Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

A Mismatch made in Heaven: The Australian Catholic Church and Reproductive Health

December 10, 2022

“In sexual and reproductive health matters, the responsibility of Catholic health care is to give counsel which is both medically accurate and a witness to the teachings of Christ and his Church,” the code of ethics states.

In good faith (ABC News), referencing Catholic Health Australia’s Code of Ethical Standards
Free holding catholic rosary image

The 2021 census showed a continuing decline in the importance of religion in the Australian psyche, but as revealed by a recent (December 2022) ABC News story, once again we see that the Catholic Church still has more power in our modern world than we collectively think it should.

First our private schools, now our hospitals, and we all know about the institutional abuse of children by those in power in the Catholic Church.

Forget the overturning of Roe vs Wade in America. Catholic hospitals in Australia today can refuse an abortion (except if there is a “grave risk” to the mother’s life), a tubal ligation or even the replacement of an intra-uterine contraceptive device (IUD)!

One shocked doctor working in an Australian public Catholic hospital said:

[My supervisor] asked me to change the wording to say that we had supplied [the IUD] for acne, rather than birth control.

In good faith (ABC News)

At least in this case, people of good conscience were trying to work around the rules I suppose… But they should not have had to!

In another case, a clinician who…

…worked at that same public hospital told Background Briefing when they booked a patient having their third caesarean in for a tubal ligation, “All hell broke loose”.

“It was a big incident. I was taken to the Director’s office, told, ‘Did I realise this was not allowed in the hospital?’ And I was like, ‘Why is it not allowed? I’m not Catholic, the patient is not Catholic, why should it matter what I do?’”

In good faith (ABC News)

The ABC article goes on to quote a Catholic Health Australia official:

Catholic Health Australia, which represents the hospitals, said in a statement: “Most providers of public health and aged care will have services they do not provide … For our members, this includes the intentional termination of pregnancy. These limits are well known, given our members have been looking after the Australian community for more than 150 years.”

In good faith (ABC News)

But are these limits really “well known” and what about those services “they do not provide”? Shouldn’t that mean less funding for the private or public Catholic hospital in question? MSI, a national, independently accredited safe abortion, vasectomy and contraception provider thinks so.

For Bonney Corbin, head of policy at MSI Australia, the solution is clear: redirect some of the funding from the hospitals not providing these services to the places that are.

“It’s looking at every single region at where their capacity is, and then funding those smaller providers accordingly.”

In good faith (ABC News)

How did we find ourselves in a situation in which one of the most divisive and corrupt organisations on the planet has any control over reproductive rights in Australia?

The quote at the top of this post puts the emphasis upon the “teachings of Christ and his Church” and mentions “medical accuracy” (an awkward phrase) along the way, almost in submission to the teachings of Christ.

Anyway, isn’t the “and his Church” bit redundant? Are there teachings of the Church that go beyond those of Jesus? There are (it was a rhetorical question), for example The Catechism and Code of Ethical Standards referred to already. Would Jesus approve of such teachings or how hospitals declaring the name of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” turn some patients away?

Here we see an example of Christopher Hitchens’ maxim that religion poisons everything. At least, it can, and currently appears to be doing so in the case of the Australian hospital system and reproductive health.

The need to resist the Church’s control over our lives still exists in the 21st century.

If you have any doubt about whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world, watch this debate in which Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry argue for the negative case. I recommend Fry’s and Hitch’s short orations starting around 48 mins 13 secs and 14 mins 56 secs, respectively. It will come as no surprise to learn that the negative side won.

In his oration, Hitch says the following, which has some relevance for the current post:

The original sin, so to say…the problem in the first place, is the belief on the part of this church, that it does possess a truth that we don’t have and it does have a God-given right, a warrant, a mandate of Heaven, to tell other people what to do, not just in their public, but in their private lives; and until that has changed, until that fantastic and sinister and non-founded claim is changed, these crimes will go on repeating themselves.

Christopher Hitchens, Intelligence Squared

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private and irrelevant is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens

Shameful attack on Salman Rushdie

August 14, 2022

Religious freedom ends where human or animal suffering begins.

Marianne Thieme

Those who have suggested that the recent attack on Salman Rushdie is the fulfilment of the 1989 fatwa issued against him for his book, The Satanic Verses, should be reminded that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, not all opinions are equal. Ridiculous ideas should be ridiculed.

All such utterances do is to reinforce Christopher Hitchen’s view that religion poisons everything.

Muslims who disagree with extremist interpretations of Islam should denounce, in the strongest possible terms, those who believe that an insult to their prophet makes anything permissible.

Neither should people of any religious conviction come to the defense of such Islamists on the grounds that they are being faithful to Allah, as if faith itself is something to be considered a virtue, grounds for being a member of a special club.

On some matters, it just is NOT the case that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Not when an opinion leads directly to physical harm!

Our species is in serious need of growing up.

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private and irrelevant is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens

Bearing Witness

October 11, 2021

I wrote a post about Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, “Mr & Mrs JW: I have some questions…” If words are not enough to convince you of the problems with this organisation, you should watch the September 2021 Australian Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners episode: Bearing Witness.

source: ABC Four Corners

A “Helpful Guide” to the Afterlife from a Church Pamphlet

March 20, 2021
Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com

It may be that Jesus never lived and so, never died. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day. We do know at least from the Jewish historian Josephus, that would-be messiahs and crucifixions were common around the time Jesus is said to have lived.

But let’s just suppose there was a historical Jesus, as described in the gospels. Was his death temporary? Did he rise 3 days later? What implications does this have for mammals like us?

35 years ago, when I was a Christian, although I hoped for an afterlife, I focused more on the death of Jesus, the atonement for the sins of the world through his blood sacrifice. But of course the other key piece is the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. Together, these seem to be the core of the Christian message, at least if you are a salvation by faith rather than a salvation by works kind of Christian.

We recently received a little pamphlet in our letterbox from a local Adelaide Baptist church entitled The Empty Tomb.

We’re approaching Easter 2021 so that’s not too surprising.

In my “Questionable Church Signs” posts I obscure any reference to the church to which a sign belongs. The Empty Tomb pamphlet includes the URL for the website, but I won’t include it here.

The Empty Tomb tells the story of the early life of Jesus, his baptism, miracles, downfall, crucifixion and resurrection.

After describing the horror of the crucifixion, it declares:

Just before He died, Jesus shouted… “IT IS FINISHED”.

The penalty for the sins of all mankind had been paid in full.

Now anyone could be saved by putting their faith in Jesus Christ.

All fairly standard salvation by faith stuff.

On the next page after the resurrection, we have:

HE IS RISEN!

Jesus DEFEATED Satan, and conquered death and hell.

At this point I could be excused for expecting a land of unicorns, rainbows and butterflies

But, then the pamphlet confronts me with…

All who accept Christ will live with God forever in heaven.

and, inevitably, and with “lovely” pictures…

Those who reject Jesus will burn forever in a lake of fire.

…which I take to mean Hell. Finally, we have…

Someday you will bow before God.

Who will YOU serve?

Jesus ChristSatan

So, no other options then?

Just the two?

Hmm. Wait a sec…

Is atonement really for everyone? Have our sins been paid for in full? Or, is this conditional upon uttering some magic words like “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour”?

Not completely clear from this particular user manual.

Were Satan and Hell actually defeated? Not really, if it’s possible to burn in Hell or to serve Satan (or bizarrely somehow, both at the same time). Was that always possible, and now only optional because of what Jesus did?

The logical contradictions and gaps in reasoning in The Empty Tomb abound.

But worse than that is the ease with which The Other is condemned. Those who do not believe as “we” do.

That is very dangerous thinking.

Hitch would have declared this an example of how religion poisons everything. It’s easy to see why.

What role do liberal-minded Christians have in countering this kind of thinking? Similarly, what role do liberal-minded Muslims have in countering Jihad and other Islamist (“must convert the infidel”) thinking?

I can’t speak for the faithful although I am always happy to converse with them or anyone, to try to find common ground, and to agree to disagree otherwise.

That’s really the only way forward, isn’t it?

However, I also see it as a kind of duty to expose and counter harmful nonsense, such as is promoted in The Empty Tomb pamphlet.

Life is short and we are not at the centre of things. And, our species is in desperate need of growing up.

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

Sam Harris

Voluntary Assisted Dying in South Australia

March 10, 2021
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation is being discussed starting from March 17 in the South Australian parliament.

A little more than a year ago, my dad expressed a wish to die every day I was with him for the last week of his life. He was living in Tasmania. While there are amendments to be accepted, VAD legislation is now on the way to being passed there.

I recently took part in a discussion of VAD in South Australia at the Blackwood Uniting Church, a special meeting of the monthly philosophy group, supported by a well thought out presentation by a palliative care doctor. The consensus seemed to be support for VAD.

A cursory glance through my blog will show that I don’t believe in gods of any sort. One problem with religion in general is that it encourages people to pretend to know things they can’t possibly know, and potentially (and this is the crucial bit) base important life decisions on such belief. I’ve written elsewhere about what counts as good belief.

With respect to Christianity at least, the more liberal the denomination, the less salvation by faith thinking there is, and the more emphasis on living a good and caring life due to some notion of (a God of) love there usually is. Of course, you don’t need religion for that.

Especially given that there was a “Non-Christian but I wish to support the Group” option, I was encouraged to sign up on the Christians In Support of VAD website after the philosophy group discussion.

The more names on petitions and lists in favour of choosing a “good death”, the better.

Speaking of which, here’s one such (secular) petition. I signed that too.

Try to enjoy life now. There’s a very good chance that this is the only one you’ll get. And if your end of life scenario sucks, remember: it’s your life, not some imaginary sky fairy’s. You should get to choose, in consultation with those you care about.

Whatever you believe, the fact is that each of us was born into a life that none of us asked for.

You can choose to consider life as a gift, or to simply accept the fact of existence and embrace it. Or both, if you like.

We were not alive for 14 billion years (give or take), and we won’t be alive for even longer while the heat death of the universe plays out over trillions of years.

But we should, where possible, have some say in the manner, time, and place of our exit from life.

Anyway, let’s hope that VAD legislation is passed in SA.

Baptism of Death

February 6, 2021

The BBC reported on the death of an infant (Feb 1 2021) after a dunking baptism in the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The baby had a cardiac arrest after he was immersed three times in holy water. He had a violent death and liquid was found in his lungs, an autopsy found. A manslaughter inquiry has been opened by prosecutors into the priest who carried out the baptism in the north-eastern city of Suceava.

BBC
source

The report goes on to say that: “If the baby’s death leads to reform in the way baptism rituals are carried out then it would cause a rift within Romania’s Orthodox Church.”

Really? Is that the main concern here? Sure, oh, good: a schism leading to yet another warring Christian faction disagreeing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin…

The bottom line is that baby died because of stupid archaic beliefs about the necessity of ceremonial particulars.

While some, such as the Archbishop of Arges, may be open to change, others are not so inclined:

Eminence Calinic, the Archbishop of Arges, is the most prominent voice so far who appears open to change. “In other icons, Jesus stands in the water up to his neck, and with his head bowed he receives baptism by pouring water over the top of his head,” he was quoted as saying.

The Archbishop of Tomis, however, took a more belligerent stance. “We will never change the ritual. The canons of this religion have been in place for over 1,000 years,” he said. “That is why we won’t change. We are not intimidated.”

Romania’s powerful Orthodox Church is not known for reform, but this baptism tragedy may lead to change.

BBC

Sometimes I really just don’t know what more to say…

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

Sam Harris

Questionable church signs #4

January 17, 2021

I took this quick photo of a church sign from a distance on the way to the train, after a nice afternoon on the beach with my wife. The name is obscured to protect the innocent, so to speak, as usual.

Trust Him. Trust Him?

If 2020 is anything to go by, I’m inclined to place my bets elsewhere. A pandemic, major bush fires, earth quakes, untold suffering, personal loss…

The implication of this church sign is that God knows what’s coming. This makes Him all-seeing. Is He powerless to change the future? If so, He is not all-powerful, in which case He should consider a line of work other than Universe building.

Or did He plan to create a future in which there is suffering. If so, He is not all-good.

There are those Christians who will say that the suffering we see in the world is because of our rebellion against God. If God incarnate, in the person of Jesus Christ, died for the sins of all, and rebellion against God is a sin, then shouldn’t that be forgiven too, rather than God heaping more woes upon humanity?

Yes, I know… Jesus died for our sins and “all we have to do” is believe in Him to have eternal life.

What if we don’t want eternal life?

And forgiveness: don’t we get that whether we ask for it or not because of what Jesus did at Calvary?

Others will say that there is a Grand Cosmic Plan that we just don’t understand.

Either way, God gets all the kudos and we are still left with the puzzle. Adding “God” to a sentence does not contribute to an explanation.

I do understand the desire to believe that there’s a plan, that all the bad things that happen somehow make sense. Especially when we lose those we care about.

But perhaps we should follow William of Ockham’s advice and not multiply entities needlessly. It all just seems too complex, too arbitrary. It has all the hallmarks of being man-made.

In any case, I much prefer questions that do not yet (and may never) have answers over answers that cannot be questioned.

The sign is right about one thing though: 2021? who knows? It should have stopped there.

Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

The Church and The Vaccine

September 19, 2020

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private … is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Spoiler alert: I am not sympathetic to religion as a source of ethics here.

In mid-2020, concern was expressed by archbishops of Sydney Catholic, Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches regarding the use of cell lines in vaccine development that originated with a human female embryo that was aborted in 1973.

Free speech is important, but given that vaccine development is hard and that many (perhaps 95%) vaccines fail in the late stages of human trials, it really matters whether this is a reasonable ethical concern.

Granted, the conversation has been more nuanced than media headlines have often suggested, as can be noted by listening to the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report podcast.

But to what extent does this nuance translate to “the flock”?

We would do well to recall that the flock has in the past been told that the use of condoms was a sin. The Catholic Church’s stance may have moderated a little on this matter, but just think of the calamity that this one, misguided teaching has unleashed, especially upon African adherents to the faith, when AIDS was still a death sentence, compounded by poverty and unchecked population growth.

For this alone, the Catholic Church should be universally reviled, once again having proven its irrelevance to modern life and at the same time, how dangerous it still can be.

We should also remember that a mere few hundred years ago, it was much much more dangerous, when we were collectively more dim-witted and willing to cede more power to it.

That must never again be allowed to happen.

Rejecting a perfectly good vaccine candidate is a kick in the guts for the work being done by the Oxford University team and others worldwide.

Suppose it is the most effective vaccine, or less likely but not impossible, the only one that works?

If it appears that I have unduly focussed on the Catholic Church, that’s only because it makes such an easy target. Other denominations do not have a squeaky clean history either.

It’s important to understand that all ways of knowing are not equal, especially in this context.

Science and reason, not faith, are required when thinking about the fitness of a vaccine and its development process.

None of this is to say that ethical concerns don’t matter here. Of course they do. But ethics must be based upon well-thought out principles and a focus upon consequences, not ill-conceived, brittle rules, and certainly never by thinking that tradition dictates truth.

A comment by Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty in this ABC News article sums it up for me:

If [Archbishop Fisher] finds that objectionable it’s his perfect right to say so and it’s our perfect right to take absolutely no notice of him.

source: ABC News

And, it’s not as if there are no other concerns…

For example, what about animal testing in vaccine development, including for COVID-19?

As someone who thinks that no-one, human or non-human, should be used as a means to an end, it would be an understatement to say that I am ambivalent about testing vaccine candidates on animals.

But, I’ve written about such dilemmas elsewhere; there is a spectrum of concern here…

I still wear boots with suede strips that I owned before going vegan. Suede is soft skin torn from the underside of some poor dead animal. I can’t help that animal now, but every time I wear those boots, I am reminded of my error…

…and, not wishing to add insult to injury, I choose not to discard them while they are still useful, perhaps somewhat akin to the way some of our ancestors are thought to have paid their respects to the animals they killed and consumed. Needless to say, my clothing purchasing decisions now incorporate vegan principles.

In a similar way, perhaps the religious objectors to the use of a decades-old cell line could chill out, just a little, and take a similar approach.

The cell line from the embryo that was aborted 47 years ago has led to great good (an unintentional means to an end), for which we should be thankful. It is unlikely to have suffered in any meaningful way.

If only the same could be said for the animals we routinely kill en masse, because we are collectively failing to tip the balance towards a plant-based diet.

Animalia Commonalis: Truth, Suffering and Ethics

April 19, 2020

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. (Galileo Galilei)

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. (Buddha)

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. (James A. Garfield)

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Why do we want so desperately to know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe when we treat so much human and non-human life on this planet with such disdain?

blue turtles on brown sand
Photo by Jolo Diaz on Pexels.com

I’ve written briefly here about what makes homo sapiens special.

We know that species other than ours exhibit some of these qualities:

  • Problem solving
  • Sophisticated memory
  • Ability to plan
  • Tool use
  • Culture
  • Ability to act contrary to instinctive behaviour
  • Belief in gods of one sort or another

As far as we know, the last item on the list is unique to us. This could mean either that there are gods of some kind or that we have a tendency to mistake certain types of patterns for gods.

What of the second to last? We are not purely instinctive creatures. Without that, we would never have developed Science, mathematics, technology.

But there exist humans with a severe mental handicap who cannot participate in anything approaching the “lofty intellectual heights”. Neither can young children.

For children, this is only transient you say. Rightly so. Children mature.

Not so for someone with a severe mental handicap.

Perhaps questions like “what makes us special?” or “what sets us apart from other animals?” are less than useful.

Perhaps it would be better to ask instead: What do we have in common?

Animalia Commonalis popped into my head when I was writing this post. By this latin-sounding (but not real) phrase, I was trying to capture this idea: The Commonality of Animals.

Of course, there’s a continuum of complexity of animal life starting from self-replicating molecules (RNA, DNA), to viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals like us.

Just limiting ourselves to mammals, all have:

  • A common body plan. Animals as diverse as whales and bats share the same basic skeletal structure and organs.
  • An apparent desire, or at least a strong instinct, to care for their young.
  • The ability to feel pain, to suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? (Jeremy Bentham 1789, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

Bentham said this more than 200 years ago!

Where on this continuum from viruses to us does the ability to suffer begin? Dogs don’t pass the mirror test whereas chimps do, but few would say that a dog cannot suffer.

Do bees feel pain or is the avoidance of harmful stimuli purely mechanical with no pain response? It seems that no-one really knows the answer yet.

I’ll be honest and say that right now I’m more concerned about dealing with the more obvious and well-documented suffering of mammals, birds, and fish by our hand. The “low hanging fruit”. Even choosing not to consume one of these groups is a big win at this point. The jury is still out for me regarding insects.

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight. (Albert Schweitzer)

Whether starting from the idea that not consuming animal products may be healthier for us, from worrying about the environment and sustainability, or from a concern for the welfare of animals other than ourselves, one can eventually be led to the realisation that what we once did only to people taken out of Africa to America and to other “civilised” countries, we are now doing to other species, but worse.

The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men. (Leonardo da Vinci)

Speciesism is just a generalisation of racism beyond the borders of homo sapiens.

In my view, along with Climate Change, Speciesism is the defining issue of our time, and we will be judged by future generations on how we responded to both.

If Climate Change is an existential crisis, Speciesism can be thought of as a battle for the collective “soul” of homo sapiens.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. (Mahatma Ghandi)

On Being Special

January 19, 2020
sunset person love people
source: Josh Willink (pixels.com)

I’ve had some conversations in recent times that have ended in disagreement over the question of whether members of homo sapiens are more important or special than members of other animal species.

But what do we mean by special?

Relationships with other beings, human or non-human, make the participants special to one another.

Particular things about us make us special, e.g. tool use, intelligence, culture.

The holy books of some religions and other ideological traditions often claim that humans are special, perhaps even chosen in some way.

It’s important to distinguish between these different types of special-ness.

The first type is subjective and derives from a shared history, an emotional bond. For some people, the death of an animal can be as devastating as the loss of a relative or human friend to someone else. There’s no right or wrong in that. It just is.

The second type can be tested; other species use tools, have high intelligence and some may even have their own kind of culture (e.g. humpback whales).

Although a person of faith is unlikely to agree with this, the third type must be supported by evidence, and since, as Carl Sagan reminds us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this is a difficult requirement to meet.

Humans are meaning creators. Relationships are central to being human and meaning is often created in relationship with others; not always, but very often; some do choose to find meaning in solitude.

My father’s health was in decline late last year and more rapidly before my eyes in the first week of 2020. However, his death on January 7 2020 has not changed my view of the special-ness of homo sapiens relative to other species.

Dad was special to me because he was, well, my father. We had an emotional connection, a shared biological and social history, a relationship spanning more than 5 decades. I am in the process of mourning his loss. This does not necessarily imply that we or members of homo sapiens in general are special in any other sense.

We are free to choose who to become. If we are special in any sense, it is due to the responsibility we have to accept the human condition and to leave the world better than we found it, irrespective of the fact that we will not be around to see our legacy.

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)