To thine own self be true

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Religious freedom

Posted by Polonius on 20 August, 2012

This afternoon’s Beyond Belief on Radio 4 had people seriously arguing that children could be possessed by witchcraft.

Yesterday we had Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s bigoted refusal to discuss gay marriage, under the ridiculous notion that his views on the matter were worthy of some respect.

Yesterday, too, we had the latest disturbing blasphemy case from Pakistan.

These all follow hard on the heels of the Pussy Riot case.

I think religious freedom is a good thing, but can we have too much of a good thing? Of course, the answer to that is not to deny people the freedom they want; it is to educate them so they no longer want that.


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A fool

Posted by Polonius on 19 August, 2012

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has decided he doesn’t want to talk to the Scottish government on gay marriage.

His church has been covering up for paedophile priests for decades, if not centuries. His pope is the same Ratzinger who for 24 years co-ordinated the cover-up worldwide.

The really shocking thing is that that is absolutely minuscule compared to the 1.5 million AIDS deaths a year in Africa alone that could be prevented by condoms, but that same pope says the use of condoms can only be justified by male prostitutes!

These people think they have some authority to speak on matters of sexual morality. It would be funny if it wasn’t so horrific.

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Pope confesses to his greatest crime

Posted by Polonius on 20 November, 2010

It’s a tragedy that the Pope’s apparent crimes of organising the protection of paedophiles in at least four countries pale into insignificance against his past pronouncements on the subject of condoms. With 1.5 million Africans a year dying of AIDS-related illnesses, it’s hard to imagine how many of those deaths could be prevented if the Pope had the decency to venture out of the Dark Ages and admit he was wrong. And now he has! It’s a small step, to be sure, but it’s a step forward.

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Claudy bomb report – church response even more stupid than expected

Posted by Polonius on 24 August, 2010

Sean Brady doesn’t seem to understand parody; he’s doing it to himself!

We acknowledge the finding of the Police Ombudsman that: ‘With regard to the role of the Catholic Church, when informed of the level of concerns others had about one of their priests, they challenged Fr Chesney about his alleged activities, which he denied. In the course of this enquiry the Police Ombudsman’s investigation found no evidence of any criminal intent on the part of any Church official’.

In other words, “We asked him, he denied it, what more can you ask?”

It’s entirely consistent with the church’s view of buggering altar boys.

The tragedy is that all of this pales into insignificance against Pope Benny’s pronouncements against the use of condoms, which contribute to 1.5 million deaths a year in Africa alone.

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Religion brings out the worst in people

Posted by Polonius on 10 May, 2010

A few nasty little individuals are gloating over Evan Harris’s election defeat. They’re afraid of science, afraid of anything that puts reason and evidence before a Bronze Age creation myth. It was ever thus, and they’re not even ashamed of it. Not far from here, in Glasgow, there’s actually a school named after the inquisitor who prosecuted Galileo. I struggle to understand the celebration of wilful ignorance. I’ve read Dennett, am reading Boyer and have Atran to look forward to; I’m sure there are sound evolutionary reasons for this stupid behaviour, but it’s still stupid. Dunning-Kruger effect, perhaps?

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The pope and the paedophiles

Posted by Polonius on 28 March, 2010

Stories about the pope’s involvement in covering up the sexual abuse of children have been circulating for a couple of weeks now, but I haven’t had time to consider them properly until now. I don’t recall where I first read the accusations that have been doing the rounds recently, but my sources include Christopher Hitchens at Slate, Johann Hari at The Independent and Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Heather Horn at the Atlantic Wire summarises some key reports of the issues.

In 1962, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly known as the Inquisition), issued an instruction, Crimen sollicitationis to all bishops worldwide. Its primary purpose was to provide a procedure for dealing with priests who seduce people during confession, but it had a footnote that said that practising homosexual priests and priests who abuse children should be treated the same way. Crimen sollicitationis said that all such crimes were to be reported to CDF itself. It also said that the very existence of Crimen sollicitationis itself was to be kept confidential.

What purports to be the full text of Crimen sollicitationis is available on-line. I’ve read a few legal contracts and acts of Parliament in my time, and they are models of clarity compared to this. But from a superficial review, it appears that the (US) National Catholic Reporter is correct in saying that

The 1962 document would not have tied the hands of a bishop, or anyone else, who wanted to report a crime by a priest to the police.

Nor does it require anyone to report a crime to the police.

Paragraph 74 under Title V of Crimen sollicitationis delegates to “the regular superior” the administration of canon law in cases of “the worst crime” of homosexuality, paedophilia or bestiality. But it also requires that CDF be kept informed of the results. Joseph Ratzinger was head of CDF from 1981 to 2005.

Ratzinger himself issued a new letter, De delictis gravioribus, in 2001. Again, the purported text is available on-line. This requires the local “ordinary or hierarch” to conduct an initial investigation, then inform CDF, who will decide whether “special circumstances” warrant the CDF’s direct intervention, or whether the matter can be left in the hands of the locals. As in Crimen sollicitationis, the involvement of the secular authorities is neither required nor forbidden, it is simply not mentioned. In the US, at least, it has been policy since 2002 to report all allegations to the police.

To summarise, if bishops around the world obeyed their instructions, Ratzinger’s office would have been informed of all allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. From the time he took up the post in 1981 until 2001, his office would only be told after the local church authorities had dealt with the matter to their satisfaction. From 2001 until 2005, his office would be consulted before the case was decided.

There are some specific cases in which the now pope was involved. A child, Wilfried F., was abused by a priest in Germany. The priest (who, unlike the victim, seems to have been granted total anonymity) was moved from one parish to another by order of then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger. He then preyed on further victims. No evidence has emerged that Ratzinger knew of these further offences, though his deputy did.

The second specific case involves Lawrence C. Murphy of Wisconsin. He abused 200 deaf children. Despite the pleas of Wisconsin bishops, now-Cardinal Ratzinger swept this under the carpet.

A third specific case, this time in Mexico, was reported by Jamie Doward in the Observer shortly after Ratzinger became pope in 2005. Nine alleged victims accused Marcial Maciel of abuse. Ratzinger could, perhaps, be given some credit in this case as it is suggested he sought to have Maciel dealt with but was overruled by his papal predecessor.

According to the Doward article,

4,450 of the Roman Catholic clergy who served between 1950 and 2002 have faced credible accusations of abuse.

Another study, produced last year by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported that there had been 10,667 victims of abuse over the last 50 years in the US alone.

It seems likely that a significant proportion of those cases occurred on Ratzinger’s watch. If even a few of those were inappropriately concealed from the secular authorities, it seems likely that at least some of the victims will now come forward. On the other hand, if Ratzinger is innocent, he has the power to prove it. If anyone has been sworn to secrecy, as in Ireland, and if the oath took the form prescribed in Paragraph 27 of Crimen sollicitationis, that oath is binding:

… unless a particular faculty or dispensation has been expressly given … by the Supreme Pontiff.

If the pope has nothing to fear then he, and he alone, can release them from any oaths. Until he does that, there will always be the suspicion that some victims have been silenced by the fear of excommunication.

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It’s no time to gloat

Posted by Polonius on 28 August, 2009

I’ve had misgivings for a while now about Pharyngula. I think the issue of science versus religion is a kind of triage (in the original French sense): there are basically three groups of people in the world:

  1. the ones who will believe in a god or gods regardless of evidence,
  2. the ones who won’t,
  3. and the ones who might be open to persuasion.

Ridiculing Group 1 is entertaining in the short term, but gets tedious after a while. Preaching to Group 2 is pointless. Telling Group 3 they’re stupid is counterproductive, and Pharyngula is all about ridiculing religion.

PZ Myers doesn’t explicitly impute any causal link between religion and the events that have recently come to light in Antioch, California. He simply juxtaposes a few facts and leaves readers to form their own conclusions. Sadly, most of the comments on his post are about as reasoned and evidence-based as those at Garrido’s disturbing blog.

Rational people, especially scientists, can do better than this. “Data” is not the plural of “anecdote”, and this incident doesn’t prove anything. We should not aspire to be as unscientific as the religious in our treatment of evidence.

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On the buses

Posted by Polonius on 16 November, 2008

A few months ago, my place of work changed – the company headquarters moved to newly-refurbished premises in Glasgow city centre. This change has a number of consequences, some good, some bad. My commute, instead of a 25-minute drive door-to-door, is now a 35-minute bus ride plus a 5-minute walk (Assuming the bus turns up, etc.)

One good change is that I can read on the bus. That’s quite a dramatic change because, for some years, the only time I’ve found for purely recreational reading has been in bed, and then I’ve only ever wanted to read books that would help me sleep. Now I can read stimulating, intellectually challenging, books. I’ve actually read a computer language text-book (apart from the reference section) – the PIckaxe (Wikipedia). It’s a longer read than the legendary K&R (W), but far more readable than Stroustrup (W). I also have a copy of the Camel (W), but I’m not tempted to read that, other than for reference.

My most recent read has been Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It’s an impressive book, if a little hard work. It’s longer than it might need be for some readers, but much of that length is a result of the sheer weight of evidence that Darwin presents, enough to convince all but the most determinedly pig-ignorant. And it worked.  Flat-earth creationism is now rare outside of the USA.

The strongest argument of the pig-ignorant seems to be that “it’s just a theory”, but that just shows their ignorance of the scientific usage of the word “theory”. In science, the word “hypothesis” is roughly equivalent to the everyday word “theory”. In science, for a hypothesis to become a theory, it must withstand prolonged attempts by hostile scientists to disprove it. It is a measure of scientists’ modesty (acquired from experience – a concept that the flat-earthers bizarrely refuse to understand) that they recognise that their current best understanding of the way the world works may benefit from future refinement. Since flat-earthers are so determinedly ineducable, it’s pointless trying to explain. A better approach is simply to use different words.

The thing that struck me most about Origin of Species was how obvious it is, in hindsight. Of course Darwin was ignorant of Mendel’s near-contemporary work. And it’s hard to imagine that both of them worked at a time when the role of chromosomes was not understood.

The writing style of Origin of Species challenges the reader. I believe there was a tendency in those days towards long sentences, but Darwin often lost track of the number of subjects by the time he came to the verb, which makes those long sentences even harder to untangle. There’s one behemoth of, if I’ve counted correctly, 218 words (on pp 275-276 of the Oxford World’s Classics 1996 Edition). It’s hard to read, but you don’t have to. If you don’t need to have the evidence beaten into you with a stick, the last chapter, Recapitulation and conclusion, sums it up. Just read that.

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It’s a funny New World

Posted by Polonius on 5 November, 2008

From a UK perspective, Americans are a funny lot. They certainly appear more patriotic than we do, which can be a bad thing, but strengthens their economy and who can blame them for that? I was, until a few moments ago, under the impression that they were more interested in politics than we are, until I checked out Wikipedia on voter turnout – 54% to our 76%!

I thought the Democrats had made a tactical error in choosing Obama. From my own very limited empirical evidence, I fear racism is rife in the US. I don’t speak to many Americans in the average month, but I am disgusted at how many of them feel it necessary to volunteer their appalling views to relative strangers. And I suspect most of the racists are Republicans. So I felt that Obama could win the primaries battle, but lose the election war; that his candidacy would bring out the racists among the Republicans, who simply wouldn’t bother to vote against Clinton. Is tactical racism excusable? The pragmatist in me felt that choosing a candidate to take account of the opposition’s prejudices is unpleasant, but a necessary evil. I was wrong, and it wasn’t necessary.

American election candidates often fight dirty, but even by US standards, Elizabeth Dole is pond-scum. Perhaps the saddest aspect of that incident is the possibility that it might have worked; the idea that Godless Americans are a bad thing. Would you rather have elected representatives who made decisions on the basis of evidence, or ones who believed that the voices in their heads came from the creator of the universe, who takes an active interest in events on this insignificant little planet? The tragedy of US democracy is that the majority of Americans are irrational. The wonder of US democracy is that the framers of the Constitution took great care to limit the power of religious fantasy.

Update: Forgot to mention – it’s a shock to learn that you’re older than POTUS!

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Religion in politics

Posted by Polonius on 30 December, 2007

Religion in UK politics has been much in the news lately with Blair’s Damascene conversion to Catholicism, and Nick Clegg’s revelation that he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus’s grumpy brother. UK politics is a little healthier than the US version in this regard, but it’s still disappointing that Clegg felt obliged to wait until he was elected party leader before coming out with this. Then again, as long as he didn’t lie about it beforehand, if no interviewer ever asked him the question, that’s not his fault.

Of course, no rational person believes that Bliar has really changed. He’s been lying about this at least since 2004. And that’s the important thing. Belief in fairies isn’t unforgivable in a politician, but lying about it is. I may be naive, but I think there is a peculiarly British tradition of honesty, of compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. This places us at a significant disadvantage in international trade when UK law is at odds with the practices and traditions of our international customers.

There are sound pragmatic reasons for lawyers to take a more professional, even cynical, view of the law. It is appropriate that they should strive to fight their clients’ cases, employing every trick they can (within the law). But when lawyers become politicians, it demeans the entire establishment when they try to play the system. Sometimes they get away with it: Bill Clinton’s reputation seems to have survived his bizarre testimony to the grand jury. Sometimes, they come across as very silly indeed, like the absurd arch-hypocrite Jonathan Aitken.

There is a long tradition of religion in the military. There are a couple of reasons for this. One fairly obvious one is that it’s relatively easy to recruit someone to risk death in the course of their employment if they don’t believe death is final. Another more subtle one goes back at least as far as Clausewitz, if not the more cryptic allegory of Sun Tzu. Military commanders must be prepared to make decisions and stand by them. When those decisions are based on incomplete data, they may turn out to be right or wrong. Dithering is always wrong. Military commanders must have the self-confidence, even arrogance, to stand by their decisions. Sometimes that self-confidence is boosted by prayer.

Politicians, like military commanders, make important decisions. Like military commanders, they operate on less than perfect situational awareness. Unlike military commanders, they often have days or months to make their decisions. While in principle senior military commanders have access to advice collated by senior analysts informed by hundreds of specialist experts, in practice time constraints rarely allow them this luxury routinely enjoyed by politicians.

We may pragmatically accept that military commanders often need mythological support when they act on our behalf. It is dangerous, but danger is inescapable in split-second life-or-death decisions. When politicians rely on supernatural guidance to inform decisions that they, and their army of civil servants, have had months to consider, those politicians present a danger that we could well afford to do without.

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