Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Mother Teresa: saint?

September 18, 2016

The September 2016 Richard Dawkin’s Foundation newsletter highlighted an article by Joe Nickell titled: St. [Mother] Teresa and the Miracles Game:

Around the world, the Catholic faithful clamor for their beloved late priest, nun, or other personage to be added to the roster of saints. Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) heard them and lowered the requirement from three verified miracles to two (one for beatification, another for canonization), creating numerous saints and beatifying over 1,300 others—more than had all his predecessors together.

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Source: Mommy dearest, Mother Teresa not so saintly

Mother Teresa’s canonisation (confirmation as a saint) occurred on September 4 after the “necessary” two miracles were “identified”, the first for beatification (in which the Pope declares the dead saint-to-be as being in a state of bliss) in 2003, the second for sainthood.

For the beatification, the case of an Indian tribal woman was selected. Monica Besra claimed to have been cured in 1998 of stomach cancer, in the form of a tubercular tumor, after she placed a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa on her abdomen.

Nickell goes on to say that the doctors treating the woman said the cyst (not tumor) had continued to receive treatment even after the death of Mother Teresa. Mrs Besra’s husband is quoted as saying: “It is much ado about nothing. My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.” He conceded that his wife “…felt less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her.”

Mrs Besra herself still believed in the miracle, while admitting she was treated by doctors in hospital. “I took the medicines they gave me, but the locket gave me complete relief from the pain.” It is of course not outside of the realm of possibility that the placebo effect could account for the pain relief. In any case, it appears that the claim that Mother Teresa cured Mrs Besra, is unfounded.

As a an aside, why do some consider it acceptable to thank God for the honest, hard work of doctors and nurses? The fact is that God can’t lose. If a patient dies, it was His will. If they live, He is praised. If only gods were held to the same account as people…

The second case, the one that took Mother Teresa over the line to sainthood was that of a Brazillian man who had lapsed into a coma due to some kind of brain infection (the details differ with the source). His priest prayed for Mother Teresa to intervene with God, and the man supposedly awoke suddenly as a result. As Nickell points out, it may of course simply be that the treatment he was undergoing was effective, after all.

Again from Nickell:

In both cases “miracle” was defined as it always is in such matters as “medically inexplicable.” The evidence is therefore not positive but negative, resulting in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam “an argument from ignorance”—that is, a lack of knowledge. One cannot draw a conclusion from “we don’t know”—least of all that a miracle (supposedly a supernatural occurrence) was involved.

and

Doctors—including Catholic doctors—should refuse to play the miracles game. If the Church wishes to honor a doctrinaire nun, let it do so without an affront to science and reason.

Miracles, like the existence of gods, should be treated with the same scrutiny as any other phenomenon. As Gregory A. Clark wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune, Sainthood for Mother Teresa exposes the delusion of religion:

Seeking intellectual respect, Pope Francis recently declared that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand.” But as the pope’s canonizing Mother Teresa shows, he’s happy to promote God’s magic when it makes for good PR.

and in response Clarke points out that:

One miracle is as possible — or impossible — as another. Preach that an omnipotent deity can perform miracles, and you also preach that at other times He chooses not to.

Apart from the more well publicised evils, especially of late, the corruption of the Catholic Church is again revealed in a casual disregard of evidence and abuse of logic.

But just suppose for a moment that the idea of sainthood made sense. What kind of a saint is Mother Teresa?

In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mother Teresa had this to say:

And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?

The Catholic News Agency provides the transcript of a 1954 speech by Mother Teresa to the National Prayer Breakfast, some of which is eerily similar to the Nobel Peace Prize speech 25 years later. After similar sermonising about abortion, we see this, also shared as a quote by the Faithful Catholics website:

Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

It is bit of a stretch to see how the conclusion follows from the premise of either of the statements:

  • if a mother can abort a pregnancy then we are more likely to commit murder.
  • if (some form of) love is destroyed by contraception then abortion easily follows.

Indeed, the nature of the “living love” that is “destroyed by contraception” is unclear and seems vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred” song from the Meaning of Life.

To those of a less dogmatic persuasion, there are surely greater “evils” than abortion, as a child affected by the Zika virus attests to.

Preceding this in the 1954 speech we have the following pearl of wisdom:

I know that couples have to plan their family and for that there is natural family planning. The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self.

There’s nothing surprising about this stance from the viewpoint of a Catholic worldview of course, but there are well-known problems that can be directly linked to religious sanctions against contraception, e.g. the spread of HIV, poverty, overpopulation.

Arguably, aside from the abuse of children by priests, the command to the faithful not to use contraception is one of the greatest evils of the Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Visitors to the Home for the Dying in Calcutta have reported that patients were placed on basic stretcher beds (indeed, video footage shows this), strong pain relief was rarely used (in a “hospice”, where people are dying in significant pain), so too for antibiotics, and needles were observed being rinsed under running water rather than sterilised. There were also reports of patients who could have recovered with proper treatment not being sent to a hospital, including the case of a 15 year old boy with a kidney infection that went untreated by antibiotics; a transfer to hospital was prevented.

This despite associating with and receiving prizes from shady individuals such as Jean-Claude Duvallier, the right-wing Hatian dictator and amassing funds from corrupt individuals such as Charles Keating, who sent Mother Teresa millions and lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Instead of creating world-class medical facilities with such funds, the Missionaries of Charity spread to more than 100 countries.

Yet when sick later in life, for example when she required a pacemaker, Mother Teresa herself received top medical care in the West.

Although she and her missionary sisters and volunteers no doubt provided some comfort to the sick and dying, there was a cult-ish element to the work of Mother Teresa. For example, she is quoted as saying:

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.

and of telling a terminal cancer patient in extreme pain:

You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.

Mother Teresa seemed at least as interested in using the poor and their suffering as an opportunity for conversion to Christianity as anything else, the ultimate point of missionary activity after all.

Watching the short (24 minute) film by Christopher Hitchens, Hell’s angel (YouTube), provides a quick way to revise your pre-conceptions about Teresa of Calcutta.

Coincidentally, a few weeks before the canonisation, I finally made time to listen to the audio version of Hitchen’s book: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which provides further insight.

Hitchens visited the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and acted as a Devil’s Advocate in the case for her canonisation, giving testimony to the Archdiocese of Washington. As is so often the case, he says it best:

Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

Commentary on Q&A’s church and politics

May 16, 2016

ABC’s Q&A on April 25 2016 discussed the relationship between the (Christian) church and politics and I’d like to make some observations from watching this. The panel consisted of:

  • John Haldane, Visiting Professor and Catholic intellectual
  • Julie McCrossin, (Uniting) Church elder and journalist
  • Ray Minniecon, Indigenous Anglican Pastor
  • Rev. Tiffany Sparks, Anglican Priest and representative for A Progressive Christian Voice;
  • Lyle Shelton, Managing Director, Australian Christian Lobby.

So, there was a Catholic, a representative of the Uniting Church (UC), two Anglicans, and a person of undeclared denomination. No Church of Christ, Lutherans, Baptists, Seven Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least protestants and catholics of some sort were broadly represented I suppose.

I suppose it was an interesting discussion, albeit within the narrow confines of the Christian church. John Haldane was easiest to listen and seemed the most lucid, ironic, given the evils of the Catholic church.

Julie McCrossin suggested that people of other faiths (e.g. Muslim people) should have been included on the panel and mentioned that her particular UC encouraged columns from other religions in their newsletter. I wonder whether pastafarians, adherents of Jainism (a gentler, saner religion than most), Hindus, Buddhists, Satanists, or Scientologists are also welcome to speak in such a column? Or aren’t they “serious” religions?

This inclusiveness struck me as both positive and odd at the same time. Positive because dialogue of any sort is better than none. Odd because it seems to suggest unitarian leanings. Just as I was once encouraged not to be a fence sitter, an agnostic at the time, and so found my way to atheism, I would have thought that people of faith should make up their mind what counts as valid belief and what does not.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

What bothers me about such talk of inter-faith dialogue, and certainly as expressed on Q&A, is that secularists including atheists are often not mentioned at all or only in passing, as if they couldn’t be moral agents. True, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics are the odd ones out here. Still, inter-faith dialogue just seems too much like the blind leading the blind or at least, the biased leading the biased.

John Haldane challenged Ray Minniecon about the claim that aboriginal people owned the land before white settlers arrived. A sensitive topic. There is of course, a need to acknowledge the awful details of our white settler history far more than we do, not just the romantic versions of it, the ANZAC spirit, and so on. But honestly, we really all need to get a grip. The idea that any human owns a country, an area of land, is very odd, and arguably just an artefact of the world we have constructed.

I have great sympathy with the idea that generations of aboriginal or other can live on a landscape and develop a  deep attachment to it; even a few days spent bushwalking can deeply affect you. But such experiences do not imply ownership.

Ray Minniecon made a reasonable yet familiar remark about white settlement having happened only a short time ago compared to the aboriginal settlement of Australia. I found myself puzzled by a follow-on comment from him about Christianity also being a blip in time compared to aboriginal settlement. It left me wondering why he was a Christian minister, given his apparently disinterested view of the importance of the appearance of Christ on Earth.

Of course, all human events are a blip in time compared to the age of the Universe. Again, we need to get over our pompous self-importance. In approximate terms, we have in reverse chronological order (and gap-riddled):

  • White settlement of Australia: 200 years ago
  • Birth of Christianity: 2000 years ago
  • Aboriginal occupation of Australia: 50,000 years ago
  • End of the reign of dinosaurs: 65 million years ago
  • Formation of Earth: 4.5 billion years ago
  • Big Bang: 13.8 billion years ago

I’ve always found the Cosmic Calendar quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!

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source: http://k1017fm.com/files/2014/03/Cosmos-04-Hulu.jpg

The totality of human civilisation on Earth is indeed a blip on the cosmic timescale. Arguably the most important thing to have happened in that final 30 seconds of December 31 was the invention of the Scientific Method, the only reliable way to understand the world. Not faith.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

It’s Darwin Day (actually)

February 11, 2016

Happy Darwin Day 2016!

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Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. (Charles Darwin)

The darwinday.org website has lots of resources about the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation has recently added teacher materials.

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Charles Darwin, Origin of Species)

Meanwhile, let creationism talk itself into oblivion.

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

 

Critique of a Christian pamphlet

December 14, 2015

Most Friday nights, Christian street preachers and pamphleteers inhabit Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. One pamphlet offered to me recently had the title The Final Flicker.

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In summary, the pamphlet makes the following assertions:

  1. Everyone will die.
  2. The time of our death is unknown.
  3. The sudden death of a loved one shocks and distresses.
  4. The Bible can provide answers to the questions about life, but Science cannot. Neither can friends or doctors.
  5. Our time here and now is only a space in which to prepare for after death, according to the Bible.
  6. The Bible is clear that after death we go to one of two places, Heaven or Hell, and it’s your choice.
  7. God never created man for Hell, but…
  8. God is holy and just and cannot live in the presence of sin, so…
  9. Heaven is only for those who have had their sins forgiven, those who have been made righteous.
  10. Hell is the sad and necessary place of those who refuse God’s mercy.
  11. The Bible says that whoever believes in God’s son will not perish but have everlasting life.
  12. God is just, so must punish sins.
  13. God loves each of us, despite of our sin.
  14. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
  15. Jesus was the son of God, holy, pure, and sinless.
  16. The sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross took away our sins.
  17. He was the only one who was able to do this.
  18. Death could not hold him. On the third day he rose.
  19. He now sits at the right hand of God.
  20. All you have to do is repent, turn from your sin, trust Him as your Saviour and you will be saved.

The first two are self-evident: we’re going to die but we don’t know when. For anyone who has lost someone close, the third is not hard to fathom either. Actually, it’s patronising and pedantic. Everyone dies. Welcome to Life.

Point 4 says that the Bible has all the answers about life and that friends and scientists don’t. This is a bold claim indeed and needs to be justified.

That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. (Christopher Hitchens)

The fifth point declares that the purpose of life is only to prepare for death. Really? How depressing. Another unjustified claim unworthy of further attention. Nothing to see here. Move along…

Hmm. Wait. If these people really believed what they said, namely that the purpose of life is only to prepare for death, then why wait? Why not just end their lives now? I suppose the counter claim will be that suicide is a sin. Phew!

EDIT: After reading this post, a friend pointed out that since all sins should be forgiven, even this is not really an objection.

Another objection a Christian apologist may raise is: time is needed for such preparation. But how much preparation and of what kind? If it’s just a matter of believing something, well, anyone can do that, at anytime. If life is a moral training ground, and salvation comes from good works, then sure, that would take time. But, skipping to the end, point 20 says:

All you have to do is repent, turn from your sin, trust Him as your Saviour and you will be saved.

So no good works are required, just turning away from sin and having faith.

Higher up the list again: point 6 says that the Bible is clear that after death we go to Heaven or Hell.

Crystal clear?

What biblical verse declares this so unambiguously? The pamphlet is keen to point to specific verses to “back up” other points. Why not this one, given its obvious importance?

Perhaps it should quote Matthew 25:41. Want to see what that would mean in practice? Read points 7 to 10 again, view as much of  the The Thinking Atheist’s video Burn Victims as you can and then ask yourself whether any aspect of a god who would send one of its own creatures to such an unimaginably hideous place could ever be considered good, just or righteous in any meaningful sense.

Point 11 brings us to John 3:16, the idea that if we just believe in God, we won’t be punished for our sins eternally but will have, a better, eternal life. That brings us back to the question I raised above: how much preparation is necessary and of what kind? Well, if we just have to believe, then we can end it all at any time! Right?

Surely this is all just too much like a game…

God could simply declare that everyone can come to the eternal party. Apparently this god requires the attention and adoration of its creatures. But an all powerful god should want for nothing. Right?

Point 12 declares that “God is just, so must punish sins”. That’s like me saying that I have a strong sense of morality, so I should punish those who don’t, or at least those who do “wrong”. Oh, I forgot. I’m not a god… Apparently, you need to have created a universe to be able to call yourself “just”.

All other points (12 to 17) are in need of evidence, not the least of which:

  • that Jesus was the only one who could atone for our sins;
    • including weak “supporting” Old Testament prophecy fulfilment claims such as referred to in the pamphlet: Isaiah 53:5;
    • that there were any sins in need of atonement in the first place;
  • that Jesus rose from the dead and…
  • now lives with God;
  • that salvation (if necessary at all), is attained by faith alone and not by works;
    • i.e. that in order to be saved, you don’t have to be good, just gullible.
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.
(Christopher Hitchens)

In the end, the essence of the pamphlet is this:

  • We will all die.
  • All of us have sinned and fallen short of God (Romans 3:23).
  • Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins.
  • Belief in Jesus leads to eternal life rather than eternal punishment.

The only positive thing I can say about any of this is that at least the pamphleteers are being consistent regarding core Christian claims, rather than adhering to some watered down theology consisting of only a vague notion of god, like many liberal denominations. That’s not to say anything about the veracity of the fundamentalist’s claims of course.

One particularly obnoxious idea that emerged in antiquity is Pascal’s wager, the “argument” that it is in our best interest to assume that God (but which?; there are so many to choose from) exists, to avoid the possibility of eternal punishment.

If God does not exist, the thinking goes, nothing has been lost, right?

Wrong! A life of pointless servitude can been avoided if a person recognises the distinct possibility that monotheism is an off-by-one error, i.e. that there is no evidence that any god exists, some version of the Judaeo-Christian god or any other, so that the correct number of gods is not one but zero.

Based upon the available evidence, this is all an atheist claims. My son noted this short animation recently, which makes a pretty compelling case for the off-by-one error.

In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.”… Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

The Universe revealed by Science is rich enough. We don’t need to add our own unfounded complexity. Science and engineering have created the modern world that so many of us are fortunate to live in and is, along with critical thinking more generally, the only hope for solving our biggest problems.

If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.
(Christopher Hitchens)

I get that people are afraid to die and find the idea of losing those they care about difficult to bear. The deep-felt desire for an afterlife is, I think, at the heart of most religions, whether openly acknowledged or not.

However, given the challenges to our way of life from climate change and dogmatic thinking, it’s not okay to retreat into The Dark like frightened children.

Come on people, grow up! We are not at the centre of things.

I’ll end with another quote from Hitchens, who has said it all better than I ever could:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

 

 

The kindest, wisest, sanest of us all. Gone.

August 17, 2012

She was the kindest, wisest, sanest of us all. But she’s gone. Not in a better place. Just Gone.

It’s ten years ago today that my Mother died after failed heart valve replacement surgery. Four days later on August 21, the date of her funeral, she would have been 74.

I have started to write about this several times before. Each time I have felt inadequate to the task and stopped.

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. (Gustave Flaubert)

Today, I felt compelled to write, couldn’t delay longer.

Along with family members, I was at Mum’s bedside when she died, when the ventilator was turned off; I watched the electrical activity of her heart fade on the monitor. In the days that followed, it seemed to me that some fundamental law of nature had altered, as if the universal law of gravitation had changed, or that a new parallel universe had forked from the old, leaving those in the new one behind, forever disconnected from the old.

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself In dark woods, the right road lost. (Dante)

If even the most deeply religious amongst us were brutally honest, they might admit that a large part of the reason we grieve when someone we love dies is because there is at least the suspicion, deep inside, that they are Just Gone. The extent to which I embraced this, given the lack of evidence to the contrary, was I think directly related to the depth and duration of my grief.

Only someone who has lost a parent (or partner or child or…) can have a hope of understanding what that feels like, just as only a woman can understand what it feels like to give birth.

Even after a decade, although I’ve accepted Mum’s death, she is still in my thoughts at some point of every day. I try to recapture the sound of her voice, her facial expressions, kind, caring, at times whimsical. And yes, I still miss her. The sense of loss reduces over time, but doesn’t leave. Not that I want it to entirely.

I want to tell you about my Mum. In future posts, I will use this space to reflect upon her life and death, but mostly who she was, what she meant to me and to others.

Abandoning Infantile Beliefs

September 18, 2008

Paul Davies made this comment during a radio interview, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

…one should abandon infantile beliefs based on Sunday school stories and embrace the scientific path which reveals a universe which is even more wonderful than you can imagine and a source of inspiration.

If the bible is literally true then π is 3 and my odometer is wrong

March 29, 2008

“What is not possible is not to choose.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Consider the following:

  • “He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.” (1 Kings 7:23). See also 2 Chronicles 4:2.
  • π is the ratio of the circumference (30 cubits) of a circle and its diameter (10 cubits).
  • ∴ π is 3.

Either the bible is literally true, and π is represented as the ratio of the two integers 30 and 10, or π is irrational with a value of around 3.1415926. We recently set up new odometers on our bikes. The manual for the device instructs the user to multiply the diameter of the bike’s wheel by 3.14, yielding the wheel’s circumference. So, for a 700 mm wheel, that’s about 2198 mm for a π of 3.14 and 2199 mm for a π of 3.1415926. But what if π is 3? That circumference becomes 2100 mm.

Now, for say 50 revolutions of the wheel:

  • for a circumference of 2.199 meters we have 109.95 meters (if π is 3.1415926);
  • for a circumference of 2.198 we have a 109.9 meters (if π is 3.14);
  • for a circumference of 2.1, we have 105 meters (if π is 3).

If π is 3, the wheel traverses almost 5 meters less. So is π 3?

Choose

Read more about the π saga than you probably want to in this Gospel of Reason blog entry and follow-up comments.

“It makes sense to revere the sun and stars, for we are their children.” (Carl Sagan)

Consider the following:

  • The world was made by God in 6 days (see Genesis), including all living things.
  • Massive stars exist for millions of years before exploding as supernovae, the only known means by which elements heavier than iron are created.
  • Our bodies contain elements heavier than iron, e.g. iodine.

Either the bible is literally true and the world and us (including heavier-than-iron elements) were really created in 6 days, or the universe really is old.

Choose

“What is not possible is not to choose.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)