Questionable Motives

June 8, 2010

How does the RC church make a sex abuse scandal go away?

Filed under: abuse,Catholic Church,Morality,Priests,Scandal — tildeb @ 7:40 am

It orders a ‘fixer’ to come in and get to work. Ex-Benedictine monk, Patrick Wall (Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse), recently provided a revealing, disturbing, angering, and heartbreaking 12 minute radio interview describing his role in helping to make clerical abuse scandals go away. The broadcast is from CBC Radio:

I was a company man, I thought, “this is something I’m doing to both help the university as an alumnus, help the monastery which I belong to…”  When you’re trained to follow the workings of the Holy Spirit, unfortunately you assume it’s the Holy Spirit in action, rather than human error.

Was there no part of your mind that deep down said, “Hang on, I do know this is wrong?”

It was never on the radar screen.  It was just not there.  It was just never discussed, it was one of those things that was sub rosa and people knew it was going on, however, in defense of the institution, which we believe was instituted by God and as, basically, as a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, you’re there as a soldier, you’re literally there to assist and defend the institution.

So your part in all of this, Patrick, was to make sure that everything was smoothed over, would that be the right way to put it?

That’s exactly what a fixer does, it doesn’t matter what diocese in the world, what religious order in the world, that’s exactly what you do.  You go in, you assess the situation, you try and find survivors, report it up the chain of command, and you try to make it as positive and life bearing as possible.  In fact, I was fortunate to have lunch a with a priest a couple weeks ago in Washington, D.C., former priest, who was a fixer in a northeast diocese and he recounted to me the same exact things I was assigned to do that he was assigned to do before he left… There’s been a consistent, uninterrupted procedure on what to do when clerics sexually abuse kids for centuries.

When you were still at the abby did you think, I should go tell somebody, I should go tell the police, what is happening here is illegal?

Never even crossed my mind.  We’re not trained to talk to any outside institution.  I remember going to a workshop in the fall of 1992 and we had a civil lawyer there, we had a canon lawyer there, we had a number of experienced people in dealing with priest sex abuse, explaining to us about how the civil legal system worked and never once was the discussion about calling child protective services, calling the police, calling any state authority outside the Church, it’s always keeping it in-house and dealing with it, in house…There’s very little about pastoral outreach to the victim, because the victim is now a liability, the victim is now a huge financial liability, a point of scandal, and a real problem, so that’s why we were trained to work in getting the people under control, so to speak, before they filed a civil complaint and working with them to keep it all in-house.

When these priests were moved on was there any warning given to the communities they were being sent to as to why they were being disrupted in the job that they were in?

Oh absolutely not, they’re not going to say that Father So and So had a problem with sexually abusing kids because if you did that more then more victims were going to come forward and you’re going to have more lawsuits.  Usually there was some kind of a cover story that Father Tom had to go to alcohol treatment. The key was that if you tell the lay people exactly what is going on, you’re going to start a reformation because with proper information people will make different decisions.  But if you keep them in the dark and you give them a pious answer, then they’re going to continue on thinking, “well, things are fine”, when in reality, it was the same old problem: childhood sexual abuse.

(Thanks to Camels With Hammers for the excerpts.)

June 7, 2010

What does Hawking think about the compatibility of science and religion?

Filed under: Atheism,creationism,Religion,Science,Stephen Hawking — tildeb @ 11:18 pm

From CTV, Canada’s largest privately owned television network, comes this interview with Stephen Hawking who is the first holder of the Distinguished Research Chair of the Waterloo based Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and is spending six weeks pursuing research on quantum theory and gravity regarding the origin of the universe:

Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says science and religion are fundamentally incompatible — and the former will always come out on top.

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, (and) science, which is based on observation and reason,” Hawking told ABC News’s Diane Sawyer in an interview Monday.

“Science will win because it works.”

The British scientist, who has built his career studying the universe and its origins, flat-out rejected creationism and the possibility of a creator.

Let’s see how fundies, creationists, and religious apologists quote mine this one to make up seem to be down, black as a different shade of white,  and Hawking a strident militant atheist in public but really a closet believer supportive that religion and science are really quite compatible.

Is there a benefit from beliving in supernatural agencies?

Filed under: Science,Superstition — tildeb @ 11:57 am

Misunderstoodranter and I have been having a discussion about the evolutionary aspects of religious beliefs. It was with some interest, then, that I read about potential benefits of belief in supernatural agency from Steve Novella over at Neurologica Blog:

The word “superstition” has a pejorative connotation – superstitious beliefs are generally considered to be silly and irrational. People often engage in superstitious behavior with a slightly embarrassed smile, pretending like they don’t take it seriously even while they feel compelled to perform their lucky ritual.

This is all appropriate, in my opinion, as superstitions are magical beliefs. Research has also shown that they are psychologically motivated – a way of dealing with a sense of lack of control. The magical ritual gives us a false sense of control over events.

The motivation for superstitions seems to be dominantly about control. The process is hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection. We see patterns that are not there and then attribute an invisible agent to explain them. At it’s simplest level, this can just be assuming cause and effect for two completely unrelated events, like wearing a certain shirt and the outcome of a sports competition. Some people are struck with the sense that there is some mystical power in the universe that connects these two events.

Recent studies by Damisch et. al. show another aspect of superstition, however – a potentially beneficial effect. Researchers looked at task performance and the carrying out ritual superstitions, like crossing one’s fingers. They found:

“Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

They also found this improved performance effect was partly explained by improved “self efficacy assessment” and partly by increased task persistence. Subjects were more confident and they engaged in the task more. If true that could mean that belief in superstitions may provide a specific selective advantage, and not just be a side effect of our psychological makeup.

I think Steven comes close to falling into the mistake of associating benefit with assuming it translates in selective advantage without any genetic evidence to back that up other than associating common behaviours (or beliefs in this case) in a population with an assumed evolutionary and beneficial component, but wisely uses the word ‘may’. His conclusion, however, is much clearer and one I can fully endorse:

We may therefore be seeing a more general principle – self confidence, even if it is propped up by magical beliefs, translates to better “luck” and performance. But it is the self-confidence that really works, and certainly this can be derived from non-superstitious sources.

I instinctively recoil from vacuous self-affirmations (like Stewart Smalley), but the research does seem to indicate that believing in oneself really does translate into success. I prefer to bolster my self-confidence with knowledge and understanding. Call it the skeptic’s self-affirmation.

June 6, 2010

Scientific integrity: Is Templeton money science’s 30 pieces of silver?

Filed under: Religion,Science,Spirituality,Templeton — tildeb @ 12:55 pm

Excerpts from The Nation‘s article God, Science, and Philanthropy:

The Templeton Foundation holds assets valued at around $1 billion, a sum that will likely swell to $2.5 billion in the years to come as John Templeton Sr.’s estate is settled. That would put it squarely among the richest twenty-five foundations in the country, somewhere between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Open Society Institute. The founder’s flagship program, though, is the Templeton Prize; this year’s laureate is biologist and former Catholic priest Francisco Ayala. The foundation dispenses about $70 million in grants annually, the bulk of which goes to programs in the religion-and-science orbit.

According to the foundation, they are among life’s “Big Questions,” the exploration of which constitutes its mission. Templeton money supports other causes, like promoting virtue, encouraging gifted youth and fostering free enterprise, but its core concerns are more cosmic: “Does the universe have a purpose?” “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” “Does evolution explain human nature?” As the advance of knowledge becomes ever more specialized and remote, these questions seem as refreshing as they are intractable; the foundation wants them to be our culture’s uniting, overriding focus. For those who work on matters of spirituality and science today, Templeton is around every turn, active in disciplines from biology and cosmology to philosophy and theology. Many leading scholars speak of it with a tone of caution; some who have not applied for grants expect to do so in the future, while a few have taken a principled stand against doing so.

Like debates about religion broadly, debates about Templeton often get mapped onto the culture wars in black and white, or red and blue. It doesn’t help that the foundation is a longstanding donor to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. And while its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr.—Jack—is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War. Since his father’s death, concerns have swirled among the foundation’s grantees and critics alike that Jack Templeton will steer the foundation even further rightward and, perhaps, even further from respectable science.

The stakes are high.

After the foundation’s initiative for research on forgiveness began in 1997, the number of psychology journal articles on the subject went from fewer than fifty per year to more than 100 in 2000 and nearly 250 in 2008. When Templeton first financed Larson’s NIHR in the early 1990s, the number of medical schools with courses on religion could be counted on one latex glove. Now, according to Dr. Christina Puchalski of the Templeton-funded George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, three-quarters of US medical schools have brought spirituality into their curriculums.

He has financed a right-wing organization of his own, Let Freedom Ring, which once promoted the “Templeton Curve,” a graph he designed to advocate privatizing Social Security. Now Let Freedom Ring lends support to the Tea Party movement. Jack Templeton’s money has also gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to ads by the neoconservative group Freedom’s Watch. In 2008 he and his wife gave more than $1 million to support California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton’s charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming. (Among the issues it specifically lists as of concern is “the sanctity of life,” which America-watchers will know is code for a position that is anti-abortion and against many types of experimentation including stem-cell research. Source.) “There is no getting around the fact,” declared a glowing 2007 National Review article, “that it [Templeton] has quickly become a major force in conservative philanthropy.”

Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. “No coercion, no corruption,” Haidt says. But Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harry Kroto won’t accept that. “They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community,” he contends. Kroto has taken to organized resistance; in 2007, when the Royal Society of London considered accepting Templeton money for one of its programs, he was among eleven fellows, five of them Nobel laureates, who successfully lobbied against the plan.

Author Richard Dawkins quipped in his 2006 book The God Delusion that the Templeton Prize goes “usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” He and others among the so-called New Atheists have been the foundation’s most strident critics lately; they believe Templeton is corrupting science by trying to inject it with religious dogma and, in turn, misrepresent science to the public. The advance of science steamrolls over religion, they say, and Templeton is deluding people into thinking otherwise.

A good point raised by Dr. Sunny Bain: though supposedly set up “to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science”, it funds many activities that are entirely religious. These include the Epiphany prize for the, “most inspiring movie and the most inspiring television program of the year… presented by the Christian Film & Television Commission.” In the same way that we would want to know about Philip-Morris-backed smoking studies or MacDonald’s funded research that says fast food is good for you, we should all be aware of the agenda of this organization.

June 3, 2010

What’s in a word?

Filed under: Language,Science — tildeb @ 10:00 am

In short: brain development. Different language, different brain development. Fascinating hypothesis

From New Scientist:

LANGUAGES are wonderfully idiosyncratic. English puts its subject before its verb. Finnish has lots of cases. Mandarin is highly tonal.

Yet despite these differences, one of the most influential ideas in the study of language is that of universal grammar. Put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, it is widely interpreted as meaning that all languages are basically the same and that the human brain is born language-ready, with an in-built program that is able to decipher the common rules underpinning any mother tongue. For five decades this idea has dominated work in linguistics, psychology and cognitive science. To understand language, it implied, you must sweep aside the dazzling diversity of languages and find the common human core.

But what if the very diversity of languages is the key to understanding human communication? This is the idea being put forward by linguists Nicholas Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

They believe that languages do not share a common set of rules. Instead, they say, their sheer variety is a defining feature of human communication – something not seen in other animals. And that’s not all. Language diversity is the “crucial fact for understanding the place of language in human cognition”, Levinson and Evans argue.

The standard modern metaphor for cognition is the “toolbox”, with humans sharing some tools with other animals while having others that are exclusive to us. For Evans and Levinson, cognition is more like “a machine tool, capable of manufacturing special tools for special jobs… like calculating, playing the piano, reading right to left, or speaking Arabic”. In this view, the brain of a child does not arrive pre-programmed with abstract linguistic rules. Instead, its initial setting is much simpler: the first job of the brain is to build a more complicated brain. This it does using any input that it gets, including language. This could mean that speakers of very different languages have quite different brains, says Levinson.

How cool is that?

June 1, 2010

Catholic expertise: How to muddle the matter of non belief as militancy?

Filed under: Agnosticism,Atheism,Catholic Church — tildeb @ 10:04 am

Leave that expertise up to the catholic church! The latest failure by the church hasn’t even happened yet, but if there is one thing the catholic church excels at, it’s preparing the ground with a policy that is doomed from the outset. From The Independent comes this little gem:

The Vatican is planning a new initiative to reach out to atheists and agnostics in an attempt to improve the church’s relationship with non-believers. Pope Benedict XVI has ordered officials to create a new foundation where atheists will be encouraged to meet and debate with some of the Catholic Church’s top theologians.

The Vatican hopes to stage a series of debates in Paris next year. But militant non-believers hoping for a chance to set senior church figures straight about the existence of God are set to be disappointed: the church has warned that atheists with high public profiles such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will not be invited.

What matters most to the church is the relationship with those who have every reason to doubt that institution and its beliefs, not what’s true. And we can’t have the biggest proponents of what’s true mucking up the slow sell job the Vatican wishes to pursue with those who are  bit wishy-washy and intellectually muddled over matters of faith. After all, if one cares about promoting what is true, and is passionate about caring for what is true, and one identifies the catholic doctrine as antithetical to both, then one by catholic definition must be a militant atheist! How typical from the bigots and misogynists who run the church.

And as for the debates, it’s not like any one from the Vatican side is actually open to altering their beliefs. Heaven forbid; these catholics already know the truth, so why bother to question the truth claims they promote?

The “Courtyard of the Gentiles”, as the foundation is known, is being set up by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the influential Vatican department that is charged with fostering better relations with non-Catholics.

Culture? Selling a particular brand of religion with a dubious track record on moral behaviour is seen as a matter of culture by the Vatican? How disingenuous is that?

Want better relations? How about being honest? How about being responsible? How about being open to change? Want to improve relations through a catholic culture? How about starting with a shared concern about the value of respecting what’s true? But, of course, we can’t have that from the catholic church. It’s too… too… reasonable – and, of course, militant. Good relations can’t be built on dialogue that is open, honest, and respectful for what is true; it must be built on accepting exactly one kind of religious faith – catholic – and obedience to those who define it – the Holy See.

So much for improving relationships. This is just another guaranteed failure from the boys who like to wear dresses and don funny hats.

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