Some Thoughts on Morality and Power

If someone walks up to you and starts talking to you about good morals and the importance of morality, what’s the first thing you think of?

If you live in the US, odds are pretty good that anyone who wants to talk morality with you is actually talking about sex. How to do it, where to do it, when to do it, in what position to do it, who to do it with…the term “morals,” especially in political discourse, has come to be a synonym for “sex.”

And if the person talking to you is a conservative Evangelical, ten will get you twenty that somewhere in that conversation about morals, you’re going to hear about sex with a partner who’s the same sex as you are–something that seems to be right down at the bottom of the Pit of Immoral Behavior, just slightly below pedophilia and at least two and a half yards beneath genocide on the relative Scale of Morality.

And that’s really weird.

Or at least, it seemed really weird, until I thought about it for a bit.

The word “immoral” isn’t used to describe people very often these days. At least, it isn’t used to describe heterosexual, monogamous, married cisgendered people very often in the court of political discourse. It’s still quite popular among some segments of the conservative religious community, but it generally gets applied to sodomites, gay and bisexual people, transgendered folks, and other folks who don’t fit tidily into the prescribed box of sexual norms…with occasional side-branches directed at atheists, of course.

In the late 1800s, notable cynic Ambrose Bierce defined the word “immoral” to mean “Inexpedient. Whatever in the long run and with regard to the greater number of instances men find to be generally inexpedient comes to be considered wrong, wicked, immoral.”

And I submit that the laser focus on sex that we see in almost any popular political or religious dialog has at its heart a very potent expediency indeed, because it serves to distract us from true immorality, and causes us to focus on that which doesn’t really matter to the betterment of some very evil people indeed.

Take Pat Robertson.

No, I don’t mean take him out behind the chemical shed and shoot him; I mean take him as an example. Pat Robertson has made himself a very wealthy, powerful, and influential man by talking endlessly about morality. Or, more specifically, talking about sexual morality: sex before marriage (he’s against it), homosexuality (against), gay marriage (against), non-traditional sexual unions (against), sex work (against, even though he admits to having employed the services of prostitutes), oral sex (surprisingly, for…as long as it’s between a married man and his wife. He’s silent on the subject of whether or not they can have onlookers watching the act.).

And yet, for all his preaching about morality, Pat Robertson is by any reasonable standards of decency an astonishingly, breathtakingly evil man.

Pat Robertson has yet to meet a wealthy foreign dictator he doesn’t like, at least when it’s economically expedient. He cozied up to Liberian strongman, sex trafficker, and war criminal Charles Taylor in exchange for a gold mining contract in Liberia. He owns African Development Company, a corporation which snuggled up to Zaire’s warlord Mobutu Sese Seko to win rights to so-called ‘blood diamonds’ mined by slave labor.

Or look at “Family Values” candidate and politician Newt Gingrich, who divorced his first wife after an affair, married his mistress, then divorced her to marry his second mistress. Said second mistress, who is still married to him, is apparently spending her time these days doing fundraising for the Romney campaign…on a platform of (wait for it) family values.

Gingrich, despite being a serial adulterer, is perceived by many folks on the right as being “moral,” presumably because hey, he ain’t gay. Yet to anyone who believes that morality lies in treating others with compassion, he is unquestionably an evil man.

This is not a new observation, of course. Many of the people who talk the loudest about “morality,” on both sides of the political divide, are deeply and profoundly evil. Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s not exactly a revelation that those who use talk of morality, particularly religious morality, in the public sphere are very often deeply immoral people.

Which is where Ambrose Bierce comes in.

It is not simple hypocrisy that explains the prevalence of evil among those who speak of morals. It is not that we are all born of frailty and error and each of us relates imperfectly to those around us.

It is, rather, a calculated and deliberate expediency.

Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, and all their ilk are evil people, consumed by a desire for power and wealth. They do not hide this at all. But there is a dilemma. In a Third World country, powerful strongmen can do pretty much whatever they like, without needing to justify themselves to anyone. But in an industrialized nation, maintaining power and wealth often requires maintaining the general goodwill of the people. How to do that, then, when you are a serial adulterer? How to do that when you own a mine that uses slave labor?

The answer, brilliant in its simplicity and obviousness, is to change the public dialog about what it means to be good, and what it means to be evil.

An evil man can gain the favor of generally good people, if he can set the tone of the dialog about good and evil. If he can redefine “evil” so that, rather than meaning “exploiting slave labor in Third World countries to become fabulously wealthy” it means “having sex in the wrong way,” he not only can deflect attention from his own evil, he can short-circuit the conversation about his own evil before it even begins.

When this image dominates the public dialog about morality, someone is being snookered.

We have come to a place where “morality” means “sex” because that state of affairs is expedient to powerful, wealthy men who want to be able to indulge their lust for wealth and power unchecked.

According to the Bible, it is the love of money which is the root of all evil. It is not premarital sex, nor gay marriage, nor the burning question of whether or not married couples are allowed to give head.

Yet among the Religious right, discussion of money is strangely absent from the morality debate. The beginning and end of morality revolves exclusively around who one has sex with, and under what circumstances.

That didn’t happen by accident. That isn’t a coincidence. It happened because evil men set out, systematically and deliberately, to focus the lens of morality away from their own evil.

Every time we accept this definition of morality, every time we allow the conversation about morality to get bogged down in irrelevant sexual minutia, we work in the service of these evil men.

All sin lies in treating one another poorly. Rather than talking about the morality of gay sex, perhaps we should talk about the morality of slavery. Perhaps, if we re-focus our dialog about morality onto the evil that those who campaign on platforms of morality and virtue do, we will begin to see a better world. I would far rather that Pat Robertson divest himself from his blood diamonds and give the vast wealth he created from slave labor to the poor, than see him continue to hold influence by talking about how immoral we are if we don’t have sex the same way he does.

If homophobic Christians read the Bible, what would the world look like?

When i lived in the South, I will admit I used to eat at Chick-Fil-A all the time. I was dimly aware that they had some sketchy religious leanings or something, and they tended to hire only surrealistically white people to work in their restaurants, but hey, the sandwiches were good.

Well, not really good. But at least better than much of the mediocre fast-food stuff you could get at, say, Taco Bell or Burger King.

I wish I could say that I was surprised to learn that Chick-Fil-A has bought into the virulent strain of anti-gay nonsense that seems to have the self-described Christian conservative bits of society in such a frenzy, but I’m really not. Like I said, I was dimly aware that ther was some kind of right-wing religious something something at play.

But the media attention about Chick-Fil-A and gay marriage got me to thinking. Most self-described Christian conservatives base their opposition to gay marriage on two Bible verses. Leviticus 18:22 reads:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.

Leviticus 20:13 says:

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

The rest of Leviticus goes on to say similar things about cutting your beard, wearing clothes made of different fibers, eating shellfish, having sex with a woman on her period, letting different kinds of cattle graze in the same field, and executing women if their husbands cheat on them they cheat on their husbands (seriously, it’s there, Leviticus 20:10).

Most Christians don’t follow these rules, arguing that Jesus made them irrelevant except the ones about homosexuality because those are totally different from the shellfish ones because of reasons, and some will even quote a third Bible verse, Romans 1:26-27, to justify banning gay marriage:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

But the Bible, both old and new testaments, actually spends a whole lot more time talking about divorce than it does about homosexuality. Both testaments are very, very clear that divorce is never permitted, and that those who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery, a sin forbidden by the Ten Commandments, and with the penalty of death according to the old testament…

Um, wait a minute, didn’t we recently see a serial divorcee running on some kind of pro-family, conservative Christian platform?

In fact, the Bible even claims that Jesus, who never spoke about homosexuality at all, had plenty to say about divorce, in Matthew 5:31-32:

And it was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The Bible has Jesus speaking the same message many more times, in Mark 10:2 and Luke 16:18, for example.

So I wonder…

What would the right-wing Christian pronouncements look like if they actually applied the same thinking on divorce to their supposedly “Bible-based” blatherings about homosexuality? What would happen if you took their hysterical anti-gay screeds and replaced the word “homosexual” with the word “divorce”? It seems a fair substitution; the same moral, Biblical justifications for opposing homosexuality even more strongly apply to divorce, after all.

I started Googling Christian proclamations about homosexuality, which…well, if you have ever felt the need to go trolling on a motorboat down an open sewer, doing that sort of Google search will give you a similar experience. And I took “homosexuality” and replaced it with “divorce.” The results were…interesting.

Clicky here to see what happens!

Some thoughts on post-scarcity societies

One of my favorite writers at the moment is Iain M. Banks. Under that name, he writes science fiction set in a post-scarcity society called the Culture, where he deals with political intrigue and moral issues and technology and society on a scale that almost nobody else has ever tried. (In fact, his novel Use of Weapons is my all-time favorite book, and I’ve written about it at great length here.) Under the name Iain Banks, he writes grim and often depressing novels not related to science fiction, and wins lots of awards.

The Culture novels are interesting to me because they are imagination writ large. Conventional science fiction, whether it’s the cyberpunk dystopia of William Gibson or the bland, banal sterility of (God help us) Star Trek, imagines a world that’s quite recognizable to us….or at least to those of us who are white 20th-century Westerners. (It’s always bugged me that the alien races in Star Trek are not really very alien at all; they are more like conventional middle-class white Americans than even, say, Japanese society is, and way less alien than the Serra do Sol tribe of the Amazon basin.) They imagine a future that’s pretty much the same as the present, only more so; “Bones” McCoy, a physician, talks about how death at the ripe old age of 80 is part of Nature’s plan, as he rides around in a spaceship made by welding plates of steel together.

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Hill – Giuseppe Gerbino

In the Culture, by way of contrast, everything is made by atomic-level nanotech assembly processes. Macroengineering exists on a huge scale, so huge that the majority of the Culture’s citizens by far live on orbitals–artificially constructed habitats encircling a star. (One could live on a planet, of course, in much the way that a modern person could live in a cave if she wanted to; but why?) The largest spacecraft, General Systems Vehicles, have populations that range from the tens of millions ot six billion or more. Virtually limitless sources of energy (something I’m panning to blog about later) and virtually unlimited technical ability to make just about anything from raw atoms means that there is no such thing as scarcity; whatever any person needs, that person can have, immediately and for free. And the definition of “person” goes much further, too; whereas in the Star Trek universe, people are still struggling with the idea that a sentient android might be a person, in the Culture, personhood theory (something else about which I plan to write) is the bedrock upon which all other moral and ethical systems are built. Many of the Culture’s citizens are drones or Minds–non-biological computers, of a sort, that range from about as smart as a human to millions of times smarter. Calling them “computers” really is an injustice; it’s about on par with calling a modern supercomputer a string of counting beads. Spacecraft and orbitals are controlled by vast Minds far in advance of unaugmented human intellect.

I had a dream, a while ago, about the Enterprise from Star Trek encountering a General Systems Vehicle, and the hilarity that ensued when they spoke to each other: “Why, hello, Captain Kirk of the Enterprise! I am the GSV Total Internal Reflection of the Culture. You came here in that? How…remarkably courageous of you!”

And speaking of humans…

The biological people in the Culture are the products of advanced technology just as much as the Minds are. They have been altered in many ways; their immune systems are far more resilient, they have much greater conscious control over their bodies; they have almost unlimited life expectancies; they are almost entirely free of disease and aging. Against this backdrop, the stories of the Culture take place.

Banks has written a quick overview of the Culture, and its technological and moral roots, here. A lot of the Culture novels are, in a sense, morality plays; Banks uses the idea of a post-scarcity society to examine everything from bioethics to social structures to moral values.

In the Culture novel, much of the society is depicted as pretty Utopian. Why wouldn’t it be? There’s no scarcity, no starvation, no lack of resources or space. Because of that, there’s little need for conflict; there’s neither land nor resources to fight over. There’s very little need for struggle of any kind; anyone who wants nothing but idle luxury can have it.

For that reason, most of the Culture novels concern themselves with Contact, that part of the Culture which is involved with alien, non-Culture civilizations; and especially with Special Circumstances, that part of Contact whose dealings with other civilizations extends into the realm of covert manipulation, subterfuge, and dirty tricks.

Of which there are many, as the Culture isn’t the only technologically sophisticated player on the scene.

But I wonder…would a post-scarcity society necessarily be Utopian?

Banks makes a case, and I think a good one, for the notion that a society’s moral values depend to a great extent on its wealth and the difficulty, or lack thereof, of its existence. Certainly, there are parallels in human history. I have heard it argued, for example, that societies from harsh desert climates produce harsh moral codes, which is why we see commandments in Leviticus detailing at great length and with an almost maniacal glee who to stone, when to stone them, and where to splash their blood after you’ve stoned them. As societies become more civil more wealthy, as every day becomes less of a struggle to survive, those moral values soften. Today, even the most die-hard of evangelical “execute all the gays” Biblical literalist rarely speaks out in favor of stoning women who are not virgins on their wedding night, or executing people for picking up a bundle of sticks on the Sabbath, or dealing with the crime of rape by putting to death both the rapist and the victim.

I’ve even seen it argued that as civilizations become more prosperous, their moral values must become less harsh. In a small nomadic desert tribe, someone who isn’t a team player threatens the lives of the entire tribe. In a large, complex, pluralistic society, someone who is too xenophobic, too zealous in his desire to kill anyone not like himself, threatens the peace, prosperity, and economic competitiveness of the society. The United States might be something of an aberration in this regard, as we are both the wealthiest and also the most totalitarian of the Western countries, but in the overall scope of human history we’re still remarkably progressive. (We are becoming less so, turning more xenophobic and rabidly religious as our economic and military power wane; I’m not sure that the one is directly the cause of the other but those two things definitely seem to be related.)

In the Culture novels, Banks imagines this trend as a straight line going onward; as societies become post-scarcity, they tend to become tolerant, peaceful, and Utopian to an extreme that we would find almost incomprehensible, Special Circumstances aside. There are tiny microsocieties within the Culture that are harsh and murderously intolerant, such as the Eaters in the novel Consider Phlebas, but they are also not post-scarcity; the Eaters have created a tiny society in which they have very little and every day is a struggle for survival.

We don’t have any models of post-scarcity societies to look at, so it’s hard to do anything beyond conjecture. But we do have examples of societies that had little in the way of competition, that had rich resources and no aggressive neighbors to contend with, and had very high standards of living for the time in which they existed that included lots of leisure time and few immediate threats to their survival.

One such society might be the Aztec empire, which spread through the central parts of modern-day Mexico during the 14th century. The Aztecs were technologically sophisticated and built a sprawling empire based on a combination of trade, military might, and tribute.

Because they required conquered people to pay vast sums of tribute, the Aztecs themselves were wealthy and comfortable. Though they were not industrialized, they lacked for little. Even commoners had what was for the time a high standard of living.

And yet, they were about the furthest thing from Utopian it’s possible to imagine.

The religious traditions of the Aztecs were bloodthirsty in the extreme. So voracious was their appetite for human sacrifices that they would sometimes conquer neighbors just to capture a steady stream of sacrificial victims. Commoners could make money by selling their daughters for sacrifice. Aztec records document tens of thousands of sacrifices just for the dedication of a single temple.

So they wanted for little, had no external threats, had a safe and secure civilization with a stable, thriving economy…and they turned monstrous, with a contempt for human life and a complete disregard for human value that would have made Pol Pot blush. Clearly, complex, secure, stable societies don’t always move toward moral systems that value human life, tolerate diversity, and promote individual dignity and autonomy. In fact, the Aztecs, as they became stronger, more secure, and more stable, seemed to become more bloodthirsty, not less. So why is that? What does that say about hypothetical societies that really are post-scarcity?

One possibility is that where there is no conflict, people feel a need to create it. The Aztecs fought ritual wars, called “flower wars,” with some of their neighbors–wars not over resources or land, but whose purpose was to supply humans for sacrifice.

Now, flower wars might have had a prosaic function not directly connected with religious human sacrifice, of course. Many societies use warfare as a means of disposing of populations of surplus men, who can otherwise lead to social and political unrest. In a civilization that has virtually unlimited space, that’s not a problem; in societies which are geographically bounded, it is. (Even for modern, industrialized nations.)

Still, religion unquestionably played a part. The Aztecs were bloodthirsty at least to some degree because they practiced a bloodthirsty religion, and vice versa. This, I think, indicates that a society’s moral values don’t spring entirely from what is most conducive to that society’s survival. While the things that a society must do in order to survive, and the factors that are most valuable to a society’s functioning at whatever level it finds itself, will affect that society’s religious beliefs (and those beliefs will change to some extent as the needs of the society change), there would seem to be at least some corner of a society’s moral structures that are entirely irrational and completely divorced from what would best serve that society. The Aztecs may be an extreme example of this.

So what does that mean to a post-scarcity society?

It means that a post-scarcity society, even though it has no need of war or conflict, may still have both war and conflict, despite the fact that they serve no rational role. There is no guarantee that a post-scarcity society necessarily must be a rationalist society; while reaching the point of post scarcity does require rationality, at least in the scientific and technological arts, there’s not necessarily any compelling reason to assume that a society that has reached that point must stay rational.

And a post=scarcity society that enshrines irrational beliefs, and has contempt for the value of human life, would be a very scary thing indeed. Imagine a society of limitless wealth and technological prowess that has a morality based on a literalistic interpretation of Leviticus, for instance, in which women really are stoned to death if they aren’t virgins on their wedding night. There wouldn’t necessarily be any compelling reason for a post-scarcity society not to adopt such beliefs; after all, human beings are a renewable resource too, so it would cost the society little to treat its members with indifference.

As much as I love the Culture (and the idea of post-scarcity society in general), I don’t think it’s a given that they would be Utopian.

Perhaps as we continue to advance technologically, we will continue to domesticate ourselves, so that the idea of being pointlessly cruel and warlike would seem quite horrifying to our descendants who reach that point. But if I were asked to make a bet on it, I’m not entirely sure which way I’d bet.

U.S. Teenager Cut With Knife. Could It Be…….Satan?

Culture is a funny thing.

It seems that most–perhaps all–cultures have, somewhere down deep in their collective folklore, some very strange embedded ideas that simply refuse to go away no matter how implausible (or impossible) they are.

In the Congo, for example, there is a deeply held belief that sorcerers can use black magic to steal men’s penises. Despite how absurd this belief is on the face of it, every so often there will be a penis-theft panic that results in suspected penis-ensorcering black magic users getting killed in the streets. Apparently, one’s penis grows back after this is done. Seems to me a quick status check of a purported victim’s trowser snake might be a good idea before lynching someone, but what do I know?

Here in the States, we have a couple of these bizarre nuggets of superstitious moose dung, sitting buried deep within the veneer of civilization surrounding us.

One of these is the notion that there are people who produce snuff films–movies intended for sexual entertainment in which a person is actually killed on screen for the sexual gratification of the audience. A lot of folks believe that these movies actually exist (and some folks believe them to be the logical end result of any interest in porn), despite the fact that thousands of investigations by law enforcement on several continents has yet to turn up even one example of such a thing.

Another common cultural trope is the notion of ritual Satanic human sacrifice. This idea is so firmly engrained the in the American psyche, despite its ridiculousness, that even ordinary crimes can end up being reported with breathless hysteria if there’s even a hint of violent religion tangentially associated in any way, however ephemeral or indirect, with perpetrators or the victim.

Or, any violent religion other than those which are culturally endorsed, in any event.

So it is with some amusement that I direct your attention, Gentle Readers, to a series of events that took place on November 6 of this year, and more to the point, on the way those events are reported.

Let’s start with CBS News. According to a CBS News article headlined Cops: Man bound and stabbed over 300 times by two women, a rather unfortunate 18-year-old kid met a couple of women on the Internet, and then travelled to Milwaukee with the hopes of having a kinky threesome with them. The women tied him up and then over an extended period of time inflicted 300 cuts on him. He escaped, called the police, and they were arrested.

Pretty straightforward, seems to me. Some folks, including several sweeties of mine, are into erotic knife play as a kink. I’m assuming that’s what this is based on the notion that if one intends to kill one’s victim and after 300 cuts fails to do so, one is either using the wrong tool for the job or is so stunningly incompetent as to be quite unable to work a typical, average doorknob, much less a computer. Hell, even a pair of those blunt scissors they give you in kindergarten can be used to kill someone, if you’re willing to put that much effort into it.

But there is one additional little detail in the CBS News report, a tiny little inconsequential thing that has turned the whole affair, sordid and sad as it is, into a bit of a circus.

Apparently, you see, one of the two women involved owns some books that might be about pagan or occult stuff. They were sitting on the bookshelf when the police arrived. And so…


It ratcheted up quickly. Before long, the headlines started featuring the word “Satanic” prominently.

In the UK, where the news-reading consumer likes a bit of salaciousness with their Satanism, the Daily Mail went for the sex angle, with a headline reading Two female room-mates ‘tied up teenager and cut him 300 times during two-day satanic sex torture marathon’

Over on Whacktrap, the headline read, Teen Plans Sex with Two Women But Instead Gets Cut 300 Times in Satanic Ritual Stabbing.

By the time the story had spread across news outlets, it was all about the Satan. By far the most common headline on the story reads “US Teen stabbed 300 times in Satanic sex ritual”–in fact, it’s actually pretty tough to locate news articles that don’t play up the Satanism.

And finally, by the time it got ’round to Glenn Beck (a man who is, I have it on good authority, personally knowledgable in all things Satanic, seeing how he has the Great Horned One on speed-dial), the sex bit had disappeared entirely; Beck’s take is Man stabbed over 300 times in satanic ritual. The first version of the article claimed the luckless teen had been killed–Mr. Beck has never met a fact-checker, or a fact, that he doesn’t want to drag out behind the chemical shed and shoot in the head, as his regular listeners know–and the URL on his Web site still reflects that mistaken notion. It has better narrative value, I’m sure.

So what we seem to have is that this kid decided to have a kinky threesome with a couple of women who were into knife play, they had some books on werewolves and pagan ideas sitting on the bookshelf, and these things combined into “ZOMG Satanic ritual stabbing!” Even though there seems to my eye to be nothing particularly ritual or Satanic about it.

Though I bet they totally used sorcery to steal his penis. It happens, you know. All the time.

Force Wins Out

On March 23 of this year, two notable things happened.

The first was that I celebrated the anniversary of my birth. My sweetie zaiah and I have been working very hard on the project to remodel our home into a dungeon to host play parties; to help celebrate the occasion of my birth, a lot of friends came over and did a bang-up awesome job of helping us paint the soon-to-be dungeon. It’s still not finished, but we made a lot of progress.

The second thing that happened is that Apple Computer, in apparent response to a petition by a GBLT group, pulled an app by a group called Exodus International from the App Store. And in all honesty, I’m a bit disappointed in the activists who demanded its withdrawal.

Exodus International, in case you have been fortunate enough to avoid these lunkheads so far, is a right-wing Christian organization founded on the premise that through prayer and “spiritual healing” (whatever that is), they can cure people of homosexuality and turn them into nice, normal, inoffensive heterosexuals.

Leaving aside for a moment that there are many people who can shag members of the same sex and then end up in heterosexual relationships–a better term for such folks than “ex-gay” might be “bisexual” or “pansexual,” if one wants to get all semantic about it–the notion that homosexuality is a condition or that it can (or should!) be “cured” is absurd on the face of it.

I don’t much cotton to Exodus International, nor for that matter to any other group that thinks there’s an invisible dude who lives up in the sky who has rules about who you’re supposed to shag or how to do it, and that they have the direct skinny on what those invisible dude’s rules are and how they should be implemented.

But here’s the thing. As odious, offensive, and just plain stupid as Exodus International (the “Exodus” is an exodus from gayhood–get it? Get it? Aren’t they just so clever?) might be–and believe me, if you look at these folks’ Web site, the stupid, it burns–I think the GBLT shot itself in the foot, and in the process showed that some of its members can match the Christian right intolerance for intolerance and deception for deception–by petitioning for its removal.

But first, before I go into why, let me explain something about how the app got approved in the first place. Some noisy but uninformed folks have spouted a lot of nonsense about how Bad And Wrong Apple was to have approved the app in the first place, pointing to how its “unoffensive” rating within Apple’s system showed that Apple is an anti-gay, right-wing establishment.

It’s rubbish. Apple’s second in command, Tim Cook, is arguably the most powerful gay man in all of Silicon Valley. Apple has a long history as a gay-friendly place to work. Apple’s App Store submissions are not, and have not for quite some time, screened by a human being; Apple uses a suite of automated tools to check that apps conform to Apple’s programming guidelines. The Exodus International app was not hand-built; it was built using a pre-existing application framework, one that is used for many other App Store apps. The framework draws its content from a Web site (in this case, the Exodus International Web site); its content was not populated until after the app was approved.

So, no, Apple does not habitually go around approving anti-gay apps. The notion that some person at Apple saw the app and said “Cool! An app by an anti-gay organization; well, let me just put this up on the App Store straightaway, then!” is simply factually wrong.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about what the app itself is not.

Shortly after the app came out, a GLBT group calling itself Truth Wins Out put up a petition on calling on Apple to remove the app. The campaign that supported the petition described the app as containing information that was scientifically unsound and potentially dangerous about “reparative therapy,” the notion that homosexuality can be “cured,” and described the app as an “ex-gay app.”

To be sure, reparative therapy is dangerous and scientifically unsound. It’s about as scientifically valid as homeopathy or faith healing, and works about as well.

But that’s not really what the app was. The app was, essentially, a calendar of events and a bunch of Web links.

As such, the content of the app was quite a lot different from what it was claimed to be.

Now, this country has a long, storied tradition of dealing with upsetting, inflammatory, objectionable, or uncomfortable content by banning it. For a society of folks quick to shout “free speech!” whenever someone suggests we ought not say something we want to say, we’re just as quick to shout “ban it!” whenever someone else says something we think they ought not say. It’s a sort of national cognitive dissonance, a hypocrisy that’s woven into the American social fabric.

The gay community has been the target of that “ban it!” impulse for longer than this country was a country. It’s no accident that homosexuality has been described as “the love that dare not speak its name.” So it’s a bit disappointing to me to see the folks who’ve been harmed by the notion that certain ideas should not be discussed being so quick to turn that particular weapon back onto others.

And the fact is, by doing so they committed two wrongs. First, they used tactics that are disingenuous at best. Second, they played right into the hands of Exodus International, a group which the cynic in me suspects wanted to have their app banned.

When I first became aware of the Exodus app, I had read about it on Web sites run by pro-GLBT activists and bloggers. I came away with the notion that the app was a how-to guide for “curing” gays. It wasn’t until I started looking at screen shots and app descriptions–by the time I found out about it, the app had already been removed from the App Store–that I learned its content was considerably different from what I’d been lead to believe.

Whenever I hear someone misstate or overstate an argument against something, that leads me to the conclusion that the person who’s making the argument doesn’t really believe his case to be terribly persuasive. Exaggeration is the tool of first resort for someone who really, really, really doesn’t like something, but who doesn’t think that other folks will share his opinion if it’s stated factually.

And the fact that these arguments were picked up by so many folks suggests to me that a lot of bloggers fell into the same trap that the religious right often falls into–condemning something without actually seeing it. We (and by “we” I mean progressive bloggers, activists, and writers) tend to snigger and laugh at Christians who call for banning a book or a movie and then, when asked if they’ve actually seen it, say “No! Of course I haven’t!” as if their ignorance somehow enhances their moral superiority.

Yet this is precisely what a lot of folks who condemned the Exodus app did. I’d be willing to wager that less than one half of one percent of the folks who condemn it bothered to look at it, and barely more than that even bothered to look at screenshots of it.

That’s pretty dumb. Fact-checking is (or at least ought to be) a basic, basic part of informed activism of ANY sort.

On another forum I read, a lot of folks were hailing the removal of the app from the App Store as a triumph of Libertarianism. I found that notion pretty weird; Apple acts as an absolute regulator of the App Store, with the ability to enforce any rules it chooses about what may and may not be found there.

Now, I am not a Libertarian by any stretch of the imagination. But it seems to me that appealing to an absolute regulator to pass a rule banning a product that you don’t like, for the purpose of ensuring that the product is not available to anyone, is precisely the reverse of Libertarian belief. A more reasonable interpretation of Libertarianism, as I understand it, is that the market itself determines what has value; if folks don’t think the Exodus app has value, they don’t download it. If they do think it has value, they do download it. And in that way, individuals, rather than overarching regulatory authorities, make up their own minds about what has value and what doesn’t.

Which brings up a point that I think is absolutely vital in any pluralistic society: the solution to bad speech is more speech, not less speech.

The fact is, there are people who think that Exodus’ ideas have merit. And those folks don’t go away because the app does! The solution is not to try to control the dissemination of the ideas; that’s a fool’s quest. The solution to bad speech is more speech. Hatred and misinformation thrive in dark places.

I wish–I really, really wish–I had been aware of the Exodus app before pple pulled it down. Do you want to know what I would have done? I’ll tell you.

I would have made an app of my own. My app would have parodied and mocked the Exodus app. It would have lampooned the notions in it. It would have made fun of Exodus International–its ideas, its philosophy, even its lame-ass logo. And it would have provided links to better information about homosexuality.

And you know what I would have done then? I would have sold my app for 99 cents, and I would have donated the proceeds from each sale to a pro-GLBT charity.

If there is one thing that right-wing religious wingnuts can not abide, it’s mockery. Humor is a far more powerful weapon than the banhammer. And frankly, I think that providing funds–as in, actual, real money–to GLBT groups would do a lot more to protect at-risk people, particularly the most vulnerable people targeted by Exodus International–than just removing an app from the App Store would have.

It might’ve gotten more positive press, too.

As it stands now, the GLBT activists have scored a stunning own-goal by playing right into the hands of Exodus International. I really do believe that they expected their app to be banned; c’mon, Apple already has policies against this sort of thing, so it was really just a question of time.

But by creating the petition and making so much noise, the activists have turned themselves into an Exodus photo op. They have allowed Exodus to crank up the press release machinery saying “See? See? Look at these hypocritical gays! They accuse us of intolerance, and then they use distortion and misinformation to advance the Gay Agenda by silencing our voices!” (The fundraising appeal along those lines is already up and running on the Exodus Web site.) And, y’know, it’s kinda hard to argue the point.

Some thoughts about atheists

I’ve been seeing an uptick lately in popular media about atheism. A lot of these things I’ve been seeing start with “Atheists are…” and then lay out the premise that folks who don’t believe in some kind of supernatural god have all sorts of negative characteristics, whether they be fat or immoral or selfish or whatever.

And a lot of these “atheists are” statements are just silly. Some of them, like “atheists are sexist,” are both silly and also filled with apparently unconscious irony, given the history of organized religion; others, like “atheists are immoral,” are silly and also point to an inability on the speaker’s part to conceptualize an internal code of ethics. But all of them are silly.

And so, I’d like to present this handy, pocket-sized guide to some of those silly ideas, and the reality.

Claim Atheists are immoral I: Atheism offers no framework for morality.
Fact It is possible to construct a rational framework for morality without reference to anything supernatural. For example, racism can be shown to be immoral simply because it hurts everyone–the racist and the subject of the racism alike. The first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery was black; had he not been permitted to go to medical school because of his race, as was the norm at the time, many people would have died because he would not have made the contributions he did. Michael Shermer has written a book, The Science of Good and Evil, that lays out a framework for morality which doesn’t depend on a supernatural entity.
Commentary Claiming a supernatural agent as the framework of morality can lead to some spectacularly, catastrophically immoral consequences–as was the case in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI, a man whose purported job it is to interpret morality, decreed that ordaining women into the clergy was an immoral act that was equal to pedophilia. When a person who dedicates his entire life to the interpretation of morality as defined by a supernatural entity runs off the rails so badly, it is because he has lost touched with the effects of people’s behavior on other people–which is, after all, the core purpose of morality.

Claim Atheists are immoral II: Atheists can not have a framework of morality. Morality can only come from a god or gods.
Fact Religions do not set the standards of morality; they just reflect the moral ideas that people already have. In a society where slavery is common, the religious institutions tend to say that slavery is OK; when societies say that interracial marriage is bad, the churches agree. When the social mores change, so do the religions.
Commentary When morality is seen as a list of arbitrary rules handed down from a god, then anything that is on that list, no matter how atrocious, is viewed as ‘moral.’ Morality that comes from compassion, on the other hand, does not justify acts of atrocity. (I have actually written an essay about how morality as defined by organized religion has steered us wrong and let society down.)

Claim If you don’t believe in a god, you have no reason to behave in a good or moral way. Atheists have no reason not to murder or rape or commit other immoral acts.
Fact Even without god, there are consequences for violent acts. Going to prison is a pretty good reason not to run around committing rape or murder, no matter what you believe or don’t believe. No society can survive that permits its members to do these things; even an atheist society still outlaws rape and murder. More to the point, though, being an atheist does not mean being without compassion. In fact, if we look at the prison population in the United States, the vast, overwhelming majority of inmates–including violent inmates–identify as religious (primarily Christian), so clearly being religious does not guarantee moral behavior!
Commentary The people who argue that if there isn’t a god, there is no reason not to commit murder are really scary. Basically, they are saying "I can not imagine having an internal sense of morality. The only reason that I am moral is I think I will get punished if I am not. If I believe that my god will let me get away with rape or murder, I’ll do it." Those aren’t folks I would trust with my silverware, my wallet, or my life.

Claim Atheists are arrogant.
Fact Atheism sees humanity as a part of the universe, not set above it. Atheists do not believe that human beings are the centerpiece of all creation; to call humanity the highest point of all the universe is extremely arrogant.
Commentary Many theists believe that the entire world–whose surface is 75% covered with water–was created specifically for man, who has no gills. To my ears, someone who says that the supernatural creator of the universe cares specifically about his life, even down to what job he works and what kind of car he drives, and that he can know what that creator wants from his fellow man, sounds pretty arrogant to me…

Claim Atheists are immoral III: Atheists just want to be free to commit immoral acts.
Fact Atheists don’t believe that there is a god or gods. This has nothing at all to do with morality; many devoutly religious people commit grotesquely immoral acts, and many non-religious people are quite moral.
Commentary If a person wants to commit immoral acts, Christianity is actually a pretty good belief system to allow him to do so. Christianity teaches that the consequences of immoral acts are only temporary (after all, if you kill someone and he goes to heaven, he’s not really gone–at least not forever) and that all it takes is prayer and repentance to wash away any immoral act. Atheists can not fall back on the idea that immorality is only temporary, that someone is not really dead after he has died, or that the right words spoken to someone in the sky will make the consequences of immorality go away.

Claim Atheism is based on faith I: Atheism is a religion.
Fact Atheism is a non-belief in a god or gods. This is a religion in the same way that not betting on horses is a form of gambling, not collecting stamps is a hobby, and bald is a hair color. If you don’t believe that there is a god or gods, you’re not practicing a religious belief.
Commentary The notion that atheism is a religion seems to be held primarily by folks who can not imagine not accepting the idea that the world is under the control of a god or some gods. A lack of belief in a god is not in any meaningful way a religion; there are no sacred objects, texts, or ideas in atheism, nor any of the cultural, doctrinal, social, or philosophical elements that are characteristic of a religion.

Claim Atheists are actually Muslim.
Fact Muslims believe in a divinity (the same dvinity as Christians and Jews, in fact) and believe that a man (Muhammad) was the prophet of that divinity. They also believe that a book attributed to Muhammad was directly inspired by that supernatural god. Atheists accept none of these things; ergo, by definition, atheists are not Muslim.
Commentary The idea that "atheists are actually Muslim" appears to have originated with a handful of American Fundamentalist Protestant sects. There is a convoluted rationale behind it, which starts with the notion that atheists do not actually not believe in god; in all honesty, though, it looks to my eyes like little more than an attempt to take one group of people who some folks feel justified in hating, Muslims, and turning this bigotry on another group of people, atheists, that they also wish to hate.

Claim Atheists are actually polytheists.
Fact A person who denies the existence of a supernatural entity of any sort most probably denies the existence of multiple supernatural entities.
Commentary The notion that atheists are polytheists appears to have originated with a conservative Muslim named Jaafar Sheikh Idris. It’s the flip side of the "atheists are Muslim" argument; Islam tends to despise polytheism. The argument claims that science, evolutionary biology, and nature are revered and imbued with supernatural powers and abilities by atheists, and therefore atheists worship these things as gods. It’s not clear where the church services are held…

Claim Atheism is based on faith II: Atheists have just as much faith that there is no god as believers have that there is.
Fact Even legendary atheist Richard Dawkins, in the book The God Delusion, says "There almost certainly is no god." Not "There definitely is no god," but "There almost certainly is no god."
Commentary There are atheists who assert that a god or gods definitely do not exist. Atheism, though, is defined by the lack of belief that a god or gods exist (an “atheist” is literally “not a theist”), which is not the same thing. Even theists feel confident asserting that a god or gods don’t exist, as long as we’re talking about a god or gods outside their belief system. Few folks would claim that it is a statement of faith to say that Apollo does not exist or Odin does not exist (or even that Santa Claus does not exist).

Claim Atheism is based on faith III: Atheists are closed-minded about god.
Fact Atheists believe that there is no evidence to believe that there is a god or gods, and that listening to people talk about a god or reading books presumed to be sacred do not qualify as "evidence." Not believing in something is not an act of faith. Faith lies in believing something without direct corroborating evidence; if I say there are invisible leprechauns in my garden, that’s faith, but if I say there is no evidence to support the notion of invisible leprechauns at all, it’s not.
Commentary One of the key difference between every atheist I’ve ever met and every believer I’ve ever met is about evidence. If you ask an atheist "Is there evidence that will convince you of the existence of a supernatural divine entity?" she will almost certainly say "Yes, there is," and probably even be able to spell out what that evidence would look like. If you ask a believer "Is there any evidence that would convince you that there is not a god?" the answer is almost always "No; I will continue to believe there is a god no matter what evidence to the contrary I see." That shows a huge difference between faith and atheism.

Claim Atheists are miserable, unhappy people.
Fact All the atheists I’ve met personally tend to be optimistic and filled with joy.
Commentary If we are fallen spiritual beings, then we can not be any more than what we are right now; if we are the natural result of natural law, then there’s no upper limit to what we might become. Many religions teach that the world is something to be endured. For example, many Christians believe the world to be a burden that should be rejected, while many Buddhists see life as the result of undesirable attachment, and the goal of a spiritual path to be the end of attachment so that the cycle of rebirth is broken. These ideas inherently turn away from the world. Atheists see the world as an amazing, awe-inspiring, incredible, wonderful thing, filled with sublime beauty and working in intricate, subtle, and ultimately comprehensible ways. This is, I believe, a far more optimistic, and happier, view of the world.

Claim Atheists are angry at god.
Fact This makes as little sense as being angry at Santa Claus or the Keebler elves. It’s hard to be angry at something you don’t believe even exists!
Commentary I’ve met some atheists who are angry at being made to foot the bill for tax-exempt institutions that teach things which they see as destructive and harmful, or at the results of writing superstition into penal codes, or at the horrific human cost of the anti-intellectual, misogynistic, and homophobic ideas that permeate many religions, but anger at the machinery of institutional organized religion is not anger at god.

Claim Atheists are fat.
Fact In the US, there’s a strong correlation between obesity and conservative parts of the country, with the most religious state in the US (Mississippi) also having the greatest per capita incidence of obesity. There’s a great map to that effect here.
Commentary The notion that "atheists are fat" comes from Conservapedia…the same source which says that E=mC2 is a liberal plot.

Claim Atheists think that everything in the world came from nothing.
Fact The current model of cosmology is that everything in the universe came to be from a singularity whose total mass energy is that of the universe and whose size was less than the Planck constant, which is not "nothing."
Commentary Many, though of course not all, theists of various stripes reject scientific models of the physical world–regardless of any evidence supports those models. Unfortunately, the folks who reject those models tend not to understand them; so you get misunderstandings like this one and the one below.

Claim Atheists think that everything in the world came to be by random chance.
Fact Cosmology suggests that random fluctuations in the initial makeup of the universe were the seeds from which large-scale structures formed; evolutionary biology suggests that small random variation in individuals is the seed upon which natural selection works. However, the large-scale structures in the universe and the formation of different species of organism are both the result of NON-random forces, such as gravity and adaptation, working on those initial variations. The things we see around us are NOT the result of random chance; they are the result of forces which act to preserve certain kinds of variation, and so accumulate non-randomness over long periods of time.
Commentary As with the notion that atheists believe everything came from nothing, this particular misconception comes from a misunderstanding of principles of astronomy and evolutionary biology.

Claim Atheists are hateful. Atheists hate religious people.
Fact Atheists may hate the effects of organized religion on society–bans on stem-cell research, women being burned alive in rural Hindu areas if their parents don’t pay sufficient dowries, women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia being kept as virtual prisoners in their homes, and so on–but that’s a different thing from hating people. When it comes to hating individuals, it’s hard to beat fundamentalist theists, who will often proclaim all sorts of horrific torture and atrocity awaiting any person who does not accept their worldview. If atheists claimed that believers would be subject to eternal torture, it’d be easier to claim atheism as "hateful."
Commentary Imagine what would happen if an atheist were to make a claims about believers similar to the one that the former US president made of atheists: "No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." –George H. W. Bush, August 27, 1987.

Claim Atheists are like Hitler.
Fact In 1922, Hitler gave a speech in which he said, "My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who—God’s truth!—was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders." Upon his rise to power, Hitler banned atheist organizations throughout Germany. In the book Mein Kampf, he wrote "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
Commentary "Hitler was an atheist" is a standard part of Christian trope in the US and parts of Western Europe, but it isn’t true. That doesn’t really matter, though. If the atrocities of Hitler (and other figures, such as Stalin and Pol Pot) can be laid at the feet of their supposed non-belief in the supernatural, then it seems reasonable to lay the atrocities of believers upon their belief in the supernatural. You can’t have it both ways, saying that non-belief leads to atrocity but then excusing believers who commit atrocity by claiming that there’s no association between their religious beliefs and the evil things they do.

Claim Atheists are sexist.
Fact Atheist activist organizations tend to have more men than women in them, but it’s a chicken or egg problem. Many mainstream magazines aimed at women, like Ms. magazine, like to portray atheism as sexist, which discourages women who otherwise identify as atheist from coming out of the closet.
Commentary Given a world in which Orthodox Jews spit on, beat, and/or arrest women who want to worship at the Wailing Wall, Muslim countries in which honor killing is seen as acceptable, Hindo countries where women can be burned alive in "cooking accidents" if they displease their husbands, Catholic leaders who say that allowing women into the clergy is as immoral as child rape, and Baptists who say that the role of the woman is to submit gracefully to the divine authority of her husband, the claim that atheists are sexist is a bit…odd. There are misogynist atheists, to be sure, just like there are misogynist believers; the difference is that I have never seen a misogynist atheist who tries to set up organized systems that tell other people THEY should be misogynist, too!

Claim Atheists think that life has no meaning.
Fact Many atheists think that life has the meaning we give it, not the meaning that is imposed on us by a divinity.
Commentary "We exist to worship a divinity" is not, in my opinion much of a meaning, really.

Claim Atheists think that there is nothing beyond human understanding.
Fact There are many things that are still not understood. That’s why scientists still have jobs, and haven’t all packed up and gone home.
Commentary Many people feel a need to believe in something greater than human understanding; it’s part of the drive toward everything from religious belief to belief in ghosts to belief in UFOs and alien abductions. The natural world is absolutely filled with beauty and wonder that’s way beyond simple human stories about Sasquatch or space aliens, but I think that many people don’t see that…which is a damn shame.

Claim Atheists are selfish.
Fact There is a strong correlation between secularism in a country and care for the poor. Secular Western nations like Sweden and the Netherlands consistently have better social programs, greater peace and stability, and a smaller division between the rich and poor as more religious nations. (Note, however, this assumes a nation that is secular because its citizens freely choose to be so, not a totalitarian nation whose dictators force atheism on people. Totalitarian nations tend not to be stable, peaceful, or prosperous, regardless of whether the dictators are religious theocrats or atheists.)
Commentary Many religious people claim that without a belief in a god or gods, there is no reason for altruism. Leaving aside the fact that all cooperative societies benefit from altruism, when we look in the United States we see that many secular charities exist, and that the largest donors to charity, men like Warren Buffett, tend to be non-religious. Also, religious charities often tend to use donated money for the promotion of religious values not necessarily directly connected to charity; the Salvation Army uses money to promote ideas opposing homosexuality, and the Mormon church has spent millions on TV ads against gay marriage, which is millions of dollars they do not have for charitable endeavors.

Claim Atheists don’t recognize the good that religion does.
Fact On the contrary–atheists simply don’t think that believing in a god or gods is necessary in order to DO the good that religion does.
Commentary Many religious folks credit religion for the good that is done in its name–for example, by saying that the good works of Catholic charities proves the goodness of god and of religion. Theses same folks, though, when asked about the atrocities perpetuated by religion, dismiss religious responsibility, saying things like "Those were just men claiming to do things in the name of religion, but the religion wasn’t responsible for the evil they did." Again, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t credit religion with the good that people do in its name but dismiss the evil that people do in its name; either religion motivates people or it doesn’t.

Link o’ the Day: The Rapture

A Christian radio station says that the world will end on May 21, 2011; listeners quit their jobs to join caravans traveling across the country to warn people.

This is, apparently, the third time this particular radio station has announced the End of the World in the past twenty years or so. They obviously haven’t learned the lesson of the boy who cried wolf: never repeat the same lie twice.

I threw a party on a different End of the World day back in 1989. Maybe we should host another one on May 21. Who’s in?

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 11: I have so many names…

One of St. Petersburg’s most famous monuments is a sprawling, ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral. Unlike most of the various Orthodox cathedrals throughout Russia, this one isn’t built in the Baroque style, but is built in a style that recalls Medieval Russian architecture.

Medieval Russian architecture is modeled, it seems to me, on the basic design of a turnip. Or perhaps an onion. One of those little white kinds of onions they chop up and put on hot dogs that you get when you’re visiting Boston and you kinda feel hungry but you don’t want to waste the time it takes to go to a restaurant or something, so you stop at a street vendor who’s selling hot dogs out of a little push-cart thingy. There’s an art to finding just the right hot dog street vendor…but I digress.

The cathedral has many names. In Russian, it’s called “Собор Воскресения Христова”. In English, it’s most often referred to as the Church on Spilt Blood, but it also goes by the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, the Church of our Savior on the Blood, the Church of the Resurrection, or the Church of the Assumption.

Personally, I call it the Church of Tsar Alexander II Was a Fucking Idiot.

It was built, explained our tour guide of the Name Whose Utterance Invokes The Walking Nightmares, as a monument to Alexander II, who was assassinated on that spot in the late 1800s.

Apparently, he’d been riding along the road, just minding his own business and doing whatever it is a despotic monarch does, when some Anarchist threw a hand grenade at him. The grenade totally missed, and did little more than make some noise and frighten the horses. So Alexander, being a despotic monarch who thought he could do whatever the hell he wanted to, stopped the carriage, got out, and started yelling at the Anarchist who had just thrown a grenade at him. Whereupon another Anarchist just happened to wander by, and just happened to have a grenade in his pocket, and it was curtains for the luckless Tsar. Lacy, gently wafting curtains, on windows gilded in gold with a strange half-Greek-god, half-angel, half-tentacle-monster thing embossed over the top, but curtains nonetheless.

Alexander, like many a monarch before him, forgot the lesson so clearly articulated by Ambrose Bierce, which is that an absolute monarch can do as he pleases so long as he pleases the assassins.

His successor to the throne, the unimaginatively named Alexander III, commissioned the church to be built in the exact spot where Alexander II was sent to meet his maker in little teeny bits. Hence, Church of Tsar Alexander II Was a Fucking Idiot. There’s an important lesson in here for you, kids. When someone has just tried to kill you with an explosive device, don’t stand around arguing with him. His friends might have explosive devices, too.

And better aim.

Alexander III wanted a way to memorialize his dear departed dad. Since the first thing he did upon reaching the throne was to try his damndest to erase his father’s legacy, and since one of the ways in which he set about doing that was to fuel a revival of nationalist sentiment by strengthening the Russian Orthodox Church at the expense of other religious traditions, memorializing his rather unwise predecessor by building a church seemed like a gimme.

The place is mind-blowing, in a way that only religious edifices can be. This is what it looks like on the inside:

A few months ago, I visited a Mormon temple for the first time. Mormon temples are awe-inspiring structures, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. Every aspect of the temple’s architecture, from the choice of materials to the shape of the front door, is carefully calculated to create feelings of awe in anyone who sees them. It’s a devastatingly effective technique for emotional manipulation; if you can stir up the right feelings, you can make people forget that the religion was founded by a huckster and convicted fraud artist as a way to con people out of their money.

It works. I could probably write an entire book about creating spaces that manipulate people on an emotional level, just from one afternoon at the temple. The Disney Imagineers have nothing on the Mormons when it comes to manufacturing spaces that inspire an emotional response.

And the Mormons got nothin’ on the Eastern Orthodox architects when it comes to doing the exact same thing. It’s difficult to express in shitty low-resolution JPEGs just how incredibly affecting the architecture of this place is designed to be.

I probably need not say this by now, but yes, that’s real gold up on the walls.

The impact such a building must have had on an illiterate, poorly-educated serf must have been fiercely overwhelming. Take a guy who’s never learned to read, has never seen anything more grandiose than a wood shack or the back end of a horse, a guy whose life is metered out in units of cow manure and bales of hay, and bring him into a place like this, and he’s yours. One look around inside this cathedral and you’d be able to convince him that up is down, black is white, left is right, and there’s an invisible man who lives up in the sky and who wants him to give you money. Or his wife. Or both.

Speaking of invisible men who live up in the sky, the entire building is filled, from one end to the other, of pictures of them. The Roman Catholics don’t got nothing on the Eastern Orthodox when it comes to saints. They gots hundreds of them. They like putting pictures of all of them everywhere they can, floor to ceiling, culminating in this picture up on the central dome just in front of the altar in almost every Orthodox church:

That’s Jesus up there, in his role as Jesus, King of the Universe–a depiction which the actual person, if indeed he existed, would no doubt have found…surprising. It is a truism of Christianity that Jesus became what he set out to destroy.

But I digress.

The Russian Orthodox Church is so fond of its saints that it even puts ’em all over the screen that separates the main part of the church from the sanctuary, where the altar itself and the various widgets and objects used in the magical process of turning cheap wine and bland crackers into the stuff of ritual cannibalism is kept.

These icons dedicated to the hundreds and hundreds of sacred figures in the vast pantheon that is monotheistic Orthodox Christianity are adulated by the faithful, but it should be pointed out that this is not idolatry. The Orthodox understand that when they pray before or genuflect to an image, they are actually paying respect to the thing the image represents, not like those idolaters who build a representation of a sacred force and then pay homage to them as a way to respect the thing that the image represents. Clear?

Add the grandeur of this place to the secret magical rituals carried out by the priest class behind that screen, and our poor illiterate serf never had a chance.

The Church of Tsar Alexander II Was a Fucking Idiot is no longer an actual cathedral. When the Bolsheviks took power, they looted the place. Lenin reportedly wanted to demolish it, according to our tour guide, but was persuaded not to by some of his underlings. For a long time, it was used as a warehouse for potatoes, and it wasn’t until after the fall of the Soviet Union that anyone bothered to restore it.

Back when I was a a very young child, I used to love playing hide and go seek. Somewhat later, in my middle school days in Nebraska, I played a more elaborate version called “ditch ’em,” which pits two teams of players against one another, preferably late at night on a minimum of fifteen acres of ground or so.

A central part of the structure of both games is the concept of a “home base.” People who are on their home base can’t be tagged by the people chasing them; home base is the ultimate sanctuary.

After it was restored, the Church of Tsar Alexander II Was a Fucking Idiot was never reconsecrated. Consecration is, as near as I can gather, a process by which a church or other religious structure is specially designated as a sort of religious home base in the grand theological game of tag; a consecrated structure is safe against demons or the army of the walking dead or something. If it ain’t consecrated, the rules say you can’t use it as a church, or something like that.

Since this place isn’t consecrated any more, on account of the potatoes, it’s now just a museum rather than a church. I’m not sure the distinction really matters much to Alexander II, who I’m sure if he had it to do over again would perhaps prefer to forego the honor of having the church built in his memory in favor of not being blown to bits with a grenade in the first place.