three Mile Island. I was home in Massachusetts, about 250 miles away, when the incident happened, but I visited the fraternity I belonged to (Theta Chi) while the aftermath of the incident was still playing out. This was an early lesson in the difference proximity can make in attitude towards something. In Massachusetts the attitude was pretty much “Did you hear about Three Mile Island?” At Bucknell the TV was on 24/7 with people seriously concerned about their safety. What a difference a couple hundred miles can make.

At the time Bucknell held annual “Colloquium Weekends.” (I think that’s what they called them, and maybe they still hold them.) These were weekends dedicated to a series of forums addressing some poignant topic. So it made a lot of sense for the topic the following semester to be about nuclear energy. I will admit upfront that I’m going off of 40 year old memories but I remember a semiformal debate I attended. I call it semiformal because it had the structure of a formal debate with pro and con debaters. Each of them had a certain amount of time to present their arguments. This was followed by timed rebuttals and timed counter rebuttals. But there wasn’t’ any score keeping the way some formal debates have. The pro side was led by the chair of the Nuclear Science Department from Penn State (not that far down the road from Bucknell). The con side was by the authors of an anti-nuclear book. (I thought it was titled “No Nukes” but I wasn’t able to find it on the net and I know the book by that name that comes up in a search isn’t the book I’m talking about. I told you I’m basing this on 40 year old memories!) What I remember is that every point the pro nuclear people made was rebutted by the anti-nuclear side with documentation in their hands. They literally claimed that the pro side was lying on virtually everything they said in support of nuclear power. Now, I didn’t research the issues very much at the time, so I don’t know how valid either side of the arguments were, but this left a sour taste in my mouth about nuclear power. And, perhaps as interesting, it amazed me that a prestigious academic was so ill prepared for such a public debate.

(The cover image is from Pexels, a free stock photo site. I added the question mark.)

Solstice Banner Update

For the past 3 years I’ve displayed a Solstice Banner in downtown Eugene (with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation). This year I am not. The banner was a direct response to an annual Jesus banner display. Last year that banner was not displayed. My opinion, and that of FFRF, is that the public square is not the appropriate place for religious displays but, if someone is going to display one, then it is apropos to display a secular one. This is in order to recognize the nonreligious and to remind the religious that not everyone is religious. If a Jesus banner shows up in the future I will respond the following year.

I would again like to thank everyone that donated to this cause.

I hope everyone had a sunny solstice.

Benefits of Measure 110 are generational

This is a Guest View column I had published Nov 20, 2021 as Legalize Drugs for Everyone’s Sake in the Eugene Register Guard. Oregon’s Measure 110 decriminalized almost all drugs. That is, possession of small amounts of even drugs like heroin only results in a citation and fine. There are a bunch of other related provisions including some benefit to calling a drug hotline for referral to rehabilitation.

This is a response to a Register Guard front page feature article (Oct 29) on “How Measure 110 has measured up.” Although the article mentions inequity in passing, the article is almost entirely about the effect of Measure 110 on drug addiction and rehabilitation. Of note is that Measure 110 only came into effect in early 2021.

Guest View column as submitted:

It would be easy to read the article on Measure 110 (Oct 29) and think that drug criminalization was related to drug addiction. Let’s look at history to see if this is the case. In particular, let’s consider the science, or lack thereof, behind the implementation of drug laws.

A common argument for drug laws is that someone knows somebody that is grateful they were arrested and forced into rehabilitation. Well, I know a former addict that is grateful they were not arrested because a record would have significantly reduced the chances of them having the professional career they had. But such tit-for-tat anecdotal stories don’t represent scientific data. Going deeper, the absurdity of (the church financed) Reefer Madness – which, among other things, implied marijuana would make you a murderer – illustrates the lack of science in the 1930s when drug laws were being put in place. Further, the government continues to ignore its own study by the Shafer Commission which recommended decriminalizing marijuana in 1972.

So what was the motivation? In the 1930s Randolph Hearst and other publishers associated marijuana with supposedly crazy and dangerous Mexicans, while Reefer Madness’ use of parties featuring jazz helped associate marijuana with Blacks. And there is the interview with John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s domestic policy chief) published in Harper’s Magazine. Ehrlichman stated, [The war on drugs] “was authored by President Nixon not for reasons of health or science, but rather simple prejudice … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities …Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The consequences of this racist motivation have been huge. Studies consistently show that minorities have been disproportionately targeted and incarcerated for drug possession. A specific example was the longer sentences for crack (vs. powdered) cocaine possession in the ‘80s. Incarceration contributes to multigenerational poverty. Not only does a person lose personal income by being incarcerated and paying related judicial costs, the entire family loses income and parental involvement.

We need better ways of helping people with addiction, but within the context of drug laws, addiction is a red herring misdirecting attention from much greater harm. Addiction is also used as a red herring for the unhoused (addiction is a symptom, not a cause). It’s harder to afford housing when you can’t get a job because of a drug arrest. Another red herring is violence. From Prohibition to drug cartels, the vast majority of drug related violence is due to the illegality of drugs, not their use.

Mental health is another victim of drug demonization. In addition to the trauma of homelessness and incarceration (both individually and to families) the understanding of the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin and similar drugs was delayed by decades because of the Reefer Madness type hysteria around LSD in the ‘60s.

Here are some questions relevant to Measure 110 and decriminalizing drugs. How many people will get jobs that they would not otherwise have gotten because of a drug arrest? How many more people will be able to afford higher education because their parents got those jobs? How many more people will be able to afford housing because of a decrease in stigma associated with drug use and arrest? Since many people can’t afford time off of work, what role does this cost in time and money play in people not showing up to court? Even though over prescription of opioids has increased addiction, not every user of opioids (or other drugs) is an addict. What role does this play in people not calling drug hotlines when cited for possession?

The harm from drug criminalization has accumulated over nearly a century. Undoing this harm by decriminalizing – or legalizing – drugs will take generations, not months. But the mere fact that fewer people are developing rap sheets or being harassed on the streets for harmless drug possession is already a positive step towards changing social and economic inequity.

It is unfortunate that even many proponents of decriminalizing or legalizing drugs are unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the racist origins of the war on drugs or the far ranging harm these laws have caused.  The evidence supports legalizing drugs for everyone’s sake.

(End Guest View column)

There is so much more that could be said about this and it’s not hard to find information supporting the legalization of drugs. For example, I came across this 2015 article, “The Beginning of the End of the War On Drugs? UN Agency Advocates Drug Decriminalization, Says War on Drugs Violates Human Rights” in the Atlanta Black Star.

And the cover image is from a 2016 article by

Don’t lift my kilt

For most of my life I’ve thought I’d like to wear a skirt but it’s only been the last few years that I’ve started to. The main reason I told myself I didn’t do so was because it is (mostly) socially unacceptable for a man to wear a skirt. Now, it’s an interesting question of whether or not I am “cross-dressing” in doing so. If you strictly define cross-dressing as wearing clothing traditionally associated with a gender that someone doesn’t identify as then I guess I am. (There is a whole other discussion about gender and clothing that I won’t get into here.) But I don’t wear a skirt because I want to dress like a woman. I wear it because I find it cooler and more comfortable when it’s hot out. I don’t think of myself as a cross-dresser.

There are a couple of cultural biases that come up here that took me a while to shed. First, why should the fact that it is socially unacceptable for a man to where a skirt be an issue to me? Perhaps my biggest internalized reason was because of the conservative nature of my work environment. Maybe that’s enough reason and maybe it’s not. But that was always in my mind. The second cultural norm was to start by wearing kilts. It is socially acceptable for a man to where a kilt. (Since I came across someone that didn’t know this, I’ll point out that a kilt is a specific style of skirt – most notably from the nature of its pleats, although the plaid tartan fabric is also a traditional indicator.) It seems like a really weird distinction to make that a particular style of skirt makes a difference in which gender can wear it. I’ve since decided I don’t really like the kilt style of skirt and have started wearing other styles. (This includes silk tie skirts my girlfriend has made for me. I’ll also put in an unpaid plug for my favorite skirt by Macabi Skirts – they have pockets and belt loops!) The power of societal bias has shown itself in that it seems virtually impossible for people to call what I wear skirts rather than kilts – simply because a man is wearing them.

More importantly, it has been a surprising, especially when wearing a kilt, as to how often someone asks what I’m wearing underneath. I finally came up with my standard response: Would you ever ask a woman that question? Now, I’ve never had the situation go beyond this simple – yet totally inappropriate – question. But I’ve read and heard that it is common for people to actually lift men’s kilts to check – or even follow a man into the restroom to check. A letter to Dear Abbey talked about a man literally having his kilt ripped off of him! And when the police were called they started to arrest him rather than the perpetrator. Then, when the police finally understood what happened, they just laughed it off!

Let’s be clear. Lifting a man’s skirt is just as much an illegal sexual assault as it is when doing so to a woman. I think it should also be clear that it isn’t the potential exposure of someone’s genitals that is the issue here. Even if nudity was totally socially acceptable (which I think it should be) the action itself would still be a problem.

Now, having someone lift a man’s skirt doesn’t come close to the level of ubiquitous sexual harassment and assault that many women endure, but I think it illustrates how much sexually inappropriate behavior is still considered socially acceptable.

(The cover image is from Wikipedia with this caption: “One of the earliest depictions of the kilt is this German print showing Highlanders around 1630.”)

The Buy Nothing Project

For as many problems as the internet and Facebook have produced, they have also created some awesomeness – like the Buy Nothing Project. If you’ve never heard of it, it is a group of sites (quite often on Facebook) where things are offered up for free. It is not a bartering site – there is no exchange of goods, services, or money. It’s a great way to get things reused, to help other people out, to get rid of stuff cluttering your house, or to get things you want or need for free. (My girlfriend actively uses it so we can attest to how well it works.)

As a recent N. Y. Times article points out, in addition to obvious stuff like kids clothes and furniture, the offers can be pretty weird – like pickle juice and dryer lint. And it’s quite surprising what people will take.

The groups are all local to encourage community and to facilitate pickup and delivery. It has grown to 6,700 independent Buy Nothing Facebook groups in 44 countries. How awesome is that!

(The cover image is from the Buy Nothing Project website.)

Eliminate religious exemptions for vaccines

This is a letter to the Eugene Register Guard that was published with the title “Trust in science, be gone with religious exemptions for vaccines” on 19 Sept, 21. It’s pretty self explanatory. I took some of the legal information from an article in Freethought Today, a publication of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. There is also an article on this in the L.A. Times by  Michael Hiltzik.

As submitted:

Let’s be clear that there is no legal obligation in the U.S. to provide religious exemptions for being vaccinated. Thirty years ago in Employment Division vs. Smith, Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion said that as long as a law is neutral, not motivated by a desire to interfere with religion and of general applicability to all individuals, it cannot be challenged based on free exercise of religion. This was reaffirmed in June in Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia. Apropos, courts have upheld public schools’ rights to require vaccinations without religious exemptions. A colloquial way of understanding this situation is the old adage: your right to swing your fist – or your religion, or your virus – ends at the tip of my nose.

The fact that religious exemptions are almost universal in vaccine mandates epitomizes religious privilege. That people use religious exemptions to refuse to be vaccinated is a modern example of the harm done by religion. Why do people hide behind religion to avoid their moral obligation to protect society in general and the vulnerable in particular?

I ask governments, businesses, and educational institutions to have enough trust in science and enough understanding of the law to eliminate these religious exemptions.

(end letter)

A final comment is that religion shouldn’t exempt anyone from anything.

(The cover image was taken from an online search. The design is available in various formats on various websites.)

With Children but Not by Choice

This is a follow on to my previous post about being childless by choice.

Here are some of the reasons why people may have children when they didn’t want to (again, I’m sure there are more and these are not mutually exclusive):

  1. Ignorance
    1. No sex education
    1. Lack of general education
    1. Not knowing you can say no to sex
  2. Lack of access to birth control or abortion
  3. Relationship escalator
    1. Societal pressure
    1. Family pressure
    1. Cultural pressure
    1. Pressure from religious peers
  4. Pressure not to give child up for adoption
  5. Religion
  6. Actual lack of choice
  7. Rape

The fact that people end up with children when they don’t want them is a horrible commentary on society. The fact that some people are effectively forced to have children is absolutely tragic. And let’s be clear that people that are against abortion are doing exactly that – forcing people that don’t want children to have them. Being against birth control or other family planning is even worse than being anti-abortion. In fact, I call people that are against abortion or family planning “pro-poverty” since giving women control over reproduction is one of the few ways demonstrated to reduce poverty. There is a growing body of evidence on this but here’s a very specific study that found that women who were denied abortion were three times as likely to end up below the federal poverty line two years later.

It is somewhat obvious why some of these reasons can lead to having a child when you don’t want one but I’ll focus on a few.

One of the surprising reasons to me is: “not knowing you can say no to sex”. A friend told me that when she was young, she thought that if she went on a date and the man wanted to have sex, she had to have sex with him. This illustrates how a combination of societal pressure, patriarchal attitudes, lack of education and probably several other factors can lead to a total misunderstanding of a person’s right to self-determination.

I’ve talked about the relationship escalator before but, for completeness here, this is the societal pressure that says love is followed by monogamous marriage, is followed by living together, is followed by having children. It’s a very strong societal compulsion.

The pressure to not give up a child for adoption is one that I didn’t think of myself. But this is illustrated by the constant refrain (by the entertainment industry, media, and even Dear Abby) that someone’s biological parent is that person’s “real” parent. This attitude needs to change. A real parent is someone that rears a child regardless of biology. And if we look into the future a little, the ability to have a child with more than two genetic donors isn’t that far off. (This is even a common trope in some science fiction.) Would we really consider someone that donated a gene or two but never had any interaction with the child someone’s parent?

And, talking about adoption, there are anti-abortionists that push for adoption as an alternative. Evidently they are unaware of the number of children that have not been adopted and are in the foster care system. From what I can tell, the horrors of the foster care system are portrayed fairly accurately in the entertainment industry. I’ve had more than one person tell me of sexual abuse when in that system. (This doesn’t mean there aren’t loving foster parents. Probably most of them are.) The suggestion to bring an unwanted child into the world to be put up for adoption also doesn’t consider the financial, physical, and emotional impacts of bringing a child to term. This is a societal catch-22: put your child up for adoption to avoid abortion but, in doing so, be a horrible parent.

I’ve purposefully cited both pressure from religious peers and religion itself. People can pressure other people because of their religious beliefs but people can fall victim to religious beliefs as well. This isn’t just the pressure to have children, but also the pressure to not use birth control.

The idea that someone may not actually have a choice at all is counter to the myth of freedom for everyone in the U.S. One form of this is actual (sexual) slavery. Even though slavery is technically illegal in all countries, slavery still exists (including in the U.S.). Arguably one form of this is child marriage. People in the U.S. probably don’t think this happens in the U.S. – that it only happens in other “culturally backward” countries – but it can happen in the U.S. as well. In particular, (as of this writing) there are still two states that have no minimum marriage age if the parents grant permission. And some states have minimums as low as 12. Let’s be serious, can a twelve year old in today’s society actually make such a choice? I think any child being married at such a young age would only do so because the pressures around them give them no choice. There are also modern day (usually religious) cultures where women have no choice about who they marry or even any choice about if they marry – which is another form of slavery. Another form of this is the (mostly religious) idea that a husband can’t rape his wife; that a married woman is obligated to perform “wifely duties” (what a horrible euphemism.) Even in the U.S. it wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was illegal in all 50 states.

A quick comment is that, although it is more common for women to have children when they don’t want them, men can fall victim to most of the above reasons. The existence of the phrase “shotgun wedding” evidences men being in this situation.

To be fair it is important to realize that just because someone has children when they didn’t or don’t want them doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t love their children. But this can add to the tragedy – especially in cases of poverty or adoption.

Childless by Choice

I’ve been glad to see that there is some media discussion about people that choose not to have children. The pressure to have children is another example of the relationship escalator that is captured in the classic Kissing song: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” But not everyone wants to ride this escalator. A specific example of this discussion is a New York Times article about a photographer in Berlin that is capturing the lives of the consciously child-free but I’ve seen some other discussions as well. And, in fact, searching on “childless by choice” brings up a lot of hits.

As a personal experience regarding the societal expectation of having children, I remember as a teenager asking my oldest sister when she was going to have children fairly soon after she got married. I don’t remember making a pest of myself about this, but I also didn’t see her very much at the time. The fact that I was asking her at that age and so soon after her marriage demonstrates that this expectation is just generally present in society without having to be explicitly stated.

A related myth that needs to be constantly debunked is the idea that every woman that has an abortion regrets it. According to a CNN article, “Researchers found that at five years after having an abortion, only 6% expressed primarily negative emotions.” The article contains other such statistics.

This is tangentially related to some other issues regarding parenting. A TED talk on parenting taboos discusses the fact that parents can’t talk about some very emotional issues. For example, it is actually not the case that all parents fall immediately in love with their babies at the moment of birth – but can’t say so. Or, even though miscarriages are common, talking about them is not. Although not discussed in the TED talk, I’ve also read about how it is taboo to say you regret having children, which some people do (which doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t love their children).

Here are some reasons why people choose not to have children (I’m sure there are more and these are not mutually exclusive):

  1. Overpopulation
  2. Climate Change
  3. Lack of ability
    1. financial
    1. physical
    1. emotional
  4. Concern of passing on hereditary disease
  5. Career doesn’t allow time

I started asking around about people’s decision to be childless. The following one caught me by surprise. The background is that the person who told me this is now atheist, but was involved in an extremely religious environment – including 20 years of marriage. Even before they seriously considered leaving religion, they were concerned about the extremity of the religious environment.

  • Realized that their spouse would raise children in an extreme religion and didn’t want that

So now let’s talk about the reason that is probably the most societally unacceptable:

  • No desire

All the other reasons listed can at least be thought of as examples of “I’d like to have children but …” But the idea that someone actually wouldn’t want children is probably the most blatant rebuttal of the relationship escalator. My first comment about this is: would you really want a child brought up by someone that doesn’t want the job? I wouldn’t. My second comment is: a lack of desire should be a totally acceptable answer. In fact, “I don’t want to”, should be an acceptable answer to most things. There doesn’t always have to be a reason behind a lack of desire or, even if there is some deep seated reason, there is no reason why it needs to be dug up and vocalized.

For the record, most of my life I’ve used overpopulation as my reason for choosing to be childless. Although this is still one of my reasons, I’ve come to realize that not wanting children has also always been true for me but societal pressure caused me to not even acknowledge it to myself. To a lesser degree, the fact that I was more interested in a career then a long term relationship played a part as well.

The opposite situation – having children but not by choice is a sad, but not uncommon, situation. I plan to address this in another post.

Promoting Unity and Good – Without God

The following was published as a Guest View in the Eugene Register-Guard on 21 Aug 2021 with the title: “Whose morality carries more weight?” I submitted it with the above title. I spent a fair amount of time writing this and I think it’s self-explanatory.

As submitted:

Saying that an entire class of people is immoral, such as Blacks or Jews, is generally considered prejudicial and hateful. I would be surprised to see, and don’t recall seeing, such racist statements in the RG. Yet, versions of “atheists are immoral” have appeared at least eight times in the past four years – including three columns within the last year. This is usually stated in less obvious, but logically equivalent, variations of “morality derives from god.” But, after all, how can atheists be moral when they deny the source of morality?

This isn’t just a philosophical issue. There are countries where atheism is a capital offense. I’ve met someone that is hiding for fear of their life because they left Islam. Complete shunning – loss of family, friends and jobs – is not unusual when people leave some religious communities. I’ve met someone that was kicked out of their house at sixteen for leaving Christianity.

The acceptance of openly stated anti-atheist prejudice epitomizes religious privilege. But this privilege shows itself daily via “in god we trust” and “under god.” Public promotion of faith and prayer is also an example of this privilege and prejudice. And it is very concerning that the Supreme Court is legalizing religious discrimination based on this prejudice.

Claims of moral superiority based on god aren’t limited to denouncing atheists. There are religions where not believing in the proper god deserves eternal torture. Even within a single religion, god’s supposed morality has been used to claim supremacy and privilege for men, heterosexuals, the monogamous, the married, whites, and castes (among others).

Another harmful result of morality from god is the promotion of the U.S. as a Christian nation. Stating the mistaken belief that the Constitution is based on Biblical principles reduces the roughly 30% of the U.S. that are non-Christian to second class citizenry. I’ve personally been told I should leave the country because I’m atheist. This erroneous belief also played a part on Jan 6th. Most of the people in the capital mob weren’t just white supremacists, they were also Christian Nationalists. Their movement is partially motivated by the belief that Christians are morally superior. Their violent actions are even supportable by Jesus’ militant side (Matthew 10:34). The Christian god is an authoritarian figure – a divine king, not an elected official.

I am not saying that all theists are inherently immoral. I am not claiming there is a single external source of morality and that you are immoral if you deny it. I claim, and the evidence supports, that theists are simply mistaken about their source of morality. For example, most people today condemn slavery, yet slavery is doctrinally supported by the three largest religions. Jesus never denounced slavery and implicitly condoned it, while Paul explicitly wrote, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters …” (Ephesians 6:5-6); Mohammed owned slaves; and then there’s karma. Even if some doctrinal passage appears to be anti-slavery, it demonstrates doctrinal self-contradiction rather than elimination of the doctrinal support. This is evidence that people look for doctrine to support their preexisting beliefs rather than deriving their beliefs from doctrine or god.

Religions are doctrinally in opposition. Yahweh is not Allah is not Zeus. Reincarnation does not lead to Valhalla.  Claiming belief in one religion is claiming that all other religions are false. (Why claim one of thousands of religions if you don’t think it’s the one true – and thus superior – religion?) If you want to promote unity – to bring everyone together – you have to keep your religion out of the public square. This is the reason for the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This is why it is unconstitutional to promote religion in public schools and why it is polite to hold a moment of silence rather than a prayer at public gatherings. I fully support people’s right to their religious beliefs, but that same right allows me to say, “Keep them to yourselves; they’re divisive.”

Where does morality come from? There are arguments based on evolution, but most people are unaware of them. I believe most people, secular or not, derive morality from love, compassion, and humanism. Isn’t having a conscience part of the human condition? Would you rape and murder if god didn’t tell you not to?

What’s more important, promoting morality and unity, or claiming one group of people is morally superior to all others?

(The cover image is the Atheist logo developed by the Dawkins Institute.)

Equality Rather than Gender (With a Side of J. K. Rowling)

I recently watched an episode of ContraPoints by Natalie Wynn  about J. K. Rowling. A friend of mine recommended this YouTube channel and I thought I’d check it out. Since I don’t normally watch these types of commentaries, it is somewhat of a compliment that I actually watched the full 1 ½ hours of it. I still think it’s a little long, but there was good commentary up to the end. Some comedic segments helped. It’s very well done.

If you don’t know, Rowling, (the author of the Harry Potter series) has come under attack for her transphobic stance. (I’ve seen all the movies, but I gave up after three or four of the books because I got tired of the teenage angst.) I’ve been vaguely aware of the controversy but hadn’t looked into it in detail and it seemed a good option to evaluate ContraPoints. Wynn goes into pretty deep detail – including presenting a lot of specific tweets and comments by Rowling and discusses how they are transphobic. Wynn does her best to give Rowling the benefit of a doubt, but the evidence is pretty damning that Rowling is spouting trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) rhetoric.  

Along the way, Wynn discusses more general aspects of bigotry, hate, and trauma. This is what elevates this commentary to something quite a bit more than an attack on Rowling. In fact, it’s hard to call it an attack so much as a dissection of Rowling’s comments and their implications.

One of the things I struggle with is remembering that much bigotry is a consequence of fear and isn’t necessarily an expression of hate. People don’t like change and when change challenges or disrupts a person’s view of themselves or their place in society, they often react in fear – striking out at what they perceive to be the threat.

Wynn points out that there is direct and indirect bigotry. Direct bigotry is blatant, almost frothing at the mouth, expression of prejudice. Indirect bigotry is much subtler. People that engage in it often think of themselves as the victim and often do not think of themselves as bigots. Rowling fits into the indirect category.

Another aspect of bigotry that Wynn emphasizes is that bigotry, in and of itself, might not be harmful. It is when bigotry crosses the line to engage in active – often legal – forms of repression that it becomes harmful. Examples in the trans world include bathroom laws, rules regarding trans athletes, and teenage access to puberty blockers (I’m sure there’s more). This is consistent with my definitions of bias and prejudice. People have many biases obtained various ways and some biases, such as food preferences, are not harmful. But when someone has it pointed out that a bias is harmful and still defends the bias, then it is prejudice. Rowling has amply been shown the harm of her bias.

Wynn goes into these issues quite a bit, and I recommend watching the episode. But there is one specific thing she brings up that I wanted to talk about. Wynn isn’t really in favor of using the phrase “transwomen are women.” She offers the retro phrase “trans-liberation now.” What this accomplishes is to change the conversation. How much time is wasted on trying to define what a woman is – on defining gender? Does it really matter? Isn’t the real issue that people – including trans people – want equality? People don’t want to be discriminated against just because of who they are or how they live their lives. I think there is good precedence for changing the dialog this way. Gay rights, especially gay marriage, seemed to make much more progress when the discussion was about being able to love whoever you love more than it did when there was a constant debate about whether or not being gay is a choice (which it isn’t).

Another aspect of the phrase “transwomen are women” that Wynn brings up is that it ignores transmen and she talks about how transmen are treated differently than transwomen.

This change of focus is similar to what I talk about in my post Proper Pronunciation and Suicide Prevention. The post ultimately talks about pronouns. People have names they prefer to be called. Isn’t it just polite to call them by their preferred names – or their preferred pronoun? Why does there have to be an explanation for either.

Are there other forms of bigotry where the focus of the dialog can be changed? A major focus of mine is atheism so I think about how to change the dialog away from the god question. (It’s much easier to hide your atheism than many other targets of prejudice, but religious privilege is legion and being an atheist can lead to loss of friends, family, jobs, and life.) The term “atheist” is an in-your-face word to a lot of people and can easily end a discussion. I sometimes use “skeptic” or “secular” instead because of this (and I generally introduce myself as a mathematician first). But another approach I take is to point out the distinction between “anti-theist” and “anti-theism”. There are plenty of good theists, but I have an epistemological objection to basing decisions on imaginary friends. This helps at least a little because it changes the discussion from “Is there a god?” to “How do you make decisions?” It also moves away from discussing individuals to discussing concepts. But ultimately the question of what role the imaginary friend plays in your life comes into play. So I’m not sure how far this approach can go in this context.

Another prejudice I’ve been looking at is polyamory. One of the main objections to polyamory is the possibility for multiple sexual partners. So I think emphasizing love – the “amory” – can be very helpful. Why can’t someone love more than one person at a time? Isn’t it possible to love more than one child? Can a single person provide for all the needs of another person?  Isn’t having more than one person that loves you a good thing?

Whenever discussing a controversial topic, it is easy to get sidetracked down a rabbit hole. Identifying and maintaining focus on the real issue is critical.

A final comment: When I started writing this blog I started to introduce Wynn as a transwoman. Perhaps this is relevant from the point of view that she is a member of the group she is discussing. But it really struck me that I wouldn’t ever consider introducing someone as cis. So why would it be important to introduce someone as trans? More generally, when is it appropriate to mention someone’s race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? If it isn’t relevant to the conversation, what purpose does it serve? Again, would you do so for a cis white straight man?

(The cover image is from royalty free

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