Classic Tom: Abstain from incomplete sex education

Look at all that hair!Originally published in the Augustana Observer, vol. 104, issue #12, January 28, 2005
I thought I’d talk about abortion this week, due to the recent debate, Augustana Right to Life’s screening of “The Silent Scream” and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That, and I haven’t gotten enough letters about being controversial lately, and I was beginning to miss them.
I recently realized that, for all I know about philosophy and fetal development, I really didn’t know how an abortion was actually performed. I watched “The Silent Scream,” but I’m not foolish enough to think that many medical practices are the same now as they were in the mid-’80s. Besides, Planned Parenthood debunked that film (link). I recognize their bias, but their facts check out better than the movie’s do.
Planned Parenthood should know about abortion procedure, especially if the anti-abortion groups’ “4,000 per day” figure is accurate. ARTL really needs to find a more up-to-date movie. If their position is really based on logical philosophy and not religion, then they should be able to support it with a film that’s not so obsolete and sensationalistic.
But I’m not talking about abortion. I’m talking about gambling. Sort of.
Imagine that someone gave you more money than you know what to do with. They dropped you off in the biggest, brightest casino in Las Vegas and told you some of the basic rules of the games. Then they told you “okay, now don’t play anything,” and left. What do you do?
Most of you would play, and most of you would lose.
That, boys and girls, is abstinence-only sex education.
It’s clear that Sex-Ed in this country needs an overhaul, but that’s not the right direction. Adolescents have sex, whether or not it’s a good idea. People who know the ins and outs of sex (pun very much intended) will be a great deal safer regarding diseases, contraceptives, and even what to do in the bedroom than people who are firing blindly.
Abstinence-only sex education mixes a tiny amount of factual information with an almost equal amount of misinformation.
Touching your genitals can get you pregnant? HIV is spread by tears?
Educated people should not consider “abortion increases one’s risk for breast cancer” to be a remotely rational statement. Honestly, if it were ovarian cancer or uterine cancer it might seem plausible, but it doesn’t take a doctor to see how little sense that makes.
The other problems with abstinence-only sex-ed are the parts it ignores. Adolescents are in the process of developing individual adult identities. This means making their own decisions, and thus their own mistakes.
Part of teenage rebellion is doing what your parents don’t want you to, because it means you’re making a decision on your own.
Telling teens “don’t do that because I said so, and I know what’s best” only encourages them to try it. Telling them “I don’t think you should, and here’s why, but I’ll leave the actual decision up to you” forces them to make choices that will have serious impacts on their lives (you know, like adults do).
All that aside, what happens to the abstinence-only kids when they grow up? Chances are, unless they become clergy or eunuchs, everyone will have sex at some point. Putting on a wedding ring doesn’t magically teach you how to do the deed, and if you’ve engaged in total abstinence, there’ll be quite a few surprises on the honeymoon.
If there’s a woman with an instruction manual on her vulva, I have yet to meet her. Teaching teens about sex will make sure that more people will have a decent time on their wedding night.
Teaching teens about the dangers of intercourse and about how contraceptives can protect them will only help everyone in the long run. You can still push abstinence, but far more people will stay chaste if it’s their own decision, rather than what grown-ups told them to do.
Teens who only know abstinence are like gun owners who don’t know how to aim. If they decide to fire, they will be a lot more dangerous. Without education, a condom is just a fancy rubber band. But with a little knowledge and some spermicide, it becomes a 98 percent effective tadpole catcher.
So wait, education plus contraceptives equals fewer unwanted pregnancies, which equals fewer abortions. Hmmm…seems to me that, if ARTL really wanted to stop abortions, they’d stop sending anti-birth control bookmarks and “Condom Sense” pamphlets, and start distributing condoms and real information.
It looks like there is less logic and less reason in the Right to Life philosophy than meets the eye.

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Classic Tom: Oh, ye of literal faith

Originally published in the Augustana Observer, vol. 104, issue #18, April 15, 2005
William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in the early years of the 17th century, in English (yes, Elizabethan English is still English). Four hundred years later, scholars still debate whether or not the titular character went mad.
Don McLean released “American Pie” in 1971, in English. Thirty-four years later, people still have only vague ideas about what the heavily symbolic lyrics mean. McLean refuses to clarify any of it.
The Bible was written over the course of several centuries around the start of the Common Era, in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Current versions are based on a canon that was decided in the 4th century C.E., and the ever-popular King James Bible was first published in 1611. Yet some people think that, though we don’t understand why the players tried to take the field, we can know with total certainty what God was talkin’ ’bout way back when.
All reading requires interpretation. It’s not often that I’ll make absolute statements like that, but that’s one of them. Any piece must be read in a greater context, with regards to both the text surrounding it and to the reader’s prior experience.
Taking quotes out of their proper context has long been a problem with Biblical interpretation. For instance, an out-of-context line about Onan disobeying an order to impregnate his late brother’s wife has fueled religious rules against masturbation and contraception for years. There was no 11th commandment saying “thou shalt not wear rubbers, and spanketh not thy monkey, for that is an abomination,” just parts of Genesis 38:9 and 38:10 taken without 38:8 or the rest of the passage.
When you encounter a text, you bring your own knowledge and experiences to the table. Someone with no literary background might think that Khan’s just being his usual badass self when he tells Kirk “from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” Someone who’s read “Moby Dick,” however, might find it funny that he’s comparing William Shatner to a great white whale.
Reliance on the reader’s background is why every interpretation is different. After all, if there were such a thing as a single, correct, literal interpretation of any work, everyone would follow it. Symbolism, figurative language, intertextuality, words with multiple meanings, problems with translation, and individual readers’ experiences prevent “absolute interpretations,” even in the Bible.
I’ll give the Bible the benefit of the doubt: that it was divinely-inspired and was preserved all the way up to its first transcription (I hesitate to believe that God kept it intact into English, because then there shouldn’t be multiple different contradictory translations). So what then? If you take it word-for-word, you reject evolution (and thus, most of biology), but also geology, astronomy, paleontology, physics, zoology, botany, heliocentrism, the round Earth, and math.
Yes, math. 2 Chronicles 4:2 offers up a molten lake 10 cubits in diameter and 30 cubits in circumference. Substitute that into C=π*d, and you discover that π is exactly three.
Should we really reject 5,000 years of human learning because the word of God contradicts it? Or can we assume that God just didn’t want to try to explain decimals to Moses?
Besides belittling all human knowledge, literalism is an insult to God. It’s saying “God’s not good enough as a writer to use idioms or symbols; there’s nothing beyond the words themselves.” Even minimalist writers like Hemingway use symbolism and figures of speech, but the Bible can’t possibly be that deep? God created the universe, but he’s not creative enough to write a multilayered story? Seems contradictory.
See, the literalists are saying that every word has to be exactly true, at face value, or the whole book is invalidated and the whole system of belief falls apart. That seems like pretty fragile faith if it can be totally undone by something so small. I thought faith was supposed to be resilient and strong, based on a personal connection with God and not just an all-or-nothing reading of the Bible. Faith isn’t supposed to need some absolute proof; that’s why it’s faith. If one’s belief in God can be demolished by a scientific theory or a mathematical constant, then one must not have had much faith to begin with.
Did Jesus have to deal with literalists? Did the disciples listen to his heavily symbolic and metaphoric parables and think “that must have all really happened or Jesus is a dirty rotten liar about everything,” or “the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest seed, and it doesn’t grow into a tree, but Jesus must be right?” Couldn’t he have just been trying to make a point?
I’m not saying the Bible isn’t true. I’m saying that there’s no such thing as a “literal interpretation” of any text. Treating the Bible as if there’s nothing below the surface does a disservice to faith, and it goes contrary to what we know about how Jesus taught. The literal truth of Christ’s parables was immaterial–the point was in the underlying message. In focusing so closely on the literal truth word for word, literalists miss the truth of that greater message.