Skeptic » eSkeptic » April 29, 2015

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


How to Clone a Mammoth:
The Science of De-Extinction

Sunday, May 3, 2015 at 2 pm (PST)
Baxter Hall, Caltech

Dr. Beth Shapiro (photo by Kris Krug)

Credit: Kris Krüg

COULD EXTINCT SPECIES, like mammoths and passenger pigeons, be brought back to life? According to evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro, the science says yes. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used to resurrect the past. Journeying to far-flung Siberian locales in search of ice age bones and delving into her own research and that of others, Shapiro considers de-extinction’s practical benefits and ethical challenges. Would de-extinction change the way we live? Is this really cloning? What are the costs and risks? And what is the ultimate goal?

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order the book from Amazon.

TICKETS are available first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

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Double-Exposure in the Back Seat

Blake Smith turns to face a mysterious figure in the back seat.

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Donald Prothero
Reflections on Earth Day

Donald Prothero shares a personal reflection on what he sees as the "bittersweet occasion" of Earth Day.

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The Collision Between Religious Freedom and Gay Rights

Imagine for a moment that you are a Jewish baker who owns a small bakery. One day a couple enters your establishment and orders a wedding cake to be adorned with swastikas and the likeness of Adolf Hitler. They explain that they are neo-Nazis inspired by the marriage of the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, attended by the Führer himself. You are of course offended and decline the job. Is it your legal right to refuse service to a neo-Nazi couple? If you answer in the affirmative, would you apply the same reasoning to a gay couple who requested a wedding cake adorned with two men or two women? Are these not the same moral and legal issues?

Skeptic Magazine 2.4 (cover)

I think not. Discrimination on the basis of what you believe versus who you are constitutes different moral categories. For example, I am the publisher of a science magazine called Skeptic, which analyzes controversial claims of various kinds, from creationism and climate change to vaccinations and diets. In the mid 1990s we published an issue of Skeptic that analyzed the claims of self-professed Holocaust “revisionists”—those who believe that six million Jews were not gassed or shot in concentration camps and that the Nazis never intended to exterminate European Jewry. Despite our thorough debunking of their claims, one of the organizations contacted our offices to place an advertisement in the magazine promoting their cause. We declined to accept their business. By contrast, I would not refuse the advertising business of a black or gay organization simply because of the nature of the people running it. The difference is between what someone believes and who someone is.

Historically, the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice because we have stopped treating people based on who they are by nature, such as gender, race, and most recently by sexual preference. The recent legal imbroglio over the right of businesses in Indiana and other states to refuse service to people based on their sexual preference (gay versus straight) illuminates how quickly this rights revolution is unfolding. Compared to the abolition of slavery and torture, the granting of the franchise to blacks and women, and the civil rights and women’s rights movements, the gay rights and same-sex marriage revolution is arguably the fastest in history. How did this come about, who supported it and who resisted it, and what more needs to be done to complete it?

As recently as 1960 all homosexual acts in the U.S. were illegal, except in Illinois where the first gay rights organization was founded and where sodomy was decriminalized in 1961. At that time homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness and gay people were subjected to various forms of aversive therapy. If police caught a man engaged in “lewd” behavior, his name, age, and even home address could be published in the newspaper. Bars and clubs where gays and lesbians were known to hang out were frequently raided; the police would barge in, the music would stop, the lights would go up, IDs would be checked, and men who were suspected of masquerading as women could be taken into the washrooms by female officers and checked. New York’s penal code stated that people had to wear at least three pieces of clothing befitting their gender, or face arrest.

Then came the Stonewall riots, the legendary flashpoint that for many marks the true beginning of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn was a grotty, mafia-owned gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in New York City. On the night of June 28, 1969, several police officers descended on the inn to conduct a raid in the customary manner but, this time, the patrons fought back. They stood their ground and refused to cooperate, becoming increasingly rowdy and taunting the officers with openly affectionate behavior and a chorus line of drag queens. It wasn’t long before a sympathetic crowd joined Stonewall patrons and, as the story goes, after one woman was dragged out in handcuffs and struck over the head with a billy club, the gathering erupted in anger.

The Stonewall riots have come to be understood as the high noon of the gay civil rights movement, not only in the United States, but around the world. A year after the uprising, on June 28, 1970, participants marched in the first gay pride parade on a route that went from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park; they were joined by supporters marching in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Now every year, pride marches commemorating Stonewall are held in cities all over the world, in countries as unlikely as Uganda, Turkey, and Israel.

What’s become known simply as Stonewall happened almost 50 years ago—so what progress has been made since then? First, the good news: in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Officially acknowledging that gays and lesbians aren’t actually insane was a necessary first step in changing attitudes toward them, and attitudes most certainly have changed. In many parts of the world, homophobia is coming to be regarded as offensive as racism.

Other arenas have also seen positive changes for LGBT citizens—including for personnel in the U.S. military. Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) was the official policy of the U.S. government from 1994 until 2011 that allowed closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel to serve, but only under the constant threat of immediate expulsion if they accidentally slipped up and revealed their true identities. President Obama signed legislation that repealed the policy on December 22, 2010. Professional gay athletes have been coming out of the closet, as have politicians, and in at least a handful of countries gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are allowed to marry, form families, and have children. There are now at least 15 countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, including Uruguay, Denmark, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand, and in the U.S. a majority of states and citizens agree that it is acceptable and legal for gays to marry.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life the percentage of those who favor same-sex marriage is highest among the youth (Millennials) and religiously unaffiliated and lowest among older Americans and white evangelical Protestants. As the “religious freedom” laws indicate in their name, it is religion more than anything else that drives people to harden their hearts. Forty years after it was determined that homosexuality is not a mental illness, many Christian preachers, writers, and theologians still think nothing of tormenting the LGBT community by telling them that their desire to love another person of the same sex is an abomination and a disease that can be “cured” through “treatment” known as reparative therapy. The religious extremists who continue to press for such therapies fail to understand that being gay is like being left-handed—it’s not something that requires an intervention. Many Christians actually believe they are being charitable by proclaiming that they “hate the sin, not the sinner,” which is not dissimilar to what Christians declared just before torching women as witches in order to save their souls, or when Christians called for pogroms against Jews for being Christ-killers.

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (book over)

Visit the Moral Arc website for more information about the book, or click one of the following to order the book right now from Amazon, Shop Skeptic, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, iBooks, Kobo, and IndieBound.

Mark my words: I predict that within a few years, a decade at most, Christians will come around to treating gay men and lesbians no differently from how they now treat other groups whom they previously persecuted—women, Jews, blacks. This change will not occur because of some new interpretation of a biblical passage or because of a new revelation from God. These changes will come about the same way that they always do: by the oppressed minority fighting for the right to be treated equally, and by enlightened members of the oppressing majority supporting their cause. Then Christian churches will take credit for the civil liberation of the gay community, rummage through the historical record and find those preachers who had the courage and the character to stand up for gay rights when their fellow Christians would not, and then cite those as evidence that, were it not for Christianity, gay people would still be in the closet.

Whoever gets the credit, however, the gay rights revolution is nearing completion. When the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the case in a few months they could establish precedence for all states to follow with the recognition of full rights for the LGBT citizens of this nation. The time has come. END

About the Author

Michael Shermer is Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. This article appears in Michael Shermer’s Moral Arc Blog today.

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  1. Brian says:

    Michael, for somebody who is usually so good at logical thinking, it’s amazing how your logic can break down so quickly once the subject becomes an emotional one for you, or possibly political, or (insert motive here). You state that the two examples you cited are different, but this is ONLY because you have decided who is a morally objectionable person in these cases, and of course, YOUR morality must be the correct one. If you can decide that somebody believing in the virtues of the Nazi culture is morally reprehensible, and in turn refuse them service, then somebody else should be able to make a similar decision and decide that somebody who believes that the gay lifestyle and gay marriage are morally reprehensible and at odds with their moral beliefs. This is often so typical of people – as long as everybody agrees with YOUR version of morality, then it’s all good, but you’re fine with taking away the rights of others when you don’t agree with THEIR version. If you want to fight this battle, that’s fine, it’s your right, but please be genuine and don’t try to convince yourself and others that you’re not discriminating in the same way as what you’re fighting against. We all have rights that should he upheld. Gays should have the right to marriage when a state decides this is what the people want, and in turn people with various religious beliefs should be allowed to maintain their rights to live their lives in accordance with their own belief system. The Constitution gives us these rights. If you can’t see this, then you’re a hypocrite.

    • Phil Ma says:

      I agree. The two cases are the same because the persons are exercising their moral codes the same way. Depending on the moral lenses you see through, one can be called prejudice and the other moral.

      I think a good way to look at these is this – it’s not about the people participating in it but the fundamental nature of the cases. The neo-Nazis think they’re moral because they truly believe one race is superior, a religious person thinks gays are reprehensible because he truly believes in his bible. These are irrelevant in both cases, they’re wrong because the best research tell us we’re all the same, and being gay is normal; so it follows that treating people differently based on race and sexual orientation is discrimination.

      Again science can provide some objectivity and inform us about right and wrong.

      • Sean B says:

        What if the cake decorator was a republican and the customer a democrat? You might say that’s different, but many republicans tie their religious morality to the political beliefs, thus making a morality issue. What if the customer was of a different religion, say, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, or a Satanist? Would you say the decorator was exercising his/her religious freedom by turning them away? What of the customer was obese? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, then making it a morality issue.

        The two cases mentioned in the article are similar in one way, the cake decorator is offended. But the difference between the cases puts them well outside of the realm of comparable. Hitler and the Nazis were scum of the lowest sort hell-bent on genocide and plunged Europe, and the world, into a war that killed millions. A gay/lesbian couple is in a consensual relationship. Morality is not a yardstick by which a consensual act can be compared to genocide.

        A smart business man/woman would do the cake for the gay couple. Making it doesn’t equate to condoning their lifestyle, no more than a republican making it for a democrat constitutes acceptance of political views. Not making it risks the wrath of community. A friend of mine used to work in LA for the only moving company that accepted business from homosexuals (several decades back). Word got around and he was flooded with business. Now that’s smart.

  2. Menno says:

    I wonder what is behind the idea to commence an article about gay rights with a comparison with Nazi sympathies. It is not merely a matter of “discrimination on the basis of what you believe versus who you are”; it is far more than that:

    We have every good reason to oppose to all that the Nazi’s have brought to mankind – intolerance, racism, hatred, warfare, destruction and genocide. These are the reasons why these crimes are still remembered, to avoid them to be lost in history, forgotten, which might cause them to be repeated in some future time.

    On the other hand, what damage has been done to mankind by ‘gay people’, or by those defending their civil rights? These are not the ones to be dreaded, but rather those who use methods of hatred, aggression and violence in opposing them, for religious or ideological reasons – not unlike the Nazi’s – or merely because of animal instincts.

  3. Snortimer Merde says:

    The problem here is that amy ideology whatever that
    declares openly or by tacit understanding uhat

    “Inquiry in this matter is Prioof of Pathology”

    is a fundamemtal threat to freedom.


    An alternate statement is

    “You must be a very sick puppy to even ASK a question like that!!:

    In the particular situation of Gay ideology,
    the use of the coined term “Homophobe”
    needs to be looked at.

  4. Kenneth says:

    Brian ignores Michael’s distinction between “who they are” vs. “what they believe.” Brian might decide to argue instead that, given what we know about genetics, neuroscience, and psychology, “what they believe” might in fact be a part of “who they are.”

    Menno ignores that possibility that a group like the Nazis, without any known history from which to draw, could be detested for the same reasons. He also ignores some religionists’ arguments that gays indeed have caused harms and continue to threaten valuable ideals.

    • Sean B says:

      Would those religious arguments be that homosexual erode the moral fabric of society (unlike adulterous televangelists), and that homosexuality leads to pedophilia? If so, the first is merely a religious meme with no basis in fact, reflecting opinion only, and the second has been proven false. Those topics require a whole new article.

  5. Eghead says:

    Just a small distinction: the new Indiana law (which is still being contested) prevents business owners from being sued by people to whom they refused service based on his or her (the business owner’s) religious preferences. The reason why it is so hotly contested is exactly this nuance- it sounds as though religious discrimination is being legalized. The furor over this law on both sides of the political spectrum is clearly a reaction to the recently lifted ban on gay marriage in Indiana. As a native Hoosier, I rejoiced to hear that some progress is being made, and then slumped in somewhat predictable dejection as the conservatives propped up this featherbrained legislation.

  6. Brian says:

    Thank you Kenneth. I didn’t ignore Michael’s distinction, but rather made the mistake of assuming that people would understand that I didn’t agree with his separation of those two concepts. I should have explained my thinking further as you did so well, just to be safe, as you hit the nail on the head.

  7. John C. Hodge says:

    The constitution forbids the government from discriminating, not individuals. Government dictating behavior is gross government overreach – a cause of collapse. That the target is gays is irrelevant. Most of the conditions shown by previous collapsed civilizations are present in the US today. Joseph A. Tainter (“The Collapse of Complex Societies”, 1988, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York) more than 10.

    The rise of the “rights revolution” since JFK and LBJ correlates with the decline of the US as measured by income inequality. Income inequality (ratio of rich and poor incomes) was nearly constant before 1970 and has declined since 1970. Tainter’s measures have also worsened since 1970. Is there a cause-and-effect here? If so, the “rights revolution” rise means the decline of nature’s justice. The “rights revolution” is not justice.

    If the “rights revolution” is unfolding more quickly, the US is declining more quickly. Being a skeptic, I question the concept of justice stated herein. As the “Moral Arc” states in the first chapters, survival is the measure and the goal. A collapsing US is not survival.
    I suggest a method: Compare the morals of the actions (not the propaganda) of the US in the years from 1850 to 1900 (growth and survival increase) with the years from 1970 to now (collapse and death). The “rights revolution” shows poorly.

    • ScepticalScotty says:

      There were plenty of things that went on between 1850 and 1900 that were reprehensible. Lynchings, deliberate extermination of Native Americans, food adulteration en mass….etc etc..

      • John C. Hodge says:

        Reprehensible by the standards of the “rights revolution”. But the US grew! Data is data. the question we need to ask is why despite or because of the things you note.
        I offer that the philosophy of “equality of opportunity” of Lincoln is why the US grew. Now the “rights revolution” “equality of outcome” (derived from FDR’s 4 freedoms) is the reason for decline.
        I’d like to discuss this in reply to Mr. Allen, below.

  8. James Allen says:

    Mr. Hodge is correct,the US is declining. However, the rights revolution is the solution not the problem. The countries that embrace individual rights, free from religous and conservative philosophy, are on the rise. The US is looked upon by many as a hypocritical imperialist bully that says it wants freedom for all, tries to impose its view but ignores basic rights at home. You cannot impose democracy in Iraq, for example, while having specious voter fraud legislation. You espouse individual freedom when you deny any service based on gender or choice of a sexual partner. You cannot espouse religous freedom if the choice of being an athlest will prevent you from being elected. Other nations see this. True freedoms are practiced not talked about.

  9. jp says:

    Hi Brian. While I share your having a hard time with Shermer’s logical arguments – I can’t quite crystallize particularly what it is that seems off (perhaps because people, whether correct or not, often define who they are as a person by their beliefs or lack thereof) – I can’t quite agree with the moral relativism that you seem to propose, which is a trend in thinking that has grown over the past century or so due to (forgive me) relatively recent anthropological studies. The idea, or myth, of the ‘noble savage’ and its culture, is a typical approach used nowadays to justify an apparently wrong action or policy as “just as good as any other” action or policy. Here, the confrontation is between someone’s right to refuse service to a particular subset of people against every person’s right to be treated in a non-discriminatory fashion. In your view, it seems that a mere change in legislature is the only arbiter of what can be determined right or wrong. I tend to disagree with this, though it is of course my own opinion. I am in favor of the idea there is something definitively right and wrong, that it is not just arbitrary or relative, and that what is right and wrong should be determined by a mixture of reason and human compassion. In the case of this article, the refusal of publishing an endorsement of new age white supremacists is not the same, on a moral level, as refusing gay people from service – the former is moral to refuse because it is both highly unreasonable to claim any merit or authenticity to the argument that Jews were never persecuted, given what evidence we have, as well as showing a complete lack of compassion and regard for the people being discussed; the latter is immoral to refuse because there is no logical reason that homosexuals should be refused service (unless you count “the Bible told me so” as an appropriate “reason”), and seems entirely to lack compassion to an entire subset of people. I am not naïve enough to think that there are absolutes, but I do think approximations in ethics can be made, and they must, again, be made with reason and compassion. We would not stand for it today if restaurants tried to segregate their services; this is a backwards step in the ethical landscape, and would not be considered a ‘right’ for people to refuse people ‘of color’ simply because it is legal to do so or because it is the will of the people of, say, Dothan, Alabama.

    In short, what I disagree with Shermer about is that what makes the moral difference between the refusal of publishing white supremacist material on the one hand and the refusal of allowing your services to a subset of people based on your beliefs on the other, is not the beliefs of what one is vs. what one believes, but it is rather the difference in the subject matter being proposed, how the conclusions were drawn, and whether these conclusions promote compassion and understanding. It is how we derive the claims of our beliefs, and not the beliefs themselves, that should have a say in our moral outlook.

    I do agree with Shermer that, in about a decade or so, people will look back and think how awful it was for us to even think about discriminating against others because of their beliefs or practices (see the irony there?). I would not impose my values on others, but I think the reciprocal should hold true as well: others’ religious beliefs should not be imposed on me (or, in this case, ‘them’, as I am not gay).

  10. C. Van Carter says:

    You fail to present an actual argument, you merely declare approval of homosexuality inevitable. Even if true, that does not mean homosexuality should be approved, let alone require bakers to bake gay-wedding cakes.

    “we have stopped treating people based on who they are by nature”

    Homoaversion is often natural, yet you wish punish those who were born that way, and you demand they change.

  11. Brian says:

    Thanks JP, a well written response, and your idea of approximation of ethics is an interesting one. For the record, I would rather not have us legislate things like this, but in this case, the protection became necessary because of our court system. This case here is a poster child for such abuse: My issue is still that we can’t decide what the moral values of others should be, and impinge on their rights to live their lives based on their own personal moral code. It is not harming a gay couple to not bake a cake for them – they could simply walk down the street to the next bakery and have a cake baked there, where the baker has different values or maybe needs the money. This idea that the couple is being harmed in some way is patently ridiculous. Nobody is forcing them to do anything, as opposed to the opposite side of this, where we’re forcing the baker to violate their personal moral code. Your argument seems to point to levels of reasonable right to refusal, but that’s not valid, since we all have different moral codes. Let’s use a different example – say for instance that you run a business that is a cleaning company for other businesses. A club that features full nudity and various lewd acts wants you to come in and clean their club, however, they are open 24/7, so the cleaner would have to be cleaning in an environment that is very disturbing to them and their moral guidelines. Should that person be forced to perform this service for this company if they don’t want to be subjected to that? You’re probably thinking no, because in THIS case, it crosses your ethical line. But that’s YOUR line, and your line, or the line of a judge in a courtroom, can’t be foisted upon the rest of the population, since we all have different lines. In the end, our own individual rights should be protected, including not serving somebody when it goes against their moral code.

  12. John C. Hodge says:

    James Allen and ScepticalScotty have some points that I’d like to address.

    “The US is looked upon by many as a hypocritical imperialist bully …”. Mr. Allen is correct only because the US is a hypocritical imperialist bully. The true export is not democracy but totalitarian or aristocratic government. Note the support of Hussan, the King of Iran, the king of Saudi Arabia, etc. We didn’t like the democratically elected government of Egypt, so we supported a military coup. Our government looks upon the world to impose by force its own views. Little wonder the people revolt against the totalitarian and aristocratic governments we impose.

    Mr. Allen is addressing the issue of what is required for growth rather than decline.

    The late 19th century had a philosophy of “equality of opportunity” from Lincoln. The philosophy if last 50 years of the FDR’s 4 freedoms or “equality of outcome” that was pushed by JFK and the “rights revolution”. The growth philosophy of “equality of opportunity” includes the idea that those that fail in a competitive environment get their reward of decline and death.

    If Tainter’s characteristics are of collapse, the opposite may point to survival – a measure of the moral arc. Another of Tainter’s characteristics of decline is the rise of coercion by a federal authority. If coercion causes decline, the freedom of individuals causes rise and survival – as Mr. Allen suggests. The problems with the “rights revolution” are not what the morals are, but the appeal to the federal government to coerce the morals on individuals and the “equality of outcome” that rewards failure. If freedom advances survival, than lack of freedom and coercion retards survival.

    The true freedom is the ability of individuals to vote with their feet. If states have different laws concerning the various components of the “rights revolution”, the individuals can vote with their feet. The coercion of a federal authority of one rule for all is destructive.

  13. jp says:

    Hi Brian. Thanks for your response. It is wonderfully refreshing to have a coherent, rational debate. I see what you’re getting at (I think) as far as our own subjective notions are concerned in what constitutes our individual moralities. You are arguing that there can be no objective framework of ethics because we all subjectively arrive at varying starting points. If I were a fundamentalist Christian I would likely arrive at the premise that homosexuality is a sin and that serving them would violate my personal rights/beliefs. Conversely, if I were a member of the LGBT community I would have a rather different outlook and find it offensive that my services should be refused. Who is to say which is right? We might as well just agree to disagree and let bygones be.

    I can make any conclusion seem logical if I make the assumption that such and such premise is true. If the premise is indeed true, the logical structure is concluded to contain a ‘sound’ argument. So the task is to arrive at premises that seem true so we can make some sort of sense out of what the right conclusions are to be drawn. Perhaps moral premises can never be stated as “true” outright per se, but as I stated before, I do think approximations of what seems most likely to be true can be found to help us arrive at the right conclusions. If you’re going to argue with a starting premise that homosexuality is a sin because it is “not natural”, or “not in congruence with my religious dogma” then we can’t just take that at face value; we have to examine the premises in question, not just lay a down lazy claim that their argument is every bit as sound as any other. In the former case, there are plenty of things that are “not natural” that are supremely beneficial, such as medication, the building of houses, etc (and I believe Russell once noted that somehow Christians don’t see a priest’s celibacy as “not natural”). In the latter case, are we taking religious dogma to be a guide to our moralities? Indeed not so, as there are many religious people that have come to interpret their faith to allow for more tolerance. This may not be symbolic of the overall feelings of the people who follow the faith, but it nonetheless shows that religious dogma is extremely malleable and is thus not a sufficient guide to ethics and reasoning (at least, not by itself).

    So again, and maybe I’m running around in circles here, I think the gist of it is this: the premises claimed need to be critically scrutinized as objectively and biased free as is possible (that is, as much as is possible for mammals like ourselves) that allows for both reason and compassion to play a critical role in our final conclusions that are derived.

    Of course, if someone is going to argue for the unreasonableness of reason, or the irrationality of rational discourse, or the well being of someone as not being important, then I’m afraid there’s nothing I can say to otherwise convince him/her/them. That is, if I were to ask whether throwing acid in the face of women who attempt to educate themselves is wrong, and I am responded to with “well, it depends”, then there really is no discourse that can be had (I know, I am using a fairly obvious case, but you’d be surprised how many people will respond in that way).

    Anyhow, a pleasure this has been. Looking forward to your response!


    re brian (1st comment) There is no such thing as a gay lifestyle. It is not a style any more than being tall or black is.

  15. Brian says:

    Daniel, good point, bad choice of words.

    JP, I think we actually agree on most of what we’re discussing here. I see your point that the gay community (and broader community as well of course) could view a refusal of service as morally wrong as well. So now we have a clash of morality. What I’m more concerned with than anything else is the rights of the individuals though, and religion doesn’t really play into that, other than the need to protect those freedoms and rights, just like the freedoms of gays and others should be protected. I believe the Indiana law was passed as a result of cases like the one I cited above, where businesses were getting sued out of existence simply because they were exercising their right not to serve somebody. And to me, the rights of a business owner trumps that of an individual. I just don’t believe a business should be forced to do something they don’t want to do, when it goes against their convictions or morality. In this example, the gay person can go to another bakery – but the business doesn’t have any recourse to protect their rights, and this law protects them from being sued as a result. I think the hysteria over this law was blown way out of proportion – comparisons like Michael’s to racial segregation have no place here, because that’s not remotely what we’re talking about. Fear plays into this, where people think some religious war is being waged – when in fact, these businesses just want to exist in peace, without being forced to provide a service they don’t want to. Is it really right that a business should be fined $135,000 for refusing service, and most likely forced out of business? How does that pass the litmus test? This law simply protects against that, but doesn’t give the right to blatant discrimination as people fear, which we also can all agree would be wrong. I think people on both sides of this issue overreact, and both sides are guilty of bullying in the end. But the bottom line is that the rights of individuals and businesses should be protected and upheld. Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) has been vocal in his opposition of the Indiana law, and yet his own company refuses to allow certain religious apps to be sold in their app store, simply because they don’t agree with the message of those apps. I am fine with this, as we all should be, because that should be the right of this company to make that decision. But it’s hypocritical of him to then come down on other businesses who don’t want to perform a service based on religious or moral convictions.

    By the way, I also agree with John that equality of opportunity doctrine is very dangerous, but this is mostly based on empirical observation, so I can’t really say more.

    • John C. Hodge says:

      Equality of opportunity is dangerous but most succeed, survive, and grow.
      Equality of outcome seems nicer in the short term, but most die with the collapse.
      Country folk can survive without city folk. City folk cannot survive without the country folk. When Rome collapsed, the city folk died. If the decade prediction is correct (I hope not), our grand children will have a very hard time if they are in the cities. They die.

  16. jp says:

    Hello again Brian. I feel like I drone on and on and I will do my best to keep things short and sweet whilst addressing the issues you raised.

    First, I should say that I disagree with you regarding Michael’s comparison of racial bigotry with gay rights, at least in some respects. I should qualify this by stating that in no way do I think that gay people have suffered to the same degree as African Americans – though this might be the result of the fact that it’s easier to hide your sexual orientation in an oppressive society than it is the color of your skin, and thus harder to determine the amount of latent suffering undergone by homosexuals – but in principle the ideology behind why people refuse to serve a subset of an out-group is fundamentally the same. There were undoubtedly people who propped the Bible’s passages on slavery as a defense to keep their economic system going prior to abolition, but they are nowhere to be found now because the majority of society has become nauseated at the concept. Now we have an instance where, again, people are using their faith to defend the segregation of yet another out-group. As you stated, fear does play into this, but I suspect it plays at least as much into those refusing to service homosexuals – the fear of losing yet another aspect of their faith. Obviously this last part is purely conjectural, but I do not see it as wholly unreasonable given the history of past concessions the Church has made to capitulate to a more modern reality (and no, just want to say, I don’t necessarily think that all things modern are good, or that all of tradition is bad).

    I actually had a discussion with my father about this very topic; he is a minister, has been most of his adult life. We often have these conversations, and when I approached him on this comparison, he became indignant and red-hot and offended. He thought I was calling him a bigot, and I must admit it was a very hard discussion to have with him. I told him that I didn’t think he was a bigot, and that I was sure that many otherwise very good, noble people 200 years ago probably found every reason in the world to justify slavery, but it still didn’t mean they weren’t wrong about slavery. Good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes.

    This is, admittedly, a hard conversation to have and emotions become tense and sometimes strained to the breaking point, and I am sympathetic to this, but it is important to keep this kind of dialogue open and rational. I do agree with your point about the outrageous fine, however. A $135,000 fine, to me, makes it seem like this decision was an easy one to make, but there is a lot of tricky terrain in the realm of public discourse that needs to be navigated before we come to any rash conclusions about the penalties we are hashing out.

    Every one of us has to deal with people we don’t like; at the work place, in bars, at theaters, and in classrooms. You know what – we survive somehow, and we find many times that if we try getting to know them a little bit better they often surprise us, have us reflect deeper into ourselves, and help us to grasp an even deeper truth about others’ nature. We, all of us, are trying to find some measure of peace in this world, but we can only acquire it through trying to understand each other, not through mutual excommunication.

  17. Brian says:

    Hi JP – Again, I agree with much of what you say, however, when you start talking about ‘segregating another group’, I think you have given in to the very fear I’m talking about. This issue isn’t about people refusing to sell somebody a hamburger, or telling them to sit in a certain section. It’s about not wanting to serve them in very specific instances in ways that go against their religious beliefs, specifically gay weddings in most of these instances. That pizza shop in Indiana that had to close after repeated attacks from gay rights advocates didn’t say they wouldn’t serve gays pizza – they said they wouldn’t serve gay weddings. In fact, if a business simply wanted to not serve or sell to gays simply because they’re gay wouldn’t be protected by that law. This whole idea of going back to segregation is just crazy – it’s not what we’re talking about, and thus the comparison to black segregation is invalid. The hyperbole we’re hearing is nothing more than hysteria. On the other hand, the attacks against businesses wanting to exercise their rights are real and unjustified.

  18. Brian says:

    These are the insanely wrong things we’ve done to blacks over the past century or so:
    It’s just so out of line to compare that Indiana law to this sort of segregation.

  19. jp says:

    Brian, there are certainly some truthful elements in what you’re saying. I’ve stated in a previous post that I do not wish to impose my values on others (that is, not forcefully). That would seem in contradiction to my feelings on the refusal of business owners to service gay couples/people (you rightly point out that most businesses affected by this are for servicing gay couples’ marriages). However, it seems that this is a myopic viewpoint from the standing of the business owner, whereas the so-called ‘rights’ we keep alluding to are never considered on behalf of the gay couples whose services are refused.

    You pointed out that you feel the rights of business owners supersede the rights of individual people, and this needs to be addressed. While it is true that, say, a gay couple could easily go elsewhere for the desired wedding cake or décor, there is a danger in thinking that people must accept a notion similar to “we don’t serve their kind here” (pardon the Star Wars reference). I can only imagine someone walking up to a bar and being refused a drink because they don’t like the way you look, or the “lifestyle” you lead, or the income you annually accrue, the person then responding with utter indignation at being treated in such a way. It is a truly childish notion that people can’t get over their differences – none of us are going to agree on all things in matters of, say, gun control, abortion, or the legalization of certain drugs, but we don’t (at least the mature people) let this affect our dealings with one another as people, or as partners in business, and this extends to the business relationship between customer and company. Besides, what does it mean to say that a businessperson has any more ‘right’ to have their rights defended than a customer does? Apparently the customer is not always right 9or maybe I should say “does not always have a right”?), which seems ironic considering the slogan is a standard business model (though arguably a bad one). The corollary seems to hold that, if the state itself has legalized gay marriage, the person who must shuffle on elsewhere are not the residents who’ve obtained their hard-fought ‘right’ to marriage, but the businesses who have of their own free will decided to set up shop there.

    Now, I realize that the legalization of gay marriage isn’t a direct declaration on whether business owners should serve gay couples, but I would contend that it does ostensibly, implicitly, endow gay married couples with those same rights that any other heterosexual couple would enjoy. If you were to substitute someone’s sexual preference with any other potentially ostracizing characteristic, say, their beliefs on abortion, then it would surely be considered absurd to even broach the topic of refusing services to them simply because of someone’s political or ethical viewpoints. In other words, were I a pro-life advocate and owned a business, would it be right for me to turn someone down based on their positive stance on second or third trimester abortions? Can I not read Homer, Shakespeare, or Milton without granting several of their superstitious claims throughout their works? Is my enjoyment of Orwell permanently damaged because of his endorsement of the burning of churches in Catalonia? This should answer itself.

    Granted, rarely do business owners ask their customers for their stance on such matters, but just because a gay couples’ beliefs or practices are more sensibly obvious to us (because we can see them right in front of us) doesn’t make it any different – it merely means that business owners are unknowingly, through their own ignorance, submitting to serve someone whose stance, if they knew, would give them pause and perhaps not align with their own views. It seems merely absurd to reject people on the basis of not agreeing with you because, as no one would deny, we’re never all going to agree on everything we deem important. As always, however, religion, not reason and compassion, is used as the trump card in which to justify their refusal to service certain groups of people. They don’t have to give an adequate reason for their refusal; they simply have to say “it’s against my religion”. These privileges, like those of the tax exempt status given to religious institutions, are so characteristic of our society (other societies, too, for that matter), but I guess it has been this way since the beginning of time. Perhaps I am simply weary of the continued biased given in favor to those claiming religious toleration over those claiming toleration for a historically mistreated group of people for which, by the way, never deserved the mistreatment to begin with.

    As for the analogy to African American prejudice and segregation, I suppose we’ll have to disagree. I’ve stated that it is not an exact or anywhere near perfect parallel insofar as the degree in which gay people have suffered is concerned, but the underlying principle and reasoning are the same. I think this only seems incredibly controversial because so many people who profess belief find it unsettling (and, lest I should be criticized for pigeonholing all religious people as intolerant, I do think that the religious denominations that have found alternate ways to interpret Biblical scripture are worth commending). Do you think, when the Jim Crow laws were being eradicated or revised, that business owners were not protesting that their rights were being infringed upon by making them serve African Americans? Or, as another example, that the eradication of child labor allowances during the Industrial Revolution were infringing upon the business owner’s ‘rights’ to hire cheap labor (and yes, this was in contention once upon a time)? Whether their reasons were religious or not is, in many ways, beside the main point; what matters is that they had no good reason for their protest, even though they no doubt had strong convictions on how they wanted to operate as a business. It’s just that, when people are proclaiming that their way of running business is predicated on the foundations of their religion that their argument begins to grab the public’s attention.

    Indeed the entire concept of ‘rights’ seems to be self-serving to whatever group currently feels threatened by policy (not necessarily anything wrong with this). You could say, I suppose, that we all have a ‘right’ to free speech – and let me say that I greatly value free expression and free press – but there are clearly certain things that, say, if it outlined our military or foreign policy plans, we would not have the ‘right’ to publish it. We could, of course, publish it anyhow, but we would be prosecuted accordingly.

    So our ‘rights’ are to be protected only insofar as there is a legitimate reason to protect them. It is true, as you said, that it does not harm gay couples if they are refused service; but neither does it harm the business owner to accept their service. If we’re going to play hurt feelings cards, then both sides could have legitimate claims and there would be no conclusion we could draw. As I’ve stated before, reason must rule the day, but as long as people are able to hide their bad reasons with religious privilege, there will continue to be a one-sided opinion that the truly persecuted people are not the gay couples, who have until now lived (and perhaps even still live) as exiles in their own communities, but rather the poor religious business owners who want nothing but to live their dutiful lives in peace. Pardon me if the overall tone of this post seems a bit more vitriolic or aggressive; if it comes across this way, it is due more to weariness than to any ill-will or hatred that may be assumed toward anyone.

    I will admit in full disclosure that I am not utterly convinced that I am right about every point I’ve made (or even a majority of them). There have been others, whose opinions and analysis I greatly respect, that are both smart and honest, that have a different point of view. One of them, Sam Harris, has offered in a recent podcast that he thinks that business owners should be free to be as petty and myopic as they wish, just as anyone else should be free to ridicule and criticize them for their pettiness and solipsism. In truth, I can’t argue against this viewpoint, even if it seems somewhat cynical and condescending; cynical on the part of those ridiculing; condescending to those being ridiculed. Perhaps we should simply wait and let the public have its say. I feel like there are more avenues of thought which first needs to be explored before arriving at any definitiveness (or, at least, approximation). Sorry for the essay.

  20. Sean B says:

    I had to laugh when they got rid of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”Getting rid of it was a good thing, the media reaction was a joke. The media (at times a group of stupid jackals) demonized the policy. I even heard one republican blame the democrats for it, since it was brought in under Clinton (I was serving in Germany at the time). What the empty-headed media failed to realize was the policy was a step away from the draconian laws (UCMJ) that incarcerated gays that were caught. Under DADT, they were just put out of the military.

    Robin Williams said it best, (paraphrased) “You’re gonna convict a man for sodomy and put him in jail where he’s going to be sodomized.”

  21. Jack Calvert says:

    It’s quite a leap, Brian, to presume that you know what’s “really going on” in Michael Shermer’s heart and mind, apart from what he actually says (which is all we have to go by); or that he arrived at his conclusions not through critical thinking or the scientific method, but because the subject is “an emotional one…or possibly political, or (insert motive here)”. I can guess what you were implying with your “insert motive here” comment, however I won’t make the same critical mistakes you did by openly speculating without information. You invalidate your own argument with vague inference, confirmation bias, and that old standby of conspiracy theorists, the unprovable negative.

    At one point, you rather astoundingly attempt to make the argument that gay people are no better or worse than Nazis, and that the two groups should be afforded equal respect (or condemnation). This sort of breathtaking moral casuistry has been used throughout history to justify the worst excesses of fascists, tyrants, and despots. It is also typical of sociopaths, authoritarians, and white-knuckled conservatives, whose hatred of that which they don’t understand–the ambiguities and complexities of human behavior, for example–compels them to view every phenomenon in terms of black and white, with no shades of gray. Everything is either completely good or completely evil, with no in-between. You’re either with me or against me. Women are either a whore, or the Madonna.

    I suspect that you haven’t thoroughly considered your gay-versus-Nazi argument, Brian, because I’d like to think that if you had, you wouldn’t have made it. On the other hand, if you truly believe that there is no moral distinction between a woman who falls in love with another woman, and a genocidal ideology based on racial superiority and the complete extermination of several entire races of people, you’re either a psychopath, or you’re engaging in the kind of mental masturbation that is, to borrow from Constantine, “unworthy of men of sense.”

    • Phea says:

      Question: So, is it OK to refuse service to gay Nazis? Sorry, I couldn’t help it…

  22. Jet Foncannon says:

    Despite the fact that I think Michael Shermer’s dichotomy of what one is versus what one thinks is a creative and speculatively useful one, the problem of who should be granted civil rights is not so easily disposed of. As other commenters have suggested, what one is is inextricably entangled with what one thinks. If I am gay (and I am), I think gay thoughts and contemplate gay actions. On the other hand, many sociopaths are, from birth, sociopaths. It’s what they are, and they think accordingly. Great thinkers have struggled with the problem of how we humans, can legitimately claim civil rights. For instance, David Hume, although he supported the American Revolution, viewed the concept of “inalienable rights” with great skepticism. “Who grants these rights?” Hume, an atheist, wanted to know.

  23. Phea says:

    I can remember when having long hair, in some areas, was plenty enough reason for some to refuse service. That was when they were playing nice, too. Stories of hippies getting haircuts were not urban myths.

    Things changed, and now country folks, look just like the boys that used to upset their great-grandpas. I guess I just don’t quit understand why anyone would want to do business with someone who just did not want any association with them. I was always glad I never spent a dime in some redneck establishment, personally.

    Let them refuse service to whoever they want. If it’s blacks, gays, hippies, Jews, or Hispanics, so what? Hell, I say let ’em put a sign up! Then they have identified who they are, and what they stand for, and that helps decent folks steer a wide path around them.

    I’d sure rather have that instead of some smiling, sicky-sweet, condescending, “friendly” asshole pissing in the cake batter for my cake, or worse, and that is exactly what will happen if you force people to do something they’d rather not. It’s sick, it’s wrong, but it’s human nature.

    There are bars who won’t allow anyone with a leather MC jacket in their establishment. I ride, and wear a leather jacket, and even chaps at times, (no colors though), and I don’t have a problem with that. I understand the type of clientele they want, and bikers just don’t fit the image they want to project.

    I don’t know. There is a fine line between discrimination that causes real harm, and discrimination that at most results in fucking hurt feelings. Kind of like all this damn nonsense over cartoons of a prophet being SO offensive it justifies murder. Now that’s way beyond offensive and disrespectful.

    Anyway, it just seems silly to make such a big deal over some asshole hurting someones feelings. If you find yourself in that situation, get over it, and get on with more important things!

  24. Adrian says:

    “Discrimination on the basis of what you believe versus who you are constitutes different moral categories.” That’s a lame distinction. What you believe determines what you are. I agree with Brian’s comments. This goes back to your science-based morality article a few weeks back – you can’t have morality without making assumptions and accepting unproved and unprovable premises.
    Your statement only makes sense if you are in fact claiming that gay people are gay due to genetic factors that predetermined them to be gay and their choice had nothing to play (which is clear the case with the Nazi). As an adept of skepticism you show no skepticism here. On the other hand, as an adept of science you show no science here either. Especially since you just posted that article in which you claim that science offers a base for morality. AFAIK there is no gay gene that was established for gay people beyond the margin of error. Such a gene would make no sense as it would be quickly selected against by evolution and would be removed from a population. This clearly contradicts observations and the rise of the gay.
    Again, ultimately there is not scientific base for any morality or any rights – be it gay or human or unborn children or animals or environment or what not. The only way as I explained in my comments on your post about your book, the moral ark, and especially on the book’s blog, is to *assume* an independent, non-contingent source of morality. Science cannot offer that.

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