As I recently wrote[1], the US Supreme Court recently chose to further weaken the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Although I believe that slippery slope arguments are weak in isolation, the history of erosion of state-church separation in the US over the last 30 years suggests that such arguments are valid. As Katherine Steward wrote[2] yesterday in The New York Times, the strategy of the religious right is becoming clear. Since a full frontal assault is not feasible, they have taken the long view and are chipping away at the wall of separation case-by-case. Some might wonder: “What’s the harm? After all, it’s just a simple prayer. And it happens to coincide with the beliefs of the majority.” And the religious right would never seek to impose a full-scale state religion right? It doesn’t really fit with the narrative about our country that we’ve taught our children. In fact, we’ve tought it for so long, we’ve forgotten the truth.

Religious liberty vs. religious escapism

The US was founded not on the principles of religious liberty but on religious escapism. The Puritans came to the New World because they we dissatisfied with the Reformation of the Church of England. Their American settlement was little more than a separatist religious movement. The laws they established clearly reflected their monolithic religious beliefs. Tolerance was not a virtue of the early settlers. In 1697, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed An Act against Atheism and Blasphemy which stated:

“Be it declared and enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Representatives, convened in General Assembly, and it is enacted by the Authority of the same, That if any Person shall presume willfully to blaspheme the holy Name of God, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost; either by denying, cursing or reproaching the true God; his Creation or Government of the World: or by denying, cursing, or reproaching the holy Word of God … Every one so offending shall be punished by Imprisonment, not exceeding six Months, and until they find Sureties for the good Behaviors; by sitting in Pillory; by Whipping; boaring thorow the Tongue, with a red hot Iron; or sitting upon the gallows with a Rope about their Neck; at the Discretion of the Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery, before which the Trial shall be; according to Circumstances, which may aggravate or alleviate the Offence.”

And while Maryland, with its Act Concerning religion, also known as the Maryland Toleration Act, of 1649 permitted freedom of worship for Trinitarian Christrians (Catholics, basically) it still condemned persons who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity to death or loss of property.

The forgotten Enlightenment

In the mid to late 1700’s along came the men we call the “Founders” or “Framers.” Most were religious in some complicated way. Often they were more like Jefferson, Deist and skeptical of organized religions. What they codified in the First Amendment is clear. They intended a wall of separation as Jefferson wrote between religion and government. While the Framers were clear on their intent, the views of the citizenry were hardly uniform. Pockets of theocratic government remained. New York state, in particular, was a hot-bed of religious ferver; and the wall of separation was much more porous than originally intended. In 1811, a man named Ruggles was tried[3] for the crime of blasphemy. In reciting the facts of the case, it was said that:

“The defendant was indicted … in December, 1810, for that he did, on the 2nd day of September, 1810 … wickedly, maliciously, and blasphemously, utter, and with a loud voice publish, in the presence and hearing of divers good and Christian people, of and concerning the Christian religion, and of and concerning Jesus Christ, the false, scandalous, malicious, wicked and blasphemous words following: “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore,” in contempt of the Christian religion. … . The defendant was tried and found guilty, and was sentenced by the court to be imprisoned for three months, and to pay a fine of $500.”

In Ruggles, the chief justice acknowledged that no specific laws prohibited such speech; but that “we are a Christian people and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or whorship of these imposters.” Since there was no such law, he openly decided to use English Common law as his guide. (Which of course is ludicrous in contemporary judisprudence.[4])

That’s all in the past, right?

In 2007 George Kalman, a resident of the state of Pennsylvania attempted to register a film company under the name “I Choose Hell Productions LLC.” His request was denied under a state law[5] barring “words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name” in corporate names. Kalman sued[6] in Federal DistrictCourt and won. In the decision, Judge Baylson wrote:

‟All told, the Blasphemy Statute’s plain language, historical context, and the specific sequence of events leading to its passage inevitably lead to the conclusion that, objectively speaking, the statute was introduced and passed into law with a predominantly religious purpose. … Pennsylvania’s Blasphemy Statute, however, unequivocally excludes only one religious perspective but not the other, as it permits speech deemed reverent to religious beliefs, yet excludes speech deemed irreverent to religious beliefs. \“Choosing hell\” may be an irreverent choice for a corporate name, but under the Constitution, this fact alone cannot be the basis for its suppression from the public debate. Consequently, the Blasphemy Statute is \“alien to the tradition of disestablishment of which the First Amendment is only a part." ”

Judicial sleights of hand

Among the many problems with the most recent case[7] are the mental gymnastics one has to go through to understand what’s private speech and what’s government speech. As Ms. Stewart puts it:

“Thus, when the minister appointed by the municipal government of Greece bids “all rise,” the Supreme Court majority tells us, this is not an establishment of religion because the words are not uttered by public officials. And when the town leaders respond with a sign of the cross, that isn’t establishment either, because, just then, public officials are acting as private individuals.”

In other words, according to the majority opinion, there’s no entanglement because public officials - in the course of an official public meeting somehow magically transform back-and-forth between private individuals and public officials. But without any placards or other indications, how are the citizens in attendance to know what utterances are private speech and which are not? Again, in Greece v. Galloway we know that private citizens are required to come before the town council to conduct certain forms of business. They have no choice but to listen to publically-endorsed religious speech. This is clearly entanglement.

A simple solution

Don’t have government-organized prayers at public meetings. Simple.

The Free Exercise Clause guarantees that individuals have the freedom to assemble and worship as they please without undue interference from the government. By all means, take advantage of that. And be satisfied.

  1. Gutting the Establishment Clause, Alan Duncan; 5 May, 2014.

  2. Stewart, K. (2014, May 7). A Big Win for the Prayer Lobby. The New York Times 7 Retrieved from Link

  3. 1811 NY The People v. Ruggles, 8 Johns 545 (Sup Ct N.Y. 1811). For an interesting analysis of The People v. Ruggles, see The Consitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State

  4. Lest any revisionist attempt to use Ruggles to claim that they wall of separation is mythical, take a look at the 1853 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in Bloom v. Cornelius. There the court’s opinion states: “Christianity is a part of the common law of England, but, under the provisions of our constitution, neither Christianity nor any other system of religion is a part of the law of this state.”

  5. Section 1303©(2)(ii) of Title 15 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes. Link

  6. Kalman v. Cortes, 723 F. Supp. 2d 766, 775 (E.D. Pa. 2010) Link

  7. Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway

Gutting the Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause forbids the US government from establishing a state religion. Jefferson made it clear in his correspondence what that clause meant, famously coining of the term “wall of separation” between state and church. Yesterday, in a regrettable decision, the US Supreme Court chose to gut the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Court ruled[1] that prayers organized by, and delivered at the meetings of, the Town Council of Greece, NY are Constitutionally permissible. Of course, the majority opinion of the Court, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy relied heavily on the earlier Marsh v. Chambers ruling the permitted legislative prayers, seeing such utterances as largely ceremonial.

Although I disagree completely with the assertion in Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayers are permissible because of their tradition, Justic Kagan in her dissent here makes it clear that there is a clear distinction between the functioning of a legislative body and that of a town council. She writes:

“Greece’s Board indeed has legislative functions, as Congress and state assemblies do—and that means some opening pray­ers are allowed there. But much as in my hypotheticals, the Board’s meetings are also occasions for ordinary citi­ zens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.”

In a well-written, narrative fashion, Justice Kagan paints a clear distinction between prayers offered in the contexts of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature (the site of Marsh v. Chambers) and this case. She points out that in Marsh v Chambers, the payers are directed at the legislators, not at the audience. In Greece, NY v. Galloway, the chaplain stands with his back to the Town Board and directs his prayers at the audience, the citizens of the town.

We inhabit a country founded on the principles of equal rights and protection under the law. Prayers, organized by the government, at government meetings, particularly those that are directed to the citizenry in attendance have no place here. The free exercise of religious practice does not extend to the use of government as a tool to further particular sectarian reach. It is clear that the Town of Greece, NY like many towns across the country that sponsor government prayers convey the message, whether explicit or not, that there are two classes of citizens, those who harbor the same (“correct”) relgious beliefs, and those who don’t. Those who don’t can presumably just go live somewhere else.

  1. Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway

But what about socialization?

Homeschoolers are widely regarded as unsocialized

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the question “What about socialization?” I’d be incredibly wealthy by now.

Long before we made the decision to homeschool ViolinGirl, I asked the same questions. But the closer you are to the homeschool community, the sillier the question becomes.

The question could really be rephrased as:

“I attended ‘regular’ school and I remember that were tons of other kids there. Those kids must have been essential to my education and my social development since I turned out OK. And since they were essential to my development, they’re essential to yours and to your kids’”

I’ll grant the benefit of the doubt to most people who ask this question and assume that they genuinely have ViolinGirl’s best interest at heart. They probably think they are doing us a favor by pointing out the fatal flaw in our plan. “This all sounds good; but did you stop to consider that there won’t be any other kids around?”

Right, we forgot about that part.

I’ll admit that there are times I’d like to refer them to The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List.[1]

But since I rather be polite and more nuanced, what follows is how we really feel about homeschooling vs ‘regular’ schooling on the topic of socialization.

Socialization ≠ socializing

There’s a difference between socialization and socializing. Before you ask about socialization, consider whether that’s what your intending to ask about. Socialization is a process of acculturation. It’s the process by which we learned shared values, ways of communicating with one another, negotiation, and the ability to use communication to live cohesively with others. Socializing is just the process of talking with other people. Socializing is not the only way for children to experience socialization. If I were forced to make a choice (importantly, I’m not) then I’d prefer that the parents be the source of socialization rather than having ViolinGirl muddle through it with her age-similar peers.

Homeschooled kids have peers

Believe it or not, homeschooled children have peers. Outsiders view homeschoolers as quirky, socially-awkward people sitting around the kitchen table from morning to night. Or the equally strange kind that let their kids run around free-range. Neither is typical. While ‘regular’-schoolers are sitting at their desks, homeschoolers are out in the community. They are often with their peers in co-ops, clubs, extracurricular activities, park days, etc. Because homeschooling is so much more efficient that out-of-home schooling, they often have more time to devote to having fun with friends. I’d guess that homeschoolers have more friends and fewer acquaintances. That’s probably OK, given what we know about Dunbar’s number.[2]

The need for solitude

Some kids are energized by lots of socializing. Others are depleted. Out-of-home school offers no good options for children to seek out solitude when they need it. The always-on approach to traditional schooling detracts from positive socialization. I wonder if the kids that are depleted by too much peer contact become avoidant or anxious. We’ve seen evidence of this with ViolinGirl.

Stable adult relationships mean more

There is considerable evidence that kids’ success is mediated more by the stability and quality of their relationships with caring adults than by the number of their age-similar peer relationships. The picture of the rebelious teen may be mostly an artifact of the traditional schooling. When parents and kids lead separate lives, the less competent they become when trying to communicate with one another because they lack a common frame of reference; so they withdraw from one another. Among teens, this withdrawal can happen at a pivotal point in their development. Teens who lack a strong relationship with caring adults are more likely to seek to discover their identity from peers. So perhaps the archetypal withdrawn teen is not a sudden appearance at high school, but an artifact of the gradual withdrawal from family when the overlap in their lives is meager.

Bullying & adverse relationships

Not all peer relationships are positive. I’m certainly no sociologist; but observing children playing together in large groups at schools, I would guess that at least half of the interactions are conflictual. It may be more. The purpose of school is to learn. If negative social interactions affect one’s capacity to learn then the school’s mission is compromised. This is one reason why I regard homeschooling as more efficient. There are fewer negative social interactions to stand in the way of learning.

But aren’t adverse social interactions necessary?

Certainly we can learn from both positive and negative interactions. But perhaps even better is to have a adult safety-net. One author makes the analogy of a performer learning the tightrope act.[3] One wouldn’t make the argument that you shouldn’t have a safety net under the tightrope on the grounds that it doesn’t resemble the “real thing”. In a similar way, perhaps we should be more mindful about the social safety-net that we provide for children. The teacher of a large classroom is simply not capable to consistently serving this role.

Identity development

We’ve become increasingly wary of outsourcing the development of ViolinGirl’s identity. We feel that this is one of the social benefits of homeschooling. A person can only contribute to society insofar as they have a high self-regard. In other words, I can only contribute to the extent that I have something valuable to contribute. The development of an identity, then, is key. If a child has an identity of which she’s proud, then she will have something to bring to society at-large. But out-of-home school is, in essence, outsourcing a major part of the child’s identity-development. We may be regarded as helicopter parents; but I seen no other satisfactory option here: parents simply must jump-start the kid’s development of identity. Who cares whether or not it’s subconsciously fulfilling some latent need of the parents? If it’s done with the best interest of the child in mind, then it’s for the best.

These are among our reasons for not worrying about socialization. If we’re being mindful of attending to all of ViolinGirl’s needs, this is just one of the many things we’ll attend to.

It’s hard to imagine that two really good things: family-centeredness and learning are somehow detrimental in combination.

  1. Markus, D., The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List, Secular Homeschooling, Issue 1, Fall 2007. Link

  2. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar was the first to find a correlation betweeen primate brain size and the average social group size for the species. He estimated that the ideal social group size for humans might only be around 150.

  3. Gathercole, R., The Well-Adjusted Child: The social benefits of homeschooling, p. 113.

Conversation about the necessity of rebirth in Buddhist traditions

The New York Times ran an fascinating interview[1] between Gary Gutting and Professor Jay L. Garfield, Smith College on the requirements of Buddhism.

Drs. Gutting and Garfield touch on the subject of rebirth, part of the cycle of samsara (संसार|संसार). Rebirth is a difficult concept for many Westerners, and for some of the Asian Buddhist traditions. Garfield finds a solution to this difficulty by moving the aspiration of awakening to the entire sangha:

“Just as a stonemason building the ground floor of a medieval cathedral might aspire to its completion even if he knows that he will not personally be around to be involved in its completion, a practitioner who aspires that awakening will be achieved need not believe that she will be around to see it, but only hope that her own conduct and practice will facilitate that.”

So, while I may not achieve awakening, my aspiration of awakening means that through my practice, and the practice of other sentient beings, awakening is possible.

Finally, if you’re unfamiliar with the tenets of Buddhism it’s worthwhile to read what Garfield has to say about the nature of Buddhism as a religion. First, he comments on the difficult that most Westerners have with the Buddhist tolerance of syncretism. All of the Abrahamic religions have strong antisyncretic[2] traditions; whereas Buddhism - in all of its diverse instances - seems relatively happy to coexist alongside other local faith traditions. Then there’s the issue about whether Buddhism is a religion at all. Some Westerners classify Buddhism as a non-religion because it is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic as Gutting puts it. Garfield responds that this classification is: “…a serious ethnocentrism [that] can blind us to important phenomena about non-Abrahamic religions.” I suspect most practitioners of Buddhism would not care one way or other. For them, there a truths about the nature of reality[3], the refuges that relieve the suffering that distort reality[4], and the practices that constitute the path to awakening.

  1. Gutting, G. (2014, April 27). What does Buddhism require? The New York Times, Link

  2. Syncretism is a melding of practices or schools of though. A blending of separate traditions.

  3. These are the 4 Noble Truths (चत्वारि आर्यसत्यानि catvāri āryasatyāni.) 1. There is dukkha ( दुःख “suffering”) in the world. 2. There origin of dukkha is desire. 3. The cessation of dukkha can be achieved., 4. There is a path to the cessation of dukkha.

  4. To be a Buddhist is to take the three refuges - Buddha (बुद्ध), Dharma (धर्म), Sangha (संघ). Or, the Enlightened One (or the Enlightened nature?), the teachings, and the community of practitioners.

What's the trick?

I’ve been ruminating about something my wife, a vascular surgeon, told about a medical student who rotated on her service. He said that he was hoping to “learn some tricks.” I’m not exactly sure what surgical “tricks” are but I assume he was referring to little shortcuts or efficiencies that you gradually learn through practice. This bothered me for a long while for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Now I think I understand why.

It bothers me because it seems to imply the expectation of unearned knowledge. A desire to advance one’s practical knowledge without actually doing the practical part.

I’m fond of looking for unintended consequences, mainly because they’re overlooked and usually unpredicted. I like finding things that change the fundamentals. This phenomenon is an unintended consequence. I think that what underlies this generational expectation is the culture of convenience and immediacy that has sprung up around the internet and its mobile spawn. “After all, if I can purchase and download a song or book immediately, and I can research any subject without impediment, then the slow process of learning something that you thought was difficult and time consuming is just an artifact of your generation.”

I’ve been struggling recently with an unusually difficult passage in a early work of Beethoven, the Op. 1 No. 3 Piano trio. In the trio section of the third movement there’s a fast descending octave passage. The notes are those of the C major scale; but the run doesn’t start on C, so the fingering is entirely different. It’s unexpectedly difficult for no other reason that it requires you to forget the fingerings that your hands fall into reflexively when playing something that looks like the C major scale, but isn’t at all.

So, what’s the trick?

The trick is that there is no trick.

There are still things to be learned and perfected that are impervious to tricks.[1] You can’t say a magical incantation and make your hands play the notes in perfect synchrony. You can’t cross your eyes and look at the score differently and expect your hands to fly across the keys without stopping to wonder what finger goes where.

The trick is that there isn’t any trick. It’s just accepting that some things can’t be rushed; and that doing is the price of knowing.

  1. And I think that these disciplines, at the far trailing edge of contemporary and distracted culture, are a gold mine for kids. (Only in a metaphorical sense, mind you.) As more kids get more and more distracted by their phones and social media, the ones that are anchored by a patiently earned passion will race ahead of the pack.

From the frontlines of Republican lunacy

Academic freedom has long been a hallmark of U.S. colleges and universities, both public and private. Recently, Republican lawmakers in at least one southern state seem bent on destroying that freedom.[1]

In South Carolina, at the College of Charleston, a public institution of higher learning, students were assigned to read the graphic novel “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. It’s a book that deals with gay themes. The Republican-controlled state House of Representatives acted swiftly to punish the school by withdrawing $52,000 in funding. The same Republican politicians made a similar move against the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg for assigning a different book with gay themes as part of its reading program.

To make matters worse, Republican lawmakers in South Carolina recently appointed Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the next president of the College of Charleston. McConnell, another Republican, is a well-known Civil War reenactor.

Public universities are not the academic arm of religious conservativism. If religious-minded conservatives wish to avoid exposing students to material that involves sexual themes with which they aren’t comfortable, then they should create and staff their own private universities. Of course, some do. Censorship is a bad idea, whether it originates with the Right or the Left. It just so happens that Republicans are more bothered by ideas that they don’t personally endorse.

  1. Helderman, R. (2014, April 22). S.C. college production highlights political battle between lawmakers, public universities. The Washington Post, Link

Developing character in children, praise the behavior or the character?

Children have sensitive periods for character development

The New York Times today published an opinion piece entitled “Raising a Moral Child”[1] in which they point out a discrepancy between parental interventions that raise achievement and those that build moral character. It is now well-established that when parents notice and praise a child’s effort (in lieu of outcome) that they build achievement.

But what about the development of moral behaviors? Should parents praise the behavior from which one’s moral character can be inferred? Or should they jump make the connection between action and character explicit? That is should they say: “I noticed that you shared your dolls with your friends today.” or should they say: “I see that you are the kind of person who enjoys helping others by sharing what you have.”?

It turns out that praising the character rather than the behavior, at least in children around the age of 8 years, increased altruistic behavior. Among children younger and older than this sensitive period, the differential effects of the two types of praise were not as significant. This suggests the presence of a critical age of development where a child’s identity begins to solidify into the form that it will be as an adult.

  1. Grant, A. (2014, April 13). Raising a moral child. The New York Times,, accessed 2014-04-13.

Voting and efficacy

Voting is widely regarded as a civic duty. The Founders assumed that citizens would inform themselves of the issues and of how candidates would approach the issues if elected, then cast their vote accordingly. In a nation of nearly 314 million people, this idea has become laughably outdated as the magnitude of individual voices trends to the infinitessimal.

Two party system

Realistically, one’s choices are Republican or Democrat. I suppose there are the Libertarians - the autistics of the political world.[1] But our two-party system bundles unrelated concepts into pre-packaged ideologies. Do you favor “fiscal responsibility” and marriage equality? Too bad; because those ideals don’t come in a pre-packaged form. Within the party system, the large amount of cash ensures that dissent doesn’t happen. It’s all or nothing.

The parties are indistinguishable

Notwithstanding the GOP resistance to President Obama’s healthcare plan - which is almost exactly what Congressional Republicans themselves proposed during Bush II - it’s pretty hard to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats. They both spend lots of money, Republicans on bombs and missiles, Democrats on social programs. They both spy unlawfully on their fellow citizens. Most seem to bend the truth; and they all seem to favor a simple lie over a complex truth.

Vox populi, vox Dei

Not so much. More like “vox Koch, vox Dei.”

So why all the fuss about voting for this candidate or that? The Media Bubble will ensure that we stay deeply polarized for the forseeable future. Vote GOP, vote Democrat. It’s all the same. Just today, the Supreme Court voted to strike down individual campaign contribution limits.

Change the world without casting a ballot

Let’s take a step back and think about why we vote at all. Don’t we choose to participate in elections because we want to advance causes and ideals that are important to us? Perhaps our choice to cast a ballot has an aspirational, forward-looking quality, reflecting our hopes for the world in which our children or grandchildren will live.

Bush? Obama? What's the difference?

We can look at voting like any other activity as a balance of costs and benefits. On an individual level, participation in an election, particularly the presidential elections, has almost infinitely small value. And it carries a cost if done properly. It takes time and effort to inform oneself in an unbiased fashion about the issues and candidates. Unless one wants to mindlessly cast a ballot for the received wisdom of one’s party, it takes effort.

But since our personal time and energy - our bandwidth - is bounded, the process of informed voting has an opportunity cost. What else might we be doing instead of participating this process? I’m not at all sure that the cost-benefit balance favors participation in elections. And if our goal is to invest our time judiciously to further our own interests and ideals, then perhaps there’s a better way.

I’m not at all certain that I’ll vote again. The candidates appear indistinguishable to me. I can’t bring myself to vote for a Republican because their ideology is so bound-up in limiting personal freedoms that aren’t really a matter of public concern. But I don’t think that the Democrats have been very successful in distinguishing themselves. Ignoring the Fourth Amendment, they routinely spy on citizens accused of no crime. And they still have not closed Guantánamo Bay.

Maybe the best way to change the world is to adopt the platitude of “be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want your kids or grandkids to inherit a better future, then instill abilities and values that correspond to the way you’d like that world to work. If you want to live in an ethical society, just be ethical. If you do not want animals to be mistreated, stop eating them. If you want to slow global warming, stop polluting. If you want to support local jobs and economies, stop buying so much “Made in China” stuff.

In a sense, this shifts the emphasis away from decisions over which we have very little control to decisions that reflect character and values in action. In another sense, this takes the idea of “think global, act local” to its most basic form.

  1. The characterization of libertarians as austic doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the same neurologic “wiring” as persons with autism. But when given psychometric studies, self-identified libertarians score higher on the systematizing side of the Empathizer-Systematizer scale - the only political group to do so. Persons with autism have similar responses, leading to the metaphorical association between libertarians and autistics. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychology and currently professor of Ethical Leadership at the Stern School of Business as NYU has written extensively about how political identification, morality, and empathy are connected.

Teaching non-distraction

We are intentional about our nearly six year-old daughter’s use of technology. We carefully limit her screen time; and we almost never allow her to play interactive games, even educational games, on the iPad. In short, we reason that humans evolved in an analog world where things with which our ancestors interacted were physical objects. Since human evolution doesn’t proceed in the scales of time that encompass an individual human life, the late blooming of interactive technology and its ubiquity in our culture can do nothing to shape the underlying neural bases of our cognition.[1]

Above all, we want our daughter to live in the real world, without cell phones and tablets calling her away from reality into the immersive experience of glowing rectangles. Parents who hand their children a tablet or smart phone to calm them are like a doctor who would treat endocarditis with Tylenol. Sure, it makes the fever better; but the underlying infection continues unabated. In the case of the child given interactive screens to play with, once the screen is withdrawn, they are left to managed in the real world - a world where things don’t interact at the same pace. They become bored and restless. In an attempt to calm their restlessness, the parent hands the child the screen. And the cycle continues. The tight feedback loops experienced by both child and parent reinforce an unfortunate pattern that ultimately derails brain development and, for the child, creates a sense of dissatisfaction with the real world. For the parent, relieved of the discomfort of a restless, bored, frustrated child, the behavior is likewise reinforced.

This is the result we work hard to avoid.

But what worries me is whether we are giving her an advantage in the world. Or is it a disadvantage? Will the world of her future be so enured to distraction and immersion in interactive virtual experiences that it doesn’t accommodate adults whose way of living in the world is by talking to real people, handling real objects, playing real musical musical instruments - in short, living and being in the real world? Or will adults, like our daughter of the future have a striking advantage over her peers because she developed in a way that values real experiences?

  1. I fully understand that humans are quite adaptable and can easily incorporate interactive technology into their lives. The point I’m making is that brain development in children is a process that was encoded by exposure to objects in the real physical world. The physical world, then, is fundamentally important to our cognitive development.

Why Hobby Lobby is wrong

The United States Supreme Court begins hearing arguments tomorrow in case Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., Petitioners v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al.[1]

The Affordable Care Act, which has survived prior challenges in the Supreme Court relatively unscathed, mandates that most employers, including the for-profit Hobby Lobby, must provide insurance coverage for contraception. Hobby Lobby, claiming that the requirement violates the company’s religious principles, has refused to comply with the mandate. Hobby Lobby’s challenge is largely based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 which sets a high standard that the federal government must meet if it places burdens on the free exercise of religion.

But Hobby Lobby and its supporters are wrong.

Mechanism of action of oral contraceptives

Hobby Lobby objects to the use of oral contraceptives by women because it maintains that they act as abortifacients. Of course, it that were true, they would have a case. The federal government is prohibited from funding abortion services by the Hyde Amendment. But the problem with this argument, is that oral contraceptives don’t work as abortifacients. This is a void argument.

Hobby Lobby is not entitled to the same First Amendment protections as private citizens

If Mr. Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. wishes to stipulate that his wife and minor female children not use contraceptives, then he is free to do so without interference from the federal government. But he is not free to assert that his company has the same rights as a private citizens. Even über-conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in Employment Division v. Smith understood the risk of allowing individuals and groups to circumvent the laws of the land by declaring exemption on the basis of professed doctrines. He wrote that: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”[2]

In other words, the majority’s fear in Employment Division v. Smith was that anyone could claim religious exemption to any law. Anarchy would be a foreseeable outcome. It’s not hard to imagine that one of the prosperity gospel megachurches might interpret the scripture as prohibiting income tax. This is untenable.

Contraception is a vital part of women’s health care

Some Hobby Lobby supporters maintain that the cost of contraceptives is trivial and that women should just pay for them out-of-pocket. Well, many effective antihypertensive medications are cheap, too. Why isn’t Hobby Lobby fighting against antihypertensives and antibiotics. This isn’t about cost. The cost is a smokescreen.

The World Health Organization has repeatedly emphasized the vital role of contraceptive and evidence-based family planning in the health care and economic viability of women worldwide.

Again, Hobby Lobby is not a person.

Hobby Lobby is a large retail company with thousands of employees. It is not a person. A person, the president, has strong religious beliefs - to which he is entitled. But he is not entitled to extend his beliefs to employees of the company. The US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled recently that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” and thus could not invoke protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.[3]

“Just work somewhere else”

Some have argued that employees and prospective employees who don’t like the way Hobby Lobby is run can work elsewhere. After all, as a potential customer of the store, I “vote with my feet” and don’t shop there. However, with respect to employees, this is illogical. If Hobby Lobby were allowed to operate in this way, it sets up discriminatory hiring practices. Although religious organizations are permitted to freely discrinimate among its employees, secular for-profit companies are not. By claiming that the contraceptive exemption has a religious basis, then setting up a condition where only people who agree with these practices are allowed to work for the company, employment becomes conditional on agreeing with a particular set of religious beliefs. This is clearly indefensible under the law.

Furthermore, the “just work somewhere else” seriously underestimates the difficulty that persons who work at Hobby Lobby might have in finding gainful employment elsewhere.

A thought experiment

Imagine large retail company, Acme Stores, Inc. that is run by a wealthy man, Mr. James Williams who happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Mr. Williams, like most Witnesses, opposes the use of blood products, including transfusions. Guided by his religious beliefs, Mr. Williams refuses to allow Acme Stores to comply with provisions of the Affordable Care Act that mandate hospitalization coverage because hospitalization might entail giving blood transfusions.

What if Acme Stores were run by a devout Christian Scientist who doesn’t believe in any health care whatsoever?

Still think Hobby Lobby’s position is tenable? If not, then it’s a reasonable bet that their motivation isn’t about protecting their free exercise of religious belief and practice, but about controlling women. The only difference between the real scenario presented by Hobby Lobby and its fictitious counterparts is that the latter harm men and women equally, whereas the former uniquely targets women.

  1. A well researched article on the subject appeared today in the New York Times.

  2. Almost certainly, knowing Justice Scalia, his opionion had much to do with the fact that the plaintiff in this case was a Native American wishing to use peyote in his religious ceremonies. Had the plaintiff been of a mainstream group, I suspect Scalia might have found differently.

  3. United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation et al. v. Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, et al. Text of the ruling