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Entries for April 2010

April 30, 2010

Religious silliness

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the world of the Abrahamic religious traditions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), religious fundamentalism and hypersensitivity seems to be getting worse, with American-style creationist ideas (though not of the young-Earth variety) even gaining ground in the Middle East.

As an example of religious sensitivities, there was the case of a US military sniper in Iraq using a Koran for target practice. This was undoubtedly a rude act done by a stupid person but it led to an equally stupid overreaction by Muslims, who became incensed because the Koran is a 'holy' book. As a result, the US military had to make a groveling apology once the incident became public, even kissing a copy of the Koran and calling the soldier's actions 'criminal'. There were even protests that resulted in the deaths of three people. All this over nothing more than shooting a book. As someone who loves books, I find the wanton destruction of books offensive in general but I am not going to riot over it and I recognize the right of people to do what they want with the books they own.

Muslim theologians had to add their two cents worth, with the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq issuing a statement.

"As the Association of Muslim Scholars condemns this heinous crime against God's holy book, the Constitution of this nation, a source of pride and dignity," the groups statement said, "they condemned the silence by all those who are part of the occupation's agenda and holds the occupation and the current government fully responsible for this violation and reminds everyone that God preserves his book and he [God] is a great avenger."

If god is a 'great avenger' who 'preserves his book' with so much care, then why don't they let god decide what action to take against those who use it for target practice? If it was such a gross provocation, surely god could have struck the soldier dead or at least given him boils? The fact that the soldier is fine must mean that god does not care that the Koran was shot up.

Some schools in Somalia have been forbidden to ring bells to signal the end of class, because bells sound Christian. One should not be surprised at such silliness when one hears that Muslims around the world protested the publication of cartoons showing Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. How absurdly sensitive can you get when mere cartoons can arouse protest like these?

A cleric in Iran blamed the recent earthquakes on women wearing revealing clothes and behaving promiscuously. That, of course, explains why earthquakes occur on an almost daily basis in the US and Europe. Not to be outdone in the world of religious absurdities, a Jewish rabbi said that hurricane Katrina was God's vengeance for the Israeli pullout from Gaza. What, you don't see the connection? Me neither.

In Malaysia, Bibles referring to God as Allah were seized by the Malaysian government which claimed that "the word Allah is Islamic and that its use in Bibles could upset Muslims." When later a court ruled that non-Muslims could also use the word, the government appealed the verdict, resulting in violence. "Arson attacks then followed, mainly targeting churches, and wild boar's heads were placed at mosques. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims and their presence would be taken as an insult."

Two Muslim journalists in Malaysia, investigating reports that Muslims were being converted to Christianity, attended a Catholic mass, took communion, and then spat out the wafers. (I am not sure why they did the spitting part. Did they fear that if the ate it they might have accidentally become Christian, and thus risked being killed which is the punishment for apostasy in parts of the Islamic world?) Naturally, this created a tizzy in the Catholic Church hierarchy which actually believes that the wafers become the body of Jesus as a result of a ritual. Riots and Muslim-Catholic conflicts ensued. Oddly enough, William Donohue of the US Catholic League or, as I prefer to refer to him, the head of the Church of POOP (Perpetual Outrage to Obtain Publicity), did not seize this opportunity to whine about Catholics being victimized. Then there were Catholics who were upset over a crucifix artwork that seemed (to their sex-obsessed eyes) to display Jesus's genitalia.

We also have Christians in Italy who were angry at the inclusion of a mosque in a nativity scene. And then we had Christians in the US throwing a fit because of the decision to remove crosses from an Army chapel in order to create a neutral environment for all religions to pray in, as required by US military regulations.

The Irish have taken a great step backward into medieval times by actually passing blasphemy laws, so that now "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion" is liable to fines of up to 22,000 euros. Jesus and Mo have something to say about it.

And there is the high school in Missouri that banned their band's shirt that played on the evolution theme because the shirt upset people who dislike evolution.

Meanwhile that rich storehouse of unremitting goofiness known as Conservapedia has launched a project to rectify what they see as 'liberal bias' in the Bible! Not satisfied with insisting that science conform to the Bible, they now want the Bible to conform to their ideology. What a fun project!

Don't religious people realize how silly all this makes them look?

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the Conservapedia revisions to the Bible

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April 29, 2010

Religious thuggery

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have written repeatedly about the absurd levels of sensitivity of some religious people, who immediately get up in arms if they feel their religion is being mocked in even the mildest way. A catalogue of religious absurdities would range from the farcical to the tragic and even criminal. Most of the time, the protests merely make religious people look silly but sometimes things get ugly and even deadly.

Saudi Arabia has to be the leader in carrying Islamic sensitivities to absurd lengths, even seeking to execute 'sorcerers' because it considers reading horoscopes and fortune telling to be un-Islamic. Yes, in the 21st century there exists a government that does not realize that horoscopes and fortune telling are merely swindles designed to separate gullible people from their money. Saudi Arabia also planned to execute a witch.

Somali Islamists have stoned people to death for 'adultery', a charge so broadly defined that it is even leveled at children who have been raped.

The latest example of the absurdity of religion and the consequences of giving undue deference to religious beliefs involves the creators of the cartoon TV show South Park who have been threatened by some Muslims with a fate similar to that of Theo van Gogh because they supposedly planned to air an episode showing the prophet Mohammed in a bear suit. I did not see the episode. There is some confusion about exactly what was shown in response to the threats, whether any self-censorship was exercised and if so, whether it was by the Comedy Central network or by the South Park creators. Jesus and Mo have something to say about this.

The creators of South Park are hardly heroes in the fight over free speech. Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers takes them to task for shallowness and an unwillingness to stand for anything. But even shallow speech like theirs has to be protected from religious thuggery. Those Muslims who threaten violence against those who mock their religion are taking advantage of their right of free speech to deny free speech to others.

Pat Condell tells them where to get off.

Of course, issuing threats because they are offended is not the province of only Muslims. They are abetted in their sense of entitlement by people of other religions who try to claim some kind of privileged status for religious beliefs in general. American Christians, in addition to the deadly violence they use against abortion providers, can be as eager as Muslims to threaten anyone who offends them. Glenn Greenwald lists Jewish and Christian religious people who murder because they think their god wants them to. He describes the case of Yaakov Teitel who was charged with two murders, three attempted murders and other acts of violence. "It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God," said Teitel at the Jerusalem courthouse. "I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased."

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that:

Just weeks after the arrest of alleged Jewish terrorist, Yaakov Teitel, a West Bank rabbi on Monday released a book giving Jews permission to kill Gentiles who threaten Israel.

Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who heads the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, wrote in his book "The King's Torah" that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation.

Shapiro based the majority of his teachings on passages quoted from the Bible, to which he adds his opinions and beliefs."(my italics)

In an NPR interview recently, a young woman in Pakistan said that people who commit violent acts cannot be 'true' Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace. Christians and Jews often say the same thing when confronted with people who commit similar acts in the name of their god. But such people are missing the point. It does not matter what they think. The people who commit these acts of intimidation, thuggery, and murder think that they are the true believers. This is why religions are so dangerous. True believers actually take their religious texts seriously and think they are being faithful to their god's commandments by doing these unspeakable acts.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on the South Park incident

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April 28, 2010

Making up stories about god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

On my last trip to get a haircut, I overheard a different barber talking with his customer in the next chair. The barber was telling a joke that was aimed at atheists. I could not hear all of it because my own barber was making conversation with me and I did not want to seem rude by telling him that I was more interested in what was going on in the adjacent chair, but I managed to get the gist.

The joke was about an atheist who goes on a hike alone in a remote area and confronts a bear who overpowers him and is about to kill him. The atheist cries out to god to save him from an awful death. At that point god freezes time (and the bear) and has a conversation with the atheist where he essentially asks him why he should save him now, given that he did not believe in him until the atheist really needed his help. I missed hearing the next bit but the punch line was that the bear got on his knees and gave a prayer of thanks to god for the meal that he was about to enjoy. So presumably the atheist dies because of his denial of god. The barber and his customer shared a good laugh at the joke.

Of course, there are many such jokes that circulate. Some religious people seem to get a big kick out of the idea that atheists will be punished by god for not believing in him, and take a lot of glee in the thought that they will suffer awful deaths and eternal torment in the afterlife. The Jesus people often take that tack, never missing an opportunity to let you know how awful hell is. Some of them realize that harboring such thoughts of gruesome vengeance does not reflect well on their own professed religious values so they try to disguise their sense of satisfied anticipation by cloaking it as concern for our souls, that they are not enjoying the thought of our suffering but are merely trying to warn us away from an awful fate in the afterlife.

What was interesting to me is that all these stories that religious people tell are just that – fiction. Things like the barber's tale never occur in reality. Religious people seem to believe that god can unambiguously appear to people, stop time, and do all kinds of amazing things to show off his power but it doesn't seem odd to them that such things never ever happen in real life. Apart from repeating the events written about in their unreliable ancient religious texts, they have to resort to making up stories (jokes or otherwise) about god. It never seems to strike them that the stories in their religious texts that speak of god's intervention in earthly events also probably started out as just these kinds of fictional stories designed to reinforce religious people's belief that god was on their side.

You would think that it might occasionally strike them "Why doesn't god do this kind of thing once in a while nowadays? Why is he so silent? He never writes or calls." After all, we new/unapologetic atheists in particular have given god enough provocation to make him good and mad at us, enough to make him want to teach us a lesson by very publicly smiting us. You would think that the fact that god has never unambiguously appeared or spoken to anyone or done anything would be sufficient to at least suggest to religious believers that god might not exist. But such is the power of faith to overwhelm reason that the thought never seems to even occur to them, let alone convince them.

This is because when it comes to god, religious people do not seem to be able to distinguish fiction from reality.

POST SCRIPT: Choosing between science and religion

Alas, not everyone chooses sensibly, thus revealing the power of early religious indoctrination to convince believers to deny reality if it contradicts belief.

April 27, 2010

The health care scam

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

So after much drama, the health care bill finally became law. If anything demonstrated the fecklessness of Obama and the Democratic Party and their willingness to sell out of their supporters in order to appease their corporate overlords, it is the way that the health care bill was constructed and passed.

There is no question, as Robert Weissman writes, and which I have repeatedly pointed out, that a single payer system, the system of choice for almost every other country in the industrialized world, is more humane and more efficient than what the US currently has. (See here for all my previous posts on health care.) Even candidate Obama conceded as much during his presidential campaign. T. R. Reid's new book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care also debunks the myths of the alleged superiority of America's health care system. Even Sarah Palin admits that when she was a child, her parents took advantage of Canada's system, saying, "we used to hustle on over the border for health care", adding "I think isn't that ironic now." Yes it is, Sarah, yes it is.

The pressure for health care reform comes largely from the fact that the private, profit-seeking entities that dominate the system (insurance and drug companies and hospitals and specialist doctors) are driving up the costs and employers want to shed themselves of this burden. (Also see another comparison of costs.)

The logical thing would have been to go to a government-run single-payer system that would be cheaper because it would spread the costs over the entire population, have the power to negotiate lower prices, reduce bureaucratic duplication, and eliminate the profit element that plagues the current system and results in such horrors as the rescission of coverage after one receives a diagnosis of a disease. The despicable insurance companies also find sleazy ways to drop coverage for people who discover they have breast cancer:

They had no idea that WellPoint was using a computer algorithm that automatically targeted them and every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software triggered an immediate fraud investigation, as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies, according to government regulators and investigators.

Once the women were singled out, they say, the insurer then canceled their policies based on either erroneous or flimsy information.

Of course, Congress and the Obama administration will not do anything to harm the interests of these companies since these very organizations that profit greatly from sick people are major contributors to their coffers. And so what we finally ended up with was a mere tweaking of the existing system.

It is not that there are no good features at all in the bill. There are, such as expanding coverage and restricting some of the worst industry abuses. But these were the bones that were tossed to the Democratic Party supporters to mask the fact that the resulting plan has internal contradictions that will eventually wreck it. The Democratic party deliberately sabotaged the one big chance the country had to enact the kind of reforms that are necessary to prevent the looming catastrophe that will occur because the basic causes of cost increases have not been addressed. As Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, says:

What this bill does is not only permit the commercial insurance industry to remain in place, but it actually expands and cements their position as the lynchpin of health care reform. And these companies they profit by denying health care, not providing health care. And they will be able to charge whatever they like. So if they're regulated in some way and it cuts into their profits, all they have to do is just raise their premiums. And they'll do that.

Not only does it keep them in place, but it pours about 500 billion dollars of public money into these companies over 10 years. And it mandates that people buy these companies' products for whatever they charge. Now that's a recipe for the growth in health care costs, not only to continue, but to skyrocket, to grow even faster.

Glenn Greenwald quotes a Kaiser Health News report that "details the massive benefits each industry [Doctors, Hospitals, Insurers, Pharma] receives (compared to their mild costs), the success they had in killing any real competition and reform in the bill (i.e., the public option, Medicare expansion, drug-reimportation, bulk price negotiations, and an end to the insurers' anti-trust exemption)" and that the bill was enacted by "invoking and strengthening precisely the same corrupt, sleazy practices that have long driven Washington."

There have been many analyses detailing how the Democrats sold out on health care, calling the Obama strategy essentially a scam on the American people. Angell says of Obama that, "He gave away the store at the very beginning by compromising. Not just compromising, but caving in to the commercial insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry." Glenn Greenwald and Norman Solomon lay out in detail exactly how the scam by Obama and the Democratic Party was executed. It was the shocking loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown that exposed the scam for all the world to see, while paradoxically hastening the passage of the final bill.

While the Democrats still had sixty votes in the Senate, they could play out this charade that they really and truly wanted real reform as represented by a single-payer system or Medicare for all (or at least expanded) or a public option, but that they had to overcome this darned filibuster threat by the Republicans, which meant that they had to appease the most reactionary elements in their own party in order to hold on to every one of their sixty party members and thus were forced to give up on the more ambitious plans. Oh, but they were so sad that they had to compromise their ideals like this.

But as Greenwald says,

[A]dvocates of the public option kept arguing that the public option could be accomplished by reconciliation -- where only 50 votes, not 60, would be required -- but Obama loyalists scorned that reconciliation proposal, insisting (at least before the Senate passed a bill with 60 votes) that using reconciliation was Unserious, naive, procedurally impossible, and politically disastrous.

But the win by Scott Brown meant that they could not overcome the filibuster after all because of the unanimous opposition of the 41 Republicans. Faced with the possibility that they might not get any health reform bill at all through the Congress, which would have meant political disaster for them, they suddenly decided that they would use the reconciliation path to passage after all. So given how much they had said about their desire for more sweeping reform plans, you would think that now they would bring back all those elements they so ardently desired and spoke so passionately about. But no. They went with the health-insurance industry friendly bill, thus exposing that this was the bill they had really wanted all along and that everything they had said suggesting otherwise were nothing but lies. If one needed any more proof, along the way it was revealed that Obama had made a secret deal early on with the pharmaceutical industry to kill the public option, thus confirming the existence of the scam.

It should have been clear to the dimmest bulb that the health care bill that Obama and the Democrats finally passed was what would have been considered in the old days a Republican plan, one whose main goal was to leave untouched (and even enhance) the interests of big business and the wealthy. It is no coincidence that it is similar in philosophy and structure to the plan introduced in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney when he was governor. He now has the unenviable task of disowning his own plan in order to appease the crazies who now running the Republican party.

What has happened in American politics is that the Democratic party has become the Republican party and the Republican Party has gone nuts.

POST SCRIPT: The ignorance of health care opponents

The party groups that demonstrated on April 15 to denounce the health care bill, among other things, as part of some socialistic takeover of America's economy are remarkably ignorant of the reality of American politics but are driven by some inchoate sense of frustration and impotence that makes them succumb to paranoia. They pose a real danger to the Republican party, risking making it into a fringe and nutty cabal.

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow describes how detached from reality health reform opponents really are.

April 26, 2010

Passivity in the face of authoritarianism

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have long since ceased to be shocked at the awful things that governments do while unctuously mouthing platitudes about freedom and democracy and the rule of law. This kind of deep and blatant hypocrisy is now so commonplace that while it still angers me, it no longer has the power to surprise. What still has the capacity to shock, however, is how people are so passive in the face of their government's most appalling actions, letting the pro-establishment media decide for them what they should care about. While we hear about the tea-partiers all day long, how many people noticed or cared about the McCain-Lieberman bill that authorized harsh treatment for people who were merely suspected of evil intent? How many media outlets publicized its features? The media were much more excited over Tiger woods returning to playing golf, as cartoonist Matt Bors points out..

What really angers me are those supporters of Obama who yelled loudly when Bush and Cheney claimed kingly powers for themselves but now stay silent or make excuses when Obama does even worse things. Chris Floyd uses bitter sarcasm to express his frustration with the lack of outrage over the release of the WikiLeaks video and Justin Raimondo describes how some Obama cultists are now even attacking WikiLeaks. Glenn Greenwald adds:

And what about all the progressives who screamed for years about the Bush administration's tyrannical treatment of Jose Padilla? Bush merely imprisoned Padilla for years without a trial. If that's a vicious, tyrannical assault on the Constitution -- and it was -- what should they be saying about the Nobel Peace Prize winner's assassination of American citizens without any due process?

Part of the problem is that in the US people give far too much respect to the president and other political leaders, allowing them to get away with literally murder. You may recall the shock expressed in the media when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You Lie!" during Obama's speech to the joint session of congress on health care or how they clutched their pearls and tut-tutted when Supreme Court Justice Alito shook his head in disagreement when Obama criticized a Supreme Court ruling in his State of the Union speech. While such acts may be impolite, I was amused at how people reacted as if somehow the majesty of the presidency had been seriously damaged.

I am not a fan of this kind of phony civility. People in positions of great power are the last people who should be treated with such deference. It is the powerless who should be treated with great respect because they have little or no means of retaliating. The concept of civility in political discourse, rather than being a means of promoting calm dialogue, is being used as a weapon to stifle honest disagreement and debate. As Greenwald writes:

As HTML Mencken insightfully noted in what is one of the best blog posts ever written, our political mores demand vehement repudiation of petty acts of incivility (not all, but most) while tolerating and even approving of extremely consequential acts of indecency as long as they're advocated with superficial civility. Those who use curse words to oppose torture, wars and lawbreaking are evil and unSerious (The Angry Left); those who politely and soberly advocate morally repugnant, indecent policies are respected and Serious. As long as one adheres to Beltway decorum, one can advocate the most amoral and even murderous policies without any repercussions whatsoever; it is only disruptive and impolite behavior that generates intense upset. Beltway culture hates "incivility" (public use of bad words) but embraces full-scale substantive indecency (torture, lawbreaking, unjustified wars, ownership of government by corporations, etc.).

This passivity in the face of a direct assault on the constitution should not be surprising to those who have observed the steady decline in respect in the US not just for law and order and due process, but just simple human values of decency and justice. Starting with the bland acceptance of torture and the killing of foreigners at Guantanamo and elsewhere around the world simply on mere suspicion of involvement in anti-US activities, we have seen a steady expansion in the range of people who can be denied basic human rights, and at each stage Americans have gone along with it, seemingly thinking that they were safe because it was 'other' people (foreign or foreign-sounding or not white or not Christian) who were targeted and thus 'real' Americans were safe from these abuses.

The danger of giving political leaders the right to make summary judgments of guilt should be obvious. If any evidence is needed, we have this news report that George Bush knew that most of the detainees in Guantanamo were innocent but did not want them released for fear of political repercussions. The courts have been slowly ordering the release of innocent people, many years after their detention and torture, the latest cases being those of Fahed Hashimi and Mohamedon Salahi. The latter is the 34th detainee deemed by the courts to have been held illegally. Jayne Lyn Stahl describes how Obama is actually going further than Bush-Cheney in entrenching the denial of basic legal and human rights.

It is clear that Obama, the supposed constitutional scholar, is in fact as much, if not more, of an enemy of the constitution as Bush and Cheney were. His assumption of kingly powers must be vigorously opposed. Appeals court justice Learned Hand, speaking in 1944, warned that if people don't value and protect their constitutional rights, those rights will not be worth the paper they are written on, even if the constitution is kept in a glass case in the National Archives and venerated by tourists. He said:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

Pastor Martin Niemoller's famous poem about the passivity of people in the face of Nazi actions has become almost trite because of repeated invocation, but what we are seeing now is the modern day equivalent of it, as we slide into lawlessness. Adapted to the Bush-Cheney-Obama regimes, Niemoller's poem would read:

THEY CAME FIRST to torture and kill the foreigners,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a foreigner.

THEN THEY CAME for the permanent residents,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a permanent resident.

THEN THEY CAME for the foreign-born US citizens,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a foreign-born US citizens.

THEN THEY CAME for the US-born Muslims or otherwise foreign-sounding Americans,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a US-born Muslim or otherwise foreign-sounding American.

THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

POST SCRIPT: Letter from WikiLeaks video soldiers

Josh Stieber and Ethan McCord, two of the soldiers who were members of the Bravo 2-16 company that did the killings revealed in the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video, have now written a letter of apology for their actions to the families destroyed by their actions. McCord was the person in the video who found the wounded children from the van that had been shot up and killed their father and pulled them out and took them to a hospital. The letter says in part:

We have been speaking to whoever will listen, telling them that what was shown in the Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created. From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region.

We acknowledge our part in the deaths and injuries of your loved ones as we tell Americans what we were trained to do and carried out in the name of “god and country”. The soldier in video said that your husband shouldn’t have brought your children to battle, but we are acknowledging our responsibility for bringing the battle to your neighborhood, and to your family. We did unto you what we would not want done to us. (my italics)

April 23, 2010

Hypocrisy in the war on terror

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It is interesting how the US media is always shocked, just shocked, when they see people in other countries seem to be oblivious to the abomination of torture. A recent French TV show essentially repeated the famous Stanley Milgram experiment which found that ordinary people were often willing to obey instructions to inflict torture on other people. The French show found a similar result, the difference being that in the Milgram experiment, 62% of people obeyed despicable orders while it was 80% in the latest incarnation.

The Game of Death has all the trappings of a traditional TV quiz show, with a roaring crowd chanting "punishment" and a glamorous hostess urging the players on.

Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary, said they were "amazed" that so many participants obeyed the sadistic orders of the game show presenter.

"They are not equipped to disobey," he told AFP.

US commentators wondered what might be wrong in the French psyche that enabled the contestants to inflict such pain of people. They were either oblivious about the Milgram precedent or to the fact that the US government routinely practices torture and that the hit show 24 is one that unashamedly promotes torture.

While Obama has claimed for himself the kingly power to order the death of anyone whom he thinks deserves it, other fans of authoritarian rule are now seeking to enshrine some of those powers into law. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have introduced the Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act that "would empower the U.S. military to arrest anyone, U.S. citizen or otherwise, who is suspected of terrorist associations and detain them indefinitely, without right to a trial." If the captured person is deemed to be an "unprivileged enemy belligerent", that person would be denied all rights, including Miranda rights and the rights to a lawyer. That person would then be placed in the custody of a "high-value detainee interrogation group", which is a euphemism for people trained in the art of torture. "If there is any disagreement about a person's unprivileged enemy belligerent according to the above criteria, the final determination goes to the President. Once determined to be an unprivileged enemy belligerent, a person, regardless of citizenship status, can be detained indefinitely, without trial, until terrorist threats against the U.S are determined to be over."

This law hasn't been passed yet but can we doubt that it will be, given the mood of the country? Glenn Greenwald comments:

Meanwhile, the bill recently introduced by Joe Lieberman and John McCain -- the so-called "Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act" -- now has 9 co-sponsors, including the newly elected Scott Brown. It's probably the single most extremist, tyrannical and dangerous bill introduced in the Senate in the last several decades, far beyond the horrific, habeas-abolishing Military Commissions Act… It's basically a bill designed to formally authorize what the Bush administration did to American citizen Jose Padilla -- arrest him on U.S. soil and imprison him for years in military custody with no charges.

This bill has produced barely a ripple of controversy, its two main sponsors will continue to be treated as Serious Centrists and feted on Sunday shows, and it's hard to imagine any real resistance to its passage. Isn't it shocking how easily led and authoritarian the French are? (my italics)

The hypocrisy of the US policy against terrorists is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born exile who worked for the CIA.

There's ample evidence Posada tried to assassinate a world leader, hatched a plot that killed scores, and dismembered a tourist in a hotel bombing. Yet he is not being tried for any of those offenses, because the government botched the case and shredded critical evidence. In the end, Posada is being accused of lying to authorities, a slap on the hand that would outrage the nation if he were, for instance, an Arab. But he's Cuban, and that makes all the difference.

[W]ith the help of millions of American tax dollars, Posada began a bloody, half-century-long campaign against the Castro government. He set off pencil bombs in the island's capital and coordinated the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack from Central America. After the invasion failed, he was among exiles who attended an elite Army academy in Georgia; he graduated two years later as a spy and lieutenant.

He then tried to kill Castro using a gun disguised as a camera and plastic explosives stuffed into a Prell shampoo bottle. In 1976, he masterminded the downing of Cubana Flight 455 with 73 people onboard. Six years later, pressured by the United States, a Venezuelan court cleared him; then it bizarrely changed course and decided on a retrial. But the wily spy bribed guards, escaped, and two decades later bombed Havana hotels, causing millions of dollars in damage and killing an Italian tourist.

[T]he FBI, which spent millions of dollars over several decades probing Posada's spy work, inexplicably shredded most of its evidence. What's more, the Reagan administration hired Posada as part of the Iran-Contra scandal.

U.S. pressure has even had an effect abroad. A Panamanian court convicted Posada of plotting to kill Castro during an Ibero-American Summit. Then, in 2004, President Mireya Moscoso pardoned Posada. (my italics)

The US has grandly said that any country that harbors terrorists should expect to be treated like a terrorist nation and be subject to all the consequences that ensue. Indeed this is the claimed basis for many of the assassinations that the US has conducted in foreign countries. And yet the US has long provided refuge to Posada, who has actually been convicted of terrorist acts.

Cuba has as much reason, if not more, to kill Posada as the US has to target the people it has killed. But imagine if the Cuban government sent in drones to kill Posada in the US. Even if in the process they did not kill ordinary American civilians the way that American assassination attempts in other countries often do, there would be such outrage and condemnations that Cuba would be invaded within days.

And yet, when the US does exactly the same thing to others, it goes unnoticed.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart vs. Bernie Goldberg and Fox News

I don't know why people try to take on Stewart. Even an average stand-up comedian can rip apart smart and reasonable people and make them look stupid because they are good with words and can think on their feet. Stewart is not only well above average, he even has a talented team of writers at his disposal and his own show. He is always going to have the last word and you are always going to lose. Goldberg seems to be too dense to understand this and keeps getting mauled.

The clip is worth watching to the end just to see Stewart do a great impersonation of a gospel church preacher, followed by a Groucho Marx dance routine.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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April 22, 2010

Non-believing priests and their parishioners

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in their paper Preachers who are not believers say that one of the biggest problems that non-believing clergy face is what to tell their parishioners. It is not only their disbelief that they have to hide, it is even the stuff they learn in divinity school which is quite different from the simple biblical views that their parishioners believe. The Washington Post has a panel of writers who contribute to their On Faith column and they have all weighed in with different ideas about what they think non-believing clergy should do.

However, the priests interviewed in the study all decided that they needed to conceal their disbelief and doubts but find it burdensome to publicly spout beliefs that they themselves can no longer accept.

Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles.

What was interesting was that they all seemed to think that many of their fellow priests also believed things that were quite different from their parishioners. They saw themselves as professionals with insider professional knowledge that they could not share with their flock. "I mean, you have a professional class of people, basically, who are working with an organization of non-professionals."

Still, they all find themselves with a secret: they don't believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.

When asked his opinion of why ministers do not pass on their knowledge of Christian history to parishioners, [one of the disbelieving clergy] said:

"They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don't want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They've got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don't want to make people mad at them. They don't want to lose members."

They struggle to find ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance between what they believe and what they publicly profess.

Here's how I'm handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing."

But they often feel so stifled that they try to find ways to seek out parishioners with whom they can explore their unconventional ideas.

One tactic they have discovered is the book club or study group, where self-selected parishioners get to read one of the controversial books by Bart Ehrman or Bishop Shelby Spong… or even Sam Harris.

Those who participate are alerted to the nature of the materials in advance and are then gently encouraged to discuss the ideas, in an unusually tolerant atmosphere, a sort of holiday from the constraints of dogma. Here the pastors can demonstrate their open-mindedness and willingness to take these shocking ideas seriously, and let the authors be the mouthpieces for what is in their hearts. Again, they need to have plausible deniability: they aren't preaching these ideas, just acquainting their parishioners—those who are interested—with them.

This was a revelation to me. My own religious upbringing in Sri Lanka was strongly influenced by three very progressive and humane clergymen, people about whom I still have fond memories. They were the two Anglican chaplains at my school (my school in Sri Lanka was established by Anglican missionaries from England and it had a tradition of having English chaplains), and the Methodist minister of my church, also an Englishman. They were people who were very open and accepting and you felt that you could explore any idea with them without them becoming shocked or outraged or condemning you for having heretical thoughts. They were people who were smart, scholarly, and thoughtful. In fact, just the type of deep thinkers who might end up not believing in god.

Looking back I wonder if they were this open-minded because they were also secretly grappling with unbelief and the frank discussions we had were their way of dealing with their own issues, like the priests in the Dennett-LaScola study.

Though I never took the Bible literally, I was a strong believer (though not a fundamentalist) and I don't recall ever actually questioning the existence of god. But if I did so and told them, I think they would have taken it in stride. But it never crossed my mind until now that they might have been secret non-believers. It never occurred to me to ask them if they actually believed in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection from the dead of Jesus. But looking back, I am beginning to wonder. It might be interesting for those readers of this blog who know clergy well enough to ask them point blank if they actually believe in god and the virgin birth and the resurrection.

It is strange that such questions are never asked. It makes one suspect that such discretion is practiced because people fear that disbelief of basic dogma is far more prevalent among clergy and laity in churches than they are willing to let on. It is a can that many suspect contains worms but no one wants to open to find out.

POST SCRIPT: Talks by Dan Barker in Cleveland

Dan Barker is a former evangelical preacher who became an atheist and left the church and founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

He will be speaking at CWRU tomorrow (Friday, April 23, 2010) in Wickenden 322. The talk is free and open to the public. The title of his talk is "Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists,"

The event is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. For more details go to the group's Facebook page or contact president Andrew Schriver at acs127@case.edu.

The next day (Saturday, April 24) Barker will talk on "How to be good without God" at Cleveland State University at 6:00 pm in Nance College of Business (1860 Euclid Ave.) room 118. The event is sponsored by the CSU Non-Prophets.

For more details see their April 24 Event page on Facebook or contact Bryan Pesta at Bpesta22@cs.com.

April 21, 2010

The loneliness of the unbelieving priest

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University report in their paper Preachers who are not believers that in order to overcome their sense of loneliness, unbelieving clergy quietly seek out cues and clues to identify which of their colleagues share their disbeliefs. "Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries." (I wrote earlier about this topic and the Dennett-LaScola study here and here.)

Richard Dawkins comments on the peculiar dilemma faced by disbelieving priests and what it says about the straitjacket that religion imposes on those assigned to do its work.

The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn't tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

The reasons that priests become unbelievers vary. Apart from their discovery during their studies that there is no way that their religious texts can be infallible, they also confront the same questions that occur to most thinking people, except that they cannot avoid them the way that other people can. Here are some sample quotes from unbelieving clergy:

"[I]f God was going to reveal himself to us, don't you think it would be in a way that we wouldn't question? …I mean, if I was wanting to have…people teach about the Bible…I would probably make sure they knew I existed. …I mean, I wouldn't send them mysterious notes, encrypted in a way that it took a linguist to figure out."

"I do remember this a couple of years down the road after being a Christian - this concept and idea of hell. I was going, 'Hell? What do you mean I was going to hell? Why? What's hell, and where is it?' And I've never believed in hell. I just never bought it. There's a place where people go when they die, and they burn eternally? No."

"The whole heaven thing makes no sense either. Why would I want to walk on streets of gold? I know people think that's literally how it's going to be. If we have no value system in heaven, as far as monetary or value system like we have here on earth, why would I want to walk on streets of gold? And I have people who believe they're going to have a physical body, and we're going to be in the new Earth…and we're not going to die, and we're not going to grow old, and we're not going to have pain. Why? That all makes no sense to me."

The debates between religious people and theists, and the books published by the new atheists have also been effective in making them into unbelievers.

"Probably one of the most mind-opening things was listening to all these debates from top people of Christianity; or believers vs. non-believers. And I tried to do the same thing: be open and listen, and use my mind and reason, I guess. And almost undeniably, even being a believer and knowing the Christian claims and scripture, you know what? This guy won in the debate. He's a non-believer. Why?"

The reason the atheists win is of course that it is the atheists who have all the arguments and evidence on their side. There is absolutely no way for a religious believer to win a debate with an atheist except by using rhetorical tricks and verbal sleights of hand. Atheists who are aware of those tricks and keep their focus on the main issue (that there is no evidence for god and that the world is perfectly explicable without invoking any kind of supernatural agency) will easily win such debates. It undoubtedly helps in such debates to know science so that one can rebut the spurious claims that are sometimes put forward that recent scientific advances support the existence of god.

The key phrase above that tipped that priest into disbelief is that he tried to use his 'mind and reason'. Once people start to do that, faith in god will disappear. Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation that broke away from the Catholic Church, was well aware of the danger that reason posed to faith, saying, "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God" and "Reason should be destroyed in all Christians" and "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 190)

This is also the reason why faith tends to decline with increasing education (Michael Shermer, Why We Believe, 2000, p. 84, 253). The dilemma faced by mainline churches is that they want to be seen as the religion of choice for thinking people, unlike the fundamentalist churches whose preachers simply cherry-pick verses from the Bible, think that it an inerrant record of historical events, and make appeals to their flock based purely on emotion, mainly fear of hell and damnation. But in order to serve that constituency, these churches have to have scholarly priests able to thoughtfully address the questions posed by thinking people. But a scholarly priest has to use his mind and reason and is thus in great danger of becoming an unbelieving priest.

I think that religious institutions must be well aware that the ranks of their clergy are rife with disbelievers.

Next: How do disbelieving priests deal with their parishioners?

POST SCRIPT: More on corruption in the Catholic Church

NPR had a story yesterday on the scandalous case of Marcial Maciel Degollado, the sexually abusive, drug-addicted founder of the Legion of Christ that I wrote about earlier, giving more details of how he gained money and power and influence. For example, rich people who gave him large cash contributions would get to have private masses with Pope John Paul II. It is just like corrupt politicians granting private access to rich contributors.

You can read the transcript or listen to the broadcast.

April 20, 2010

Government-sanctioned killing

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In yesterday's post, I highlighted the order by Obama to kill a US-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki because he believes that he has been inciting people to violence. In other words, he has been targeted for summary execution, not because of any actions, but because of things he is alleged to have said. Columnist and analyst Glenn Greenwald, who is also a constitutional lawyer, recounts the legal history of the rights of free speech.

The question of where First Amendment-protected radical advocacy ends and criminality begins is exactly the sort of question with which courts have long grappled. In the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed a criminal conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who -- surrounded by hooded indivduals [sic] holding weapons -- gave a speech threatening "revengeance" against any government official who "continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race." The Court held that the First Amendment protects advocacy of violence and revolution, and that the State is barred from punishing citizens for the expression of such views. The Brandenburg Court pointed to a long history of precedent protecting the First Amendment rights of Communists to call for revolution -- even violent revolution -- inside the U.S., and explained that the Government can punish someone for violent actions but not for speech that merely advocates or justifies violence. (my italics)

Given this extremely broad interpretation by the Supreme Court of the protections granted by the constitution to free speech, how does the government get away with the claim that it can actually kill anyone whose speech it dislikes? It is using the fear and paranoia that has been carefully cultivated by the Bush-Cheney-Obama regimes to make people so fearful of vague threats that they are willing to shred the hard-won rights laid out in the constitution and put their fate in the hands of a protective father-figure. The 'home of the brave' has become the home of people hiding under their beds.

How the government gets people to acquiesce in these policies is to use anonymous sources to leak to the media that someone is a very, very bad person who deserves to die. The media dutifully report this and then excitedly and gleefully report as a success in the 'war on terror' when that person is reported killed, no matter if other people are killed along the way. No one seems to ask how we really know if this person is bad if there hasn't been a trial, and whether mere assertions by government officials (often anonymous) are sufficient to deny that person's right to life or even due process rights. It seems as if all that is necessary is to use the words 'war on terror' or to call someone a 'terrorist' for the constitution to be shredded.

As Greenwald says:

[I]n Barack Obama's America, the way guilt is determined for American citizens -- and a death penalty imposed -- is that the President, like the King he thinks he is, secretly decrees someone's guilt as a Terrorist. He then dispatches his aides to run to America's newspapers -- cowardly hiding behind the shield of anonymity which they're granted -- to proclaim that the Guilty One shall be killed on sight because the Leader has decreed him to be a Terrorist.

All of this underscores the principal point made in this excellent new article by Eli Lake, who compellingly and comprehensively documents what readers here well know: that while Obama's "speeches and some of his administration's policy rollouts have emphasized a break from the Bush era," the reality is that the administration has retained and, in some cases, built upon the core Bush/Cheney approach to civil liberties and Terrorism.

When Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination, the Constitutional Law Scholar answered a questionnaire about executive power distributed by The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage, and this was one of his answers:

5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?
[Obama]: No. I reject the Bush Administration's claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

So back then, Obama said the President lacks the power merely to detain U.S. citizens without charges. Now, as President, he claims the power to assassinate them without charges. Could even his hardest-core loyalists try to reconcile that with a straight face? As Spencer Ackerman documents today, not even John Yoo claimed that the President possessed the power Obama is claiming here.

In another post Greenwald pursues this theme:

Here again, we see one of the principal and longest-lasting effects of the Obama presidency: to put a pretty, eloquent, progressive face on what (until quite recently) was ostensibly considered by a large segment of the citizenry to be tyrannical right-wing extremism (e.g., indefinite detention, military commissions, "state secrets" used to block judicial review, an endless and always-expanding "War on Terror," immunity for war criminals, rampant corporatism -- and now unchecked presidential assassinations of American citizens), and thus to transform what were once bitter, partisan controversies into harmonious, bipartisan consensus.

As regular readers know, I quote Greenwald extensively because, unlike most commentators in the mainstream media, he not only knows about what he writes but he cares deeply about upholding basic civil and constitutional rights. If you are not reading him regularly, you are missing a lot.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show (February 2009) on fear-mongering

Using these kinds of tactics, any and every atrocity is justified under the guise of 'protecting' us. (For some reason, after the 3 second Comedy Central introduction, you have to click the pause button and then the play button to start the video.)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Why Are You Such a Dick? - Audio Tape
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April 19, 2010

The president as king

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It seems to have been accepted as the norm that the US has the right to declare that certain countries are free fire zones in which they can kill civilians, irrespective of whether they are young, old, men women, or children, purely because they happen to be in the vicinity of people the US has deemed its enemies. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen are now among countries where the US sends unmanned drones on assassination missions that often go wrong and result in innocent people being blown to bits. Obama has been the most enthusiastic user of such methods. If you live in any of those countries, you run the risk of being gunned down by US forces at any time.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported back in January that:

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.

Obama has ordered a dramatic increase in the pace of CIA drone-launched missile strikes into Pakistan in an effort to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban members in the ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border. There have been more such strikes in the first year of Obama's administration than in the last three years under President George W. Bush, according to a military officer who tracks the attacks.

Obama also has sent U.S. military forces briefly into Somalia as part of an operation to kill Saleh Ali Nabhan, a Kenyan sought in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya.

In November 2002, a CIA missile strike killed six al-Qaeda operatives driving through the desert. The target was Abu Ali al-Harithi, organizer of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Killed with him was a U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish, who the CIA knew was in the car.

Word that the CIA had purposefully killed Derwish drew attention to the unconventional nature of the new conflict and to the secret legal deliberations over whether killing a U.S. citizen was legal and ethical.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose "a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests," said one former intelligence official.

The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, "it doesn't really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them," a senior administration official said. "They are then part of the enemy." (my italics)

The US government has been murdering people as a matter of policy for a long time but it used to be done covertly because it used to be considered an illegal and shameful act. Older people can remember the uproar that greeted the revelations in 1975 of the Church Committee when the government's assassination policy was revealed. But now it is quite brazen in its assertion that it has the right to kill people at will.

The latest outrage that is passing almost unnoticed is an order by the Obama administration authorizing the 'capture or killing' of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamic cleric who is supposed to be the person who inspired and the Christmas day underwear bomber as well as the army major who murdered his fellow soldiers at an army base in the US. Awlaki is a US-born citizen who is now believed to be in Yemen.

In other words, the US government has decided that it has the right to simply murder anyone, even US citizens, whom the president has decided should be murdered. As Glenn Greenwald says:

Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose "a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests." They're entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration's policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges -- based solely on the President's claim that they were Terrorists -- produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn't Obama's policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind -- not imprisoned, but killed -- produce at least as much controversy?

Obviously, if U.S. forces are fighting on an actual battlefield, then they (like everyone else) have the right to kill combatants actively fighting against them, including American citizens. That's just the essence of war. That's why it's permissible to kill a combatant engaged on a real battlefield in a war zone but not, say, torture them once they're captured and helplessly detained. But combat is not what we're talking about here. The people on this "hit list" are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities. More critically still, the Obama administration -- like the Bush administration before it -- defines the "battlefield" as the entire world. So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks. That's quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.

The ability to throw someone into secret prisons without trial and indefinitely deprive them of all their rights and even subject them to torture isn't enough for Obama. He has now asserted that he has the omniscience to find people guilty and impose the death sentence on them without any trial or giving the victims the right to any defend themselves or to even know the charges against them. If King Obama says someone should be murdered, that is it. All the might and power of the US can now be used to simply gun down that person in the street anywhere in the world and no questions will be asked.

POST SCRIPT 1: Ron Paul on shredding the constitution

POST SCRIPT 2: Talk

Today (Monday, April 19) at 7:45pm I will be talking to Case people about my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom in the 5th floor Library in the Clocktower building of The Village at 115.

April 16, 2010

The role of Pope John Paul II in a corrupt Catholic Church

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

While a lot of the attention and blame for the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church has focused on Pope Ratzinger's role, John Paul II has had a shameful history as well. Yesterday, I wrote about his lack of action against, and even the promotion of, an abusive Canadian priest Bernard Prince. Even more shocking are the recent revelations of his close relationship with Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a powerful order known as the Legionaries of Christ. When he died in 2008 at the age of 87,

Maciel left an ecclesiastical empire with which the church must now contend. The Italian newsweekly L'espresso estimates the Legion's assets at 25 billion euros, with a $650 million annual budget, according to The Wall Street Journal. The order numbered 700 priests and 1,300 seminarians in 2008.

This expose by Jason Berry in the April 6, 2010 issue of the National Catholic Reporter lays out the awful details. I will give only a few details. You have to read the whole thing to get a sense of the scale of the corruption. If you did not know better, you would think that this article was describing the workings of some weird hybrid organization made up of the Mafia and a cult. It is a shocking story of money, sex, power, intrigue, and corruption in the Catholic Church. Religion plays hardly any role except as a cover for the corruption.

In his time, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado was the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic church. He was also a magnetic figure in recruiting young men to religious life in an era when vocations were plummeting. Behind that exalted façade, however, Maciel was a notorious pedophile, and a man who fathered several children by different women. His life was arguably the darkest chapter in the clergy abuse crisis that continues to plague the church.

The saga of the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, a secretive, cult-like religious order now under Vatican investigation, opens into a deeper story of how one man's lies and betrayal dazzled key figures in the Roman curia and how Maciel's money and success helped him find protection and influence. For years, the heads of Vatican congregations and the pope himself ignored persistent warnings that something was rotten in the community where Legionaries called their leader Nuestro Padre, "Our Father," and considered him a living saint.

This much is well established from previous reporting: Maciel was a morphine addict who sexually abused at least 20 Legion seminarians from the 1940s to the '60s… Maciel began fathering children in the early 1980s -- three of them by two Mexican women, with reports of a third family with three children in Switzerland. (my italics)

And yet, despite all this, John Paul II kept supporting him.

Even as he was trailed by pedophilia accusations, Maciel attracted large numbers of seminarians in an era of dwindling vocations. In 1994 Pope John Paul II heralded him as "an efficacious guide to youth." John Paul continued praising Maciel after a 1997 Hartford Courant investigation by Gerald Renner and this writer exposed Maciel's drug habits and abuse of seminarians.

In 2004, John Paul -- ignoring the canon law charges against Maciel -- honored him in a Vatican ceremony in which he entrusted the Legion with the administration of Jerusalem's Notre Dame Center, an education and conference facility.

It was only in 2004 that Ratzinger "banished him from active ministry to "a life of prayer and repentance" for abusing seminarians." Maciel's life and success in the Catholic Church shows how money has corrupted the institution. The reason that the Vatican was willing to overlook his crimes was because he created a huge financial empire that used its resources to curry favor with top Vatican officials by essentially buying their support with cash contributions.

For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each.

The Vatican office with the greatest potential to derail Maciel's career before 2001 -- the year that Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to consolidate authority of abuse investigations in his office – was the Congregation for Religious, which oversaw religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Legionaries, among many others.

According to two former Legionaries who spent years in Rome, Maciel paid for the renovation of the residence in Rome for the Argentine cardinal who was prefect of religious from 1976 to 1983, the late Eduardo Francisco Pironio.

To his credit, the article says that Ratzinger was one of the few people who rejected one such cash bribe.

The article goes on to say that Maciel had rich and influential supporters, within and outside the church. One of them was the highly influential Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1990 to 2006 and now dean of the college of cardinals, who was the beneficiary of large gifts of cash and lavish parties thrown in his honor by Maciel, and who in turn put pressure on other Vatican officials, including Ratzinger, to not investigate the charges against Maciel. In fact, this report suggests that Ratzinger was better than John Paul II at dealing with Maciel and was the one who finally pulled the plug on him, though belatedly and quietly. (Sodano was the cardinal who in this year's Easter sermon reiterated that the sex allegations against the church were merely "petty gossip".)

Lay supporters included Steve McEveety, producer of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (Legion priests advised on the film), Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who spoke at Legion conferences; Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo, who performed at a fundraiser, Harvard Law Professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, "former CNN religion correspondent Delia Gallagher spoke at a Legion fundraiser, and William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, defended Maciel in a letter to the Hartford Courant , after a 1997 article that exposed Maciel's history of pedophilia. Two Legion priests are TV news celebrities: Jonathan Morris on FOX, and Tom Williams, a theology professor at the Legion university in Rome, for NBC during Katie Couric's coverage of the 2005 conclave and again with Couric at CBS." People may recognize Legion priest Jonathan Morris, a telegenic priest who often appears on TV.

The basic problem is that the church hierarchy is more concerned about protecting the church than the victims. The Vatican has now issued new guidelines that say "for the first time that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law."

So they finally deign to follow the same laws that the rest of us must obey.

POST SCRIPT 1: What to do about the abuses in the Catholic Church?

John Hodgman thinks he knows how to solve the problem.

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POST SCRIPT 2: Talk

On Monday, April 19 at 7:45pm I will be talking to Case people about my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom in the 5th floor Library in the Clocktower building of The Village at 115.

April 15, 2010

More abuse cover-ups by the Catholic Church

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The scandal concerning the widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church gets worse and worse. The latest example showing how deeply entrenched the policy of secrecy and cover up was in the church has been the publication in the Toronto Globe and Mail of a 1993 letter from J. R. Windle, Bishop of Pembroke in Ontario, to the representative of the Vatican in Canada concerning Bernard Prince, a priest in his diocese who had been found to have abused a child.

From the letter, it appears that the priest had acknowledged his crime but the diocese had managed to keep it secret. They did not hand him over to the police or want him transferred to another diocese within Canada but had agreed to have him sent to Rome in 1991 instead. The guilty priest was apparently a friend of Pope John Paul II and the latter had actually decided to promote him, if you can believe it, at about the same time that it emerged that the acts of abuse byPrince had not been limited to a single isolated incident but had gone on for an extended period and that he had abused other children as well.

The Bishop of Pembroke was alarmed that if the abusive priest were promoted, the victims would be so angered that they might make their charges public. Throughout the letter, what becomes disgustingly clear is that the main concern of the bishop was how to get Prince out of his diocese while keeping things secret. Here are some excepts from the letter, with all the italics being mine:

When Fr. Prince was first proposed for his present position in Rome (on the recommendation of the now Archbishop T. Franck), I explained to the then Archbishop Jose Sanchez (now Cardinal Sanchez), in his capacity as Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, that, while the charge against Fr. Prince was very serious, I would not object to him being given another chance since it would remove him from the Canadian scene.

Recently it has been brought to our attention that there was not one but four or five victims in all (all minors who talk freely among themselves about their involvement with Fr. Prince), and that several lay people of the Wilno-Barry's Bay area, as well as a number of priests of the Deanery of Barry's Bay are aware of these unfortunate events… any papal recognition or promotion would surely result in animosity and "admiratio", along with other possible ramifications.

The victim assured Monsignor Barry [the Vicar General] that he would not lay any charges (although his counsellor strongly advised him to do so), unless he learned that Fr. Prince was victimizing other individuals and that appropriate steps were not bring taken by his superiors to obviate this possibility through counselling and supervision.

Consequently, Your Excellency, the scenario which exists today is considerably different from when I first spoke with Archbishop Sanchez. At that time we were under the impression that the incident was isolated, in the distant past, and there was little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging.

However, the knowledge and extent of Fr. Prince's previous activity is now much more widespread among both the laity and the clergy than previously existed. Hence, were he to be honoured in any way it could easily trigger a reaction among the victim(s), or others who are aware of his previous conduct, and this would prove extremely embarrassing both to the Holy See and to the Diocese of Pembroke, not to mention the possibility of criminal charges being laid and a civil lawsuit ensuing.

The next passage shows how the church exploits the 'respect for religion' trope (that I have criticized before) and its carefully cultivated mystique of the priesthood to exert coercive power over its victims to keep things quiet.

One redeeming factor is that it would appear that the victims involved are of Polish descent and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest. Had this happened elsewhere there would be every danger that charges would have been laid long ago with all the resultant scandal. Unfortunately one priest, who was talking with one of the victims who partially revealed. Fr. Prince's activity while living with him in Ottawa, has been somewhat indiscreet in his comments about Fr. Prince, and has had to be cautioned by the Vicar General in this respect.

The next passage shows the collusion among all the top church officials on the policy of covering up crimes and the need to protect the image of the church over the needs of the abused victims:

I regret both the length and contents of this letter, Your Excellency, but when there is so much at stake for the Church in general and the diocese in particular, given the adverse climate we are currently experiencing, any promotion for Fr. Prince, even for a Papal Honour, but most especially for the Episcopate, would have horrendous results and cause immeasurable harm. All of the Bishops of Ontario who are aware of this situation (and there are several) would most certainly agree with my assessment in this regard.

However, as previously mentioned, a promotion of any kind would indicate to the victim that he is being further victimized and hence we could anticipate that a charge would be laid and a public trial would follow. This has been the pattern which has been followed in recent event s of a similar nature and it is a situation which we wish to avoid at all costs.

Despite these warnings, Pope John Paul II allowed Bernard Prince to serve in the position of secretary-general of the Vatican's Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1991 until he retired in 2004. He was finally convicted in 2008 of sexually molesting 13 boys between the years of 1964 and 1984 and is now serving a four-year prison term. It took this for him to be finally defrocked in 2009.

The consistent strategy of the Catholic Church has been to cover up abuse cases and get victims to keep quiet. Is it any surprise then that Catholic bishops in Connecticut are currently fighting a proposed law that would eliminate the statue of limitations on child sexual abuse, because that would unravel their whole plan? They have simply no shame.

Pope Ratzinger is due to visit England in September of this year, no doubt to teach people all about Christian morality. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have enlisted the services of two human rights lawyers to see if he cannot be arrested during his visit, the way that brutal Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was, to be tried for the crimes committed by the organization of which he is head.

This should be interesting.

POST SCRIPT: The real problem

The Onion reports on what Ratzinger thinks is the real problem behind the child abuse scandal.

April 14, 2010

The war against WikiLeaks

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Yesterday, I wrote about the killing of a family of five people, including two pregnant women and a teenager, and the attempted cover up by NATO forces in Afghanistan. It should be noted that the London Times reporter Jerome Starkey reported the story of killings and cover-up in Afghanistan more than a month ago, saying that "A Times investigation suggests that Nato’s claims are either wilfully false or, at best, misleading" but there was a lack of interest by the US media in reporting these stories

That is par for the course. The US news media rarely has the kind of inquisitiveness or the healthy skepticism of official versions of events that you would expect journalists to have and continues to report the military's versions of events as facts, at least initially, unless they happen to have reporters actually on or near the site when the event occurred. They usually wait until the real information is unearthed and publicized by either the foreign media or independent groups like WikiLeaks before starting to question the official story and investigate for themselves.

For those who read the foreign media, the number of cases of large scale or brutal civilian deaths covered up by the US military becomes staggering. The use of unmanned drones to strike at targets, which has escalated greatly under Obama, has resulted in numerous cases of civilian casualties. Take this story that reports that up to 90 people, 60 of them children, were killed in an airstrike in Azizabad in Afghanistan on August 22, 2008. First the US said only seven civilians were killed, then much later acknowledged that figure to 33.

Tom Engelhardt describes the event and the cover up:

As many as 76 members of a single extended family were killed, along with its head, Reza Khan. His compound seems to have been specially targeted… The incident in Azizabad may represent the single deadliest media-verified attack on civilians by U.S. forces since the invasion of 2001. Numerous buildings were damaged. Many bodies, including those of children, had to be dug out of the rubble. There may have been as many as 60 children among the dead. The U.S. military evidently attacked after being given false information by another tribal leader/businessman in the area with a grudge against Khan and his brother.

Given the weight of evidence at Azizabad, the on-site investigations, the many graves, the destroyed houses, the specificity of survivor accounts, and so on, this might have seemed like a cut-and-dried case of mistaken intelligence followed by an errant assault with disastrous consequences. But accepting such a conclusion simply isn't in the playbook of the U.S. military or the Bush administration.

Instead, in such cases what you regularly get is a predictable U.S. narrative about what happened made up of outlandish claims (or simply bald-faced lies), followed by a strategy of stonewalling, including a blame-the-victims approach in which civilian deaths are regularly dismissed as enemy-inspired "propaganda," followed -- if the pressure doesn't ease up -- by the announcement of an "investigation" (whose results will rarely be released), followed by an expression of "regrets" or "sorrow" for the loss of life -- both weasel words that can be uttered without taking actual responsibility for what happened -- never to be followed by a genuine apology.

Another horror story is the execution-style killing in December by NATO soldiers of eight handcuffed Afghan children aged 11 to 18. Once again, the US media accepted at face value the US military's initial statement that these were members of a bomb-making ring, and it took the foreign media (again Jerome Starkey this time in The Scotsman) to investigate and report what had actually happened and get NATO to admit two months later that the dead were actually students.

Given the penchant of the US government for secrecy and cover-ups, is it any wonder that the independent news media are seen by the US government as an enemy? We are also partly to blame because we don't seem to want to hear this kind of bad news, unless the victims are Americans. As Engelhardt says:

This sort of "collateral damage" is an ongoing modern nightmare, which, unlike dead Amish girls or school shootings, does not fascinate either our media or, evidently, Americans generally. It seems we largely don't want to know about what happened, and generally speaking, that's lucky because the media isn't particularly interested in telling us. This is one reason the often absurd accounts sometimes offered by the U.S. military go relatively unchallenged -- as, fortunately, they did not in the case of the incident at Azizabad.

As a result of the recent WikiLeaks video, the US has now trained its guns (at least metaphorically for now) on it, stating that the organization is a threat to national security and is trying to find out who is leaking to them so that they can punish them as a means of discouraging further leaks. Dan Froomkin writes:

Just last month, WikiLeaks posted the results of a U.S. counterintelligence investigation into none other than WikiLeaks itself. The report determined that WikiLeaks "represents a potential force protection, counterintelligence, operational security (OPSEC), and information security (INFOSEC) threat to the US Army."

The report also concludes, highly suggestively: "Wikileaks.org uses trust as a center of gravity by assuring insiders, leakers, and whistleblowers who pass information to Wikileaks.org personnel or who post information to the Web site that they will remain anonymous. The identification, exposure, or termination of employment of or legal actions against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others from using Wikileaks.org to make such information public." (my italics)

You can see the secret US memo on how to destroy WikiLeaks at WikiLeaks.

The threats by the US military against WikiLeaks are not to be taken lightly. During the Iraq war, we saw how they viewed Al Jazeera as a 'hostile' force. Al Jazeera bureau offices in both Baghdad and Kabul were bombed by US forces even though the news organization had given its coordinates to the Pentagon, and the bombing of their head offices in Qatar was also discussed. The two people who leaked the memo of George Bush and Tony Blair discussing this last option were put on secret trial for violating Britain's infamous Official Secrets Act, and were sentenced to prison for six and three months.

Any American news organization that questions the innate decency and goodness of the US government and the military risks being harshly attacked as 'not patriotic' or not 'supporting the troops'. This is how a propaganda system is created. It is interesting that a few US media organizations (such as the Associated Press and the Hearst and Gannett groups) actually provide support for WikiLeaks, presumably because as a way of getting around the self-censorship they seem to feel obliged to practice. Once WikiLeaks publishes something, the media then has some cover to follow up on the story. As the editor of WikiLeaks says, "We take the hardest publishing cases in the world and deal with them and by doing that we create a space behind us that admits other people to successfully publish."

As the London Independent points out, what is amazing is that WikiLeaks has a staff of just five people and yet has produced "more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years" and the article provides some background on who is behind it and how it manages this.

This is why organizations like WikiLeaks and Antiwar.com need our support. Without them, we would be at the complete mercy of the sanitized reporting of mainstream American media as they faithfully repeat the lies of the US government and the military.

Please support WikiLeaks. There are many ways to do so, not just with financial contributions.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the WikiLeaks video

He first talks about the video, the second clip has an edited interview with Julian Assange, and the third clip has the full, unedited interview. The full interview is well worth watching.

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April 13, 2010

When killing civilians becomes routine

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The WikiLeaks video I posted yesterday of the killing of Iraqis will have shocked all but the most hardened people. Most Americans, even if they think the killings were wrong, are likely to write this off as the actions of a few rogue elements because they cannot bear to think that 'we' can do bad things, so indoctrinated are they by the myth of America's essential goodness that uniquely sets them apart from the rest of the world. They do not seem to realize that people are pretty much the same the world over and this kind of thing is the inevitable result of sending large numbers of soldiers to fight in foreign countries for extended periods of time. The entire population eventually becomes seen as the enemy and atrocities against civilians become routine. The repetition of this phenomenon is so drearily predictable that it is hardly worthwhile to list them.

Glenn Greenwald, commenting on the WikiLeaks video, points out that such atrocities are not aberrations:

Shining light on what our government and military do is so critical precisely because it forces people to see what is really being done and prevents myth and propaganda from distorting those realities. That's why the administration fights so hard to keep torture photos suppressed, why the military fought so hard here to keep this video concealed (and why they did the same with regard to the Afghan massacre, and why whistle-blowers, real journalists, and sites like WikiLeaks are the declared enemy of the government. The discussions many people are having today -- about the brutal reality of what the U.S. does when it engages in war, invasions and occupation -- is exactly the discussion which they most want to avoid.

But there's a serious danger when incidents like this Iraq slaughter are exposed in a piecemeal and unusual fashion: namely, the tendency to talk about it as though it is an aberration. It isn't. It's the opposite: it's par for the course, standard operating procedure, what we do in wars, invasions, and occupation. The only thing that's rare about the Apache helicopter killings is that we know about it and are seeing what happened on video. And we're seeing it on video not because it's rare, but because it just so happened (a) to result in the deaths of two Reuters employees, and thus received more attention than the thousands of other similar incidents where nameless Iraqi civilians are killed, and (b) to end up in the hands of WikiLeaks, which then published it. But what is shown is completely common.

As support for his contention that such killings of civilians are not rare, Greenwald points to statements made by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan who, in a rare moment of candor, conceded that a lot of innocent people have been killed by the US. He said in an interview:

However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn't mean I'm criticizing the people who are executing. I'm just giving you perspective. We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.

The other case that is emerging is of the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and another attempted cover-up by the US military. Greenwald summarizes what happened and how the military reported it:

On February 12 [2010], U.S. forces entered a village in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan and, after surrounding a home where a celebration of a new birth was taking place, shot dead two male civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to inquire why they had been surrounded, and then shot and killed three female relatives (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager). The Pentagon then issued a statement claiming that (a) the dead males were "insurgents" or terrorists, (b) the bodies of the three women had been found by U.S. forces bound and gagged inside the home, and (c) suggested that the women had already been killed by the time the U.S. had arrived, likely the victim of "honor killings" by the Taliban militants killed in the attack.

The US military used the propensity of US media to seize on stereotypes that portray other people as barbarians and guessed correctly that they would eagerly seize on the 'honor' killing angle and report it as a fact.

Jerome Starkey of the London Times broke the story of what really happened. In order to cover up the fact that they had shot up a celebratory party, the soldiers attempted to collect all the bullets on the scene. In order to get the bullets out of the dead pregnant women, they dug them out with knives and then claimed the knife wounds were evidence that the women had been stabbed to death as part of the 'honor killings'.

US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened, Afghan investigators have told The Times.

It is inevitable that this horrific incident of killing, like all the other brutalities like Abu Ghraib and Haditha, will be greeted with the 'few bad apples' excuse. But US soldiers at the Winter Soldier hearings say that this kind of thing is not an aberration and that in many cases they were told to just shoot people and that the officers would look after them:

As disturbing as the video is, this type of behavior by US soldiers in Iraq is not uncommon.

Truthout has spoken with several soldiers who shared equally horrific stories of the slaughtering of innocent Iraqis by US occupation forces.

"I remember one woman walking by," said Jason Washburn, a corporal in the US Marines who served three tours in Iraq. He told the audience at the Winter Soldier hearings that took place March 13-16, 2008, in Silver Spring, Maryland, "She was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was full of groceries. She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces."

This is what modern warfare is really like: the lives of innocent people being destroyed.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's broken promises

Among the many policies that Obama has reneged on since taking office is his promise to increase openness and transparency.

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April 12, 2010

The WikiLeaks video

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I want to interrupt the series of posts on disbelieving priests to switch to politics, to comment on a shocking video that surfaced last week that some of you might have seen. To give you some background, on July 12, 2007 about a dozen Iraqis, including two journalists who worked for the Reuters news agency, were killed by the US military in a Baghdad suburb. The New York Times dutifully reported the military's version of the events.

The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.

"There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad.

This event passed unnoticed since it seemed like just another routine battle taking place in a war zone. The only noteworthy item was that two journalists were among the dead, though since they were not American or western journalists, very few people in the US cared.

Two weeks after the attack, the US military privately showed Reuters officials some portions of a video taken from one of the attack helicopters but they refused to release the entire video of the incident despite repeated requests under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). The organization WikiLeaks, that is dedicated to the public releasing of information, obtained the video, decrypted it, and released it to the public. If you have not seen this video, you should, although it is very disturbing.

(The above is an edited 17-minute version. You can see the full unedited 37 minute video here. The White House has acknowledged that the video is genuine. The US military says, incredibly, that it can't find its own copy of the video.)

For those who cannot watch videos or cannot stomach people being gunned down, the video shows a group of men wandering around in an open courtyard, talking to each other and on their cell phones. They seemed unconcerned about a US military attack helicopter circling overhead. The gunner in the helicopter then unleashed a sudden deadly barrage of fire, killing and wounding almost everyone as they scurried for cover. When later a van comes along and tries to pick up the wounded, fire is unleashed again, killing yet more people and wounding two children who were in the van.

During it all, the people in the helicopter seem gleeful, chuckling over the deaths and congratulating each other, even audibly hoping that a crawling wounded man would make what could be interpreted as a hostile action so that they could shoot him again, laughing when a US military vehicle later went over a dead body, and even being dismissive when they discover that children had been among those shot in the van. A camera and telephoto lens carried by the photographer is mistaken by the gunner for a grenade launcher, a surprising error for trained soldiers to make.

As Dan Froomkin writes:

None of the members of the group were taking hostile action, contrary to the Pentagon's initial cover story; they were milling about on a street corner. One man was evidently carrying a gun, though that was and is hardly an uncommon occurrence in Baghdad.

Reporters working for WikiLeaks determined that the driver of the van was a good Samaritan on his way to take his small children to a tutoring session. He was killed and his two children were badly injured.

In the video, which Reuters has been asking to see since 2007, crew members can be heard celebrating their kills.

"Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards," says one crewman after multiple rounds of 30mm cannon fire left nearly a dozen bodies littering the street.

A crewman begs for permission to open fire on the van and its occupants, even though it has done nothing but stop to help the wounded: "Come on, let us shoot!"

Two crewmen share a laugh when a Bradley fighting vehicle runs over one of the corpses.

And after soldiers on the ground find two small children shot and bleeding in the van, one crewman can be heard saying: "Well, it's their fault bringing their kids to a battle."

The helicopter crew, which was patrolling an area that had been the scene of fierce fighting that morning, said they spotted weapons on members of the first group -- although the video shows one gun, at most. The crew also mistook a telephoto lens for a rocket-propelled grenade.

This video has been seen widely worldwide and as expected has caused outrage. But the US media, ever mindful of its role to hide the truth of war from Americans, has either ignored the story or has downplayed it or has blacked out the more disturbing images. Even when it has covered the story, it is as usual accompanied by the usual apologias, statements of regret, the world weary clichés of the 'fog of war', 'war is hell', etc. rolling smoothly over the tongue, by now repeated so often as to be almost unconscious. And of course portraying as naïve idealists those who think that even a legal war does not justify the murdering of people as they go about their lives.

Is it any wonder that Americans are always surprised when anti-American violence erupts around the world and are so easily persuaded that it must have irrational causes exemplified by fatuous statements such as that 'they hate us for our freedoms'?

POST SCRIPT: Julian Assange is interviewed on Al Jazeera

The Wikileaks editor talks about the video and other killings and why we can believe that the video is genuine.

April 09, 2010

The fog of belief

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University report in their paper titled Preachers who are not believers that as a result of their scholarly education, the priests they interviewed and many of their fellow priests just cannot take the tenets of their faith seriously anymore. As one said of his peers: "They're very liberal. They've been de-mythologized, I'll say that. They don't believe Jesus rose from the dead literally. They don't believe Jesus was born of a virgin. They don't believe all those things that would cause a big stir in their churches. But that's not uncommon in mainline denominations, or even in the Catholic Church." Another said, in an undoubted overstatement, "Oh, you can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!"

The churches probably suspect that there is a considerable amount of apostasy among their clergy because it rarely asks prospective clergy to affirm their beliefs. Part of this is because the churches themselves no longer seem certain about what doctrines people should believe. Over time, as scientific knowledge has advanced and made traditional beliefs untenable for any thinking person, the churches have retained their creeds which lay down very specific statements of beliefs that one must in theory hold, while in practice adopting a policy of 'anything goes' (well, almost) that gives people a lot of wiggle room as to what they can actually believe in. As Dennett and LaScola write:

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who is an unbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can't know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don't know what they are being asked.

The five clergy were never asked point blank at their ordination if they believed in god or the virgin birth. If the subject is broached in some way, they adopt the strategy of talking about the concept of god instead of god itself, and this rhetorical ploy is accepted as a way of avoiding direct statements of belief or unbelief.

R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says that this is a disturbing trend: "In other words, some theologians and denominations have embraced a theology so fluid and indeterminate that even an atheist cannot tell the believers and unbelievers apart."

The disbelieving clergy find themselves in a very tough situation that is almost unparalleled. I cannot think of any other profession where what one believes is tied so integrally to the work one does and where one is routinely required to profess statements of belief. You can see how it can wear you down if you do not believe the things you have to keep saying. As Dennett and LaScola say:

We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest. (my italics)

These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides.

But not everyone sees these clergy as brave people struggling with their personal demons of doubt and disbelief. Some view them as hypocrites who have no place in the church. Mohler thinks that unbelieving priests "are a curse upon the church" and that "If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them. If they will not "out" themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to "out" them."

I think the priests are well aware that this may be the reaction from many of the people around them if they are honest. And so they keep quiet.

Next: The loneliness of the unbelieving priest.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the Catholic Church atrocities

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April 08, 2010

Priests who don't believe

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Over four years ago, I speculated that the percentage of atheists among clergy and theologians may be much higher than in the general population, that it became even more likely the higher one rose in the hierarchy, and that as a result even the pope could well be an atheist. I gave two reasons for making that case.

The first is that members of the clergy encounter on a daily basis many of the kinds of personal tragedies of sickness, death, and violence than can make lay people question their faith, and hence they are more likely to find it hard to believe in a benevolent god. Since no one wants to believe in an evil god (though that would explain things a lot better), disbelief becomes an increasingly plausible option.

The second reason is that those clergy who belong to religious institutions that require years of study in theological colleges before ordination will quickly learn as part of their curriculum that their religious texts are products of human beings and that they have a dubious history that makes it very unlikely that they were divinely created. All the many contradictions make it hard to believe that the religious books were divinely inspired either, unless you believe in a god who is really sloppy and was too cheap to get himself a good editor. Most lay people have little idea of the origins of their texts and thus can more easily believe that they were divinely inspired or created.

Now even the Vatican's chief exorcist has conceded that apostasy is more common in the upper ranks of the church than people might think, speaking of "cardinals who do not believe in Jesus."

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University have recently published a paper titled Preachers who are not believers that seems to provide support for my speculative suggestions. They describe five case studies of Christian priests who are still working but were willing to confide in confidence that they do not believe in the tenets of their faith. Three of the priests were from liberal denominations (whom they called "the liberals") and two were from conservative denominations ("the literals").

These priests spoke of how hard it is to live a lie and how they would like to be open and change their lives but they stick with it because they have no other means of making a living.

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks. As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don't they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

Confiding their difficulties to a superior is not an appealing option: although it would be unlikely to lead swiftly and directly to an involuntary unfrocking. No denomination has a surplus of qualified clergy, and the last thing an administrator wants to hear is that one of the front line preachers is teetering on the edge of default. More likely, such an acknowledgment of doubt would put them on the list of problematic clergy and secure for them the not very helpful advice to soldier on and work through their crises of faith. Speaking in confidence with fellow clergy is also a course fraught with danger, in spite of the fact that some of them are firmly convinced that many, and perhaps most, of their fellow clergy share their lack of belief. (my italics)

What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them.

John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark describes some of the things you learn from biblical scholarship:

Miracles do not enter the Christian story until the 8th decade; the Virgin Birth and understanding the Resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body enters Christianity in the 9th decade, the story of the Ascension of Jesus is a 10th decade addition.

Should it be surprising that these things can shake the faith of believers, including priests, and are thus kept from the general public?

POST SCRIPT: The War on Easter

Now that atheists have won the war on Christmas, isn't it time to start wars on all the other holidays of all the religions?

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April 07, 2010

Should the pope resign?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The Catholic Church is battling the widespread perception that it is rotten to the core. Even the Chief Exorcist of the Catholic Church says that all this abuse and cover-ups by high officials of the church are signs that "the Devil is at work inside the Vatican." (Yes, there actually is such a post as 'Chief Exorcist', if you can imagine it. If anyone had any doubts that the church is still an institution with medieval sensibilities, this news should surely settle it. He claims that he has dealt with 70,000 cases of demonic possession in his 25 years on the job. That's almost eight every day, including weekends and holidays! Give that man a raise.)

As Christopher Hitchens writes:

This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain "confessors," who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck.

And now there are reports that the Boy Scouts have also been covering up the sexual abuse of young boys.

The Boy Scouts of America has long kept an extensive archive of secret documents that chronicle the sexual abuse of young boys by Scout leaders over the years.

The "perversion files," a nickname the Boy Scouts are said to have used for the documents, have rarely been seen by the public, but that could change in the coming weeks in a Portland, Ore., courtroom.

The attorney for a man who was allegedly molested in the 1980s by a Scout leader has obtained about 1,000 Boy Scouts sex files and is expected to release some of them at a trial that began Wednesday. The lawyer says the files show the organization has covered up abuse for decades.

It seems like we should be extra vigilant about hierarchical organizations that place young children under the unsupervised care of dominant older people. Such situations seem to create just the right conditions for abusers to take advantage of children.

Richard Dawkins says that despite the calls for him to resign, the pope should not do so:

As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly - ideally - qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Dawkins surprisingly missed 'gay-loathing' in that list.

Of course, all this will not prevent religious people from trotting out that old chestnut that we can only get our morality from god and the Bible and religion, that without them we would be totally amoral or downright evil people. They will claim that acts of a few bad apples do not mean that religion itself is a bad influence. The problem is that they try to have it both ways. The power of the Catholic Church and the clergy arises from their claim that they have a direct line from god, through the laying of hands by the pope, archbishops, and so on. All the trappings of the church, the rituals, the incense, the robes, the fancy hats, the rings, are meant to instill in people the idea that the clergy are holier than them. Priests cannot claim that privilege when it suits them and then say 'Oh, we should not be held to higher standards than ordinary people' when it emerges that they are often worse than ordinary people.

Defenders of the church will argue that the number of priests involved in abuse cases is small (though that argument is becoming harder to sustain as the scale of the abuse keeps growing) and that there are good priests doing wonderful work. They are right. There have been many inspiring Catholic priests and nuns, especially in Latin America, who bravely used the protective cover provided by the church in a good way, to fight for justice and to end oppression by cruel and murderous dictatorships. It is interesting that both Ratzinger and John Paul II actively saw the crushing of such priests and the associated liberation theology as a prime task, just as they sought to suppress the movements of progressive nuns and priests in Europe and the US.

Both popes seemed to see the abuse by priests as something secondary, to be covered up so as to not distract from the fight against doctrinal heresy. It would have been nice to see them use all that energy to combat abusive priests instead. But instead, priests who severely abused children could expect sympathetic understanding from the church's top echelons while those who merely advocated the abandonment of policies of priestly celibacy or a male-only priesthood or the prohibition against contraception risked being severely rebuked.

Given the long-standing demands from popes to all high church officials that they should essentially cover up the acts of abusive priests, probably a high fraction of all the current crop of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have such skeletons rattling around in their closets. So one should expect more and more allegations of cover-ups to emerge, coupled with an increasingly solid wall of resistance from the entire hierarchy of the church as it dawns on them that they are all at risk of exposure and that, in the words of Ben Franklin, they must all hang together, or assuredly they shall all hang separately. One has to look for the few remaining bishops who have clean hands to have the moral courage to go against the policy of stonewalling.

I have no doubt that the pope and its priests and bishops will continue to have the gall to act as if they are still the guardians of morality. Ratzinger now is trying to evade guilt by saying that the problem is that humanity in general is in crisis and in need of deep change for which, of course, he and the church can provide moral leadership. As this cartoon by Jesus and Mo says, this is what they always say, even if it is becoming increasingly clear that they have absolutely no standing to make the claim of being moral leaders.

POST SCRIPT: How the Catholic Church really works

Actor Louis CK investigates for Funny or Die how the church works and tries to find some humor in the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church as the abuse horror stories multiply. (Warning: Very strong language and sexual content.)

The Catholic Church - watch more funny videos

April 06, 2010

The Catholic Church stonewalls

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The way that defenseless children were treated in some Catholic orphanages or other homes for children is remarkable for its cruelty. The children were subjected to abominable treatment. In addition to the sexual abuse, physical and psychological abuse was also widespread. Stories are emerging that a bishop who is pope Ratzinger's friend routinely slapped, punched, and beat with a carpet beater children who lived in a church-run home in order 'to drive Satan out of them'. The gripping film The Magdalene Sisters, based on a true story about an actual home for 'wayward' girls run by the church in Ireland, details one such institution. You cannot see that film and not be horrified at what was done to those young women.

The famous study by Philip Zimbardo of simulated prison conditions showed how perfectly ordinary students at Stanford University, given total and unaccountable power over fellow students, quickly descended to committing acts of sadism and barbarism. It was so bad that they study had to be aborted after a few days. Priests and nuns given similar authority over young children seem to follow the same pattern, except it was worse because priests and nuns had that kind of unchecked power over their charges for decades.

Ratzinger seems to be remarkably tone-deaf on how to deal with this fast-expanding scandal. The Vatican has tried (again) to blame the media, suggesting that there is a conspiracy to discredit him. In a recent sermon Ratzinger even referred to the allegations as "petty gossip". Accusations of child abuse and rape by priests and cover-ups by the church is petty gossip? Incredible. It seems as if the Vatican has decided that it will try and ride out this scandal, just as it has done all the other scandals of the past and that people will eventually tire of the story and move on to other things. The sermon by his personal preacher comparing the criticisms of Ratzinger to anti-Semitism has simply added to the impression that the Vatican is completely out of touch with reality.

Ratzinger has a history of obtuseness of this kind. You might recall that within the past year, when some clergy and laity in the Anglican Church expressed strong dissatisfaction with their own church's tolerance of women and gay clergy in their ranks, the pope invited them to convert to Catholicism, leading to considerable derision. It seemed as if he was saying that the most intolerant people in other religions would find a welcoming home in the Catholic Church.

vatican_merger.jpeg

One cannot help thinking that the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was indulging in some payback when he said that with this scandal, the Catholic Church has lost all credibility

The church hierarchy at the highest levels has consistently reacted to abuse allegations by trying to protect the interests of the church at the expense of the victims, by keeping the misdeeds secret. Evidence of this policy was recently revealed in a 2001 letter written by Ratzinger instructing bishops to keep abuse cases confidential, which the bishops interpreted as meaning that they should not report the abuse to the police and thus encouraged the obstruction of justice.

In his letter, Ratzinger reinforced the instructions in a confidential 1962 document that newspapers have obtained from a secret Vatican archive that required all people involved in abuse cases, even the victims, to maintain strict secrecy on pain of excommunication. As the London Guardian newspaper reports:

The instructions outline a policy of 'strictest' secrecy in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and threatens those who speak out with excommunication.

They also call for the victim to take an oath of secrecy at the time of making a complaint to Church officials. It states that the instructions are to 'be diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia [Vatican] as strictly confidential. Nor is it to be published nor added to with any commentaries.'

Bishops are instructed to pursue these cases 'in the most secretive way... restrained by a perpetual silence... and everyone... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office... under the penalty of excommunication'.

This document was issued under the seal of Pope John XXIII, whom I had always thought of as 'the good pope' who seemed, unlike other popes, to not be a mere political operator and was someone who opened up the church to all manner of positive reforms. It shows how deeply to the core the corruption and secrecy has penetrated, where the first instinct is to protect the church and not seek justice or even show compassion for the victims. Dealing with the needs and suffering of the actual victims seems to have been the last thing on their minds. By keeping everything under wraps and merely moving priests around instead of prosecuting them in civil courts and kicking them out if found guilty, the actions of the abusive priests are now seen as being tolerated by the church.

The church has responded by saying that priests have the right to the presumption of innocence, and that the public airing of charges before they have been investigated and found to be credible should be avoided. It is true that false allegations of sexual abuse can be devastating and we should bear in mind the massive injustices perpetrated on day-care providers a decade or so ago when there was an epidemic of abuse allegations based on so-called 'repressed memories' of children, many of which later turned out to be false memories planted in their minds by the alleged experts who were getting the children to 'recall' them.

So the rights of priests against possible false allegations should be protected. But there is no reason why priests should have any more rights than any other person accused of a similar crime. When allegations of abuse are raised against priests, the civil authorities should be immediately notified, just as they are in all other cases. When people are threatened by the church with excommunication if they speak out to others, then it is clear that the church is trying to protect itself and not merely ensuring due process for priests or protecting the victims. It is clear that the church is demanding greater rights for itself than for other people and is aggrieved when that demand is questioned. (See the Jesus and Mo cartoon.)

Next: Should the pope resign?

POST SCRIPT: Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher on the scandal

April 05, 2010

How low can the Catholic Church sink?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The recent revelations of the depths to which the Catholic Church hierarchy has sunk in covering up the disgusting actions of priests who have abused children has stunned even someone like me who is quite cynical about organized religion.

To provide some context for the current scandal and remind us of its history, Pat Condell provides a brief but informative recounting of the appalling history of the Catholic Church, with all its swindles, perversions, anti-Semitism, and anti-science craziness. I was unaware of (or had forgotten) some of these appalling things. (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

The church has been flailing around trying to divert attention away from its sordid role in child abuse. Initially it defended itself by saying that abuse cases were localized to the US and that the problem was not with the church but with America, that its sex-sodden culture had corrupted everything in its domain, so that even some of its godliest people (i.e., priests) had succumbed to temptation. But now that it is clear that the problem is worldwide (and getting more widespread all the time), they have had to find new scapegoats.

Matt Taibbi points to an incredible statement by Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, who now blames the media for focusing on the abuse within the church and ignoring similar abuse by other institutions. Taibbi has some choice words for the institution he once belonged to:

[T]he archbishop's incredibly pompous and self-pitying rant is some of the most depraved horses*** I've ever seen on the internet, which is saying a lot.

One expects professional slimeballs like the public relations department of Goldman Sachs to pull out the "Well, we weren't the only thieves!" argument when accused of financial malfeasance. But I almost couldn't believe my eyes as I read through Dolan's retort and it dawned on me that he was actually going to use the "We weren't the only child molesters!" excuse.

But even worse — what does Dolan's whiny deflecting and excuse-making say about the church as an arbiter of ethical values? These pompous a******* run around in their poofy robes and dresses shaking smoke-filled decanters with important expressions on their faces and pretending to great insight about grace and humility, but here we have the head of the largest Diocese in America teaching his entire congregation that when caught committing a terrible sin, the appropriate response is to blame the media and pull the "All the other kids were doing it, too!" stunt!

Taiibi goes on to suggest that we should perhaps start considering the Catholic Church to be a criminal organization and broken up using anti-racketeering statutes like RICO, originally designed to go after mobsters. There have been rising calls elsewhere as well for putting the pope in the dock.

William Donohue, the media-loving Catholic apologist who, as head of an outfit called the Catholic League, makes his living whining about how everyone is mean to Catholics, tries to defend the church by blaming the parents of the 200 abused deaf children in Wisconsin for not complaining sooner.

It does not seem to strike him that parents may be silent because the church is so good at laying a guilt trip on its followers and brainwashing them into thinking that they are no-good, filthy sinners, meanwhile elevating its priests to be thought of as being pure and direct agents of god, who actually have the power to forgive you your sins. Just imagine that for a minute. Whatever evil act you do, you can go into the confessional and the priest has the awesome power, given to him by god, to say that everything is now fine and your conscience is clear. As singer Sinead O'Connor says about the immense aura of power that the church cultivated, "When I was a child, Ireland was a Catholic theocracy. If a bishop came walking down the street, people would move to make a path for him. If a bishop attended a national sporting event, the team would kneel to kiss his ring."

Should it be any surprise that the first instinct of abused people is to think that they themselves must have been at fault somehow, that it was their actions that triggered the abuse, and that the priest shouldn't be blamed?

Furthermore, abusive priests, like serial abusers and conmen in general, can often be charming and have superficially genial and avuncular personalities, which is what enables them to be so successful in their predatory pursuits. Parents who accuse priests of abuse know that they risk being disbelieved and can find themselves the targets of hate from other parishioners who cannot bring themselves to think that their beloved parish priest could be so evil. Furthermore, the police and other authorities are often religious themselves and so cowed by awe of the church and the 'respect for religion' trope that they tend to not want to investigate priests and would turn a blind eye to any allegations against them if they could.

Should it be any surprise that the victims and their families suppress their anger and hide their shame until it becomes too much to bear or enough time has lapsed that they feel it is safe to speak out?

The dawning realization by priest abuse victims that they are not alone and their allegations are more likely to be believed will likely result in more abusive priests being brought to justice. The process is already beginning. In Germany a hotline for reporting abuse complaints reported being overwhelmed with more than 4,500 calls on the very first day.

As I will discuss in the next post, the church clearly has decided that it is going to tough it out and can ride out this scandal the way it has previous ones.

POST SCRIPT: Oprah or the Catholic Church?

Tbogg shares his vision of what Easter Sunday was like at the Vatican.

Meanwhile, Louis Black moderates a debate to see who is more evil.

Oprah vs. the Catholic Church – Lewis Black Moderates this Debate - watch more funny videos

April 02, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-16: Concluding thoughts

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

As is often the case when I am writing about something, I get a little carried away and the series seems to go on forever. But we have actually reached the last post in this series where I want to look at the broader implications of what all these scientific advances with the Big Bang theory means, particularly for religion. I hope that those who stuck with me through to the bitter end have obtained a deeper understanding than they had before.

Religious apologists often argue that the only or simplest solution to the question of what existed before the Big Bang and what caused the universe to come into being is god. They are wrong on both counts.

It is not the only solution because there is nothing deeply mysterious about the time at which the Big Bang occurred. It has been assigned the value of zero time but that choice is arbitrary, just as our calendar is arbitrarily numbered according to the legend of Jesus's birth. We could just as easily have fixed the zero at some other time and said that the Big Bang occurred in the year 4760 or -9384.

There are theories about what could have existed before the Big Bang (see Has Science Found God? by particle astrophysicist Victor Stenger, chapter seven: The Other Side of Time) just as there are theories about how our universe came into being (chapter eight: The Laws of the Void). For example, one version of the multiverse theory says that as universes evolve, one can have small regions 'pinching off' (via the same kind of quantum fluctuation that created our universe) to create new universes. These things could have been going on forever and what we call the 'beginning of time' is simply the beginning of 'our' time, when our particular universe came into being. There is nothing more special to it than that.

It is true that these are more speculative theories than what we usually work with in science and will need more work and data before we can transform them into viable theories. When workable theories come into being, they usually bring along with them suggestions of what to measure and how to measure them to see if the theory has any merit. But the important thing to bear in mind is that our present universe is not some deeply mysterious entity whose existence and properties are baffling. As Stenger points out, there is a lot we do know already and all of it undermines the need for any supernatural agency:

We have seen that zero external energy was required to produce the mass and energy of the universe. We have seen that order can spontaneously arise from disorder. We have seen that complexity can evolve from simplicity. We have seen that time has no fundamental arrow, and so the very concept of cosmic beginnings and causal creation are problematical. No known scientific principles are necessarily violated in a model of our universe that is causally self-contained, in which everything that happens, happens within. (p. 188, my italics)

The origin of the universe is not a deep mystery. It is simply a puzzle that is already being scientifically investigated. What might have existed before the Big Bang is also being investigated, as is the question of why it has its current properties. So the idea that god is the only way to explain these things is simply incorrect. God is simply unnecessary.

The argument that god is to be preferred as an explanation because it is a simpler solution than these fancy-schmancy scientific theories is also fallacious. Religious people think that just because god is a three-letter word and the concept of god is a familiar one, that therefore it constitutes a 'simple' explanation. It is far from it. You can see why if, instead of using the short word 'god', someone gave his or her 'solution' to any scientific problem (such as the origin of the universe and life) by saying:

First we must postulate the existence of an complex, intelligent, omnipotent, omniscient, and everlasting entity that either exists throughout all of our universe or outside of it, created all the matter and laws that govern their behavior and yet can overrule the laws of science that it created on a whim, is made up of a totally undetectable substance, and is able to act in ways that seem indistinguishable from the working of natural laws.

Second, we postulate that this entity then did whatever we cannot explain, but that we don't know how.

That's not much of an explanation, is it? It is definitely not 'simple'. It would be like explaining to a child that the reason the sun 'moves' across the sky during the day is because there is a huge man (whom we cannot see because the sun is too bright) whose job it is to push it along its path. It is a 'simple' solution in the sense that a child might understand it because 'man' is a simple three-letter word and the basic concepts of 'man' and 'push' are already familiar to the child. But it is not a solution at all in the scientific sense because it does not explain how a man could be up there and act this way. It merely shifts the problem to a different and more difficult level. Saying that god always existed and does not require an explanation for his own origins would be like telling the child that the huge invisible man always existed and needs no further explanation. Only a naïve and trusting child would believe such nonsense.

As Richard Dawkins keeps saying, invoking the existence of a highly complex entity by fiat raises far more problems than it solves. Real solutions to problems require explaining how complex phenomena arise using simpler entities and concepts. This is what the Big Bang theory does for the universe as a whole, just as Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection does for life. Starting with a simple mixture of quarks, gluons, electrons, and a few other particles in a highly dense and almost perfectly uniform gas, we can now understand how the complex structure of the universe came about.

All this has been done using natural laws and physical entities. Those who try to explain all this by concocting a god that does not contradict modern science always end up with something that is superfluous. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, "The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless." Religious people can postulate a god if they wish but it would be on the same level as postulating the existence of unicorns or fairies or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the man pushing the sun.

There are still important unexplained questions as well as questions of detail to be worked out about how the universe and life came about. It is exciting when there are big open questions to investigate because they hold the promise of new scientific discoveries. But what we can say now with considerable confidence is that the nature of physical reality shows no sign whatsoever that we need to invoke a transcendental being or supernatural forces in order to explain anything.

According to modern cosmological theories, universes are being created out of vacuum fluctuations all the time and such events are consistent with all the known laws of science. Occasionally, one will be created that will have the necessary conditions to produce sentient beings like us. As Edward Tryon said back in 1973 in his paper Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation? (Nature, vol. 246, p. 396-397, 14 December 1973.):

[M]y answer lies in the principle of biological selection, which states that any Universe in which sentient beings find themselves is necessarily hospitable to sentient beings. I do not claim that universes like ours occur frequently, merely that the expected frequency is non-zero. Vacuum fluctuations on the scale of our Universe are probably quite rare. The logic of the situation dictates, however, that observers always find themselves in universes capable of generating life, and such universes are impressively large.

In response to the assertion that though we might know how the universe came into being, we do not understand why, Tryon responds with a marvelously laconic understatement: "In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time."

While we can look at the magnificence of the universe with a sense of awe, there is nothing about the existence of life and the universe that looks like it has an externally imposed meaning.

POST SCRIPT: The Galaxy Song

Although I posted this recently, I think that this clip from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life is a good way to end this series of posts because it captures the sense of wonder at the amazing universe we live in. I particularly like the line, "Remember when you're feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth" because it reminds me how lucky we are to be alive and able to appreciate it. Why would anyone want anything more?

April 01, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-15: The essential tension in science

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

As I wrote earlier, the state of play is that according to our best estimates, the Big Bang theory predicts that the universe is flat and consists of 72.1% dark energy and 23.3% dark matter, with the remaining 4.6% being all the other matter that we are familiar with and know exists.

But while the Big Bang theory has been hugely successful in explaining so many things, it is important to acknowledge what the standard Big Bang cosmological model does not do. It does not say what caused the Big Bang. It describes the evolution of the universe after it came into being. In that sense it is like the theory of evolution that also does not deal with how the very first replicating molecule came into being but only what happens afterwards.

The standard Big Bang theory is also not designed to answer the question of what existed before the Big Bang or what lies beyond the observable universe because there is no way as yet (as far as I know) to get any data that on these questions.

It is also perhaps a little unnerving that we have directly detected only about 5% of the universe we live in but that is where things stand now. Alternatively, some suggest that instead of invoking the existence of dark matter and dark energy, maybe the basic laws of gravity need to be modified, thus creating a new paradigm. This school of thought argues that perhaps it is time to abandon Einstein's General Theory of Relativity in favor of a new one that does not require dark matter and dark energy.

This is always the essential tension in science. No scientific theory ever explains all the phenomena that it confronts at any given time. There are always disagreements and anomalies. When they inevitably occur, scientists have several choices.

One is to treat the anomaly as a puzzle to be attacked with increasing vigor and focus. In the course of this, new entities and variations on the existing paradigm may be brought into the mix. Dark matter, dark energy, and the inflationary model can be considered as examples of this kind of approach to solving the current puzzles of cosmology, creating new entities and modifications of the theory while still remaining within the same basic framework, which in this case is given by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

Another approach is to set aside the problem for future scientists to deal with either because a solution requires knowledge and skills and technology that are currently unavailable, or because the problem itself is currently seen as uninteresting and not worth devoting human and material resources to.

The third approach is to suggest that the anomaly signals a breakdown in the theory itself, requiring a new one. While one can always find scientists who suggest new theories to solve the anomaly, the scientific community as a whole takes such a drastic step only as a last resort, because doing so requires abandoning a fruitful old theory that has served them well and re-evaluating all its past successes in the light of the new theory to see if they hold up. This is a lot of work. While it does happen in scientific history, it is not undertaken lightly. One needs an acute sense of crisis to trigger such a shift by the scientific community as a whole.

For example, for nearly sixty years after Newton proposed his theories of motion, its predicted motion of the moon's perigee was only half of what was observed. While some scientists suggested that Newton's theory be modified or even abandoned, most scientists did not take those suggestions seriously, believing that a solution would be found within the Newtonian framework. And it was, when it was discovered that the mathematics that had been used was wrong. (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1970, p. 81.)

Newtonian physics was so successful that when it was discovered in 1859 that the motion of Mercury could also not be explained by Newtonian physics, it was assumed that a solution within the Newtonian framework would be found for this too. But it turned out that in this case, the solution actually did require the rejection of Newtonian physics in favor of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity that came along in 1916.

The point is that the presence of unsolved problems does not mean that they are intrinsically insoluble, and the solution can appear in many ways. But as is usually the case, religious apologists tend to seize on unsolved puzzles du jour in science and elevate a select few to the status of Deep Mysteries for which the only solution is god.

The origin of the universe has been a favorite of religious apologists ever since its inception. As particle astrophysicist Victor Stenger writes in his 2003 book Has Science Found God? (the answer is no, by the way):

The notion of the big bang was first proposed in 1927 by Belgian astronomer and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre. Well before observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation provided the first good observational support for the theory, Pope Pius XII used the big bang theory to validate Catholic theology. In a speech before the Pontifical Academy, the pope asserted that "creation took place in time, therefore there is a Creator, therefore God exists." At the urging of academy member Lemaitre, however, the pope stopped short of making this an "infallible" pronouncement. Lemaitre realized how dangerous that would have been, knowing that his theory like any other was not infallible. (p. 84)

More recently, when the COBE results came out showing the slight deviations from perfect uniformity of the cosmic microwave background, religious physicists like Hugh Ross claimed that they fulfilled the prophecies of the Bible (Stenger, p.84).

Religious apologists also argue that the cause of the Big Bang and what existed before it are Deep Mysteries. What is their solution? No surprise here. It is that god always existed and so was around to create the universe with all its matter and laws. They say that this is either the only or the simplest explanation and hence is to be preferred. As I will discuss in the next (and final!) post in this series, they are wrong on both counts.

While the modern scientific community may decide to temporarily shelve a problem, or work within an existing paradigm to solve it, or decide it is time to choose a new paradigm, what it never does is throw up its hands and say 'god must have done it'.

POST SCRIPT: The Lady and the Gramps

Sarah Palin campaigns for John McCain, but is she helping?

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