Not a good day to be Pope

For the first time in more than 1000 years, it might be considered a bad thing to be Pope. Up until now, the Pope has commanded a great deal of influence and respect (the Reformation notwithstanding) worldwide. Being Pope means that whatever thought crosses your mind carries the force of law for millions of adherents worldwide. Get caught in a lie? No problem, it’s one of those divine mysteries. Want to declare war or raise an army? Justify it by calling it a holy war. Want to raise money for your ridiculously huge home in your city/state with your own private guards? Sell indulgences! Don’t like the concept of limbo? Fuck it – it’s done.

Yeah, being Pope is a pretty sweet deal, giving you control over people’s bodies, minds and souls. No other leader in the world commands the kind of power that the Pope has. Except the cracks are starting to show in the facade:

Two German lawyers have initiated charges against Pope Benedict XVI at the International Criminal Court, alleging crimes against humanity. Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, based at Marktheidenfeld in the Pope’s home state of Bavaria, last week submitted a 16,500-word document to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Dr Luis Moreno Ocampo. Their charges concern “three worldwide crimes which until now have not been denounced . . . (as) the traditional reverence toward ‘ecclesiastical authority’ has clouded the sense of right and wrong”.

They claim the Pope “is responsible for the preservation and leadership of a worldwide totalitarian regime of coercion which subjugates its members with terrifying and health-endangering threats”.

It can be difficult to pull back from revering religion and those who claim its authority to examine their actions dispassionately. However, once you do, you immediately begin to recognize that the Catholic Church is a massive organization with hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. Imagine for a moment that BP required that all of its employees refrain from using birth control and outlawed extramarital sex. Imagine that Microsoft recruited its software developers as infants and threatened them with torture if they ever quit. Imagine that Google tried to regulate how its marketing directors thought, compelling them to report all unapproved thoughts and handing out punishments as “atonement”.

Divorced from its God claim, this is exactly what the RCC has done for centuries. Of course one could make the argument that membership is voluntary, but how “voluntary” can it possibly be when their main source of recruitment is infants who are then indoctrinated in corporate schools to have many babies and continue the cycle ad infinitum? As someone who has broken out of the indoctrination I can personally attest to the fact that it ain’t so easy as “voluntary” makes it sound.

That’s what those evil secularists do though, right Joseph? It’s all those darn secularists that are making your life so hard:

Six Moroccan men have been arrested in northern Italy on suspicion of seeking to incite hatred of Pope Benedict among Muslims. Police in the city of Brescia said the suspects had allegedly banded together to stir up religious hatred. A note was found calling for the Pope to be punished for converting a Muslim journalist to Roman Catholicism.

Oooor maybe it’s your co-religionists. The Pope has a very fine line to walk. First, he has to assert (without evidence) that his particular interpretation of scripture is the correct one. Second, he has to assert that his particular scripture is the correct one. Third, he has to do all this while simultaneously reaching out to all those people who are so clearly wrong as to believe in a different magic book. He has, of late, decided to try and unite the faithful by putting all the blame against a common enemy – those with no magic book whatsoever. Sadly, while the non-book people have been content to voice their objections through legal channels, those of a different belief are fomenting violence and hatred against him.

Ratzinger has done a poor job of picking his allies, and has done an even worse job of picking his enemies. The history of his own organization should have been enough to teach him that religious groups will always fracture, splinter, and turn against each other. Those same groups he’s reaching out to for some kind of ecumenical allegiance against those who would simply like religion gone from the public sphere will turn against him at the first opportunity, but not before his influence and numbers have dwindled past the point where he can mount a sufficient defense.

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I loved the first Austin Powers movie. The world was abundantly ready for a spy parody, and Powers hit the mark perfectly. Since its rapid decline (along with the equally rapid decline of my respect for Mike Myers, I’m sad to say), I don’t think about the franchise much. However, a recent news item reminded me of one particularly outrageously funny scene from the first movie.

The story? This:

An iPhone and iPad app that helps Roman Catholics seek forgiveness for their sins has been sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Confession: A Roman Catholic App, developed by Little iApps in South Bend, Ind., received an “imprimatur” — an official publication licence from the church — from Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Indiana Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the company said in a news release.

The scene? This:

It’s a little too on the nose, actually. The decrepit old man chasing around a younger one in a vain attempt to convey both paternal authority and familial affection. The Church has been chasing its own youth for years now, to no avail (and no, that is not an abuse joke – those aren’t funny; people were really hurt by that shit). The ultra-conservative attitude of the church toward pretty much every topic under the sun continues to alienate their younger members, to the point where some of their formerly-revered institutions are starting to resort to means of recruitment that are… less than dignified.

I remember my last confession. It was just over 10 years ago at a Holy Thursday mass that I attended with my parents. For those of you who don’t know, Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper before Jesus’ arrest, torture and execution at the hands of the Romans. It was a custom at our church to engage in feet washing, to emulate the portion of the last supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Basically, the act is supposed to be a form of humility before your fellow man – a recognition that we are fundamentally no better than each other and a reminder to do service to one another. The religious overtones aside, it is actually a really nice gesture that is at least 2 degrees of separation from worshiping God.

At any rate, after the foot washing, we were all encouraged to complete the sacrament of Confession in preparation for Good Friday. Traditionally, confession is done behind a screen to protect the anonymity of the confessing parishioner, but given the sheer number of people, the priest decided to relax that rule and offer confession in the open. If you didn’t feel comfortable, there was no coercion, and priests were brought in from other parishes if you didn’t feel comfortable talking to someone who knows you personally. Being 16 and having pretty much nothing of real substance to confess, I went to Father Peter (his line was shortest – I guess not everyone had consciences as clean as mine). Halfway through confessing my “sins” (jealousy, the occasional porno), I realized I felt a lot better about the whole thing. Before the penance and the absolution that followed, I realized that confessing my inner turmoil to another person and having him listen and sympathize (although I hated Fr. Peter’s guts, he was remarkably tolerant and understanding toward me) was a great help.

Any actual value that can be drawn from confession of “sins” (a concept I don’t personally believe in anymore) comes from having a sympathetic ear. As useless as having God forgive your sins is, confessing to a phone strips away the only part of the act that has any merit whatsoever. The Vatican apparently thinks so too:

The Vatican put its foot down Wednesday over the idea of “confessing” by iPhone, after news that U.S. users can now download an application for the Apple gadget that helps the faithful gain absolution.  “It is essential to understand that the rites of penance require a personal dialogue between penitents and their confessor . . . It cannot be replaced by a computer application,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists.

Of course Fr. Lombardi and I likely agree for strikingly different reasons. I think that talking to someone about your problems helps put them in perspective and helps you to put words to your feelings. Both of these things are wonderful and important steps to resolving problems. The mumbo-jumbo about God forgiving you and the token penance of a few muttered prayers is just dross plastered over the process to reinforce the Church’s superiority complex. If you’re going to replace the one part of the process that makes it at all worthwhile, you might as well save $1.99 and just forgive yourself.

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Abuse? What abuse? Quick, look over there!

The long, depressing collapse of the Church of Rome continues unabated, as close scrutiny keeps turning up case after case of child abuse and systematic attempts to shield the perpetrators from punishment. The latest piece of evidence is a letter from Vatican to the bishopric of the Irish Church:

The letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, documents the Vatican’s rejection of an Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests. The letter’s message undermines persistent Vatican claims that the church never instructed bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. Instead, the letter emphasizes the church’s right to handle all child-abuse allegations and determine punishments in house rather than hand that power to civil authorities.

Anti-church forces were quick to claim this letter as some kind of “smoking gun” implication of the Church’s hand in covering up the crimes. People have known that this practice was going on for a long time, to the point where it has become a sort of running gag. What the Church long denied was that these kinds of practices were done with the knowledge and implicit approval of the Vatican, and the use of Church political power to shield the guilty from prosecution. That claim has been repeatedly put to the lie by the increasing number of revelations against the Church.

I took the liberty of reading the letter. It is far from definitive proof of anything, let alone the “smoking gun” that conclusively demonstrates that the RCC was taking an active role in shielding child rapists. It is, more or less, consistent with the Church’s ongoing stance of insisting that canon law supersedes secular law. Abusers should be, according to the letter, handled by Church authorities rather than being treated like one would treat any other criminal – automatically turning them over to police. While it’s possible to connect the dots between an exhortation to circumvent the law and a de facto cover-up, this isn’t the document that’s going to pull the whole case together I’m sorry to say.

What’s more interesting than the emergence of this letter is the way the Church is reacting to it. I’m not really referring to their perfunctory and depressingly-predictable denial of reality:

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the letter was genuine. But he told the New York Times: “It refers to a situation that we’ve now moved beyond. That approach has been surpassed, including its ideas about collaborating with civil authorities.” Fr Lombardi said the letter was “not new”, and insisted that “they’ve known about it in Ireland for some time”.

That kind of response is predictable – “oh yes we knew about it the whole time, but that was the old church! This is the new church!” Never mind that the letter isn’t even 15 years old, just keep sweeping that evidence under the rug. But as I said, this kind of response is exactly what you’d expect from a corrupt organization whose misdeeds are finally coming to light.

This is something only the Church could come up with:

Pope Benedict XVI on Friday attributed a miracle to the late Pope John Paul II, which moves the former pontiff one step closer to sainthood. Benedict declared that the cure of a French nun who suffered from Parkinson’s disease was a miracle. A Vatican-appointed group of doctors and theologians, cardinals and bishops agreed that the cure of a French nun, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, was a miracle because of the intercession of John Paul.

Two months after John Paul’s death, the nun claimed she woke up feeling cured of her disease. The nun and the others in her order had prayed to John Paul, who also suffered from Parkinson’s. In a statement issued Friday, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints said Vatican-appointed doctors “scrupulously” studied the case and found that the nun’s cure had no scientific explanation.

Imagine for a second that you read this in the newspaper:

Former BP CEO Tony Hayward and a team of company-appointed scientists announced today that the catastrophic oil leak that caused irreversible damage to the Gulf Coast of the United States was, in fact, caused by Mole Men.

“We have long suspected,” said Hayward in a prepared statement “that Mole Men live below the surface of our planet. Given that BP has scrupulous safety standards in place to prevent leaks like this from happening, it is therefore impossible that anything could have gone wrong that was our fault. The only logical conclusion we are left with for this disaster is that Mole Men did it.”

In order to pull that kind of shenanigans, BP would be relying on the fact that everyone in the world is a complete and utter moron. That’s the only way that a line of bullshit that long and stinky could possibly hold up to even the most casual level of scrutiny. But that’s exactly what religious belief does to people – it erodes our ability to hold ridiculous supernatural claims like “a woman got better from Parkinson’s… therefore it was the result of the direct intercession of a particular dead person” up to appraisal. We are expected to simply nod and accept it with open arms.

This kind of ridiculous diversionary tactic should not work. The fact that it does is why I, and other anti-theists, are vehemently opposed to the exalted position of religion. It turns people into idiots who willingly swallow crap and tell you it’s caviar, while all the while committing unspeakable acts of evil and calling it virtue.

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Whoops, spoke too soon

Sometimes I overextend myself and make statements preemptively before I have all the facts. It can happen to any of us, and from time to time I have to walk back something I’ve said in a post here.

This is one of those times.

Yesterday, I made a statement in a post that could be interpreted as me saying that the Pope wasn’t evil:

Apparently the world is quite willing to hand an abundance of cookies over to the Pope for finally saying something that pretty much everyone else had figured out already.

But hey, at least he figured it out, right?

I’m sad to say that I have to walk back even this grudging attempt to paint the Pope in anything other than a completely negative light:

Pope Benedict XVI praised efforts of the Filipino bishops in blocking any attempts to promote contraception in the Philippines. The pontiff said the Philippine Catholic leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to confronting any attack on the sanctity of life.

“I commend the Church in the Philippines for seeking to play its part in support of human life from conception until natural death, and in defense of the integrity of marriage and the family,” said Benedict XVI.

Hmm, perhaps I should translate:

Pope Benedict XVI praised the corrupting influence in the Filipino bishops in ensuring that poor people are doomed to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy in the Philippines. The ancient decrepit virgin said that the religiotic busybodies in the Philippines have reaffirmed their commitment to preventing any attempt to improve the quality of life.

“I commend the assholes in the Philippines for seeking to dictate its beliefs to other people in defiance of human rights from conception until natural death, and in defense of bigoted and outdated definitions of marriage and the family,” said Benedict XVI.

So it is to my great chagrin that I must apologize for misleading you fine readers. The Pope is completely evil and has no redeeming qualities. He is happy to whine and cry about the “oppression” of religion in rich countries, and then cackle with Palpatine-like glee as his Church dooms entire countries to a cycle of abuse and unwanted pregnancy in the poor countries.

Tim Minchin, play us out…

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Pope does something marginally decent

…and everyone loses their shit.

Of course this news is a bit dated now, and many of you have probably already heard this story:

Using a condom is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to a sexual partner — male or female —even if that means averting a possible pregnancy, the Vatican said Tuesday, signalling a seismic shift in papal teaching as it further explained Pope Benedict XVI’s comments.

So the Pope has finally hit on the idea that it might be less evil to protect yourself and your sexual partner than it is to have sex without trying to make a baby. A few questions come to mind:

  1. What about papal infallibility? Were you wrong before, or are you wrong now?
  2. How is it that the moral “leadership” provided by the Catholic Church is about 100 years behind everyone else?
  3. How did it take you this long to figure that out?

Life is not a dichotomous state – there is no such thing as ensoulment or some kind of spontaneous creation of “life”. Ever since Friedrich Wöhler first synthesized crystals of urea, a feat that was supposed to be impossible (organic matter from inorganic components), the philosophy of vitalism has been rapidly dismantled. All of the evidence suggests that “life” is a continuum that reaches back millions of years to the first self-replicating molecule, which was itself made up of “non-living” materials.

In this way, wearing a condom is not “preventing life” anymore than masturbation is mass murder. You’re simply inhibiting a specific chemical reaction that will result in a fertilization. To even consider the suffering of a living, feeling human person equivalent to the prevention of a chemical reaction – to even put those things in the same moral ballpark – takes a particularly craven mind.

And so people began bending over backwards to congratulate the Pope on not being entirely boneheadedly evil:

Catholic reformers and groups working to combat HIV have welcomed remarks by Pope Benedict that the use of condoms might not always be wrong.

I’m reminded of a Chris Rock sketch, where he derides some black men for their perceived tendency to brag about things that aren’t accomplishments, like raising their kids and paying their bills. To this completely unwarranted bragging, Rock retorts: “what do you want, a cookie?” Apparently the world is quite willing to hand an abundance of cookies over to the Pope for finally saying something that pretty much everyone else had figured out already.

But hey, at least he figured it out, right?

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the Pope was speaking about “an exceptional situation” in one of the interviews in the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, which is being published on Tuesday.

“The Pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality is a real danger to the life of another,” said Fr Lombardi. Benedict used the specific example of a male prostitute using a condom to illustrate his apparent shift in position.

Come the fuck on, Ratzinger! Condoms are only appropriate in exceptional situations? Apparently in the Pope’s world view, it is better for a woman to become pregnant with a child she does not want and cannot afford to raise than it is for her to protect herself during sex. It’s better for a man to become inextricably yoked to another person for the rest of his life than it is for him to use a piece of latex.

And why is it a male prostitute?

Not all sex results in pregnancy (and I thank my lucky stars for that fact), but there’s always a chance. Many people want to have a child, for whatever reason, and are in a position to provide for it. Using condoms, unlike implants or hormone therapies or other intrusive forms of birth control, do not prevent people who want to have children from doing so. It is a simple technology that harms nobody (unless you count sperm, which I don’t).

Whatever claim to some kind of moral insight or authority that the Catholic Church pretends to have is repeatedly undermined by the ethical stupidity that is repeatedly on display from the Vatican.

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Conservative bloggers call for Campbell soup boycott fearing Islamic terrorism

What would you do if you saw someone homeless, legless, begging for help or at least understanding? Obviously your human compassion would kick in and you’d go to that person’s aid.

Not me – I’d plant a swift kick and walk away laughing.

Well… not really, but sometimes it feels like that.

Conservative bloggers in the United States — the same ones behind opposition to the Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York — are calling for a boycott of Campbell’s Canadian-made soups, alleging Islamic terrorists are linked to both. Pamela Geller, who runs a widely read anti-Muslim site called Atlas Shrugs, is calling for a boycott of some 15 soups made by the Canadian subsidiary of New Jersey-based Campbell Soup Co.

This story is just too delicious (or should I say ‘Mmm, mmm, good’) to pass by without mocking. It has all the ingredients for a hilarious level of crapitalism: conservatism, Ayn Rand worship, completely ridiculous accusations of terror links, religion, and underlying the whole thing is soup. To conservatives: when you complain that the “elitist liberals” think that you’re all a bunch of troglodyte morons, this is why we think that. Every time you see a clownish buffoon rail against supposed connections between international terror and a friggin’ soup company, or something equally ludicrous, it’s some “family values” or “small government” nutbag right-wing group.

By the way, for those of you who didn’t read the story – the reason they think Campbell’s is connected to terror isn’t based on any deals with shady companies or foreign sources of funding. No no no, nothing so superficially reasonable:

Sold in Canada, the soups are certified by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which has been certifying halal foods since 1988. But Geller claims ISNA has ties to terrorist groups, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The other children on the playground are right to make fun of you, Ms. Geller – you’re a moron.

But my mean-spirited mockery doesn’t stop there; oh no, not even close:

“The Simpsons” just got a blessing from the Vatican. The official Vatican newspaper has declared that beer-swilling, doughnut-loving Homer Simpson and son Bart are Catholics — and what’s more, it says that parents should not be afraid to let their children watch “the adventures of the little guys in yellow.” “Few people know it, and he does everything to hide it. But it’s true: Homer J. Simpson is Catholic”, the Osservatore Romano newspaper said in an article on Sunday headlined “Homer and Bart are Catholics.”

The evidence for the assertion: prayer before meals, believing in God.

The evidence against the assertion: regular attendance at a “Presbylutheran” church, complete lack of Catholic doctrine, open mockery of Catholicism.

Ah yes, I keep forgetting. Using evidence with the Catholic Church is like trying to stop a buffalo stampede with road signs – they don’t understand it, and will completely ignore it. The Osservatore Romano based this on an analysis of a Simpsons episode in which God is discussed, the conclusion of which is that The Simpsons is the only kid’s show that discusses Christian faith and religion. Of course The Simpsons isn’t a kid’s show, it’s a cartoon sitcom for adults. Peter Griffin from Family Guy actually is Catholic, and is another popular cartoon sitcom that discusses Christian faith and religion on a regular basis, but almost never in a positive light. Hmm, wonder how they missed that? It’s the good old fashioned religious way of reasoning – come up with your conclusion first, then back-fill your explanation. Convenient!

Of course these are funny and light-hearted instances of when religious stupidity runs rampant. Sometimes it’s not a joke:

Sikh groups have urged US President Barack Obama not to avoid visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar during his India trip next month, amid reports he is now unlikely to go there. A US official told the BBC there were “logistical” issues. Mr Obama would need to cover his head to enter the temple and there are reported concerns opponents would use this to show he is a closet Muslim.

It’s a sad reflection on all of us when we let the actions of idiots influence foreign policy. I mean, it’s bad enough that we play ‘accommodationist’ with these idiots, elevating their idiocy to the level of reasoned debate in some misguided attempt to appease people who have been left behind by the last century, but to allow people who can’t tell the difference between Sikhism and Islam, or even the difference between showing respect for another culture’s traditions and being a secret member of that culture… to allow these kinds of people to derail diplomacy with a potentially huge trading partner is an unbelievable tragedy.

So yes, I kick the homeless amputee, and walk away laughing. Religion deserves nothing but mockery when it pretentiously draws itself up and masquerades as something deserving of respect. Doing otherwise is to falsely pretend that it has some sort of merit and is above criticism.

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Priestly abuse not unique to RCC

I sat on this story for a while, because I was hoping to find something to connect it to. Unfortunately, nothing appeared in the past couple of weeks, so I present it here on its own:

An archbishop who has held positions in a number of Canadian communities has stepped down amid allegations of sexual abuse involving pre-teen boys. In a statement released on the website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), church officials said Archbishop Seraphim Storheim, 66, of Ottawa is on a leave of absence as police in Canada investigate abuse claims.

In my last post about this ongoing priestly abuse, I said there were some important questions to ask. One of those is whether or not it is a uniquely Catholic phenomenon, this practice of abuse and subsequent coverup. This story suggests to me that there is nothing in Roman Catholic doctrine that leads priests to abuse children. Instead, it suggests to me that when human beings are given positions of power, power that is by its very nature uncontrollable with no checks or balances against abuse, and when those same people are given a mechanism to suppress any evidence of wrongdoing, they will commit atrocities. We see it in government scandals, we see it with corporate financial illegalities, and we see it with the churches.

Clohessy charged that church officials have known about the abuse claims for years but were slow to act. The recent announcement of the internal probe and vow of co-operation with police comes as a relief, he said. Clohessy added he hopes people with any information pick up the phone and share what they know with authorities. He admitted being disappointed that Storheim was allowed to take a leave of absence instead of being removed.

And just like in the Roman Catholic Church, the coverups and shifting around of abusive priests happened in this case. The hypocrisy of claiming the moral authority of Christianity, while at the same time committing shocking crimes against humanity is dumbfounding. Or at least it should be. Sadly, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception that those who claim superiority without evidence are the smallest, meanest, and most morally bankrupt among us.

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The joy of the godless (parte the firste)

I was recently accused by a commenter of being the wrong kind of atheist:

There is a difference between the honest atheism of the nihilist, who believes there really is no God and acknowledges the implications of such, and the self-delusionary humanism of the New Atheist, who does not really mean what he says when he says ‘there is no God’ but instead believes ‘there is a God and I am he.’  And by that I mean that he thinks he is the highest form of life there is — the noblest and most dignified Being there is (which gives him the ability — no, it’s more than that — the right, to determine that ‘all humans have equal value.’)

Apparently I am deluding myself because I’m just not sad enough. In order to be an ‘honest atheist’, I have to be a nihilist, recognizing nothing but abject sorrow and emptiness within the meaningless void of a random, uncaring universe. Otherwise I am exalting myself to heights of self-aggrandizing hauteur, imagining myself to be the single highest life form in existence.

Calling this a straw man or a caricature would be lowballing the audacity of this ridiculous lie almost to the point of being completely inaccurate in my labeling. Nothing in that paragraph, however well it may be written, describes anything that comes anywhere close to my personal beliefs. It is an argument that is the intellectual equivalent of drawing a moustache and goofy glasses on the portrait of a political opponent (I already wear glasses and have facial hair, so perhaps a better comparison is needed).

However, mulling this over in my mind did yield some fertile personal exploration about how I arrived by my atheism, and why I am not an abject nihilist. I am, save for occasional bouts of depression when reading news articles or following politics, an incredibly happy person. Ludicrously happy, in fact. At this particular moment in my life I am employed at a job I love and find challenging, am living in the city of my choosing surrounded by interesting, supportive, and (let’s face it) attractive friends. I have personal, musical, and political projects that occupy my free hours, and there are many more things out there for me to learn and explore.

It was not always so for me, this type of fulfilled contentment. There was once a time when I was in the throes of deep existential conflict – when I struggled day and night with questions that underlay the whole of my self-identity. I read voraciously, trying to find how other thinkers had addressed these problems in the past. These sojourns into the philosophical literature occasionally yielded a few weeks or months of respite, but inevitably I would find myself foundering once again on a sea of doubt and confusion.

I was raised Roman Catholic, and beginning in my late childhood I began taking my religion very seriously. Coming from a far more liberal family than average, my religious beliefs were not scripture-based, but rather ran along lines of a code of decency, generosity, humility, and above all, forgiveness. When good things happened, I would immediately thank and praise God. When bad things happened, I comforted myself in the understanding that there was ultimate justice awaiting all people. I was happy to reconcile my scientific understanding of the universe with the bits of the Bible I had read, glossing over the parts that didn’t make sense. I was actually voted valedictorian of my confirmation class (like a Bar Mitzvah for Catholics), and asked to give a speech on our religious journey. I planned to become a priest and share my insights into the loving God with congregations of faithful believers.

But, as it says in First Corinthians:

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

I began to see that the religion I belonged to in no way reflected my own beliefs. Our youth group received newsletters from anti-choice organizations filled with lies and distortions of facts. When I wrote to them demanding that they show some accountability, my letters were dismissed and ignored. I began to struggle with the hypocrisy and vulgar pomposity of the Church; idolatry on full display, hate passed off as divinely justified, a seeming abdication of the custodianship of humanity that was preached from the pulpit. It seemed as though the idea of a loving, forgiving and just God was put to the lie by the hate, insolence and moral emptiness of those who claimed His favour.

So I began to read: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Daniel Quinn, Ayn Rand, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Dickens, Terry Goodkind… anything I could get my hands on. At one particularly desperate point I attempted to read though the Bible, hoping to wrest some insight from its pages – sadly, the Bible is just the oral history of a bronze age tribe set in florid language; not particularly helpful. Thinking that my constant crisis of faith was due to laziness on my part, I redoubled my commitment to the church – reading from the lectern at mass, teaching Sunday school, playing viola with the choir. My father was of little help during this period, giving me pat answers to complex questions and becoming upset that I would even ask (even though it was he who taught me to question authority, a lesson I’m sure he regrets imparting now). I would pray every day that God would grant me some kind of solution to my constant queries, or that He would at least help me by silencing the voice in my head that kept pointing out the gaping flaws in my patchwork theology.

No help from above was forthcoming. I entered a long and bitter period in which I clung to the ribbons of my faith like a vagrant clings to the rags on his back, snarling angrily at anyone who would question me from either side. Believers were simple-minded fools who hadn’t asked the important questions, whereas atheists were simply denying the manifest truth of the majesty of the universe and the wonders of faith.

I can say without hyperbole that those intervening years were some of the most miserable of my life. Most assuredly, being an eccentric, chubby, racially outlying teenager probably contributed more than its fair share to my unhappiness. However, even in my private moments of introspective reflection, I could not escape the constant nagging doubt – a doubt that was a gaping hole in my entire outlook on life.

So when people rhapsodize to me about the joys of religious life, and the great comfort they find in their loving relationship with YahwAlladdha, it’s hard for me not to hearken back to those years when I reached with all my mind, body and soul for some measure of that comfort and fell repeatedly on my face. The only time when I was free from the torment was during the brief windows of time in which I was able to slap a band-aid explanation or trite bit of theology over a serious question and ignore it for a while.

Of course now I am much happier, and am no longer plagued with such angst, but I am well over my post-length limit, so I will have to save that part for next Monday.

TL/DR: I have not always been an atheist, but my religious faith (when I had it) was a constant source of trouble and pain for me. Far from making me a nihilist, my atheism has made me far happier than I have ever been as a believer.

Iran and the Catholic Church – not at all strange bedfellows

It never fails to amaze me how regularly religious groups fail to see that they are exactly the same. I saw a clip on The Colbert Report a few nights ago, where an evangelical Christian minister was warning people about how Islam was planning to take over America, and that we should all be worried. I had to do a double-take, as I realized that nobody called the guy out for being an evangelical Christian. By its very nature, evangelical anything means your stated mandate is to convert as many people as possible – this guy is just as guilty as those he’s accusing. Of course Islam has an interest in converting everyone, so does Christianity. Any religion that claims to be the “one true religion” is basically out-and-out stating its intention to bring the whole world under its thumb. To deflate the predictable protest from moderate Muslims and Christians who claim that their faith doesn’t mean they have to convert anyone, I’ll say that your particular version of belief is at odds with direct commandment from your scripture:

Matthew 28:19-20

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 24:12

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Luke 9:1-6

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.” So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.

That’s just a handful of passages, please trust that there’s a loooot more. And for the Muslims… well I suppose you can just read this list – YahwAlladdha’s not exactly cool with non-believers.

With both religions claiming to be “the right one”, and having very clear commandments to destroy, convert, or otherwise gain supremacy over those who believe anything differently, it’s hard to imagine that there could be any kind of dialogue between them at all. But of course there is, as long as it’s politically convenient:

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has written to the Pope, thanking him for condemning an American pastor’s threat to burn the Koran last month. In his letter, Mr Ahmadinejad also called for closer co-operation between Iran and the Vatican.

I hope nobody is thinking “but the president of Iran isn’t a religious leader.” Iran is an Islamic theocracy, whose real power is wielded by the Ayatollahs. You can’t separate state power from church power – they’re the same thing.

At any rate, the hypocrisy of cozying up to an enemy when it’s convenient doesn’t surprise me, and shouldn’t surprise you. The thing that I found hilarious was this:

Mr Ahmadinejad also called for “a close co-operation of divine religions to restrict destructive moves such as ignoring of religious teachings, influencing people to be materialistic, which were eroding human societies”.

As though not enough religion was the thing eroding human societies. By my count, somewhere around 74 of the posts on this blog alone have been about religion, representing about 1/3 of my total output (including the 6 weeks I intentionally took off because I thought I was talking about religion too much). Iran is a country that is trying to bludgeon people to death with fucking rocks because of religion.

Anyone who thinks that the religions of the world will sit down at the table and play nice once they have unchallenged power over the countries of the world is delusionally ignorant of history and the mandates of religion. This is a match quite literally made in heaven – two oppressive religious theocratic forces attempting to enforce their small-minded agenda on everyone else have finally learned to team up, either out of expediency or necessity.

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Pope demonstrates why the cake is a lie

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

George Orwell, 1984

There’s a concept in the sciences called “regression to the mean”. In statistics, regression to the mean is a phenomenon whereby as you add more observations to a sample, the values will tend to fall around the average (mean) value. In science, this effect is seen in the form of extreme observations moving toward the average the more frequently or longer they are observed. In medicine, we see this phenomenon in sick people who spontaneously improve in a non-intervention (or a placebo) control group.

This somewhat overlaps with the “relative frame of reference” idea from physics – that is, that a stationary object appears to be moving towards you at the same rate you move towards it. As such, spontaneous regression to the mean, seen from an outside perspective, appears to be a move either up or down toward the average. However, if your frame of reference is one that views things from the perspective of an observation that lies far above the mean, regression toward the mean appears to be a move downward.

I’ve also spoken before about the completely false picture of Christianity that some Christians like to paint – that of poor beleaguered misfits just trying to practice their own beliefs in peace. It’s a complete lie, and thanks to the Pope, I have evidence:

The Pope said: “I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.”

Yes, Mr. Ratzinger (which sounds, incidentally, like a really unpalatable flavour of tea), from your privileged perspective high atop the social ladder, it would appear that Christianity is being “marginalized”. However, you betray your own ridiculous level of special pleading in your own words. The advocacy of moving religion out of the public square into the private sphere is not marginalization. Nobody is forcing Christians to stop believing what they like – they’re just not allowed to make decisions on behalf of other people. And yes, the people who argue against Christmas have a point – namely, that a specific religious belief system is not representative of the population at large.

The reason for the Orwell quote at the top is that the Pope spends the first 7 minutes of his address talking about the need for freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. He then pivots (on the head of Sir Thomas Moore) to talk about how religion should be more involved in political life. It’s not hypocrisy to him, it’s doublethink. He holds the ideas of freedom of religion simultaneously with the idea of greater church control of public life.

He also pulls the ‘lack of moral fundamentals’ card, a personal favourite of mine (so brazen is its hypocrisy). He talks a good game about the need to use reason, but in true Catholic style, he makes the Augustinian provision that reason should be subject to religion. He actually encourages more religiosity in the body politic, as though places like Iran, Somalia, the USA and Malawi aren’t warning signs that religion is a lousy way to run a country.

It appears to be Ratzinger’s intent to smear secularism, asserting repeatedly that it is somehow comparable to fundamentalism. Please show me one fundamentalist secularist. I’d really be curious to see one.

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