Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Turning bigotry into law

I'm going to make a categorical statement: if you approve of discrimination toward, or actual violence against, a person based on something completely outside of their control, you have lost all claim to the moral high ground.

This comes up because of a quote from Mat Staver, evangelical spokesperson and president of the Liberty Counsel, that the landmark anti-lynching bill currently being considered in Congress should be amended to eliminate the mention of LGBTQ people as targets.

"The old saying is once that camel gets the nose in the tent, you can’t stop them from coming the rest of the way in," Staver wrote in a statement.  "And this would be the first time that you would have in federal law mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation, as part of this anti-lynching bill... They’ve been unsuccessful over the many years in the past… but this is a way to slip it in under a so-called anti-lynching bill, and to then to sort of circle the wagon and then go for the juggler [sic] at some time in the future."

The Liberty Counsel is notorious for pushing specifically anti-LGBTQ legislation, and in fact is labeled as an "extremist group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  If you think that Staver's comment was a one-off, consider some of the other vitriol that's come out of the same organization:
Homosexual conduct can result in significant damage to those involved who engage in such conduct. There is no evidence that a person is born homosexual. And there is evidence that people can change. Our culture is being pressured with demands that our homes welcome, our daycares embrace, our schools indoctrinate, our businesses promote, and our laws reward this harmful sexual behavior. – Liberty Counsel website, “Resources on the Family,” 2015. 
Every individual engaged in the homosexual lifestyle, who has adopted a homosexual identity, they know intuitively that what they are doing is immoral, unnatural, and self-destructive. Yet they thirst for that affirmation because they've tied their whole identity up in this sexual perversion. —Matt Barber, “Faith and Freedom Radio,” September 2013
We are facing the survival of western values, western civilization. ... One of the most significant threats to our freedom is in the area of sexual anarchy with the agenda of the homosexual movement, the so-called LGBT movement. It does several things, first of all it undermines family and the very first building block of our society, but secondly, it’s a zero sum game as well and it’s a direct assault on our religious freedom and freedom of speech. —Mat Staver, October 2011, Values Voter Summit
And so on.

Beyond the simple cruel inhumanity of these people, what they are saying is at its basis entirely false.  A study published in The Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences all the way back in 2006 has unequivocally shown that sexual orientation -- and gender in general -- is in no way a "choice."  The researchers write:
[T]here are two lines of evidence that homosexuality is influenced by polymorphic genes: (i) twin studies indicate that there are both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the expression of the homosexual phenotype (Pillard & Bailey 1998; Bailey et al. 1999; Dawood et al. 2000), and (ii) male homosexuality appears to be inherited more frequently from the matriline (Pillard et al. 1981, 1982; Pattatucci 1998; Camperio-Ciani et al. 2004), suggesting the existence of polymorphic, heritable maternal effects and/or polymorphic X-linked genes influencing male homosexuality.
In another study released in November of last year, analysis of a huge sample size of men and women found stronger evidence still:
In a large study of more than 490,000 men and women in the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden, researchers discovered four genetic variants that occur more often in people who indicated on questionnaires that they had had same-sex sexual partners.  Andrea Ganna, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard reported the results October 19 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.  Two of the variants were specific to men’s sexual partner choice. The other two influence sex partner choice for both men and women.
Besides this evidence, the idea that being LGBTQ is a choice is ridiculous on two other grounds.  First, if someone chooses to be (for example) gay, wouldn't that imply that straight people are choosing that, too?  I defy you to find a single straight person who hit puberty and then sat there thinking, "Let's see, men?  Women?  Hmm, how shall I choose?"

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Benson Kua, Rainbow flag breeze, CC BY-SA 2.0]

But second, who in their right mind would choose being LGBTQ when there are assholes like Mat Staver and Matt Barber explicitly calling for discrimination against non-hetero individuals, and tacitly approving of violence against them?  LGBTQ individual have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, and are likely to be shunned by their families once they've come out.  In some societies -- like many places in the Middle East -- being discovered as LGBTQ means you're likely to be targeted for murder (if you're not arrested by the state for "immoral behavior" and executed in the public square, something that happens routinely in Iran and Saudi Arabia).

The one happy note in all this is that evangelical Christianity of the kind espoused by Staver and Barber is declining both in numbers and in influence.  Some have attributed this to their tying themselves irrevocably to Donald Trump -- witness Jerry Falwell Jr.'s recent statement that he "can't imagine President Trump doing anything that is not good for the country" -- a move that I think of as hitching their rowboat to the Titanic.  But it goes beyond that.  As Dr. Ken Fong, Baptist pastor and professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it in an interview in Forbes,  "White evangelical leaders were in bed with conservative politics long before Trump became President—notably the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and The Moral Majority.  However, the fact that so many of them and their followers not only helped elect Trump in 2016 but continue to be his most unflinching fans has exposed their moral hypocrisy for all to see."

Not only their hypocrisy, but their innate cruelty.  I can only hope that more and more people are seeing people like Staver for who they are -- vicious, narrow-minded bigots who want their own prejudices enshrined in law.  And that their followers one by one fall away, once they realize that their leaders' message is founded on nothing but hate.


Carl Zimmer has been a science writer for a long time, and his contributions -- mostly on the topic of evolution -- have been featured in National Geographic, Discover, and The New York Times, not to mention appearances on Fresh Air, This American Life, and Radiolab.  He's the author of this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation, which is about the connections between genetics, behavior, and human evolution -- She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potentials of Heredity.

Zimmer's lucid, eloquent style makes this book accessible to the layperson, and he not only looks at the science of genetics but its impact on society -- such as our current infatuation with personal DNA tests such as the ones offered by 23 & Me and Ancestry.  It's a brilliant read, and one in which you'll learn not only about our deep connection to our ancestry, but where humanity might be headed.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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