Ernst and King vs Rural Iowans and the Environment

Last semester, I was given an assignment to email a state representative with an environmental concern. Below is my letter to Representative Steven King of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District on the subject of Climate Change:

Dear Representative King,

I am writing to you to express my concerns regarding previous comments you had made on the subject of climate change. Environmental policy is complex and climate science is more complicated still, but I strongly contend that continued inaction will only lead to disaster. Our global mishandling of the environment will not only have horrific consequences for the biodiversity of the planet, but will also affect the quality of life for future generations of Americans and the rest of the global population.

In particular, I want to address one such comment you had made which was the following:

“If [the temperature of the earth] went up, there’d be more evaporation of the 70 percent of the earth that’s covered by water,” King said. “And so I know by Newton’s first law of physics, if it evaporates up, what goes up must come down, has got to come down in the form of rain. So if the earth is warm, it’ll rain more and more places.”

Unfortunately, I think the impact of climate change on rainfall patterns is more complex than a ubiquitous increase in rainfall over the globe. Some areas may indeed experience increased precipitation, but it has also been projected that dryer regions will receive less annual rainfall. Increased precipitation in states such as Iowa may not be desirable if this is accompanied by extreme rainfall events that reduce annual crop yields. Furthermore, alterations in global rainfall patterns have the potential to threaten the food security of other nations located in regions that are projected to become drier.

While these projections are indeed concerning, it is important to recognize we are already seeing negative consequences from anthropogenic climate change. Although the rate of warming has slowed down, the planet has continued to warm and the past decade was the hottest on record. Oceans are becoming acidified from higher CO2 concentrations, and sea levels are rising. More troubling yet is the pressure that climate change has exerted on our planet’s ecosystems and on its wildlife.

As troubling as this is, there may be hope if congress can agree with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists on this issue. It is clear that we need more republican leadership advocating for action on climate change if we are to mitigate future ecological and human disaster. Therefore, I must ask, what will you do in congress to protect our environmental future?

Ryan Lode

Several months passed, but eventually I received this in my inbox:

Dear Mr. Lode,

Thank you for contacting me with your thoughts regarding global warming. I always appreciate hearing from my constituents.

As you may know, liberals like former Vice President Al Gore are always claiming that the “debate is over” when it comes to global warming. However, there is still considerable debate within the scientific community over how much (if any) the Earth’s temperature has risen. There is also considerable debate over how much any change in the Earth’s climate is anthropogenic (i.e. is caused by humans) or is caused by other factors, such as changes on the sun or simply the Earth’s natural climate cycle. Furthermore, predictions made by many climate scientists have proven over the years to be wildly inaccurate, so it is clear that we still have very little grasp on what the future holds for our climate. Finally, there is significant dispute over what global warming, were it to occur, would have on our environment and how much it would affect severe weather instances like hurricanes, floods, and droughts, and other climate-related issues.

It is worth noting that in the 1970’s, when global temperatures were dropping, there was significant scientific concern about “global cooling.” Radical action was encouraged, such as melting the Arctic ice caps and diverting arctic rivers. With the science behind global warming and climate change largely unsettled, it hardly seems wise or prudent to enact legislation, like “Cap and Tax,” which would impact our entire economy and impose crushing taxes on all Americans in an attempt to combat something that very well may be entirely outside of our control. As Congress considers various measures pertaining to climate change, I will keep your thoughts in mind.

Thank you once again for contacting me.  Please do not hesitate to do so again in the future.

Steve King
Member of Congress

I find an anti-environmental stance to be inherently toxic to three of the things rural Iowans tend to value quite highly: Christianity, capitalism, and agriculture.
So Steve King denies climate change. In other news, the sky is blue, and the Earth goes around the sun.  King is far from the only republican denying the necessity for action on climate change. Senator-elect Joni Ernst stated that she is unclear on whether or not climate change is man-made. Perhaps more concerning, she also wants to completely abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. A major commonality between these two republicans is that they represent the rural Iowan vote. King is the rural voice of western Iowa by virtue of being the representative of Iowa’s fourth congressional district, and Ernst annihilated Bruce Braley in the competition for the rural vote in the Senate race. While environmental policy is just one stance among many in the republican platform, I find it curious that such an anti-environmental stance has taken root among rural voters. In particular, I find such a stance to be inherently toxic to three of the things rural Iowans tend to value quite highly: Christianity, capitalism, and agriculture.

Beginning with Christianity, it is quite clear that the God of the bible asks mankind to take care of the Earth:

Jeremiah 2:7 – I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. (NIV)

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land

Revelation 11:18 – The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great — and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (NIV)

Religious opposition to climate action tends to stem from the belief that the destiny of humanity is ultimately under God’s control, and thus by taking action to reduce our impact on climate, we are tacitly admitting that humans are the arbiters of our future-not God. I find the position that climate science and climate action are anti-biblical to be quite dubious for several reasons. First, no climate scientist that I know of is suggesting that our impact on climate will make the earth completely uninhabitable for humans, at least not for quite some time anyway. What is clear, however, is that the vast majority of climate and ecological scientists agree that our biosphere is becoming increasingly less conducive to human life. Secondly, if we concede that humanity isn’t likely to meet its end soon from climate change, we can re-examine the bible verses listed above. Both refer to God’s anger towards those who have defiled and destroyed the Earth. It thereby is consistent with scripture that humans are capable of harming the planet while still being ultimately under the direction of God. Finally, if dire predictions of climate scientists are true, which include the displacement of millions people due to rising sea-levels, heavy financial loss and loss of life due to extreme weather events, and the increased malnourishment of people due to reduced agricultural yields, then we are slowly becoming the indirect cause of the impoverishment, starvation, and death of large numbers of people in the coming century. I think that both liberal and conservative Christians can agree that such action is in direct opposition to the teachings of the bible.

The second typical objection against climate action from rural conservatives follows the business angle. In other words, tighter regulations hurt business by raising cost of operation, and therefore regulation is bad for the economy. Is it really though? Let me counter with the basic environmental argument posited by Dr. Fritz Schumacher in his essay “The Problem of Production”. The argument is as follows:

Let’s say that there exists a business that converts a natural resource into a product. One day you discover that your company has been extracting too much of said natural resource at a rate that depletes its natural replenishment. Which of these options is the better business model?

Option 1: Maximize initial profits by continuing to harvest the resource at the current rate?

Option 2: Extract the resource at a more balanced rate, but at an initial cost to revenue.

Now, I know it’s tempting to jump to Option 2 right away, but not all would agree. Some would argue that the uncertainty of the economy demands that one maximize his or her profits as much as possible and that one should worry about adjusting the business model only when it becomes absolutely critical. I would disagree with this argument, but I have to concede that as someone with little training in economics, I’m unqualified to give such a rebuttal. What I can say, however, is that option 2 is clearly represents a better long term business model for the private sector. That is, if the private sector collectively extracts resources at rate with long term profits in mind, the economy is healthier. Now let me adjust Options 1 and 2 slightly to fit the climate crisis. The private sector as a whole is extracting and using natural resources in a way that depletes the stability of the climate beyond its ability to repair itself. Which of these options represents the better long term business model for the private sector?

Option 1: Maximize initial profits by continuing to extract and use resources in a way that slowly depletes the stability of the climate.

Option 2: Use Earth’s natural resources in a manner that doesn’t deplete the stability of the climate at an initial cost to revenue.

This may seem like an invalid comparison as the stability of the climate may not seem directly related to the economy, but this is clearly false thinking when one considers the potential costs associated with climate change. A recent report from leading climate scientists and economists highlighted several highly probable negative economic impacts related to climate change. Chief among them are rising costs associated with threats to coastal infrastructure, increased cooling costs, reduced labor productivity from increases in the frequency of days of extreme heat, and unfortunately for rural Iowans, decreased crop yields.

Being green doesn't necessarily mean being anti-economic.

Being green doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-economic.

Contrary to King’s frequent claim, changes in climate do not always bode well for agricultural production. Before I begin, a balanced argument demands that I mention some of the potential benefits to crop production associated with climate change before I get into its adverse effects. Because plants sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, higher concentrations of CO2 have the potential to increase yields of certain crops such as corn and soybeans. Furthermore, the number of frost free days in Iowa has risen by about 8-9 days which has in turn, provided a longer growing season. These are a few of the possible benefits to crop yields, but the aforementioned advantages are likely to be offset by a number of other factors. Higher CO2 concentrations may boost yield, but crops grown in artificially higher CO2 conditions have been shown to have less nitrogen and protein content, and are therefore less nutritious. Increases in the severity and frequency of droughts, downpours of increasing intensity, and other extreme weather is likely to offset, and possibly reverse, gains in crop yields from changing climate. All of this, of course, says nothing of the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on agriculture in other countries.

The Iowa flood of 2008 caused nearly $3 billion in crop damages.

The Iowa flood of 2008 caused nearly $3 billion in crop damages.

Ernst and King have the rural Iowan vote for now, but it is clear that their environmental platforms do not represent the core values of most Iowans. Given their propensity to undermine and ignore the science of climate change, I assert that they do not represent another core value of Iowa: education. Disagreements on the action needed to mitigate climate disaster are understandable, but denial and inaction ultimately hurts everyone, especially Iowans.


On Being an Atheist in Church

This year, I was fortunate enough to receive a position as a section leader at one of our local churches. With other UNI students as well as community members, I sing twice a week – Wednesday night and Sunday morning – for a Presbyterian congregation in Waterloo. Some UNIFI members have asked why I am dressed up at Sunday brunch, or why I cannot attend Wednesday night events. Almost everyone has had a confused response when I tell them about church, and this does not surprise me. After all, I have spent the last three years promoting UNIFI and serving as a contributing member or officer. It has been one of the largest parts of my college career.

Yes, I still identify as an atheist and yes, I am not fully comfortable with the notion that many children (myself included) were expected to participate in weekly church services and events while growing up. I was somewhat firebrand-y after I started questioning my religious upbringing, and I certainly would not have welcomed a job at a church at that time. So much of what I have encouraged or feel as though we encourage as a group of skeptics revolves around the idea of always being sure of our convictions, having thought-out responses to issues, and questioning everything. I’m glad I do view issues and beliefs with skepticism most of the time. Other times, I find it exhausting.

There is a simplicity in the way that church-goers in my congregation interact and support one another. These are the people that we can count on to attend our concerts and recitals. We know that we are missed when we are gone from a service. They genuinely care for one another and express concern as well as happiness toward the events going on in everyone’s personal lives. I have never felt like an outcast in this community, even when I first substituted for a singer a couple years ago. I love bringing up the group feel of UNIFI to potential members, but we have a long way to go before we can boast that we provide the fundamental community that many of us lose when we leave the church.

An aspect of church services that I have always enjoyed is the focus on music. I connect liturgy and the structure of the service with happy memories from my summers at a Lutheran music academy and festival. I tend to have some trouble getting emotionally invested while singing, but this is another sense of simplicity that stems from the art as well as in the church. Remembering that everyone is encouraging and loves to see someone ‘share their gifts’ puts the study of voice into a new perspective. It should be happy and heartfelt, never strained. This is something churches seem to embrace.

I have surprised myself with my ability to sit through an entire service without feelings of cynicism and a desire to critique rising like they used to. More often than not, I enjoy the sermon and can take some sort of lesson or topic to consider away from the scripture readings. Sure, some of the stories still seem ridiculous when considered as fact, like Noah and the flood, but somehow I have turned back to appreciating the sweetness of belief. Attending a church service in this congregation almost always puts me in a good mood, despite its relatively early hour. For some, going to church is an obligation or a celebration of their faith. For me, it is an hour of consideration and simplicity. With UNIFI brunch immediately following the service, it can be hard to switch gears.

I have never once felt ostracized in church when I forgo communion, but  I have felt uncomfortable when UNIFI members poke fun at what the churchgoers believe. Something that many people in our group seem to forget or ignore is that the convictions preached from the pulpit are true and central in many people’s lives. There will always be parts of the church to criticize, but we should remember that congregations are made up of real people.

Links for the Sabbath

Tentative research suggests half of all stars exist in the space between galaxies. If it’s lonely in the Milky Way, try evolving ten thousand light years away from the nearest star!

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is interviewed on the new science behind the blockbuster film, Interstellar. What the animators thought was a visual artifact might actually be just what a black hole would look like. (And not to be a cynic, but the film’s public relations team has been doing an outstanding job of getting things like this published. Try searching for “physics of interstellar” to see what I mean.)

And speaking of the cosmos, today is Carl Sagan Day, on the anniversary of the birthday of Carl Sagan, astronomer and storyteller! We should all thank him for his contributions. He is one of the very best of the billions and billions of humans to have been on this pale blue dot. Here is his impassioned plea to make of that dot the very best that we can:

Have a great week, everyone!

UNIFI Alumni: Dave Whitsett


  • UNIFI (Advisor) Alum Dave Whitsett
  • Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Current Location: Kerrville, TX
  • Years at UNI: 1974-2001, Department of Psychology
  • Degrees: B.A. Psychology, Penn State; M.A. & Ph.D Psychology, Case-Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH)
  • UNIFI Position: Faculty Advisor
Dave in Big Bend National Park on the border of Mexico

What are you up to now? I am now retired and living in a town called Kerrville, TX.  I moved here in June of 2014 to avoid the Iowa winters and to ride the twisty Texas Hill Country roads on my BMW motorcycles.  (I have three of them.)

How did you end up coming to UNI? I came to UNI in 1974, when I moved to Cedar Falls from New York City where I had been part-owner of a management consulting firm.

Were you involved with secular organizations before (or after) UNIFI? I became a confirmed atheist at age 12 when I decided that religion just did not make any sense.  However, I had not been involved in any secular organizations before UNIFI.  Since moving to Texas, I have joined the Hill Country Freethinkers group.  I am also a member of the National Center for Science Education and the Skeptics Society.

What was your favorite part about UNIFI (or favorite memory)? I have many, many good memories about UNIFI and about our signature event, Darwin Week, but my favorite would be when one of the faculty members in the UNI biology department told me that he thought that Darwin Week was “the most intellectually stimulating event to ever take place on the UNI campus.”

So, tell me about the ‘Mike Huckabee story’. I had spent the winters in Texas for several years before moving here and, in one of those years I heard that Mike Huckabee (then the governor of Arkansas) had just won the republican presidential primary in Iowa.  I knew that Huckabee was (and is) a young-earth creationist and so I knew my home state was in trouble.  I decided I needed to come home to Iowa and do something to counter what was obviously some delusional thinking.  I contacted some people at the University of Texas and learned about CFI and that there was a CFI affiliated student group at UNI.  I immediately emailed Cody Hashman and volunteered to come back and offer him and the new UNIFI organization any help I could.  He agreed and we then met and decided to launch Darwin Week to celebrate his 200th birthday with a week-long event.

Any advice for current members? My advice to current UNIFI members is to always keep in mind that you are performing a very valuable service to UNI and the surrounding community.  There are a great many doubters and/or nonbelievers out there who need to know they are not alone.



Humanist Harry Potter: The Battle Between the Red and Green Lights (or Good vs. Evil)

Warning: This post DOES contain spoilers. So if you haven’t read/watched Harry Potter and are planning to, proceed with caution. However, if you haven’t read Harry Potter by now, you probably never will and also you are probably just a horrible person. (I kid. Mostly.)

If you know me at all, you know that I love Harry Potter. No joke — this summer I got to go to the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London where all the films were filmed, and my friend and I took several hundred pictures. I’ve been thinking about writing a Harry Potter themed post for a long time, and now that I’ve actually started doing some work on it, I may have to post another part later to cover everything I’ve found (so here’s your warning).

When it comes to religion and Harry Potter, there are a surprisingly wide variety of opinions:

  • Harry Potter promotes devil worshiping, cults, and anti-Christian behavior.
  • Harry Potter promotes Christianity and provides a modern re-working of the story of Jesus.
  • Harry Potter is atheistic literature which promotes no religion at all or is anti-religion.

And these are just the very generalized extremes. Clearly Harry Potter is more complex than it first appears. Though J.K. Rowling has admitted to being Christian, she hasn’t confessed to any kind of purposeful religious themes in her work — or lack there of. Nonetheless (at least in my interpretation) the Harry Potter universe exists without a God and without a religion. In my internet digging, one of the worst articles I found was a Prisoner of Azkaban movie review written by an anti-humanist who clearly hadn’t done much research on the series. He says, “Some years ago, I read a Harry Potter book to see what all the fuss was about. One of the most noticeable things about it was that J. K. Rowling had to tell you who was good and who was bad: otherwise, you wouldn’t have known.” He goes on to say that in the movies, all of the bad guys were ugly and that’s the only way for sure you knew they were bad guys. Wait, what? This article was so completely wrong, that I knew instantly what I should write about: good and evil as portrayed in Harry Potter.

Good vs. Evil is one of the most brilliant themes in Harry Potter. It’s brilliance isn’t in that good and evil are super obvious, but rather, that they aren’t. As Sirius Black says, “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters” (Order of the Phoenix).  Harry Potter, champion of light magic and ultimate good guy, uses an Unforgivable curse as part of a scheme where he breaks into Gringotts, the wizarding bank. The Golden Boy using dark magic and breaking and entering? That seems a tad on the evil side, to me. And it goes both ways. If Death Eaters are inherently evil, how do we explain Snape? Although many fans will say they knew all along that Snape was a good guy, most of us will admit to being a bit surprised when we finally learned his back story in book seven. In Harry Potter, characters are shaped by their circumstances–much as people are in real life. Had Tom Riddle not been abandoned in a muggle orphanage as a child, his entire life could have turned out differently.

Moral values can rarely be sorted into black and white but tend to instead exist as a field of greys, and that’s beautifully represented in the series. Even better, these greys exist without a religion and without a God. What Harry Potter really teaches are humanist values. The idea that humans have the potential to make morally good decisions and can think about the world rationally and critically. And I think that’s pretty neat.


Why Sexual Education Matters for Straight Men

When I was in High School I had a lot of complaints about how and what we were taught. As a Civil War enthusiast I was once given a detention when I told my sophomore history teach that he had confused the dates of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. The principal let me off when I demonstrated I was correct. I clashed with English teachers on interpretations of literature and complained that my math teachers didn’t teach in way that made sense to me. However my time in college has shown me the topic my public education really failed to teach: sex.

I never had “the talk” with my parents. The closest we came was me discovering some condoms in my father’s sock drawer in middle school. I followed the directions on the wrapper and thought to myself, “what the hell do I do now?”. I also recall a special day in fifth grade when the boys and girls split up and went to different rooms. I don’t know what happened in the girls room, but I remember a man who we had never met throwing some confusing words at us. He explained circumcision insofar as letting us know whether it had happened to us. Then he drew some things on the chalkboard that reminded me of the time my parents took me to the Art Institute of Chicago. After a few hours of this I was told I was about to go through something called “puberty”, that men made sperm, women made eggs, and together those made a baby. We were all handed a paper bag with a stick of deodorant, face wash, and soap, and went to recess.

Sometime around 7th grade, our Home Economics class devoted a bit of time to explain that pregnancy occurred when a penis was inserted into a vagina. Unless you were eighteen or older, it was very bad to do this. After that we went back to making terrible baked goods and shoddy sewing projects. That was the last time I had any formal sex education in my school years. High School health focused on eating well and discouraging drug use. Gym class was an endless cycle of basketball, pickleball, badminton, and pacer tests. This, coupled with my social ineptness around women meant that I never really learned anything about sex.

While I can lament the implications of that on a personal level, there is a darker side. No one ever taught me about consent. Until I came to college, I had no idea what the hell it was. I’d seen movies and modern television. I knew that rape was a thing. I might even have been able to stammer something about it being when a woman (of course men couldn’t be raped) was forced to have sex.

Of course, to me at the time, “forced” meant physically. Things like psychological manipulation, coercion, or abusing mind altering substances didn’t really factor into my thinking. I didn’t drink in highschool, but I had this idea that alcohol was essentially a tool to get people together. In 2007 the movie Superbad rocked my friend group. It showed what we imagined high school was going to be like (and maybe to a degree was for other people). It told us that even if you were a socially awkward geek all you needed was a kickin’ party and some alcohol, and even you could get with that girl you’ve been crushing on. At one point in Superbad Michael Cera’s character asks the friend of the girl he wants to date whether it’s unethical to have sex with a girl if she is drunk. She replies “Not if you’re drunk too.” (I couldn’t find the actual clip but it occurs somewhere around here.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_49163&feature=iv&list=PLPLUhZx-H7ztcR1_MRsU-0Ium7m6ZAq8X-s&src_vid=9Dv0rOjEVIw&v=Po1GiAYyjIc

Superbad-10087566To a horndog fifteen year old that made perfect sense. If you’re both on the same level it isn’t “cheating”! While I still find Superbad and similar films entertaining, I’ve come to believe that too much of my sexual education came from movies and television shows that paid little attention to the matter of consent.

Fortunately for me, I had intelligent people to set me straight when I came to college. I learned that consent means getting an emphatic and clear “yes”. I learned that men can be raped, not only by men, but by women. I learned that sexuality isn’t a simple binary, that gender comes in all shapes, and that all these things are perfectly natural and normal. I’m certainly not an expert, but I’d like to think that, thanks to people who were knowledgeable and passionate about these topics, I turned out okay.

What really worries me are the kids who never met the sorts of people I did in college. I doubt my sexual education prior to college was unique. Until I came to UNI, I was ignorant, and while ignorance of the facts doesn’t excuse actions, I don’t think we should put all the blame on someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing is wrong, much less why.

We ought to ask how an otherwise decent individual could think it is acceptable to take a drunk person home to have sex. Especially because if you asked the same person if they would ever rape somebody, it’s likely they would emphatically say “no”.

The Big Picture: Are We too Critical of Progressive Celebrities?

Last year, when I began college, I was introduced to the secular and feminist movements. I learned quickly about skepticism, social justice, secularism, patriarchy, and other aspects of activism in these movements. Initially, I had a wonderful time getting angry about representation of women’s bodies in the media and climate change denial. I had interesting conversations with some really smart people and read about the goings-on of these movements online. I learned about the importance of “speaking out” and felt that my opinion and voice matters.

Unfortunately, throughout the last year, I have begun to sense a problem: I am not convinced that we, as members of a movement, are being skeptical enough about the criticisms we make. Sometimes, when we criticize, we fail to look at the big picture. All too often, I find feminists who are used to functioning in the unique feminist community criticizing trivial flaws in public figures who are at the forefront of making tangible change for our movement. People like Emma Watson, Richard Dawkins, and Sheryl Sandberg are smart, hardworking public figures with the power and motivation to change our society for the better. We, as members of a movement, must recognize three important things. First, powerful figures like Watson, Dawkins, and Sandberg inspire and engage the general public. Second, we (members of the feminist and secular movements) constitute a relatively small portion of the public. Third, we need the general public on our side if we plan to create significant change in our society. The aforementioned public figures and others like them bridge the gap between “social justice warriors” and the mainstream.

Here’s the problem: these figures face relentless criticism from members of a movement who very much need the general public on their side. As the young, active, liberal feminists that many of us are, it is easy to jump on the complain-train and harp on details that are only marginally problematic. After all, we surround ourselves with other rare, like-minded, left-wing progressives who understand that “they” can be a singular pronoun and regularly use the word intersectionality. This tendency to pounce on any slightly problematic publication, public figure, etc. is unproductive for our movements. Sure, Emma Watson’s speech at the UN didn’t cover the ways patriarchy benefits men, and sure, Richard Dawkins is kind of stuck up, and sure, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In will mostly resonate with upper-middle class married white women, but do we need to be so harsh? Does the good work and do the good intentions of these influential public figures lose all merit just because of some flaws? I certainly hope not. As we all work towards a secular, non-discriminating society, we should spend our time and energy evaluating the intentions and examining the actual effects of generally well-meaning people’s work and actions, not fighting back against flaws unworthy of our attention.

Let’s look specifically at the example of Sheryl Sandberg and her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg is one of the most successful American businesswomen alive today. She is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook; before that, she worked for Google. Sandberg is married to Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveryMonkey. They have two young children. Sandberg has a background of privilege. To begin with, she is white, cisgender, and straight. Additionally, she comes from a privileged family, is extremely well-educated (she graduated at the top of her program in her Bachelor’s and Master’s programs at Harvard), and is very wealthy.

Sandberg’s book and the associated movement are about encouraging women to step forward or “lean in” at work. Most of her argument is nicely summarized in this TED talk. She focuses on women who work in high-level corporate jobs and addresses areas of concern for women in these positions and women who aspire to them. She talks about balancing personal life with work, having children, encouraging young women to be strong, and the statistical differences between men and women in society and everyday life. This book definitely has flaws. It focuses on action women can take to improve their own social status, but does not call out patriarchy for its inherent problems. It addresses problems faced by successful white women who, while becoming more successful, still want to have a marriage and children to love. Sandberg does not address race or class issues in any helpful way. But, this was not her goal.

Right from the get-go, Sandberg owns up to her privileged status and recognizes that many women face barriers about which Sandberg has never had to worry. “I am also acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work…I am writing [Lean In] for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.” Her book is primarily for and about “women at the top.” She sincerely believes that having equal numbers of men and women at the top (as well as in the home) will create a better society overall. What feminist disputes this idea?

Many reasonable and well-supported criticisms of the book exist online. “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” by bell hooks is exceptional. In Lean In, Sandberg does not explain the history of the feminist movement or any feminist theory at all. Lean In perpetuates heteronormativity, and it fails to call for radical change in the treatment of women of color and other minority groups. Lean in doesn’t call for anything radical at all, and this is part of why she is successful. Radical messages like “take down the patriarchy,” do not resonate with the working women Sandberg reaches. Many women live happily in our patriarchal society, and while they would like to see some changes, they do not want to overturn the society we have going. Is there a platform for more radical messages and ideas? Absolutely. But we must also reach out to the greater general public. We can garner support from these members of the public, but proposing agendas of radical change and overturning power structures can seem reckless and brash in the eyes of someone who simply wants to move up at work. Someday, will the women who became empowered by Lean In take more action in as feminists lives and slowly join the greater feminist movement? They very well might. And even if they don’t eventually join the feminist movement, at least they received inspiring messages that made them feel strong and empowered.

A simple look at Lean In’s reviews on Amazon.com demonstrate the positive effects Sandberg’s book is having. Of the 2,815 reviews Lean In has on Amazon, a total of 2,411 give the book five or four stars (as of October 2014). Only 185 reviews give Lean In two or fewer stars. The two and one-star reviews tend to criticize Lean In for being generally problematic and only catering to the privileged few. The one and two-star reviewers tend to demonstrate at least some knowledge of the feminist movement and the myriad of ways ways women are socialized to be less successful than men. It’s great that there are people who understand the complexity of feminist issues and who are willing to fight from deep within the feminist movement, but looking at the four and five-star reviews paints a different picture of women’s understanding of feminism. The reviewers who give Lean In four and five stars praise the book for being inspirational and helping them understand problems women face in the workplace. They claim that Lean In has helped them be more confident, involved, and successful. They have used what they learned in Lean In to change their lives. Readers who enjoyed Lean In found the book so inspirational because the empowering message they received and the information they learned from Lean In was new to them. Additionally, women who were inspired and empowered by Lean In comprised the vast majority of reviewers. This means more and more women are coming to understand that it’s okay to be powerful and that the words ambition and selfishness are not synonymous. More women are being empowered, and in the end, that is wonderful for the feminist movement.

Criticism of Sandberg and her book is just one of many examples of members of a movement being overly critical of people, publications, ideas, etc. that are actually advancing the cause. We, as members of progressive movements, must think more carefully about the criticisms we make. Instead of jumping at everything problematic, we must first examine the impact these supposedly damaging concerns have on the real world. If, after examining the effects and responses from the general public, we still believe that a person, publication, or idea is problematic, then we may criticize. But before we rampantly rail on every single flaw, we must employ skepticism.


Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

Why Protecting Blasphemy Matters

Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.Salman Rushdie

In June of 2012, Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger, was arrested on charges of insulting Islam. Badawi was also charged with apostasy, which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. These charges were leveled against Badawi for founding a website dedicated to honest and open discourse about religion and politics. On his website he advocated for freedom of conscience and expression as well as women’s rights.

On May 7, 2014, Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a fine of over a quarter of a million dollars.

Examples such as this illustrate the importance of the right to blaspheme and to offend, and we believe UNIFI has a responsibility to defend this right.

As many of you know, today is International Blasphemy Rights Day. Five years ago, we planned the first Blasphemy Rights Day on UNI’s campus. The right to blaspheme was under attack then, too. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy was still fresh on everyone’s minds, the UN was again considering passing a resolution opposing the defamation of religion, and Ireland had recently banned blasphemy. In our own state, an atheist bus campaign prompted our governor to say our existence personally disturbed him. We decided to take a stand for ourselves. While our event wasn’t perfect, we are proud of what it embodied. At the heart of Blasphemy Rights Day is the idea that while people deserve respect, ideas do not.

UNIFI must be there to protect the right to blaspheme; it must be one of the central goals of the group. In the words of Rushdie, “the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.” Religious believers continue to tell us that their ideas are off-limits. They say we cannot depict Muhammad because Islam tells us not to, and that we can’t recognize Muhammad’s marriage to a six year old child as an act of pedophilia because it’s offensive to Islam. They say we can’t suggest it is more plausible that Mary lied than that divine impregnation occurred, or ponder publicly the absurd idea of a god who sends himself to be sacrificed so he can forgive the flawed beings that he created. We refuse to be bound by what we don’t believe.

We realize that blasphemy is offensive to many people, but this doesn’t exempt certain ideas from criticism; ideas have consequences. Because religious ideas are so central to the lives of adherents, and can inform their actions so strongly, these ideas are the ones which deserve the most scrutiny and criticism. These ideas have led people to kill or imprison others or burn down buildings in response to books and simple cartoons. This is why we need to take a principled stance. If this issue isn’t within the scope of UNIFI’s mission, we don’t know what is. We think that it is more offensive to follow a pedophile prophet or a holy book that prescribes contempt for women and gay people than it is to criticize such dogmas.

We feel that declaring any belief to be immune from criticism is an insult to humanity and progress. We are truly offended by such belief systems, and this is our stand. We will mock, criticize, and shed light on the negative aspects of any and all religious faiths in the name of reason, liberty, and the desire to make this world better for humanity.

We hope you will chalk depictions of Muhammad when the ability to do so — either through laws or violence — is threatened. We hope you will criticize and attack foolish religious ideas the same as foolish political ones. We hope you realize the value and importance of blasphemy. We hope you will work to protect it.

Cody Hashman, President 2007-2009
Trevor Boeckmann, President 2009-2011
Cory Derringer, President 2011-2012
Michael Dippold, President 2012-2013
Stef McGraw, President 2013-2014
Aaron Friel, President 2014

Thinking about Death as an Atheist

After spending a good amount of time listening to a CFI: Morning Heresy recording of an interview with mortician and death activist Caitlin Doughty, exploring her website, and watching videos on her YouTube channel, I have learned quite a bit about the industry of death and ways that people shy away from or become more comfortable with our mortality. This subject is new to me.

Until about two months ago, fear of and anxiety toward death were completely foreign to me. While I was growing up in the church, I was comforted by the promise of an afterlife in heaven with all my relatives and friends. During and after my transition out of faith, death was not something I thought about. After all, everybody dies and that’s that. Then, eleven months ago, my grandmother passed away — my first experience with the death of someone I cared for. Suddenly dying was something I couldn’t help but consider.

How do most of us approach death in the United States? We send the deceased to a funeral home, pay for their embalming, a casket, a burial plot, and a headstone. Doughty makes the point in her interview that we are removed from the process, which could play a part in our discomfort regarding not only death, but mortality itself. This can be true for religious and non-religious people alike. I felt very out-of-place at the funeral service for my grandmother, perhaps partially because of the undeniable religious undertones and readings from scripture. The whole experience seemed unreal though. We all cried, hugged, and mourned, but when I touched my grandma’s hand for the last time she felt like a Barbie, not a human. Is that death?

Doughty says that being around a dying body can bring a person closer to their loved one’s passing, but it also creates an awareness of your own inevitable death. While having time with the person and having a funeral or wake in a home is not a possible or desirable option for every family, it can bring people face to face with something that they frequently avoid.

How can we find comfort in someone’s or our own dying? I have no idea yet. But Caitlin Doughty does, and it’s not religious.

Fun resources by Caitlin Doughty:


OrderoftheGoodDeath on YouTube

California State University Sacramento

Links for the Sabbath

Religious tests for office are widely held to be unconstitutional, but what about tests for private businesses, or student organizations? This week’s topic: religious tests and student organizations.

Recently InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was de-recognized by the California State University system. The 23 university campuses stripped InterVarsity’s student organization status because each chapter requires a religious test for office, affirming Christian values in line with the national organization’s views.

Officers, not members, of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship must affirm the national org’s doctrinal basis. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has criticized the decision as detrimental to freedom of association. On the other side Eugene Volokh, prominent law professor at the UCLA School of Law, has previously argued that universities lack a duty to to subsidize student groups that have a discriminatory test for office.

Should student organizations be allowed to require ideological tests for office? Would it be reasonable for UNIFI to have Christian leadership? Weigh in and comment below!