Hacking as a tool of social disapproval

“The street finds its own uses for things.” —William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Last year, my wife, my co-author, and I launched a new podcast, The Skeptical Pervert. We talk about sex…and more specifically, we talk about sex through a lens of empiricism and rationality.

The Skeptical Pervert’s website runs WordPress. Now, I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to web security, and I know WordPress tends to be a rather appetizing target for miscreants, so I run hardened WordPress installs, with security plugins, firewalls that are trained on common WordPress attack vectors, and other mitigations I don’t talk about openly.

I run quite a few WordPress installs. My blogs on franklinveaux.com and morethantwo.com run WordPress. So does the Passionate Pantheon blog, where Eunice and I discuss the philosophy of sex in a far-future, post-scarcity society. In addition, I host WordPress blogs for friends, and no, I won’t tell you who they are, for reasons that will soon become clear.

I automatically log hack attacks, including failed login attempts, known WordPress exploits, and malicious scans. I run software that emails me daily and weekly statistics on attacks against all the WordPress sites I own or host. I also subscribe to WordPress-specific infosec mailing lists, so I am aware of the general threat background.

Because WordPress is such a common target—it’s the Microsoft Windows of the self-hosted blog world, with everything that implies—any WordPress site will get a certain low level of constant probes and hack attempts. It’s just part of the background noise of the Internet. (If you run WordPress and you’re not religiously on top of security updates, by the way, you’ve already been pwn3d. I can pretty much guarantee it.)

The fact that I host WordPress sites not connected with me to the outside world gives me a good general baseline reading of this background noise, that I can use to compare to hack attacks against sites that are publicly connected with me.

And the results…well.

In all the years I’ve been on the Web—and I started running my own Web sites in the mid-1990s—I have never seen anything even remotely close to the constant, nonstop barrage of attacks against the Skeptical Pervert site. Joreth and Eunice are probably quite sick of my frequent updates: “Well, the firewall shows over a thousand brute-force hack attempts against the Skeptical Pervert site so far today and it isn’t even noon yet” (seriously, that’s a thing that happened recently).

Here’s a graph showing what I mean. This graph covers one week, from June 13, 2022 to June 20, 2022. The “baseline” in the graph is an average of several WordPress sites I host that aren’t in any way connected to me in the eyes of the Internet at large—I don’t run them, I don’t put content on them, my name isn’t on them, I merely host them.

Note that the attacks don’t scale with traffic; the More Than Two blog has the most traffic, followed by franklinveaux.com, then the Passionate Pantheon blog, then the Skeptical Pervert.

So what to make of this?

Part of it is likely the long-running social media campaign my ex has been running. Attacks on franklinveaux.com and morethantwo.com increased in the wake of her social media posts.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening with the Skeptical Pervert, which has turned out to be targeted to an extraordinary degree.

Now, I don’t know who’s attacking the site, or why, so this is speculation. It’s hard to escape the idea, though, that when a site and podcast explicitly about sex, co-hosted by two women of color, talking about non-traditional sexual relationships is targeted, at least part of the answer might simply be the same old, same old tired sex-negative misogyny and racism we see…well, everywhere, pretty much. The fact that my ex doesn’t like me (and will say or do anything to get other people not to like me) doesn’t explain what’s happening here.

It’s easy to blame conservative traditionalists, but Eunice reminded me there’s another factor at work as well. The Skeptical Pervert approaches sexuality from a rational, evidence-based, skeptical lens. In the United States, there’s a stubborn streak of misogyny amongst the dudebros of the skeptics community. A podcast with two women that looks at sex from a highly female-focused, feminist point of view taking on the mantle of skepticism? It’s possible there are dudebros who will perceive that as an encroachment into their space.

In short, I don’t think this is about me. I think this is about women talking openly about real-world non-traditional sex, and getting the same pushback that women always get when they dare to do that.

If the podcast were just me, or me with obviously male co-hosts, I don’t think the level of Web attacks would be anywhere near the same.

The street finds its own uses for things. In the hands of people threatened by or frightened of non-traditional voices, the Internet has become a safe, anonymous tool of harassment.

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.

How religion has let society down

In 1977, a guy named Stewart Parnell founded a company called Peanut Corporation of America. Parnell built the company into an enormous supplier of peanut butter, primarily for candy makers, that eventually was responsible for about two and a half percent of the nation’s total production of peanut butter. He had a very simple strategy for business success: underbid everyone.

Peanut Corporation of America made tens of millions of dollars a year but ran on a shoestring budget. In fact, Parnell Was so cheap that some of his processing plants were unlicensed and unregistered; he ran a plant in Plainview, Texas, that the state government didn’t even know existed.

Which is an awesome money-saver, if you think about it. You can’t be forced to comply with inspection results if the facility is never inspected; you don’t have to worry about FDA regulations or compliance with OSHA mandates if the FDA and OSHA don’t know you exist.

This is actually a post about religion, and not, say, Libertarianism. Hang on, I’m getting there.

Anyway, as you might expect, this approach to business had a predictable result. In 2008, nearly 700 people had food poisoning from peanut butter produced by Peanut Corporation of America, and nine of them died. A massive recall was launched, the government started inspecting Peanut Corporation of America facilities and discovered a horror show (peanut butter that was shipped even though the company knew it was contaminated with salmonella, leaky plant roofs, air conditioning systems that sucked bird shit from the roofs and sprayed it over vats of peanuts, that sort of thing. The plants were closed by the government, the company went bankrupt, and there are still Federal investigations pending against our hero, Mr. Parnell.

All this did lead to one humorous moment, when he was called to testify before Congress and took the fifth when he was asked to eat some of his own peanut butter. Mad lulz aside, though, it seems Mr. Parnell is a very bad man.

He’s also a very bad man with an unimpeachable religious pedigree. He belongs to that particular school of Evangelical Christianity prominent in his home town of Lynchburg, VA. His sister was married to a relative of Jerry Falwell’s family, and he himself was a conservative Southern Baptist.

Now, one of the things we hear about religion is that religion serves a valuable social function by providing a framework of morality. Morals, the religious say, are codes of conduct created and sanctioned by God to direct human behavior toward one another, and indeed some religions claim some morals which are, in fact, good ways to behave.

The problem is that the moral values promoted by religions, especially conservative religions, tend not to focus very heavily on things like “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”–a value claimed by many religious tradition but not really advocated very strongly by most of them. Instead, the moral values are more often, it seems to me, promoted as arbitrary lists of things you’re supposed to do and things you’re not supposed to do, with no coherent underlying logic to them.

And it seems a lot of them are about sex.

When you look at the major organized religions in the United States, and examine their moral teachings closely, you can’t help but come away with the notion that God is nothing short of obsessed with what goes on with our crotches.

This obsession with sex extends to social ideas about morality. If someone tells you “I have strong morals” or “I believe in good moral values,” you can be pretty sure that what they’re talking about is sex.

And they’re probably not going to follow those statements up with “I believe that people should do unto others as they would have done unto them,” either. For all the fact that religion likes to give lip service to notions like that, I doubt many “moral values” folks actually say “That’s why I believe in people making their own choices about who they have sex with, because I want them to let me make my own choices about these things.”

There are all sorts of reasons why institutional power structures are obsessed with sex. It’s a great hook; control people’s basic drives and you control the people. It’s an inevitable outcome of the way our brains work; fMRI studies have suggested that people who hold socially conservative ideas are strongly motivated by feelings of disgust, and tend, by and large, to believe that if something makes them feel an emotion of disgust, their emotional response is proof that the thing itself must be inherently wrong. It’s a characteristic of the way we form social bonds; we are strongly driven, as part of our evolutionary heritage, to divide social groups into “in” groups and “out” groups, and to seek differences to delineate those groups.

And so on, and so on. None of those things is really all that interesting, I think; it’s all just part of the tedious and yucky parts of how social power structures flow, as disagreeable but inevitable in its operation as the flow of sewage through a city’s pipes, and often just as pungent.

That’s not the bit I think is important. The drab banality of institutionalized power isn’t, for me, the most disappointing thing thing about organized religion. The most disappointing thing, to me, is the way that such organizations have seized the mantle of moral authority and then utterly fumbled it, to the detriment of society as a whole.

So many religions have made such vigorous claim to the throne of moral arbitration that there are actually people who believe that without religion, a person can not be moral. People ask ridiculous questions like “Can atheists be sexually moral?” Commentators claim that without a god, a person can not have “morality in his heart;” and some people even point to the fact that the non-religious are less obsessed with sex than the religious as proof that those without religion are less moral.

But having successfully made the argument to a great many people that they and they alone can protect and promote morality, what do they do with it? That’s the part that disappoints me.

You can argue, of course, that men like Stewart Parnell are driven by greed, and would not behave in moral ways regardless of the teachings of their adopted religions. And that might be true. But the fact is, the major religious organizations tend to focus so heavily on sex as the beginning and end of morality that other lessons are let slip by the wayside.

When a person adopts the idea that morality is primarily about the goings-on in his crotch, a dangerous thing happens. That person can very easily say to himself “I m a good person; I don’t cheat on my wife, have premarital sex,lie with other men as I lie with women, or do her up the poop chute. I am a moral person; immorality is about my sexual behavior, and I keep my sexual behavior confined within the proper parameters.” And once a person says “I am a moral person,” he may stop watchdogging his decisions. He doesn’t question the moral nature of his own actions, because, after all, morality is about sex, right?

I’m not saying that religions don’t talk about the moral dimension of things besides sex. But I am saying that, by and large, so much emphasis is placed on sex that they don’t make the case for an overarching, coherent foundation or morality; they don’t argue that morality is ultimately founded on the notion that you should treat others with compassion and respect, and not make decisions which adversely affect the lives of others.

By, for example, selling them contaminated peanut butter.

And they can’t. They can’t make this case, because if they do, many of the constraints they place on sex begin to look like anomalies, arbitrary rules not founded in any sort of notion of treating others with compassion and respect.

Looked at through the lens of treating others the way they want to be treated, there is nothing immoral about, say, oral sex. Or sex with two partners, if all the people involved are on board with that. Or masturbation. These things don’t fit the notion of morality as a framework that prevents people from doing harmful things to one another; they aren’t harmful.

In fact, if you assume that framework for moral choices, prohibitions on masturbation begin to look downright stupid, and a god who would send someone to an eternity of suffering simpy for touching herself begins to look vicious and petty.

Especially if you accept that it was that very same god who put our wibbly bits within arm’s reach in the first place.

Morality is not about memorizing a set of rules. It is, when it is most properly applied, an entire system of ethical decision-making, one that places a watchdog within us which examines our choices in light of the way those choices affect others. It is an internally consistent set of checks and balances, which reminds us to place ourselves and our actions within a larger context and take responsibility for the effects of those actions on other people.

Masturbating isn’t immoral. Poisoning seven hundred people with products that you know to be contaminated because you can make money by doing it, is. By creating the perception that morality is first and foremost about sex, the large religious institutions have consolidated social power and, in the act, destroyed their own moral credibility. They have failed to teach morality as more than a list of rules about who to fuck, when to fuck, and in what position to fuck, and in so doing they have exerted a harmful influence on society as a whole. The Catholic church, for instances, focuses so heavily on ideas of sex that they condemn the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa, a moral teaching which helps promote the very human misery and suffering they then spend millions to try to relieve. Conservative Islamic teachings on sex are so repressive that to a Fundamentalist Muslim, paradise is a seedy gang bang out of a 70s porn flick, where the pious can look forward to the awkward ministrations of 72 sexually inexperienced women.

This weird, obsessive-compulsive fixation on sex will have to end before any religious institution can really become the moral authority they all claim to be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some peanut butter eggs to eat. I hope the company that made them isn’t owned by a conservative Christian.

The wonder of the physical universe: Naica, Mexico

Naica, Mexico is home to a number of lead and silver mines. It is also home to a geological formation that appears to be unique in all the world: the Crystal Cave of Giants, discovered accidentally by mine workers in 2000.

The Crystal Cave is a gigantic underground formation containing the largest natural crystal formations ever recorded. The cave is superheated by a pocket of subsurface magma, and until recently was entirely flooded with water that was supersaturated with gypsum and other minerals. The combination of high temperature, superheated and supersaturated water, and time (lots of it–about 500,000 years, to be exact) produced one of the most mind-bogglingly beautiful things on earth:

The cave has been pumped dry by mine workers, who accidentally broke into it while mining for lead. It’s still superheated by magma; the temperature within the cave is a steady 122 degrees F with a humidity of over 90%. Explorers in the cave use special chilled suits and breathing masks, and even with this equipment can only remain within it for 15-45 minutes at a time.

The cave is doomed; when the mines are played out over the next few years, the mining companies will stop pumping the water out, and the influx of new, non-supersaturated water will destroy the crystal formations. There’s more about the cave, and more pictures, here.

I love the physical world. There is not a single day of my life that goes by when I am not boggled and awestruck by how magnificent this universe is. Should I live to be ten thousand years old, I will never, ever stop being awestruck by how awesome all of this is. Take a handful of basic particles, make them obey certain fairly simple rules, and the things you end up with are beautiful and magnificent beyond comprehension.

We, as self-aware entities, are the part of the universe that understands itself, and that one simple fact gives us incalculable value. I will never understand the tendency of some people to turn away from the wonders of the physical world into a tiny, feeble make-believe universe that’s a paltry six thousand years old and soon to be rendered obsolete by some invisible man with magic powers who lives up in the sky and spends a great deal of time worrying about what kind of clothes we wear and how we have sex.

The universe is incomprehensibly large and incomprehensibly fine-grained, ancient and mysterious and filled with so much beauty that it’s hard to imagine any person seeing it without being filled with reverence and awe. The more we learn about the physical universe, the more beautiful and magnificent it is. The desire to turn away from understanding the world around us and retreat into an imaginary bestiary of little gods and demons is the desire to turn away from the greatest beauty we can ever hope to bear witness to.