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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Superstition is not culture

I’m not sure where this blog is going. To be honest this started as a way to organize some of my thoughts on some issues that I think are important, and a way to comment on some of the stuff I saw going on around me. It always blows me away whenever a friend or acquaintance says to me “I read your blog” – I never really imagined that anyone would bother to read the random cognitive ejaculations that I put up on the internet on a regular basis, at least not beyond my Facebook friends who creep my profile in the morning. However, a handful of people who are complete strangers to me read this stuff, which is a head trip for me.

Another way you know that you’re making it as a blogger is when people start sending you links to blog about. So I must give a hat tip to Fred Bremmer (who is certainly not a stranger to me) for bringing this article to my attention:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

What follows is a dissection and examination of a serious problem in any culture, but one that is particularly pronounced in the continent of Africa – the role that belief in spirits plays in the quality of life of the people there. Those of us who are aware of European and Western bias and colonial arrogance are often loath to criticize the practices in other countries. After all, who is to say our ways are better than theirs? Isn’t it sheer paternalism on our part to presume to criticize another culture’s practices? Maybe we have something to learn from other ways of doing things!

Unfortunately, this line of thinking has paralyzed into a kind of arch-liberal refusal to even appear to criticize dangerous practices:

Soothsayers demand money for their “powers,” like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he’ll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions. During the war in Congo, a soothsayer announced that you could be cured of HIV if you ate a pygmy. I visited a pygmy village where several men had “disappeared” as a result.

If your neighbour is about to feed his kids cyanide to “cleanse” them of “toxins”, is there really a virtue in standing aside and allowing him to do so out of some kind of misguided respect for his beliefs and his right to decide what is best for his kids? Should our oh-so-tolerant sensibilities extend to idly abetting murder? Of course not, and I can’t imagine any rational person suggesting otherwise. The debate is not, or at least should not be, about whether to intervene; it should be about how to intervene. Again from the article, contrast this approach:

Juliana Bernard is an ordinary young African woman who knew, from childhood, that claims of black magic and witchcraft were false and could be debunked. She told me: “If I can understand [germ theory], so can everybody else in this country. They are no different to me.” So she set up a group who traveled from village to village, offering the people a deal: For just one month, take these medicines and these vaccinations, and leave the “witches” alone to do whatever they want without persecution. See what happens. If people stop getting sick, you’ll know my theories about germs are right, and you can forget about the evil spirits.

Just this small dose of rationality—offered by one African to another—had revolutionary effects. Of course the superstitions didn’t vanish, but now they were contested, and the rationalist alternative had acquired passionate defenders in every community. I watched as village after village had vigorous debates, with the soothsayers suddenly having to justify themselves for the first time and facing accusations of being frauds and liars.

And this one:

On a trip to Tanzania, I saw one governmental campaign to stamp out the old beliefs in action when I went to visit a soothsayer deep in the forest. Eager to steer people toward real doctors for proper treatment—a good idea, but there are almost none in the area—the army had turned up that morning and smashed up her temple until it was rubble. She was sobbing and wailing in the wreckage. “My ancestors lived here, but now their spirits have been released into the air! They are homeless! They are lost!” she cried.

Once again, there is a clear right and wrong here – one of these approaches works and the other does not. If we, with the best of intentions, rush in to places and smash superstition to bits, we remove the symptom without addressing the cause. However, when rational discussion is allowed to take place, the dialogue and cultural understanding of these superstitions can change. This is not to say that we shouldn’t vigorously oppose superstition in its various guises or speak out against it whenever possible, but that mandating disbelief is just as dangerous as mandating belief.

This article is about Africa, but of course my response to it is not really. While I am concerned for my African brothers and sisters, I am not from Africa. I am from Canada, where our own particular brand of superstition rages apace. We can look to the African struggle against superstition as a model for our own (albeit down-scaled) problems here. Destroying the religious infrastructure is not only unethical, it is unproductive. What has to happen is that people are encouraged to think critically about all topics, and that the privilege that religion currently enjoys be removed.

Returning to Africa for a moment, I’m sure there are some bleeding hearts among my readers who are happy to decry my paternalism – who am I to pass judgment on another culture? I encourage you to read the following:

The final time I saw Juliana, she told me, “When I go to a village where an old woman has been hacked to pieces, should I say, ‘This is the African way, forget about it?’ I am an African. The murdered woman was an African. It is not our way. If you ignore this fact, you ignore us, and you ignore our struggle.”

It is equally paternalistic to say “well rationality and science are all well and good for us, but Africans should have to deal with superstition.” We have a moral duty to promote the truth as best we know it, and to instruct others in the use of tools that have been observed to work.

TL/DR: Those who fear being overly paternalistic when it comes to the superstitions present in other individuals and cultures risk being equally paternalistic on the other side when they ignore the consequences of doing nothing.

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The problem of morality

There’s a popular recurring question that often comes up in discussions with religious people who wish to challenge atheists: namely, why should be be moral if there is no god? If atheists don’t believe that there is a judge that overlooks the world, why bother doing good things? After all, there are no eternal consequences to our actions, what could possibly be the atheist’s motivation to either do good things or refrain from evil things?

My issue with this question is that on its own, it seems like an interesting line of discussion – what makes us be moral? If I abandon my beliefs, what would motivate me to continue to do good things? Is there another source of human morality? However, it is rarely asked in this spirit. Usually, it comes in a more snarky form – “if you don’t believe in God, why don’t you go rape and murder babies?”

The usual response is that if the only thing holding you back from raping and murdering babies is your belief in God, you should probably be under psychiatric evaluation. This response, while sufficiently dismissive of a stupid question, is not really an answer to what would be a reasonable criticism if not for the invocation of infant rape. If I, as an atheist, don’t believe that someone is keeping an omniscient record of all my misdeeds, what prevents me from engaging in minor (or major) transgressions when I am reasonably certain I can get away with it? Why, for example, would I turn in a wallet I find on the ground to the police instead of just stealing it? Why not lie to a woman at the bar in order to convince her to sleep with me? Why contribute to charity or volunteer in the community if there is no reward for my good deeds later?

Evolutionary biologists speak of genetic sources for altruism, pointing to analogues in the animal kingdom in which non-human animals show group cohesion and empathy. They lay out a reasonable pathway by which genes for altruism might prevail over genes for selfishness at the expense of others, through a process of natural selection. Philosophers point to Kant, Hume, Rawls, and other secular ethical writers as providing a basis upon which a general non-religious moral code can theoretically be built. Assuming that maximum human happiness is the point of any worthwhile moral code (and yes, this is an assumption, but what else would be better?), then a reasonable and increasingly evidence-based system can be derived from philosophy. Legal authorities point to the evolving code of law as a way of incentivizing good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. Psychologists note that ethical instruction often leads to ethical behaviour below the level of conscious awareness –  we “naturally” act morally because we’ve been taught to do so.

Suffice it to say, there are a variety of ways to answer the question of why someone would be moral without belief in God. Any one of these on its own would be a sufficient rejoinder, and having them all operate in parallel is certainly reassuring to someone who is particularly interested in the question. However, the question embeds a certain assumption that often goes unquestioned – does belief in God make people behave better? After all, the implication of the poverty of morality in the godless is that there is in fact a moral code inherent in belief.

I’ve had religious instruction, which includes learning a list of things that are right and wrong. This should not be confused with legitimate ethical or moral instruction, which I didn’t receive until late high school. I was, for example, taught that extramarital sex is wrong, as are masturbation and homosexuality – pretty much anything that isn’t face-to-face sex with the lights off with my wife is morally wrong. I was taught that abortion is morally equivalent to murder. I was taught that faithfulness was a virtue. Now I was also taught a lot of things that I still agree with – murder is wrong; charity is good; forgiveness, justice and prudence are high ideals. However, with all of these things, I was told that the reason they were good is because they had been rubber-stamped by Yahweh. I should perhaps note that I was not taught that condoms or homosexuality were wrong in school – those things came from Rome but I felt perfectly justified in ignoring any Papal edicts that were bat-shit insane.

It would be, as I said, many years before I learned the processes by which I could evaluate why I believed in the things I did. I had of course by this time rejected the idea of Biblical truth – the story of Onan says it’s wrong to masturbate but it’s okay to fuck your niece as long as you think she’s a prostitute. It was abundantly clear to me that there may be some morality in the Bible, but it is definitely not the source of that morality. I would later learn that much of what we call “Christian Ethics” were actually written by Greek philosophers and later adopted by the church.

Of course all of this is somewhat inconsequential to the central question of whether belief in god is accompanied by better behaviour. Does the idea of an omniscient god really motivate people to refrain from evil actions? Does the promise of eternal reward really motivate people to do good deeds? The answer to the first question seems to be ‘no’, or at least ‘not necessarily’. Anecdotally, we know that religious people are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities throughout history (far from atheists, it is the priests who are the baby rapers). In fact, the more one adheres to religious doctrine, the crazier she/he becomes and the more likely she/he is to commit (what she/he thinks is justified) violent acts. Although there is a clear path from religious belief to violence, these are anecdotes only.

CLS reviewed a Pew Forum survey on religion and found that those United States that had the greatest level of religiosity had poorer performances in self-restraint and morality toward others than those state with lower levels of belief. There is most certainly a chicken/egg problem in this analysis, but it does sufficiently demonstrate that there is no reliable correlation between level of religious belief and morality, at least for the population at large. If people do in fact believe that there is a god watching them, it doesn’t seem to affect their behaviour in a meaningful way. I’m sure if this blog were more popular I’d have trolls inundating me with stories about how Jesus saved their crack-addict cousin’s life, or how Allah saved them from prison, or what-have-you. I am as uninterested in anecdotes that refute my point as I am in those that support my point.

How about the second question? Does religious belief make people more charitable in anticipation of a future reward? A study of European countries and their willingness to donate to poorer countries seems to suggest that those with more closely held religious beliefs do in fact donate more money than those who are less religious. The findings are incredibly nebulous and hard to interpret, but it seems from the general findings that while it varies from country to country, religious people are more charitable than the non-religious.

This is in no way disconcerting to me – as I suggested above there is a relationship between instruction and behaviour. If you are constantly entrained to give money to the poor, and your social environment is structured such that there is strong normative pressure to do so, it is unsurprising that you will comply. A study I’d like to see is to take people with similar levels of religiosity, show them identical videos of starving children, have one video narrated in a secular fashion and the other in a religious fashion and see if there is a difference in pledged funds.

At any rate, there are a variety of reasons why an atheist would choose to be moral, not the least of which is the fact that moral actions often benefit the giver as well as the receiver, whether that is in the form of feeling good about yourself, or in the form of making a contribution to society. There is no reason why an atheist would be less moral than a religious person, and despite all their vitriolic assertions to the contrary, it is easier to justify abhorrent cruelty from a religious standpoint than it is from an atheist one. The so-called “problem” of morality is only a problem if you assume that YahwAlladdha is the author of all goodness in the universe, completely contrary to any evidence that can be found either in scripture (aside from all of the passages just asserting it – look at His actions) or in observations of the world. Human beings have to struggle every day to be good, and leaning on the broken crutch of religion doesn’t seem to help any.

TL/DR: Believers accuse atheists of having no basis for morality. This accusation is unfounded – biology, philosophy, law and psychology all provide explanations why people would be good without belief. There does not seem to be a strong relationship between religiosity and morality, except insofar that being instructed to do something that your peers are all doing might motivate you to perform some specific behaviours.

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The real Doctor Evil

Stuff like this chills me to the bone:

A doctor struck off by the General Medical Council for exploiting people with multiple sclerosis could be facing legal action by patients. A firm of solicitors said hundreds of “vulnerable people” who travelled to the Netherlands for treatment may seek compensation. Dr Robert Trossel treated them at his clinic in Rotterdam, following initial assessments in the UK. He charged thousands of pounds for unproven stem cell treatments.

I take heat from friends, from colleagues, and especially from my nemesis for my stance that sometimes the patient is the person who is the least equipped to make the decision about his/her health care. The reply inevitably comes that “people have a right to make their own health care decisions,” or that “scientific orthodoxy” is dangerous so we shouldn’t trust the evidence. I even field regular criticism from friends that think that we should be allowed to pursue unproven medical techniques (or even those that have been shown not to work) because it might benefit some people (either through placebo or through some kind of individualized magic powers that therapies supposedly have that isn’t detectable through clinical trials).

I offer this case study as an example of why I hold the position that I do, and am happy to defend it without shame. This doctor abused and perverted the trust that his patients placed in him as a caregiver, and used it to perform illegal experiments on them. The reason he was able to do it is because he led them to believe that his ‘treatment’ was going to help them recover from multiple sclerosis – a disease that can paralyze you and take away your autonomy. It is no small wonder to me that people would be willing to do just about anything to obtain relief from a disease like this, even if it’s something that is simultaneously expensive and risky.

As before, I am dismayed that I didn’t pay more attention in English class, or that I’ve largely ignored the vast bodies of literature in the English language, because I find myself at a loss to adequately put my disgust for this kind of predatory and exploitative fraud into words. The kind of callous disregard for the obligation that a health care provider has toward their patients, and for human decency in general, that this doctor has exhibited shocks me to my very core. He drew thousands of dollars from people based on a combination of their trust and desperation for a cure. These are dollars that these people could have used to get home care, or travel, or invest in real research, that have instead been wasted because Mr. Trossel (a doctor no longer) thought that he was above petty concerns like clinical equipoise or biomedical ethics.

It’s for this same reason that I am opposed to expediting the research process for this so-called “liberation therapy” proposed earlier this year. While I am hopeful that the procedure works, my optimism is tempered with a healthy amount of skepticism, precisely because the support for it is emotional rather than rational. This is why we have channels through which research must go – to avoid tragedies of the type perpetrated by this vulture.

After a fleeting improvement, Mr Pear’s [a patient who received the experimental procedure] condition has now deteriorated significantly. Mrs Pear said: “When you are sitting in front of a neurologist who is saying ‘look, there is nothing you can do’, you clutch at straws. I am not saying we are the most intelligent people on God’s Earth, but we certainly are not completely stupid.”

It’s almost a shame that there is no god or supernatural force to hold accountable those who would prey on the vulnerable like this. Luckily, we live in a world that has systems in place to provide a measure of justice, and I hope that someday Mr. Trossel comes to realize how evil and heartless his actions were.

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Movie Friday: Sam Harris at TED

A common defense of religious belief and practice is that without religion (and the teachings of the holy books), there would be no morality. In a historical, practical sense this is at least partially true. Morals were dictated and enforced by religious authority, and justified on religious grounds – God says not to steal, therefore we will punish stealing. However, it is important to recognize that just because something has worked in the past, that does not make it true, nor does it mean we must continue to use it when we have much better alternatives. As Brian Lychenhaun noted in his presentation that I talked about on Wednesday, not only is it possible to make moral decisions without relying on religious teachings, we do it already. I would argue (and, I think, so would Brian) that it is in fact better to make moral decisions that are informed by critical thinking and logic rather than relying on a mistranslated text written thousands of years ago that invoke, as their reasoning, an entity whose existence cannot be proven.

Author Sam Harris makes a similar argument that science can inform our moral decisions. He does so at TED, which is a lecture series given by prominent scientists, authors and thinkers. If you haven’t watched TED videos before, you should. I promise not to make every Movie Friday a TED lecture, but they will show up with regularity because they’ve got some really fantastic ideas. Anyway, check out the video:

I am with Sam most of the way. I think he fails to make a solidly coherent point – I’m sure he has one, but he seems to dance around it a bit. The central thesis seems to be that values reduce to facts, and we can examine and test the truth of those facts. Knowledge of those facts will help inform the decisions we make. I’m with him only part of the way. He uses “values” in a more colloquial way than I do. He seems to be talking about decisions and policies whereas I see values as the set of emotional and mental prescripts that underpin those decisions – being anti-abortion is not a “value”, it is a position that is driven by the underlying emotional opinion that human beings come into existence at the moment of conception. Of course, that value can be examined by science, but there needs to first be a definition of what a “human” is. However, the take-away message (or at least the one that I took away) is that we can use science and the scientific method (logic applied to agreed-upon first principles, verified by observation) to answer moral questions. We do not need religion, as religious texts are not comprehensive enough to give reliable answers in the face of novel ethical dilemmas.

I also particularly love the section where he throws away the tired liberal doctrine of “who are we to say that another culture/practice/person is wrong?” He turns it right back on its head and asks “who are we not to say?” We can establish standards for what is right and wrong, based on an agreed-upon first principle of ‘good’. We can test the value of that ‘goodness’ through logic and observation – if adherence to scripture is ‘the good’, what effect will that have? Is that a desirable effect for human survival and social stability? Harris offers “human happiness” as an idea for ‘the good’, which is the basic principle held by secular humanists. Sure it has its flaws but it is far superior (for humans, who are the ones making the decisions) to any religious exhortation to please the invisible YahwAlladdha.

I also love the lines that he goes out on:

“We can no more respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being than we can respect or tolerate vast differences in the notion of how disease spreads or the safety standards of large buildings or airplanes. We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life; and to do that, we have to admit these questions have answers.”

Just fantastic.