Vox populi, pox dei

Which, in my pidgin Latin, translates into “the voice of the people is the pox of god”.

One of the weird, seemingly counterintuitive things about Canada is that despite having no official segregation of church and state in our Charter, religion is more or less absent from the larger issues our government deals with. We don’t have national fights about crosses at memorials or references to God in our national anthem. References to a deity are more or less absent from our various Throne Speeches (commonwealth readers will understand this phrase – Yankees should think of the State of the Union), and doesn’t play a major role in our elections except in the most bizarre ways.

Which is why when a high-ranking federal minister appears in an article about the Vatican, it’s always an interesting story: [Read more...]

Warning: this story is full of win

Sometimes the stuff I blog about gets me pretty down. There’s a lot of ugliness in humanity, and a lot of things to despair about. The ever-persistent stain of racism, rampant and unabashed misogyny, the easy lies of conservatism… it’s enough to wring a tear from even my stony gaze, and I have to reach for my supply of otter pictures.

Then again, sometimes a story comes along and completely cheers me up:

Poland’s first transsexual member of parliament has been sworn in, in what has traditionally been a socially conservative country. Fifty-seven-year-old Anna Grodzka was previously a man, known as Krzysztof, before having surgery in Thailand.

Okay, that’s pretty cool. Poland has made a progressive milestone by electing someone who, no matter how qualified, would not have been able to serve in office a generation ago. That’s pretty cheering. But wait, there’s more… [Read more...]

You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!

I hope nobody can confuse me with someone who approves of religion, my recent posts supporting the idea of humanist ‘churches’ notwithstanding. I don’t. Religion is built on a foundation of unwarranted belief in claims that are nonsensical at best, and horribly destructive at worst. It concentrates unchecked and unimpeachable power in the hands of people who have done nothing to warrant it, and propagates abusive practices through threats and bribery:

Britain’s madrassas have faced more than 400 allegations of physical abuse in the past three years, a BBC investigation has discovered. But only a tiny number have led to successful prosecutions. The revelation has led to calls for formal regulation of the schools, attended by more than 250,000 Muslim children every day for Koran lessons.

The chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board said he would treat the issue as a matter of urgency. Leading Muslim figures said families often faced pressure not to go to court or even to make a formal complaint. A senior prosecutor told the BBC its figures were likely to represent the tip of an iceberg.

But hey, so does the Boy Scouts, apparently:

CBC News has learned that Scouts Canada has signed out-of-court confidentiality agreements with more than a dozen child sex-abuse victims in recent years, shielding the incidents from further media attention. In many of the agreements, a confidentiality clause prevents victims from revealing the amount paid or even the fact that there was a settlement. At least one bars a former boy scout from publicly divulging that the abuse took place. Scouts Canada has refused to disclose details about any of the settlements. Sources tell CBC News that some settlements were around $200,000. [Read more...]

¿Ustedes tambien, Mexico?

In 18 months of blogging, I’ve only brought up abortion a handful of times (usually in service of a larger point). Today, for some reason, I’ve got two posts about it. Let’s hope there’s nothing Freudian about that…

I agree with Kavita Ramdas that empowering women is the key to making progress in society. I am sure this will garner me my fair share of dirty looks from a crowd of people who will see this as sexist against men – I am as immune to your looks as you are to rational argument. I join Christopher Hitchens in recognizing the cure for poverty as being “the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” A key component of such emancipation is the presence and defense of rights to abortion. However uncomfortable one might be with the idea, terminating unwanted pregnancy is part and parcel with recognizing a woman’s right to be reproductively autonomous. When women have the power to do with their bodies as they choose, the world becomes a better place for all of us.

Mexico doesn’t seem to recognize this: [Read more...]

I’ve got your amnesia right here

I try, at all times, to be an introspective person. Because of the kind of person I am – physically imposing and unabashedly forthright in expressing my opinion – I have a tendency to overwhelm other people in conversation. I don’t do this intentionally, it’s simply a byproduct of who I am. However, because of this fact I am particularly susceptible to a particularly pernicious type of confirmation bias, wherein people who disagree with me either don’t speak up because they’re intimidated, or are shouted into silence by the force of my response. My appeals to friends and colleagues to challenge me when I do this are often unheeded, and as a result I can get a false impression that people agree with me more often than they actually do. I constantly struggle to monitor my own behaviour and demeanour, particularly when I am defending a topic I am passionate about.

This kind of introspective self-criticism is, I think, a critical component of being an intellectually honest advocate of a position. The zeal with which I practice this behaviour on myself has, unfortunately, left me with little patience for hypocrisy. There is perhaps no greater font of hypocrisy in the world today than that which finds its home in St. Peter’s Basilica:

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged thousands of young people gathered for World Youth Day in Spain to avoid temptation and non-believers who think they are ‘god.’

“There are many that, believing they are god, gods, think they have no need for any roots or foundations other than themselves, they would like to decide for themselves what is true or isn’t, what is right and wrong, what’s just and unjust, decide who deserves to live and who can be sacrificed for other preferences, taking a step in the direction of chance, without a fixed path, allowing themselves to be taken by the pulse of each moment, these temptations are always there, it’s important not to succumb to them,” the Pope said during his first speech to the pilgrims.

“Taking a step in the direction of chance, without a fixed path, allowing themselves to be taken by the pulse of each moment, these temptations are always there, it’s important not to succumb to them.”

The kind of unbelievable hubris and lack of self-awareness it takes for a man who claims to speak directly for YahwAlladdha and issues edicts that are, by his own claim, infallible – for this kind of person to go around telling others not to succumb to the temptation to think that they are god is the most shocking and frankly ridiculous type of hypocrisy possible. Beyond simply being rank dishonesty and a complete failure to recognize one’s own faults, it is ethically disgusting for someone with as much power as the Pope has to use that pulpit to encourage people not to think for themselves.

But it doesn’t stop there:

[The Pope] said that the continent must take into account ethical considerations that look out for the common good and added that he understood the desperation felt because of today’s economic uncertainties. “The economy doesn’t function with market self-regulation, but needs an ethical rationale to work for mankind,” he told reporters traveling aboard the papal plane. “Man must be at the centre of the economy, and the economy cannot be measured only by maximisation of profit but rather according to the common good.”

Now it so happens that I agree with the Pope in this particular case – our financial system’s pursuit of profit at all costs must be tempered by a strong regulatory climate to ensure that the human beings that make up the economy are protected from exploitation. However, for someone who is the head of an organization that is guilty of some of the most egregious ethical violations in the history of civilization to advocate the importance of morality and care for human beings makes one’s head spin in a most unpleasant fashion. It would be like hearing Robert Mugabe (that greasy pig-fucker) opine on the importance of transparency in government – yeah he’s right, but completely unqualified to offer an opinion.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the massive protests over the amount that the Spanish government, already reeling from financial hardships of its own, has spent on bringing the Pope to Spain to say things that he could have simply put on his Twitter feed.

Perhaps most gallingly of all, to me personally at least, was this statement:

Benedict told them their decisions to dedicate their lives to their faith was a potent message in today’s increasingly secular world. “This is all the more important today when we see a certain eclipse of God taking place, a kind of amnesia which albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity,” he said. Benedict’s main priority as Pope has been to try to reawaken Christianity in places like Spain, a once staunchly Catholic country that has drifted far from its pious roots.

Humankind is, for the first time in our history, on the verge of throwing off the chains of superstition and fear that has been a millstone around our collective necks since we climbed down from the trees. Part of this burgeoning emancipation is the rejection of the boogie man of religious faith – the willing suspension of our critical faculties when some decrepit ‘holy man’ mutters some syllables about some bit of supernatural nonsense or other. Every time we have had the courage to pull the veil from our eyes and look at the world with vision unclouded by faith, we have been able to discover something new about phenomena that were previously consigned to the label of ‘mystery’. To be sure, not every such advancement has been positive, and we have made many mistakes. However, the solution to those mistakes is emphatically not to simply refuse to examine the world. To exhort mankind to value faith is to point out how comfortable and reassuring those chains were when we were manacled to the yoke of religion.

I am overjoyed that we are denying such ‘treasures’, and I hope you are too.

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Getting your priorities… straight

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. The pun was just too appropriate:

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) may soon try to pass amendments to its equity policy that allow religious doctrine to trump the Ontario Human Rights Code. Among the eight amendments, only two passed at the last board meeting, on May 16. The meeting came to an end before trustees had time to vote on six other proposed amendments that appear to directly target queer students.

One proposed amendment states that the Catholic board’s denominational rights “take precedence over human rights protections.” Another takes aim at gay-straight alliances (GSAs): “The board will approve only clubs which [sic] have goals that are not inconsistent with Catholic faith and the Catholic Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings. Equity and Inclusive Education policy amendments ”

We all have things in our lives that require careful balancing and triage. For example, I work a 9-5 job, and play in a band. I also try to have some kind of social life outside the band, and then of course there’s this blog. This is a lot of stuff to juggle, so I have to make sure I keep my priorities very clear. Everything else would fall apart if I lost my job, so that gets the majority of my attention and focus. Conversely while I would be personally disappointed if I had to stop blogging, it’s the easiest thing on that list to sacrifice if it came into conflict with something else.

We all do this on a day-to-day basis. If you’re married, you have to find a way to prioritize your needs and those of your spouse (which is to say nothing of being a parent). If you’re a student, you have to find a way to make money that enables you enough free time to complete your readings and assignments and so on. Accordingly, there are always times when our priorities conflict with each other and we have to make a decision we’re not happy with.

What we have to do when making those difficult decisions is think what is in our long-term best interest – which of these prioritization decisions will yield the greatest benefit? Well, unless you’re the TCSB – then you just stick your fingers in your ears and insist that your stubborn refusal to accept reality is more important than the well-being of your fellow creatures. It is a particular brand of conceit that tells the world “my personal beliefs are more important than your equality under the law.”

The bizarre thing to me is how anyone in the board could possibly think this is a good idea. We’re not talking about some podunk town where the only gay guy within a 50 km radius lives in denial and constant fear. This is Toronto

Pictured: Toronto Chamber of Commerce

In a city with such a large, visible, and popular gay community, it is incomprehensible to me that an entire school board would fail to recognize what a PR disaster a movement to shame gay Catholic kids is. Ignoring for a moment the issue of human rights (since the board is happy to do so already), just on the simple basis of how this looks to the city at large, the board has stepped in it big time. Catholic organizations do not need to be caught showing their intolerance and bigotry out in the open, especially when it comes to matters of sex and morality. The entire church needs to rehabilitate its image, and pick its battles very carefully. Purely from a PR standpoint again – this was the wrong time and the wrong place to take a stand on making life harder for gay teens.

In general, however, the point needs to be made that human rights legislation was crafted for a reason – when left up to the mercy of society allowed to express all ideas in the open marketplace, we saw centuries of oppression of gay men and women from religious organizations. It’s only very recently, when public opinion underwent a sea change (due in no small part to the tireless efforts of gay rights activists), that churches began to revisit their stance on the issue. Human rights need protection, and while freedom of belief is indeed one of those rights, that does not license you to enact the consequences of those beliefs on others.

This decision was both philosophically and ethically wrong (nothing new for Catholic organizations, I’ll admit), but also extremely stupid from the perspective of rehabilitating the faith at a time when it needs all the allies it can get. Smart would have been to read the winds of public opinion and quietly shelve opposition to LGBT groups. Smarter still would have been to recognize that doctrine is not more important than human rights, and that students need the guidance and support of teachers – not condemnation affixed with an official seal.

Of course, smartest of all would be to simply recognize that the doctrine is stupid, and refuse to waste any time thinking about it, the way most Catholics do.

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Catholic Church: Not getting it since 500 A.D.

This is one of those stories that seems like it is good news, so long as you only read the headline:

Vatican: Bishops should report abuse to police

The Vatican told bishops around the world Monday that it was important to co-operate with police in reporting priests who rape and molest children and said they should develop guidelines for preventing sex abuse by next May.

I like to at least pretend to be even-handed. While I am in no way ashamed of explicitly stating my biases and positions, I try to give my opponents an even shake – misrepresenting the positions of others only serves to undermine one’s own credibility. It is for this reason that I have tried my best, in all of my discussions of the Roman Catholic Church’s wheelings and dealings in this ongoing abuse issue, to give credit where it’s due. However, the underlying problem with their response to the ongoing revelations has been their staunch refusal to take responsibility for their own actions – first blaming gay people, then “Sin”, then the free-love 60s, on and on ad nauseum. They’ve been happy to cast the blame pretty much everywhere rather than themselves:

There cannot be any more proof in my mind that the Catholic Church does not understand why the world is upset. It doesn’t get that its claims to supernatural authority are meaningless, and increasingly rejected by the world at large. They can’t comprehend the fact that it’s not the simple matter of abuse that is making the world so angry – it’s the repeated attempts to cover it up and defy secular authority. They don’t get it, and it looks like they never will.

But again, the above snippet does suggest that the Vatican is starting to recognize the fact that compelling priests to recognize their lay duty of care to their fellow human beings might be a good thing, and being subject to secular authority would ensure that abuse would at least be addressed more quickly, if not reduced immediately. That is, until you plumb the depths of what that word “should” means:

Critically, the letter reinforces bishops’ authority in dealing with abuse cases. It says independent lay review boards that have been created in some countries to oversee the church’s child protection policies “cannot substitute” for bishops’ judgment and power. Recently, such lay review committees in the U.S. and Ireland have reported that some bishops “failed miserably” in following their own guidelines and had thwarted the boards’ work by withholding information and by enacting legal hurdles that made ensuring compliance impossible.

In the letter, the Vatican told the bishops “it is important to cooperate” with civil law enforcement authorities and follow civil reporting requirements, though it doesn’t make such reporting mandatory. The Vatican has said such a binding rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.

Once again – this is a non-move by the RCC. It still asserts the primacy of the Church in matters of management. Civil authority is to be consulted only when it is convenient to do so, and this decision is left up to the individual discretion of the bishop – a decision-making process that has been shown to be corrupt through history. I can certainly appreciate that a blanket requirement to report to the civil authority might be problematic to those priests living in places where that authority is not to be trusted, but making no changes is not the answer. If there are special circumstances, there can be allowances made for that, but the countries in which these cases are arising are not the kinds of places that one would expect to worry about that (Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium, United States, Canada…).

This is a failure to understand the fundamental problem – it’s not simply the abuse. It’s the attitude of secrecy and moral arrogance that comes with asserting that only the hierarchy is in a position to make these kinds of decisions rather than lay authority. Anything short of dramatic policy changes that signal the Vatican’s understanding of the actual issue will simply be spraying perfume on a turd.

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Yeah THIS guy needed to be fired…

Pretend for a moment that you’re the head of a major international organization worth billions of dollars (hey, congratulations!). Unhappily, however, your organization is facing overwhelming international criticism for a series of egregious ethics violations. Some of these violations implicate you personally, but the majority of them refer to the general standards of practice and the organization’s history of secrecy and evading prosecution. As the leader, you have complete and total authority to change the rules and standards of practice of the organization to respond to this criticism – criticism which, incidentally, is severely impacting your bottom line.

Have you got that in your head? Good. Moving on.

Now imagine that you hear that someone in middle management somewhere in the organization has advocated changing a company policy on the grounds that it is both unpopular and unfair. This manager has bypassed the usual chain of command, which is most certainly a violation of the rules. However, in the larger scheme of things he has articulated a position that many of your shareholders advocate and that would certainly go a long way in rehabilitating your international image. What do you do with this manager? Do you call him in for discipline? Do you say that while you respect his right to speak, you disagree with his position and here’s why? Do you use the criticism as an opportunity to change direction and show the public that your antiquated policies can be changed for the better when the times call for them? You’ve got lots of options; which one do you pursue?

If you picked anything other than ‘shitcan his ass’, the congratulations: you are smarter than the Pope:

Pope Benedict XVI has sacked an outspoken Australian bishop who had called on the church to consider ordaining women and married men. The Vatican said in a statement Monday that the pope had “removed from pastoral care” Bishop William Morris of the Toowoomba diocese. That language was unexpectedly strong by Vatican standards. However, no explanation for the move was given.

There are many people that need to be fired in the church (the Pope being chief among them), for doing things that make a person with any sense of humanist morals shudder. It is one thing to know someone who rapes children and not do anything to stop it. That’s pretty bad (even writing that sentence seems ludicrously evil). It is another thing entirely to aid the rapist in covering up his crime, allowing him to repeat it again and again. It is another thing to threaten the victims of your friend’s crime with eternal punishment if they speak out about it. It is another thing to allow all of this (and actively participate in it), whilst simultaneously holding yourself up as an example of morality and ruin the lives of millions of people, sacrificed in the name of your moral posturing.

But yeah… fire the guy who says that women should be allowed to be priests.

The level of evil is almost cartoonish with this organization, and the rabbit hole goes deeper:

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has arrived in Rome for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. An EU travel ban forbids him from visiting member states but the Vatican, where the ceremony will take place, is a sovereign state and not in the EU. Mr Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, has been allowed to transit through Italy. Italy’s foreign ministry said it had requested an exemption from the EU travel ban for Mr Mugabe.

Yep. The gross pig-fucker himself is welcome in the Vatican’s hallowed chambers. A man whose exploits have earned him the just condemnation of the international community for bankrupting his country, attacking political appointments with violence, and repeatedly violating the human rights of his own people… but he’s got a friend in Rome! To the point where government officials have to ask the EU to suspend its own laws so that he can come watch a fraud passed off as miraculous. You’ve got to imagine how uncomfortable that conversation must have been.

EU: Sorry… we must have a bad connection. It sounded like you said you wanted an exemption to allow Robert Mugabe into Europe. Heh heh, but that’s just ridiculous.

Italy: Um… yeah. You got it right. We want Mugabe.

EU: WHY?

Italy: The pope wants him at the beatification of John Paul II

EU: WHY?

Italy: Well the Vatican has diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe, and he’s the leader, so he’s invited

EU: WHY?

Italy: Is there someone else I can talk to?

Some people wonder if the Pope and other religious leaders do not actually believe the things they say, but perpetuate the lie to gain power. It’s certainly a reasonable suspicion, given that the claims religious leaders regularly make are so bizarre and contrary to the basic rules of logic. However, when you look at the actions of these people, it becomes abundantly clear that they really do believe that their deity is speaking directly to them. It’s the only way one could justify such unrelenting and convoluted evil – license from the supernatural.

This is why enshrining ‘faith’ as a virtue is dangerous. People can trick themselves into believe just about anything, especially when they are told by the culture surrounding them that it’s good enough to just believe something, facts be damned. Once you’re willing to completely blind yourself to the effects of your actions by telling yourself that justification for your evil comes from on high, anything is possible. There is some truth to the old adage that ‘faith can move mountains’ – it can move mountains of inconvenient evidence and logic out of the way, so that the believer can commit any crime she/he wants without utterly devastating her/his own self-concept.

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“Natural Law” – When to ignore someone (pt. 4)

Arguments are powerful things in the world of rhetoric. When considering any given topic, familiarity with the cognitive and evidentiary frameworks that pertain to that topic can be of great use both in understanding and defending a position. Some arguments (albeit few) are powerful enough to justify a position all by themselves; most positions require a variety of arguments to be fully persuasive. Conversely, there are some arguments that are so weak that it is reasonable to completely ignore anyone who would try and press them into service.

I have so far dealt with four such arguments: “common sense”, “I’ve done my own research”, any sentence that starts with “I believe that…” and back-filling explanations to satisfy an a priori conclusion. “Common sense” is a poorly-named concept, because it presumes that people perceive and process information in a uniform way. Doing your own research rarely meets the standard of “research” required to be authoritative or replicable. A person’s individual belief in a thing does not grant it legitimacy, regardless of the sincerity of that belief. Finally, reliable information cannot be gained by assuming the truth of the conclusion, then looking for confirmatory evidence.

These are all specious and worthless arguments, and carry with them no persuasive force when the audience is able to think about them critically. To this list, I would like to add any argument that is contingent on the concept of “natural law”. There are a surprising number of thinkers and theorists that use this concept, and a separate definition for each. The particular understanding of the concept that I find to be most vacuous is perhaps best articulated by the Catholic Church:

The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie: The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin… But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted.5

The general thrust of this definition is that humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, and that this sense is both reliable and derived through human reason. The weaknesses of the Catholic position (the conjuring of the existence of their specific god and a human soul) aside, the very concept is still meritless, or at least not borne out by evidence. Given the diversity of ways in which people react to similar moral quandaries is evidence that there is not a uniform moral sense. The existence of quandaries – situations in which a reasonable case can be made for or against a given action – is evidence enough that there is nothing “written and engraved in the soul” of anybody.

There are a variety of reasonable ways of arriving at a moral decision – the entire field of ethics attests to this fact. A variety of ethical constructs and theoretical scaffolds have been invented to codify a method of consistently arriving at conclusions that maximize the good and to minimize the negative. However, when a given action may cause both good and evil (e.g., giving a life-saving blood transfusion to a Jehova’s Witness against her/his will), our supposed innate moral sense fails us. One person may choose to ignore her innate moral sense to preserve life in favour of obeying the patient’s wishes, while another may reject the patient’s irrational belief in favour of giving him life-saving treatment. Both of these choices are justifiable (although, for the record, medical ethics fall firmly on the side of patient autonomy). Neither can be said to either violate human reason or some kind of ‘natural law’.

While this argument would be merely annoying if invoked in abstract, it is sometimes assumed to be valid, and then used to justify all manner of harm:

…tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

Basing regulations on the non-existent natural law is dangerous and detrimental to those caught outside the realm of what the authority deems acceptable. Two women that are in love, or a man that wants to leave his abusive wife, are shit out of luck because those things are ‘against natural law’, as though loving who you choose and self-preservation are some kind of irrational goal.

What we see in both the conception and application of ‘natural law’ is simply a collision of ‘common sense’ and back-filling. “I don’t like these things for whatever reason, and so I will look for a justification for my dislike that makes them seem rational.” As an argument, it is the equivalent of throwing up your hands and saying “because I said so, that’s why!” It takes courage and honesty to recognize that things you don’t like may be honestly justifiable to some, based on valid precepts (and no, I don’t count cultural norms or appeals to tradition among the list of valid precepts). Homosexuality seems weird to me, and I may not like it (for the record, I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other, although I am immensely proud of our society whenever I see a gay couple together openly). I don’t agree with polygamy. I think that religious rules about diet or medical treatment are stupid. My personal discomfiture with a practice is, however, not evidence that said practice is ‘against natural law’. It just means I don’t like it.

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Well that’s good to know…

Hey Jews! Good news for you guys? Remember how generations of Catholic leaders said that you were collectively responsible for a murder that supposedly happened 2000 years ago? Pope Ratzinger is letting y’all off the hook:

A new book by Pope Benedict XVI offers a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity. Wednesday, Benedict uses a biblical and theological analysis to explain why it is not true that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death. Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no friend to the current pope, but I will always give credit where credit is due. First of all, it should be very clear that this is not a new pronouncement from the current administration that reverses Church policy. Jews were let off the hook for the murder of Jesus many years ago, and Church doctrine has been clear about that fact. Reminding Catholics of this fact is a positive step, and hopefully will help stem the tide of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world, at least from Catholics. There is nothing negative to be said about this announcement, which is simply an excerpt of a much longer work by the pope.

Having said all that, it is still a stupid thing to have to say. A group of people cannot be collectively responsible for the actions of a few of their ancestors. The very idea is ludicrous. First of all, there are strong reasons to doubt that the account of Jesus’ trial and execution is anywhere near accurate, or that Jesus as a single person even existed at all. Second, even granting the accuracy of the collective account in the New Testament, some of the Jews in the crowd were trying to secure Jesus’ freedom, a good many of them knew nothing about the case at all, and still thousandsfold more weren’t anywhere near Jerusalem at the time and couldn’t have done anything about it even if they wanted to. Third, even if they were responsible, Jesus’ death was part of the original plan of God, so their involvement was pre-ordained. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, the decisions of a group of people do not carry forward to their offspring. It is only the most profoundly evil mind that could possibly punish a child for the sins of its forebears (yes, apparently that is how the word is spelled).

I should, at this moment, attempt to stem the tide of “aha!” accusations from those who think that the above paragraph also applies to the issue of reparations, affirmative action, or white privilege. Reparations were a promise made on behalf of the Union government, which still exists as the United States government – promises made should be kept. Affirmative action is not punishing white people for the sins of their forebears, and I have explained in depth why this is so. White privilege refers to the fact that children of white parents start their lives with a set of assumptions that benefit them (or at least do not count against them) from day one, which means that they continue to benefit from the actions of their ancestors – Jews are afforded no such benefit, and are usually detrimentally treated for their religious/cultural affiliation (except within their own in-group, obviously).

It is perhaps not unique to religion, this punishing of children for things that their parents did, but it is certainly a hallmark of religious teaching. The doctrine of original sin, for example, is based on the slight disobedience of a fictional ancestor, and punishment is meted out against not only the species supposedly involved in the transgression, but against all other species as well. The Old Testament is replete with examples of innocents being punished for the actions of others. The Qu’ran treats nonbelief with torture – nonbelief which is surely the fault of whatever religious instruction one receives (unwittingly) as a child. Hinduism states that entire families are forever cursed to live as subservient to others based on nothing more than ancestry. The idea that guilt is a heritable trait is certainly one that, if it does not find its authorship there, certainly finds succor and support from theology.

The pope, by declaring that each individual Jewish person in the world is not responsible for the torture and murder of a person who a) may never have existed, b) even if he was, did not experience universal persecution at the hands of Jewish people, c) even if he did, whose persecution and execution were part of a divine plan… by declaring that this is not the fault of their two millennia distant descendants, the pope has basically come to the same realization that a normal and non-god-blinded person would have reached in about 5 minutes of reflection (if they were distracted). To treat this announcement as some kind of mercy or generous gesture is to grant license to the series of fallacies that the idea of deferred transgenerational responsibility requires to carry any force, not to mention the deep and abiding evil that is inherent in the idea of punishing someone for what someone else has done.

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