Questionable Motives

March 24, 2010

Sumo-science?

Filed under: belief,creationism,Entertainment,Humour,Intelligent Design,Islam — tildeb @ 11:47 am

Mr Deity has outdone himself with this very clever episode. Enjoy.

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March 23, 2010

Creeping religious accommodation: why should we enforce respect?

We shouldn’t.

Excerpts from John Hari’s article in The Independent:

In 2005, 12 men in a small secular European democracy decided to draw a quasi-mythical figure who has been dead for 1400 years. They were trying to make a point. They knew that in many Muslim cultures, it is considered offensive to draw Mohamed. But they have a culture too – a European culture that believes it is important to be allowed to mock and tease and ridicule religion. Some of the cartoons were witty. Some were stupid. One seemed to suggest Muslims are inherently violent – an obnoxious and false idea. If you disagree with the drawings, you should write a letter, or draw a better cartoon, this time mocking the cartoonists. But some people did not react this way. Instead, Islamist plots to hunt the artists down and slaughter them began. Earlier this year, a man with an axe smashed into one of their houses, and very nearly killed the cartoonist in front of his small grand-daughter.

This week, another plot to murder the cartoonists who drew caricatures of Mohammad seems to have been exposed, this time allegedly spanning Ireland and the United States, and many people who consider themselves humanitarians or liberals have rushed forward to offer condemnation – of the cartoonists. One otherwise liberal newspaper ran an article saying that since the cartoonists had engaged in an “aggressive act” and shown “prejudice… against religion per se”, so it stated menacingly that no doubt “someone else is out there waiting for an opportunity to strike again”.

Let’s state some principles that – if religion wasn’t involved – would be so obvious it would seem ludicrous to have to say them out loud. Drawing a cartoon is not an act of aggression. Trying to kill somebody with an axe is. There is no moral equivalence between peacefully expressing your disagreement with an idea – any idea – and trying to kill somebody for it. Yet we have to say this because we have allowed religious people to claim their ideas belong to a different, exalted category, and it is abusive or violent merely to verbally question them. Nobody says I should “respect” conservatism or communism and keep my opposition to them to myself – but that’s exactly what is routinely said about Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. What’s the difference?

This enforced “respect” is a creeping vine. It soon extends beyond religious ideas to religious institutions – even when they commit the worst crimes imaginable. It is now an indisputable fact that the Catholic Church systematically covered up the rape of children across the globe, and knowingly, consciously put paedophiles in charge of more kids. Joseph Ratzinger – who claims to be “infallible” – was at the heart of this policy for decades.

And the ever perceptive Jesus and Mo:

March 22, 2010

Can science answer moral questions?

Filed under: Harris,Morality,Neurology,Science,Truth — tildeb @ 2:36 pm

Sam Harris, second from the left, answers the question here.

Why do we believe in the supernatural? A neurological explanation…

Filed under: belief,brain,Neurology,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 10:42 am

Have you ever heard of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device? Neither have I. So what is it?

According to Justin Barrett, under certain conditions, humans commonly interpret two-dimensional, moving
geometric shapes as having the properties of causality and animacy. In other words, our brains – and our neurological response to visual stimuli in particular – come wired to seek and assign agency. This is HADD… a description of a complex neurological preference to detect agency.

Neuroscientist Steve Novella explains:

Psychologists and neuroscientists in recent years have demonstrated that our brains are hardwired to distinguish things in our environment that are alive from those that are not alive. But “being alive” (from a psychological point of view) is not about biology, but agency – something that can act in the world, that has its own will and can cause things to happen. Sure, this is a property of living things, but that’s not how our brain sort things out. We can perceive agency in non-living things if they are acting as if they are agents.

Bruce Hood adds to our understanding:

We imbue agents with an essence – a unique living force, even while infants. Objects are just generic things, totally interchangeable. While agents have their own unique essence. Interestingly, children can come to view a favorite toy (a stuffed animal, for example) with the properties of an agent and will treat it like a living thing. This reinforces the notion that the distinction we make is not between living and non-living so much as agent vs object.

This biological tendency we have to assign agency where none may exist helps to explain why we seem so willing to believe in all kinds of supernatural agencies. Back to Doctor Steve:

HADD detects more than movement, it can detect a pattern in otherwise unrelated events, details that defy easy explanation, or consequences that seem out of proportion to the alleged causes. When HADD is triggered we tend to see a hidden agent working behind the scenes, making events unfold the way they do, and perhaps even deliberately hiding its own tracks.

So if we are aware that we are predisposed by our neurology to assign agency where none may exist, then what can we do to safeguard our perceptions from our imaginings? Novella is quite clear with advice on how we can accomplish this willful task:

Skepticism, in many ways, is a filter on HADD. First we have to recognize that our brains are not perfect perceivers and processors of information. There are specific and myriad ways in which the human brain is biased and flawed. Science and skepticism are methods for correcting or filtering out those biases. Skeptics asks themselves – is it really true. We see many patterns, but only some of those patterns represent underlying reality. We need a process to sort out which ones are real – that is science and skepticism.

March 21, 2010

What kind of moral guide is the bible?

Filed under: belief,Bible,Ethics,Morality,Philosophy,Religion — tildeb @ 10:03 am

An incoherent one, but we often are told in no uncertain terms by the faithful that morality comes only from god through the holy texts like the bible. .

Robert G. Ingersoll has gone looking for this moral message in the bible and describes his thoughts about the moral codes he has found in this article, from which I have extracted these few paragraphs:

On the whole, the Old Testament cannot be considered a moral guide. Jehovah was not a moral God. He had all the vices, and he lacked all the virtues. He generally carried out his threats, but he never faithfully kept a promise.  At the same time, we must remember that the Old Testament is a natural production, that it was written by savages who were slowly crawling toward the light. We must give them credit for the noble things they said, and we must be charitable enough to excuse their faults and even their crimes.

I know that many Christians regard the Old Testament as the foundation and the New as the superstructure, and while many admit that there are faults and mistakes in the Old Testament, they insist that the New is the flower and perfect fruit. I admit that there are many good things in the New Testament, and if we take from that book the dogmas of eternal pain, of infinite revenge, of the atonement, of human sacrifice, of the necessity of shedding blood; if we throw away the doctrine of non-resistance, of loving enemies, the idea that prosperity is the result of wickedness, that poverty is a preparation for Paradise, if we throw all these away and take the good, sensible passages, applicable to conduct, then we can make a fairly good moral guide,—narrow, but moral.

Of course, many important things would be left out. You would have nothing about human rights, nothing in favor of the family, nothing for education, nothing for investigation, for thought and reason, but still you would have a fairly good moral guide. On the other hand, if you would take the foolish passages, the extreme ones, you could make a creed that would satisfy an insane asylum. If you take the cruel passages, the verses that inculcate eternal hatred, verses that writhe and hiss like serpents, you can make a creed that would shock the heart of a hyena. It may be that no book contains better passages than the New Testament, but certainly no book contains worse. Below the blossom of love you find the thorn of hatred; on the lips that kiss, you find the poison of the cobra. The Bible is not a moral guide. Any man who follows faithfully all its teachings is an enemy of society and will probably end his days in a prison or an asylum.

These facts in general, these histories in outline, the results reached, the conclusions formed, the principles evolved, taken together, would form the best conceivable moral guide. We cannot depend on what are called “inspired books,” or the religions of the world. These religions are based on the supernatural, and according to them we are under obligation to worship and obey some supernatural being, or beings. All these religions are inconsistent with intellectual liberty. They are the enemies of thought, of investigation, of mental honesty. They destroy the manliness of man. They promise eternal rewards for belief, for credulity, for what they call faith. This is not only absurd, but it is immoral.

These religions teach the slave virtues. They make inanimate things holy, and falsehoods sacred. They create artificial crimes. To eat meat on Friday, to enjoy yourself on Sunday, to eat on fast-days, to be happy in Lent, to dispute a priest, to ask for evidence, to deny a creed, to express your sincere thought, all these acts are sins, crimes against some god, To give your honest opinion about Jehovah, Mohammed or Christ, is far worse than to maliciously slander your neighbor. To question or doubt miracles. is far worse than to deny known facts. Only the obedient, the credulous, the cringers, the kneelers, the meek, the unquestioning, the true believers, are regarded as moral, as virtuous. It is not enough to be honest, generous and useful; not enough to be governed by evidence, by facts. In addition to this, you must believe. These things are the foes of morality. They subvert all natural conceptions of virtue.

March 20, 2010

Who (or what) is to blame for sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church?

This sound suspiciously like the pope is suggesting that that old bugaboo secularism lies at the root of this Irish problem! Leave it to the pope to set us all straight:

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.

In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.

It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse.

How refreshing it is to see that the Vatican has taken on its fair share of the responsibility. Oh, that’s right; it is blameless, of course. Silly me. Why should senior leadership in any organization take any responsibility whatsoever for the actions taken under its policies and procedures, right? It’s not like the two are associated in any way if the effect of those policies and procedures is negative; that’s always the fault of middle management… which helps explain why, after all, this whole Irish problem of sex abuse brought about by rapid secularization  is obviously a problem for Irish catholic churches to overcome their failure.

Good grief.

March 19, 2010

Is there an atheist in your church’s pulpit?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Bible,Christianity,Dennett,Religion — tildeb @ 9:36 am

Dan Dennett is back (third from the left) with a study co-authored by Linda LaScola of preachers who are not believers.

We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest.

These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides. We hope that by telling their stories we will help them and others find more wholehearted ways of doing the good they set out to do.

Scandal? What scandal? More commentary on Brown’s defense of the Catholic Church.

Filed under: 1,Argument,Catholic Church,child abuse,Scandal — tildeb @ 8:54 am

From Greta Christina’s Blog:

Here we have the story of one Andrew Brown of the Guardian, who has written a defense of the Catholic Church child rape scandal and an excoriation of those who are condemning it… on the grounds that everyone else does it, too.

No, really.

From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable…

and:

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.

and:

There are, however, some fragments of figures from the outside world suggesting that not many professions do better.

Etc.

Shudder.

Where to begin?

What makes the Catholic child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is giving it the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church in horror, is the way the Church handled it.

The Church knew about widespread reports of priests repeatedly molesting children… and instead of acting to protect the children, they acted to protect the priests, and themselves. Thus deliberately and knowingly putting more children in the way of known child rapists, solely for their pure self-interest.

Repeatedly. Time and time again. In every part of the world. As a cold-blooded matter of Church policy.

That is the scandal.

The fact that some adults in positions of trust and authority over children violated that trust by raping them? That is a tragedy. The fact that the Catholic Church knew about it — and instead of reporting the child rapists to the police, they deliberately shielded them from detection and criminal investigation? The fact that the Church moved child rapists from parish to parish, thus exposing even more children to them? The fact that they lied to law enforcement, concealed evidence, even paid off witnesses… purely to protect their organization from looking bad?

That, Mr. Brown, is the scandal.

You fucking moral imbecile.

We don’t know what makes people into child rapists. It is a serious mental illness as well as a profound moral failing. But the Church hierarchy who shuffled around known child rapists from diocese to diocese — not out of uncontrollable impulse, but consciously, thoughtfully, with a cool evaluation of the pros and cons, in a calculated attempt to prevent a PR disaster and protect their own self-interest? We know what makes people do that. What makes people do that is utterly craven moral bankruptcy. They don’t even have the excuse of mental illness.

And for Andrew Brown to defend this moral bankruptcy? For him to use the “Everyone else does it, too” defense — a defense that doesn’t even stand up at third grade recess, and that absolutely has no validity in a serious adult discussion of morality? For him to insist that the Church is being picked on, unfairly singled out among all the teachers and coaches and babysitters and so on who have raped children?

That suggests a moral tone-deafness that makes me physically ill. Brown is essentially doing exactly what the Church has consistently done in the face of this scandal. He is placing a higher value on the well-being of the Catholic Church than he is on the people, the children, who trust in it.

Shame on him.

March 18, 2010

What’s in a story?

Filed under: Evolution — tildeb @ 9:20 am

Apparently more than just the story! Is there such a thing as ‘narrative’ evolution, I wonder?

Take a look at this flow chart that shows the historical evolution of four well known stories here.

Flexible Morality: how susceptible are we to granting unjustified authority?

Filed under: abuse,belief,Ethics,Morality — tildeb @ 9:10 am

We are going to be hearing a lot more about this experiment:

A French documentary film will attempt to show the power television holds over people when it presents the results of a fake television game show in which participants inflict pain on other people.

“How Far Will Televison Go?” reproduces its own version of an experiment conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, in which volunteers were ordered to inflict electric shocks on a student in order to improve memory.

The documentary — due to be broadcast in France on Wednesday — used the ruse of a TV show to explore how even a game show host had the authority to persuade participants to inflict horrendous pain on other people.

“It’s more about the notion of power than about the individual,” the show’s producer, Christophe Nick told Reuters Television. “When a person is alone, face to face with someone abusing their power, then he or she becomes completely malleable and obedient.”

Urged on by the game show host, around 70 percent of contestants laughed at least once during the ordeal, the program producers said, and only 19 percent put a stop to the game before reaching the maximum charge of 420 volts.

In Milgram’s case 62 percent of participants obeyed abject orders; with television it’s 81 percent,” he said.

Authority is a tricky word to nail down its meaning because we tend to attribute some outside agency as possessing this power rather than understand and accept that the power of authority lies with us granting it our willing obedience (the more we collectively grant authority our obedience, the more powerful that authority becomes ‘over’ us). We see that transfer of power over personal conduct here in this experiment, where the ‘power’ of the TV game show host is only as influential as each person who grants the host authority over his or her individual decision-making to inflict pain on another.

This raises some important and interesting questions: If our moral code is fixed, meaning that we clearly know the difference between right and wrong, then how can we explain why the vast majority of people are so willing to do great harm to others in the name of ‘authority’? If we understand our morality to be flexible depending on the situation, then against what ethical code, meaning our actual behaviours, do we accept the responsibility of our individual action rather than transfer that responsibility to some perceived authority? Why were so many people willing to suspend personal responsibility of their individual action causing direct harm to another simply because someone told them to do so? Why are we so willing to grant that kind of authority to another, and at what point will people take that responsibility back?

Knowing that we are quite capable of granting authority that may very well be unjustified, we should make every effort to remember that we are ethically responsible for our personal actions. When we grant obedience to authority, we remain ethically responsible for that decision.

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