Christmas Musings

Jeremiah 10:1-4 has been making the atheist rounds recently as another bit of irony for the holiday season. If you’re not familiar with the passage, it’s the one that goes thusly:

10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

It’s always entertaining to find these little bits of dissonance between what the Bible teaches and what the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd believes and practices. Oh, naturally there’s an apologetic to explain this away (‘the passage clearly refers to the making and worshipping of wooden idols which are covered in silver and gold plating,’ (from here. Go ahead and read Jeremiah for yourself; KJV is very different from NIV on this matter), but that really doesn’t make it any less entertaining1.

Nor does it make the practice of putting up a Christmas tree any more Christian. I don’t need to go on about the pagan origins of Christmas, how festivals like Saturnalia and Yule and Sol Invictus got rolled up into Christian traditions over the centuries. Such information is readily available (and I’ve just spent about half an hour Googling it…interesting stuff).

What boggles my mind is the abject ignorance of a great many Christians with regard to all this. Sure, there’s an apologetic for Jeremiah, but I guarantee that most Christians don’t even know the passage, let alone the explanation for why it doesn’t mean what it says. I recently followed a Twitter conversation between Neil Gaiman and some appallingly ignorant Christian, stemming from Gaiman’s promotion of Tim Minchin’s excellent godless Christmas song, “White Wine in the Sun.” The conversation had some real highlights, notably Gaiman’s suggestion that if the word “Christ” puts God in Christmas, than doesn’t the word “Easter” put Oestre in Easter? The obtuse kid apparently misunderstood and thought “Easter” was the name of the person who decided to make Easter a holiday.

And then there’s Garrison Keillor, who has made me decide that Lake Wobegon Days is now several notches lower on my “to-read” list. Somewhere beneath Ender’s Game in the “books written by pompous religious bigots” section of the list2.

All this, plus the litany of “keep Christ in Christmas” bumper magnets I see (year round, like tacky Christmas decorations left up in April) and witch-hunt websites tracking which retail stores dare to prefer an inclusive phrase like “Happy Holidays” when greeting guests, makes me wonder: what the hell is wrong with these people?

Why would you find an event so important that you think everyone should think about it the same way you do, but not care enough to actually find out about its origins? Why do you require underpaid cashiers and greeters to validate your beliefs and customs? Why do you feel the need to exclude people from a celebration?

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would effectively say “this is our party, and if you’re not like us, you’re not invited. And we’re going to trash any party you try to throw, because today is our party day.” It’s silly and petulant; getting upset that the greeter at Wal-Mart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is as asinine as being offended that they said “have a nice day” instead of “happy birthday.” Why is it somehow offensively impolite to not make assumptions about a stranger’s religious beliefs? Why is it so important to dictate how other people conduct themselves in private?

What makes this all the more inane is that it’s the secular parts of the holiday–days off, giving gifts, spending time with family and friends, etc.–the things that are most commonly celebrated, that make the holiday popular and heavily anticipated. Would Christmas be as popular as it is if it only had the Christian religious aspects? If there weren’t these pagan and secular trappings attached to the holiday, it’d be another Good Friday or Ash Wednesday or Rosh Hashanah–significant to the observant, just another day to the rest of us.

And maybe that’s part of the anger–the fear that the little bits of Christmas which actually have something to do with Christ will be somehow supplanted with the secular parts, and so Christ has to be tacked onto the secular parts in order for the religious justification to survive. And there’s really nothing wrong with that; maybe you have an angel on top of the tree instead of a star, maybe you sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night” instead of “Deck the Halls” and “Frosty the Snowman,” maybe you watch “The Nativity Story” instead of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”…but I still don’t understand why it matters to anyone what anyone else does on the holiday.

It all seems to come down to what Christmas is “about.” For me, Christmas is usually about family and songs I only want to hear for maybe seven days out of three hundred sixty-five and classic movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Die Hard” and presents and awkward moments in the closet. This year, it was about stupid-induced injuries and a broken-down car and forgetting my hard drive with all the Christmas music on it and a veritable overload of Doctor Who. And a bunch of other things. But it seems like some people can’t quite handle the idea that Christmas has different meanings for different people at different times. They have to find the true meaning of Christmas, for everyone. And their true meaning is “Jesus.” Everything else falls by the wayside, including values like togetherness and inclusiveness, which other people might even associate with that “true” meaning.

Or to put it in terms that even the most myopic, self-absorbed ideologue should be able to understand, there’s room for everyone at the Christmas Inn3.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

1. At the very least, it’s a prime example of how different translations influence interpretation. I defy anyone to read the KJV version and get “metal-plated idols carved out of wood,” though that’s a clear implication in the NIV. The other half-dozen or so versions I looked at varied in between.

2. Ender’s Game is higher largely because I feel somewhat obligated as a sci-fi fan to read it, and because I’m told I’d enjoy it. Also, to be clearer about Keillor, he’s in the subsection of “writers who may or may not be pompous religious bigots, but who write pompous religious bigotry and occasionally pass it off as satire, even when it’s neither funny nor particularly satirical.” It’s a small subcategory.

3. Alternately: “Maybe Christmas isn’t what’s said at a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Singling Out people who talk through their asses

Hey, world, guess what: if you stake your children’s lives on medical advice from these people:
This is how I always picture Jenny McCarthy: hard at work squeezing out her next book.I really tried to find one of the butt-talking shots, but my Google-fu is weak.
Then congratulations, you’re a giant moron. Somehow, you’ve decided that the word of two celebrities whose popularity averages out to C-list (at best) trumps the mountains upon mountains of actual scientific evidence from actual scientists.

I can hear the cries now: “but Jenny and Jim have scientists on their side!” Yes, and so do the flat-Earthers, the Creationists, and (to co-opt the antivax crowd’s favorite example) the tobacco companies. What Jenny and Jim and Generation Rescue and Age of Autism and the other pro-disease groups don’t have is anything resembling a preponderance of evidence to support their hypotheses. They don’t even have enough evidence to make their hypothesis seem like a worthwhile and plausible research avenue. After the MMR/Autism link was demonstrated to be the result of an interest-conflicted researcher gaming the data from small poorly-controlled studies using analysis from a compromised lab, the antivax crowd changed the hypothesis–now the connection was proposed to be the mercury in thimerosal, not the measles virus in MMR. So the real scientists rolled up their sleeves again, the legal process bent over backwards to accommodate the antivaxxers’ suspicions, and thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines while scientists tested the hypothesis. Study after study, data set after data set, have refuted the purported link between thimerosal and autism, and oh by the way, there’s no proposed mechanism for such a link anyway, given what we already know about how ethylmercury compounds like thimerosal interact with the body. Now the antivaxxers have shifted the goalposts again, retreating to that refuge of scoundrels and charlatans, the vague and unscientific notion of “toxins.” They throw out terms designed to baffle and frighten the chemistry-illiterate public and intentionally fail to understand the important role of dosage in determining a substance’s toxicity. And despite this failure to comprehend basic things like measurement, they augment this toxin gambit with a mantra of “too many, too soon.” Yes, curse those doctors for giving our children too many attenuated viruses and viral protein fragments before they can be exposed to the real things. I mean, surely nature, which is fluffy and nice and clean and wonderful to all living things would be much more forgiving with its exposure schedule. How well we remember those halcyon days of tooth enamel-destroying fevers and iron lungs. If it weren’t for the fact that “toxins” is sufficiently vague and untestable and unfalsifiable as a complaint–so much so that it’s ubiquitous among woo-woo garbage–I would expect the next antivax meme to be about the “energy” of the vaccines causing autism.

This constant goalpost-shifting is not a hallmark of a scientific hypothesis. It’s not the sign of rational examination of claims or a desire to actually determine whether or not one’s convictions are true. It’s the tactic of the true believer, the unsinkable rubber ducks whose certainty insulates their beliefs from criticism, evidence, and any harsh contact with reality. Good science has invalidated each of their hypotheses in turn, demonstrating that their proposed causal link is borne out of fallacious post-hoc thinking and unscientific ideology. The scientific method is to abandon mistaken hypotheses, not to make them vaguer and less prone to falsification until they lack any explanatory power at all. This is what the antivax crowd has done; this is emphatically not scientific.

Jenny McCarthy trusts her “mommy instinct” and her Google-based research, but neither of these are reliable sources of truth. The Internet is wonderful in that it gives everyone a voice, and terrible in that it lacks any quality control or fact-checking requirement. “Mommy instincts” are great for skinned knees and stormy nights, but they aren’t reliable sources of truth–just ask any geeky kid whose mom says he’s the handsomest boy in his school, or any mom who thinks her college-bound daughter is pure and virginal as the driven snow. If “mommy instinct” were as reliable as Jenny seems to think, then there would be no need for pediatricians.

But she is a celebrity, and so is her boyfriend, and so they have the means and prestige to promote their arrogant, dangerous ignorance to a humongous audience of credulous people, and they are given equal standing with actual scientists, their ignorance pitted against actual evidence as though the two had similar claims to the truth. I’m all for celebrities having and sharing their opinions; what they shouldn’t be doing (and what our media shouldn’t be complicit in allowing them to do) is pretending that their SAG memberships make them authorities on anything more complicated than method acting. I applaud celebrities like Amanda Peet for standing up and giving the side of reason and science a voice, but I deplore a system and a society where the side with the most famous people on it is commonly believed to be the side with the truth.

So go ahead, put your kids at risk for dozens of debilitating, easily preventable diseases by putting your trust in this asshole:That's right, Batman fucking Forever.
Me, I’ll stick to science.

The Bible is Not an Objective Moral Standard

Why yes, this is my go-to image for discussions of morality. Why do you ask?Reading posts by Rhology have made me realize some of the problems involved in talking to people who believe their morals come from the Bible. There are several common refrains involved when arguing about this–“atheists have no basis for morality,” “without an objective morality/absolute moral code, you can’t judge other people’s morals,” “everyone has inborn morals from God, even if they don’t believe in him”–all of which are bound to pop up in any argument about secular morals. These all generally lead back to the point that God (and/or/through the Bible) provides a perfect and objective moral standard, without any of the problems that come from trying to define and justify a moral system in the absence of a deity. This idea is simply false: the Bible is emphatically not an objective moral standard; in fact, it fails in each of those points.

We’ll tackle “standard” first, since it’s the easiest. What moral standard does the Bible provide? Do we take our morals only from the explicit commandments, or should we learn by example from the various heroes and virtuous people?

If we are to learn only from the explicit commandments, then we run into a problem right away: there are an awful lot of apparent moral quandaries that never get discussed in the Bible. Are there moral implications of genetic engineering? Cybernetics? Overpopulation? Pollution? Birth control? Phone sex? Organ transplants? Euthanasia? Where the Bible touches on these issues, it does so only in the most broad, vague, and tangential fashions; there are no specific instructions on whether or not children should be given mood-altering drugs, no specific answers to questions about the introduction of novel organisms into foreign ecosystems. Are we to assume that the only moral issues are the ones that the Bible discusses directly? Is the choice to vaccinate your child morally neutral and equivalent to the choice to leave them unvaccinated? These are serious questions of real-life issues, on which the Bible is silent, preferring instead to tell us how best to combine goats and milk (Ex. 34:26) and the taxonomy of eunuchs (Mt. 19:12). Is there really no morally preferable choice in any of those situations?

So, perhaps we are meant to also learn from example. If that’s the case, then what lessons should we take away from the heroes’ stories? Take Jephthah, for instance. He makes a deal with God that if God helps him win in battle against the Ammonites, then he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes through his doorway when he returns home. Naturally, after the successful battle, his daughter comes out to greet him. There’s no Abraham/Isaac cop-out in this story: Jephthah follows through with his promise to God. So do we read this story as a cautionary tale about the price of testing God, or do we read it as a positive example of what the faithful should be willing to do in the name of the Lord? There’s enough material outside the story to support both interpretations; which moral should we be receiving?

We could find similar quandaries with any number of Biblical characters–Joseph, Elisha, Solomon, Samson, etc.–maybe we shouldn’t be learning from all of their examples. So which characters should we be learning from? I suspect that Christians would say we ought not be following in the footsteps of Thomas, refusing to believe in the extraordinary until extraordinary evidence is provided to support the claims (despite the corroborating commandment of 1 Thessalonians 5:21). There are a litany of characters who are willing–even eager–to sacrifice their children based on God’s say-so, from Lot to Abraham to Jephthah to Yahweh, which suggests to me that according to Biblical morals, there’s nothing wrong with what Deanna Laney or Andrea Yates Dena Schlosser did*. Or perhaps we shouldn’t be learning from those particular examples. And what about the big guy himself? Should we be taking lesssons from God’s actions, or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of father figure? After all, God does some pretty nasty stuff over the course of the Bible, commanding and committing genocide and inflicting plagues and so forth. Even the “do as I say” bit is difficult, given all the places where God issues direct commands that conflict with earlier laws and commandments (such as the various exhortations to kill women and children, contradicting the whole “thou shalt not murder” bit). Do you do as he said before, or as he’s saying now–what was written in stone, or what was given in a vision? This would be a lot easier if each of the real commandments started with “Simon Says.”

Hitting on that point of contradictory commandments, we see quite a few such things throughout the Bible. There are places where some moral imperatives issued by the book contradict others, there are places where heroes’ explicit flaunting of those imperatives is cast in a positive light, and then there are places where God issues edicts that directly conflict with previously-issued laws and edicts. How can we call this set of morals a “standard” if it is internally inconsistent, and if God can change it on a whim? Or is the only standard “what God says goes”? If it’s the latter point, then how do we determine what God’s message is, given contradictory passages in the Bible and stories with ambiguous moral teachings? How do we distinguish between actual commands from God and paranoid delusions? After all, Dena Schlosser believed that God had told her to cut off her daughter’s arms, which isn’t exactly out of character for the God of the Bible (Mark 9:43, for instance); can we say with any degree of certainty whether or not she was actually receiving instructions from Yahweh?

This segues nicely into the issue of objectivity**. In short, there isn’t any. In long, we have to make some distinctions here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is an omnipotent universe-creating God who has some idea of morality in his big giant head, and cares whether or not we follow it. To this end, he communicates with some Middle Eastern nomads through bushes and tablets, plays some role in their writing of a bunch of books full of teachings and laws, then later comes down himself to tell stories and make pronouncements which also eventually get written down. At this point, we could conceivably have three distinct moral codes: What-God-Thinks, What-God-Said, and What-Got-Recorded. In any human communication, these three things would be different–perhaps only subtly, but certainly different. What one thinks might be more nuanced and detailed than what one says, which may lose some inflection or connotation in the transition to writing (or may gain additional ones through the addition of punctuation and other conventions), not to mention that the writers are filtering what-one-says through their own perceptions. But, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that God is super-awesome and communicated everything pertinent about his thoughts on morality to his various followers, who recorded these thoughts accurately–to make things simple (too late), we’ll assume that the Bible (as it was written) accurately and completely represents God’s moral codes, that What-God-Thinks and What-Got-Recorded are the same.

That’s all well and good, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. Even assuming that God is perfect and infallible and a fantastic communicator, and assuming that his secretaries were all very thorough and accurate, the morals aren’t doing much good until they’re read. The process of reading is where any lingering objectivity goes right out the window. I’ll refer you to my post on communication for the lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, each person who reads the Bible is going to read it in the particular context of their own knowledge, culture, and experiences. These contextual differences are going to have profound impacts on the message that the person receives***.

Take, for example, Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not murder.” On the face of it, that’s pretty straightforward. “Murder” is a more specific term than, say, “kill” (which some translations use instead); “murder” implies some degree of intent, ruling out accidental deaths, and is usually reserved for humans, ruling out killing animals and plants and the like. It would seem that the Sixth Commandment is pretty cut-and-dry.

It’s not. It doesn’t take more than a brief application of common sense to realize that, either. Even legally, “murder” is a broad term, and the difference between it and manslaughter is often a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

Consider this: is it murder to kill someone who is trying to kill you? Legally, it isn’t; it’s self-defense. What if you’re killing someone who is trying to kill someone else, some innocent? If you could demonstrate that that person was a clear and present danger, then it’d be a pretty clear case of justifiable homicide. Is it murder to kill someone who is not attacking you, but has threatened or promised to kill you? Is there such a thing as pre-emptive self-defense? What if you think they’ve threatened you, or you just feel threatened by them? Is there a hard-and-fast line where it isn’t self-defense anymore? What if someone’s mere existence threatens your life–if you’re trapped on a raft or in the wilderness with another person, with only enough resources for one of you to survive, is it murder to kill the other person? Is it murder to continue living, ensuring that person’s death?

This is, of course, ignoring other pertinent questions–is it murder to kill an enemy in war? What about the unborn? Is abortion murder? Is it murder to dispose of unused frozen zygotes from in vitro fertilization? Is execution murder? Is it murder if you don’t act to prevent someone’s death when it’s in your power to do so? If someone who is already facing imminent-but-painful death begs you for a quick and painless one that you are able to provide, would it be murder to kill them? Would it be wrong? I guarantee, for nearly all of these questions, that one can easily find Bible-believing Christians on every conceivable side.

Some of this may seem like splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about moral philosophy, it’s that it exists specifically to split those hairs. The whole point of moral philosophy is to provide answers–or at least reasoned arguments–regarding these tough hair-splitting moral questions. We don’t generally have much problem reasoning out the right thing to do in the obvious situations; it’s the ones that walk the lines, the no-win scenarios, and whatnot that cause moral anxiety.

Can the Bible be an objective moral standard if it doesn’t provide specific guidance on these questions? If it doesn’t provide a specific, detailed definition of murder (for instance), then how are we to determine what we shalt not do in these difficult situations? We started by assuming that God included his morals, completely and perfectly, in the Bible, but can any moral system be considered complete or perfect under any reasonable definition of either term if it leaves so much open to subjective interpretation?

It ends up being like the disagreement between Creationists regarding where to draw the line between “fully ape” and “fully human” when presented with the progression of transitional hominids. When a worldview that only admits binary options is presented with a continuum, dividing that spectrum up into those two absolute options is a subjective and arbitrary process. If the Bible had said “So God created man in his own image, which was upright and somewhat hairy and with a prominent sloping brow, and…,” those Creationists might have had more agreement. Similarly, if the Bible said “Thou shalt not murder, which includes but is not limited to…,” these questions might be answered more objectively within Biblical morality.

Or, rather than presenting us with the broad, general rules and expecting us to deduce the specifics, the more useful moral standard would provide us with a litany of specific situations and allow us to induce the generalizations. Sure, it would make the Bible exponentially longer, but after three hundred pages of various specific killing scenarios, it’d be pretty easy to reason “wow, God doesn’t much seem to like murder.” Instead, we have the general statement, which leaves us wondering “gee, what does God think about euthanasia?” and the like.

And this is where the Bible fails on the “moral” point. Even disregarding the bits of the Bible that no sane person would call “moral,” the Bible fails as a moral guide because it provides no clear guidance on any of these moral issues. Even if the Bible is a full and accurate description of God’s moral sense, it is not a complete guide to the morals that a human would need. We face moral issues that are apparently beneath God’s notice, and in these cases we must make our own decisions, we must determine the moral options for ourselves. And the fact that we are able to do this on an individual level (e.g., euthanasia) and on a social one (e.g., self-defense and justifiable homicide legal exceptions) completely invalidates the supposed need for an objective moral standard. The Christian’s claim that morality requires the Bible falls apart once one realizes that we routinely face moral quandaries for which the Bible offers no clear answer. The moral decisions we are required to make on our own are far more varied, nuanced, and difficult than the morals that are prescribed in the Bible; if we can make moral decisions in the vast gray areas and unpleasant scenarios of the real world, then I can’t see how the broad generalizations like “thou shalt not murder” would present any sort of problem. As I mentioned above, it would be much easier to induce the general rules from the specific situations than to deduce the moral options in specific situations from a general rule. The morals provided by the Bible are the simplest building blocks, the things we can all agree on and end up at independently (and, incidentally, things that most cultures have done independently), based on the much more complex situations we run across in the real world.

Where in the Bible we are meant to find morals is unclear; the stories are ambiguous, the commandments are overly general and often irrelevant, and there is little (if any) consistency. Most of the moral-making is ultimately left up to subjective interpretation, and the application of those morals is a matter for personal and social determination. The Bible does not provide the objective moral standard which so many of its adherents proclaim, and the notion that it is a necessary component for humans to have morals is self-refuting as a result. Moral philosophy, cultural anthropology, sociology, and biology have given us insights into how we make morals on the levels of the individual and as a society, and how moral codes and consciences developed in social animals. They have provided us with a way to develop our own systems of values, which then provide a way of distinguishing right from wrong in those situations where the division is indistinct. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have allowed us the freedom to do what people do (and indeed must do, regardless of their religious convictions) already–examine and evaluate their own values and come to their own conclusions–without the threat of damnation hanging over them should they make the wrong choice. Morals come not from above, but from within; they are a result of our individual instincts and our interactions with one another. Consequently, we are held responsible, made to account for our moral decisions, by ourselves and each other, not some external arbiter. The only “objective moral standard” is the one we set ourselves.

*Some theists would likely say that these people were not actually receiving instructions from God, even though they believed they were. I’d like to know how they make that distinction. After all, can’t the same be said for Jephthah or Abraham? If you accept those stories, then you certainly can’t claim that it’s not within God’s character to demand a parent to sacrifice his or her child–Abraham certainly believed that this was something that God would command, and the Jephthah story confirms Abraham’s conviction. On what grounds can we claim with any kind of certainty that Abraham and Jephthah were actually receiving instructions from God to violate the “thou shalt not murder” commandment, while Dena Schlosser and Andrea Yates were schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill?

**There’s a further issue here with the definition of “objective,” which could probably warrant its own post. Generally, things that are “objective” are the things that can be verified through application of fact or reason. “Chocolate is brown” is an objective fact (admittedly with some definition-associated wiggle room), subject to verification or falsification; “chocolate is delicious” is a subjective opinion, which is not subject to proof or disproof. What, precisely, makes God’s opinion on morals objective? Why would his opinion be any less subjective than anyone else’s? Yes, God is more powerful, but what application of power can make subjective opinion into objective fact? God’s opinions are not subject to verification or falsification; they are as inaccessible to us as anyone else’s opinions. We can know them only by being told directly, by the subject, what the opinions are–and that runs us again into the problem of communication and interpretation.

Yeah, this is definitely fodder for another post.

***I’ve omitted here another pertinent issue: the matter of translation and copying. Long before anyone reading it today can get a chance to interpret the Bible, it has already been filtered through multiple interpreters. We know from the historical record that the Bible has been subject to multiple alterations (intentional and unintentional) through the copying process, many of which were due to various dogmas and ideologies of centuries past. The translators are working from copies that are many generations removed from any originals, and which have built into them many of the copying errors and alterations from the past. Those translators must then make their own interpretations when choosing the best words in one language to convey ideas expressed in another. There is rarely (if ever) a 1=1 correspondence between languages, especially ones as distantly related as modern English and ancient Greek. Each idea in the original could be phrased any number of ways in the translation, and each translated version will be different depending on what the translator decided to emphasize–was her intent to preserve the closest literal meaning of the text, or to convey the poetry, or to try to present the concepts as clearly as possible with less regard to the particular language, or did she have another motive for her choices? For an example of how much impact this kind of interpretive choice has on a text, try opening up up any two versions of “The Iliad.”

Heart Burned

Ooh, barracuda!Prompted by a recent post at Pharyngula, I got to thinking again about one of my more recent (and growing) pet peeves: “the heart.” Now, I’m as poetic as the next guy; I don’t have much problem with throwing around “the heart” as the figurative and symbolic center of emotion and passion (though I’m starting to). But I have a big problem with people who don’t understand the “figurative” aspect of that. I’m tired of being told to “think with my heart,” or that some quality “resides in the heart,” or that the heart has special powers of perception or thought or consideration separate from the brain. I’m tired of hearing that the heart is some magical receptacle of emotion-based ancient wisdom, which the brain is incapable of understanding.

The heart is an organ, like any other, with a set of functions, like any other. It’s a bundle of muscle and valves and other assorted tissues that pumps blood through your body. That’s it. All your feelings, thoughts, emotions, wisdom, and knowledge resides solely and completely in the wrinkly organ in your noggin. There’s nothing the heart does which cannot be understood by the brain. The heart does not think, does not experience or produce emotion, does not see or perceive, does not love, does not have tattoos on it, does not experience partial or total eclipses, is not like a wheel, and most certainly will not allow you to talk to animals or summon Captain Planet.

The heart is an amazing organ and a kickass band, but it’s not the magic four-chambered room where your wise and emotional soul lives. Any suggestions to the contrary are either metaphorical or misguided, and it would be wise not to mix the two.

The Day the Terrorists Won

Six years ago today I was moving from class to class, a Senior in High School, trying to catch the latest news as it came in. The attacks happened just before the start of the school day, as I was settling into my Biology II classroom. The science teachers were listening to the radio in the little office that adjoined the two lab rooms, and at some point my Bio teacher brought in a TV.

We watched the continuous news feed, where reporters tried to hide their panic as they broadcast every piece of news and rumor as it came in. There’s another plane circling over the Atlantic, there was a bomb in the Pentagon, there was a mysterious truck parked outside the White House, and so on. Information got distorted through a lens of fear and confusion.

If I learned anything in my classes that day, I’ve long since forgotten. But there was a lesson to be learned on 9/11, and sadly few ever paid it any attention.

The purpose of terrorism is not to kill large numbers of people, it is not to strike at guarded targets in order to cripple military might. The purpose of terrorism is to incite fear. Terrorists are not powerful armies, they are not superpowers, they are not nations. At best, they are guerrilla soldiers fighting dirty against superior numbers and superior firepower; usually they are loose confederations of desperate individuals united against some common enemy. They are mice against lions, relying primarily on psychological power. By making the lion cower in a corner, the mouse can claim an uncontested victory.

Look at our nation, six years later. We have given in to fear, to panic, to that fluttering terror that gripped us when we first saw the footage of the symbolism-laden attacks. We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by power-hungry politicians and corrupt corporations. We have traded our essential freedoms–against warrantless wiretapping, against unlawful searches, against imprisonment without representation and due process, against cruel and unusual punishment, and so on–for the mere promise–the empty, unfulfilled promise of temporary security. And when we have thought to speak up, to cry out, to make a stand and say no more, we have stepped aside every time, for fear of being called “unpatriotic.”

We have allowed an idiot to lead us into an unnecessary war, needlessly spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and bringing the criminals behind 9/11 no closer to justice. We have allowed his cronies to run roughshod over the Constitution, and to fill the highest levels of government with people who refuse to be held accountable for their actions, who undermine checks and balances at every turn, who commit high crimes and misdemeanors and laugh at our inaction. And we have allowed–encouraged!–it all to happen under the banner of “9/11.”

We have lived six years in fear, planted by nineteen hijackers and carefully cultivated by a corrupt government. The time has long since come to suck up our pride, to recognize our mistakes, and to take responsibility for them. The time has long since come to bring our young men and women home from an endless war, to actually do something about national and international security, and to take back our rights and our country from the people who have perverted and purloined it. Foreign terrorists won on September 11, 2001, and they got away with it. Let’s make sure that the domestic terrorists, who have won every day since, aren’t so lucky.