Thanks to Jesus and Mo
March 31, 2010
March 30, 2010
Sam Harris thinks so. I posted his TED talk here. He has received a fair amount of criticism from various sources, most notably from Sean Carroll over at Discover. Harris responds to these criticisms here:
Most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) seem to believe that there is no such thing as moral truth—only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. While I make the case for a universal conception of morality in much greater depth in my forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values , I’d like to address the most common criticisms I’ve received thus far in response to my remarks at TED.
I’ve also been busy commenting on other sites because I think this idea of a universal morality – much like universal principles brought forward during the Enlightenment – has been far too long in the wings. We need to put them center stage. One of the most irritating and dangerous tendencies of people luxuriating in the cocoons of secular societies here in the West is to tolerate morally repugnant ideas under the various guises of being sensitive to multiculturalism, group affiliations, religious accommodation, and an honest desire to avoid judging. There seems to be no greater sin possible than judging the morality of practices that directly infringe upon on these Enlightenment achievements like rights and freedoms. It’s time to build on what’s best in humanity and stop tolerating the worst.
March 29, 2010
Richard Dawkins has written a short article answering the question, “Should the pope resign?”
As an atheist, Dawkins is often vilified as too strident, too aggressive, too unqualified about sophisticated theology to speak to the nuances of religious belief. His tone, in other words, is all wrong to be effective, we hear from so many ‘I’m an atheist, but…’ apologists. Clearly, Dawkins has no respect for beliefs that are not concerned with what is true, and that central tenet of Dawkins’ philosophy must be kept in mind if one is to appreciate what the man brings to the discussion table regarding religious belief and its effects in the world. You may not appreciate the messenger, but the message is clear and truthful.
So when he Dawkins is asked to give his opinion, religious moderates and apologetic atheists need to gird their loins for what is to follow because they are about to hear the truth without the sugarcoating niceties so favoured by the apologetic faint of heart set.
“Should the pope resign?”
No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly – ideally – qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.
No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.
The tone? Short, to the point, in your face, here’s the truth, now deal with it, kind of tone.
Shocking? So what? Is it true?
Now let’s look at what criticizing the tone really means.
Greta Christina has written a lovely response to those people who troll their concern about this very issue: tone.
Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it. I appreciate your concern for the image of the atheist movement, and I appreciate you taking the time to give us advice on how to get our message across more effectively.
In particular, I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of their religious beliefs are often seen as rude or offensive — along with your suggestion that we therefore should stop making our case altogether. I have also received your suggestion that, if we do feel it necessary to point out the flaws in religion, we do so gently and diplomatically, making the avoidance of any possible offense or hurt feelings our absolute top priority. I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of religious beliefs can be divisive, possibly alienating the progressive ecumenical religious community — and I have received your suggestion that we should therefore concentrate entirely on anti-discrimination and separation of church and state issues that we have in common with progressive believers, and abandon any focus on pointing out the flaws in religion or the harm done by it. And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare. These suggestions are certainly interesting, and I will give them all due consideration.
However, while your concern for the well-being of the atheist movement is certainly appreciated, I can assure you that it is unwarranted. rates of religious non-belief are going up at a substantial rate — a rate that even surprises many of us — all over the United States and all over the world. This trend is especially true among young people… arguably the most important demographic for any social change movement. What’s more, I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement. Clearly, we are doing something right.
It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.
You’ll have to forgive me if I think your suggestions on making our movement more effective would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect. What’s more, you’ll have to forgive me for suspecting that this, however unconsciously, is the true intention behind your very kind and no doubt sincerely- meant advice.
And you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.
And that’s the key point: the New Atheist movement recognizes the global danger unjustified religious beliefs that is organized and political brings to the world and is trying to do something about it not by violence or imposition but by discourse. The various styles and tones by which this is done are not the issue and never shall be; the issue is whether or not religious belief is justified to have say about anything. If we are concerned about what’s true, then we need to be very concerned with popular beliefs that are not.
And at the top of that list is religion. It is the criticism of unjustified beliefs that is important if one thinks that what’s true actually matters more the tone by which it occurs. Those whose opinions are more concerned with tone than what’s true are simply an impediment to meaningful discourse.
March 28, 2010
Archbishop Dolan of the New York Archdiocese has posted a commentary here against the unfair treatment against the catholic church by the press and offers us a defense of the church in general and the pope in particular. He writes
What causes us Catholics to bristle is not only the latest revelations of sickening sexual abuse by priests, and blindness on the part of some who wrongly reassigned them — such stories, unending though they appear to be, are fair enough, — but also that the sexual abuse of minors is presented as a tragedy unique to the Church alone.
That, of course, is malarkey. Because, as we now sadly realize, nobody, nowhere, no time, no way, no how knew the extent, depth, or horror of this scourge, nor how to adequately address it.
Really? Is that true? Nobody?
As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, didn’t Ratzinger – who admittedly had to read thousands of detailed reports and has since publicly stated that this revelation was cause for his enormous spiritual pain – know something of the extent, depth, and horror of this scourge? Is Ratzinger a ‘somebody’ in the archbishop’s estimation? More importantly – and certainly very revealing – is the answer to the question what did the man do to effectively stop this kind of abuse within the church? Well, the sad fact of the matter is that he shifted blame to others while maintaining and justifying the very policies of Vatican secrecy and interferences in judicial investigations that led to the abuse becoming a scandal wherever the church operated as an institution and not, as the pope himself would have you believe, merely unconnected local scandals the world over.
Now look what Dolan is doing: he, too, is playing the time-honoured blame game: ‘We’re no worse than anybody else!’.
What seem singularly difficult for the leadership of the church and their supporters to grasp is that calling on a fair comparison of abuse to other public institutions like schools and prisons is simply not relevant. Schools and prisons do not claim moral superiority the way the church does. The church has never claimed to be only a human institution; it claims to represent Jesus and his way of salvation in the world. Never just a human institution, that is, until it wants mercy for its culpability in criminal activity. Then, and only then, is the leadership of this institution willing to give up the claim to expect all kinds of worldly authority to be granted to it based on its self-proclaimed exalted moral status, but plays the childhood recess game of blaming everyone else for its failure to live up to its own claims and self-proclamations.
And you, dear reader, will note that whatever excuses we hear from church leaders like Ratzinger and Dolan for the church’s moral failings is always in response to secular revelations of these criminal activities – the same secular influence the pope blames for supposedly creating the social conditions that influenced helpless clergy into abusing, sexually assaulting, and raping children around the world. Yeah, secularism is the problem, we are told. But let’s remember that if it weren’t for this secular influence and investigations into abuse of children within the catholic church, we would know nothing about it. That’s the real danger secularism brings to the cloisters of the catholic church: exposure of what’s true. That fact, that we the public find out about the depravity within the church only through secular investigations, is also quite telling and reveals the depth and breadth of the hypocrisy needed to defend and excuse the church as just another human institution with a few bad apples. That spin – between calling the church holy or human depending on what suits the church’s leadership at the time – is not an example of moral superiority but hypocrisy. The message from Jesus, if the church could ever be honest with itself, would probably be much more critical than anything offered up by secular authorities:
“whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Maybe after all the hypocrisy from the Holy See and the rest of the church’s leadership and supporters is revealed, that’s where the Vatican properly belongs.
Or we could just stop supporting it as any kind of moral authority when it clearly is not.
I prefer the latter.
March 27, 2010
Nick Cohen brings us an answer from Standpoint magazine about how the far left has joined the far right:
The Conservatives’ main complaint about the borderless Left used to be that it allowed huge double standards. Polite society embraced ex- or actual communists and Trotskyists and treated them with a consideration they would have never extended to ex- or actual Nazis. The refusal of 21st-century left-wing and liberal opinion to separate itself from radical Islam is, however, a living disgrace with disastrous consequences for Europe.
You can see them everywhere if you are willing to look. In January, for instance, Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband attended a “Progressive London” conference packed with the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes in the establishment of a totalitarian theocracy. George Galloway, who saluted the courage of Saddam Hussein, was there too, inevitably, as was Tariq Ramadan, the shifty academic who thinks there should only be a “moratorium” on the stoning to death of adulterous women rather than an outright ban. Imagine the fuss if, say, William Hague and Michael Gove had gone to a conference on the future of right-wing politics in London and joined members of the BNP, a far-right politician who had saluted the courage of Augusto Pinochet and an academic who argued for a “moratorium” on black immigration to Britain. The BBC would have exploded. It, along with everyone else, kept quiet, of course, about Harman and Miliband because they were from the Left and therefore could never be beyond the pale.
Nominally left-wing politicians’ appeasement of religious reactionaries is so routine that it takes a convulsive event to reveal the extent of liberal perfidy. The reaction of University College London to the news that its alumnus Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day should have provided the shock therapy. The connection between British-bred extremism and mass murder was there for all to see, except that the authorities did not want to look.
I can see no more important task at present than working out how European liberalism has gone so badly wrong. Why does a culture that prides itself on its opposition to bigotry become so feeble when it confronts bigots dressed in the black robes of clerical reaction? Until we understand, we cannot cure, and there is an emerging understanding among those who worry about the dark turn liberals have taken that Western guilt lies at the root of their moral failure.
Ever since the Rushdie affair, the fear of religious violence has buzzed in the heads of liberal Europeans. The Islamists bombed London and Madrid, murdered Theo van Gogh, drove Ayaan Hirsi Ali into exile and forced politicians, most notably Muslim women politicians, to accept armed guards. On the scale of suffering in the world, Islamist violence in Europe is nothing remarkable. But a little fear goes a long way in rich and comfortable societies and sometimes the trouble with the liberals is not their guilt but that they do not begin to feel guilty enough about their cowardice and complicity.
March 26, 2010
The discovery of the creature nicknamed “X-woman” has to rank as one of the most exciting science stories of the year so far. She — if X-woman is indeed a “she” — is known only from a little finger bone, found in a Siberian cave and dated to between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. But according to a research team led by Johannes Krause and Svante Pääbo, of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, she may represent an entirely new human species.
At the time X-woman lived, the only hominins known in Eurasia were modern humans and Neanderthals (Homo floresiensis, the “Hobbits”, were also around in Indonesia). Yet analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the bone has suggested that X-woman belongs to neither species (the nickname, incidentally, was chosen because mitochondrial DNA is passed down the female line — there is no indication of sex just yet).
Krause and Pääbo believe that this suggests the creature belongs to a new lineage of humans, and perhaps to a new species. As Pääbo put it:
“Whatever carried this DNA out of Africa is some new creature that has not been on our radar screens. It suggests there were perhaps three different families of humans in this area about 40,000 years ago, and also the hobbits in Indonesia.”
Read the rest of this interesting article from TimesOnline here.
Excerpts from the NYTimes article Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys:
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal. The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.
The Wisconsin case involved an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. But it is only one of thousands of cases forwarded over decades by bishops to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is still the office that decides whether accused priests should be given full canonical trials and defrocked.
The New York Times obtained the documents, which the church fought to keep secret, from Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, the lawyers for five men who have brought four lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The documents include letters between bishops and the Vatican, victims’ affidavits, the handwritten notes of an expert on sexual disorders who interviewed Father Murphy and minutes of a final meeting on the case at the Vatican.
Father Murphy not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims. Three successive archbishops in Wisconsin were told that Father Murphy was sexually abusing children, the documents show, but never reported it to criminal or civil authorities.
So much for all the commentary here and here that insisted that the catholic church had no official policy of secrecy and denial and cover-up and collusion in the face of justified accusations and allegations of sexual abuse and rape and molestation by clergy against children. It seems the evidence that it did and still does just keeps on piling up, and the apologies by so many catholics on behalf of the church is not only growing stale but is really a major impediment against forcing an institutional change from the top down. And as long as apologists stay the course, it seems that the same policies of secrecy and emphasis on the church’s reputation will take precedence over fixing the problem that led to the global abuse in the first place. Just re-read the letter from the pope to to the Irish here…
Global problem? It’s not a global problem, remember? It’s a local problem! And good little catholics will continue to believe their apology carries weight against the growing evidence: that this local problem can be corrected at the local level, in Ireland, in England, in Spain, in Germany, in Mexico, in Canada, in the Netherlands, in the Philippines, in the U.S., in Brazil, in Australia…
Remember folks: if you can believe in transubstantiation, is it too much to ask to believe that widespread abuse in the catholic church is a local problem?
A Conscience Clause is a clause in law or code of professional conduct that permits pharmacists, physicians, and other providers of health care not to provide certain medical services for reasons of religion or conscience. Those who choose not to provide services may not be disciplined or discriminated against. The provision is most frequently enacted in connection with issues relating to reproduction, such as abortion, sterilization, and contraception, (hence the term provider conscience is used) but may include any phase of patient care.
From the BBC comes an example of just how such a conscience clause can affect health care, with a tip to Misunderstoodranter who provided the link:
Pharmacists across the UK, for example, have been told they can continue to refuse to prescribe items that may clash with their religious beliefs. A revised code of conduct from the new industry regulator will allow staff to opt out of providing items such as the morning-after pill and contraception. But they may in future have to give customers details of alternative shops. The National Secular Society wanted the General Pharmaceutical Council to scrap the so-called conscience clause.
The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) is to take over the regulation of pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and the registration of pharmacy premises from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society later this year. Under its new code, pharmacists with strong religious principles will still be able to continue to refuse to sell or prescribe products if they feel that doing so would contradict their beliefs. But the GPhC says pharmacists who refuse services could be obliged to tell patients where they can access them and it plans to consult more widely on the issue.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said he was disappointed by the code.
“This was a perfect opportunity to severely restrict the exercise of this supposed conscience clause which has caused a great deal of embarrassment and inconvenience to people recently. “It seems incredible that pharmacists can arbitrarily tell people that they won’t serve them with medication that has been prescribed by a doctor.” The issue was highlighted recently by a woman denied the pill by a Sheffield chemist. She was told to return to the shop the following day when another staff member would be on duty.
To help us see what is so unconscionable about this clause, imagine a police officer arriving at a domestic dispute but, rather than intervene and enforce the law, decides to arbitrarily respect his conscionable religious beliefs about the respective roles of ‘allowable’ conduct of husband and wife. What might be the problem here?
Imagine if operating room staff decided to respect conscionable adherence to proper religious clothing ahead of professional sterilization procedures. What might be the problem here?
Imagine a teacher in a language class insisting that all those of an opposite gender had to leave the room to suit one student’s religious sensibilities that agrees with the teacher’s. What might be the problem here?
When we allow professions to suspend and subvert their professional codes of conduct in place of and out of a misguided respect for personal religious beliefs held by individual practitioners, we are prostituting the profession. We undermine the ethical framework that describes the role each member of the profession is to uphold and allow religious belief to take its place out some misguided and unjustified sense of tolerance and reasonable accommodation. This subversion is unconscionable.
If someone decides that personal religious beliefs rather than professional standards should be the measure of conduct while acting as a representative of that profession, then the confused individual must either voluntarily resign or be stripped of professional status. One cannot have it both ways: if one wishes to act only as an individual with various beliefs and preferences, then that’s fine. Act as an individual by being an individual. But if one wishes to act as a representative of a profession, then one must be willing to put aside the personal while acting as a professional of that profession.
For example, it doesn’t matter what laws an individual may think deserves more respect than others: when acting as a police officer, one acts as a representative of the law and not a representative of the individual with preferences. The higher allegiance a police officer must have to be an ethical professional is not a greater respect for his or her individual preferences and beliefs but to the professional code of conduct under which he or she acts as a police officer. If one wishes to act as a representative of the profession of pharmacists, then one must put aside one’s personal preferences and beliefs and act according to the professional code of conduct of a health care provider.
When professional codes of conduct are perverted, abused, and manipulated to protect individuals exercising their personal preferences while acting as a representative of various professions, then each professional body that goes along with this abuse under a Conscience Clause has subverted its very reason for being.
In the same way, if enforcing the law is dependent on each individual police officer determining which laws he or she will enforce according to some personal preference, then we have subverted law enforcement. If we allow dispensing prescribed medication to be dependent on each individual pharmacist determining which drugs he or she will dispense according to some personal preference, then we have subverted health care. And to subvert what it means to be a professional – to act as a representative of that profession with recognized rights and privileges based on guidelines and rules and areas of specialized knowledge and expertise – to suit the unjustified religious beliefs of certain individuals within professional bodies does not serve either the interests of the profession as a whole or the public trust in that profession… it undermines our confidence in both the profession and the professional.
I think that to support this willing sacrifice of what it means to be a professional by professional bodies of oversight on the alter of religious belief under the fictitious banner of tolerance and accommodation is unconscionable stupidity and ethical capitulation.
March 25, 2010
In fact science is all about coming to a consensus, but it’s about coming to a consensus based on data, experimentation, and evidence, a consensus that has reproducible results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. After all, what is a scientific theory like the theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity but a statement of the current scientific consensus regarding a major scientific topic? What is peer review but quality control (making sure the scientific methodology is sound) coupled with testing new science against the current consensus to see where it fits in or where it exposes weaknesses? What is science but attempting to forge a consensus regarding theories and statements that most accurately describe the universe in a useful and predictable way?
Of course, questioning the consensus is often necessary in science. Indeed, it is critical to scientific advancement. However, there is a huge difference between questioning a current consensus and producing the data and experimental evidence to show that there is a real scientific question and JAQing off about science. The latter, raising spurious or already answered questions about a scientific finding or theory one doesn’t like, belongs to the province of cranks and denialists, and it is what they are very good at. The problem is that they aren’t very good at realizing why their questions are not worthy of the attention that they think they are. A lovely example of this showed up on the Discovery Institute’s propaganda arm, its version of Age of Autism, so to speak, namely Evolution News and Views. In it, the Kent Heckenlively of the creationist set, the ever excitable Casey Luskin, penned a typical bit of silliness in which he asks the question, When Is it Appropriate to Challenge the “Consensus”?
If Casey had two neurons to rub together, he could answer the question in two sentences and echo how scientists would answer the question: When you have an actual scientifically valid reason, based on science, evidence, experimentation, and observational evidence, to think that the current scientific consensus about something is in error, then it is appropriate to challenge the scientific consensus. When you don’t, then it isn’t.
It’s perfectly acceptable to challenge such a consensus, but if you don’t have the goods in the form of evidence, experimentation, and data to show that the consensus is in serious error, there is no reason for scientists to take your challenge seriously.
Oh, and for the meaning of guanocephalopathy, read some other suggestions here.